Story: AN NHIEN
Photos: BONG MAI
A solo cross-country quest might seem especially perilous for a woman. Yet journalist Nguyen Bong Mai chose to navigate vastly unfamiliar terrains to learn about the lives of ethnic minority people all over Vietnam. We at Heritage Magazine had the chance to talk with Ms. Bong Mai during one of her “odysseys” through the mountains.
You have always traveled to remote locations where ethnic minority groups live instead of to popular tourist sites. What gave you the courage to embark on this 10,000-kilometer trip?
I consider myself a hodophile and love to travel on my own. I have traveled alone many times, so had no major concerns. Many people have asked why I called this trip “99 days across Vietnam with Mai”. The way they see it, a woman driving everywhere by herself seems a bit “abnormal”! To me though, every Vietnamese woman has set out on her own journey in one way or another. I wanted to learn more about the culture of my home country, especially the lives of ethnic minority women. I believe the scenes I witness with my own eyes and the stories I hear with my own ears will help me to better appreciate life and happiness.
Based on what you have shared on your personal Facebook page and in interviews, you have experienced much more on this trip than you expected. Would you agree?
What we envision or assume is usually far from reality. That is why I never put a limit on what I want to search for. Instead, I try to open my heart and embrace every moment of happiness and even sadness to get different perspectives. Being there, the cultural diversity of ethnic minority groups blew me away the most. Having spent a whole month collecting information, I was still deeply stirred as I came face-to-face with the land and people I had only seen in photos. Simply looking at the details and patterns on Bo Y or Pa Di people’s clothing filled me with admiration and pride for my fellow compatriots. Life stories and messages are nestled inside each and every line of needlework. The more I traveled, the more I could feel the warmth of human compassion. The locals took me in as one of their own. When I shared meals with the Tai Dam people, they laid out a sticky rice steamer and a plate of rice, salt, and chili on a tray. This is an ancient tradition implying that the host would like their guest to stay longer. Without such genuine experiences, I would not have been able to convey those feelings in words for the papers.
I am sure there are many fascinating stories behind your candid photos. Could you share some of them with our readers so they can better understand the lives of our ethnic minority compatriots?
I am not a professional photographer, but my photos always have sentimental value. Thanks to over 15 years of experience in TV production, I know just enough about framing, composition, and lighting to capture the emotions of those meaningful moments. When I took a photo of an elderly ethnic Cong lady smiling brightly, I put down my camera and talked to her for a long time. This elderly Indigenous woman living on the country’s border carried such deep sadness and sorrow, but I still wanted to capture her rare smiles. With this photo, I wish to send out a positive message that smiling gives us precious moments of joy as we struggle to make ends meet every day.
On the first day of the trip, I took some snapshots of Mong children in Ta So Hamlet in Moc Chau, Son La. I immersed myself in the surroundings as I played with the kids. I jokingly told my friends how I felt like the “head honcho” of a group of young children as I chaperoned them around the hamlet. Sharing sweets and snacks with them, I took a good look at their faces. I wondered why their twinkling eyes looked so different. Back at my lodge, I could not keep my heart from fluttering as I went through the photos. The innocent children in this impoverished and remote village had such bright sparkles in their eyes that it brought me to tears.
How did you prepare for a solo trip, where you are serving as driver, reporter, editor, videographer, and photographer?
As I mentioned, 15 years as a TV journalist taught me the jobs of writer, producer, and pretty much every other role in a TV crew. As a joke, I always told my friends I lost weight thanks to a strict routine of carrying 10-kilo bags of equipment. Having said that, my professional experiences alone could not prepare me for a trip where I am a one-man army. I spent a month getting thoroughly familiar with the equipment, practicing snapshots, and teaching myself to save photo files onto multiple devices. I also had to learn how to mend a flat tire and study the vehicle’s error warnings to ensure my safety on the road.
Did you run into any obstacles? Was there a point when you wanted to give up?
My greatest happiness was probably when I traveled on my own to distant villages. What the locations lack in terms of modern conveniences, they make up for in the locals’ affection and warmth for a stranger like me. I remember the small bag of peanuts shoved into my hands by a family of Mong people as they hurried by. I remember the snacks like sticky rice and tiny morsels I got from locals to help me carry on my journey. All my troubles diminished thanks to all that love. There were times I got ill with no one by my bedside, and times I had to navigate treacherous mountain roads in the middle of the night. There were moments I caught myself sobbing against the cold wind as I was overwhelmed by anxiety. Obstacles were aplenty, but the lessons I learned made the journey worthwhile.
There are only a few days left until you reach the final leg of your journey. What do you plan to do afterward?
On my first day back in Hanoi, I will visit my dad’s grave in Hoa Binh to tell him what I gained from the trip. I will finish my memoir about the trip to share my experiences with more people. And I will host a fan meeting for those who supported my journey and showcase my photos in an exhibition called “Radiant Smiles” so that everyone can feel the happiness I have felt throughout my journey.