A few weeks ago, Ngan and I joined a group of young Vietnamese university students on a trip and program they call Vietnam WorkCamp. They organize weekend trips several times a year, mostly to leprosy villages in northern Vietnam, as a way reach out to forgotten places and people, and offer their support, physical, spiritual or whatever might be needed.
Having been working on a personal project about leprosy in Vietnam for a few years now, their program interested me as a way to further the project, as well as to try to give something back to those I meet and photograph. I had hoped to join a trip with them in 2013, but when a last minute assignment popped up, I had to change plans and wasn’t able to make it. A random thought around January brought the program back into my mind. I reached out again and found out they had a trip planned for last month outside of Hanoi. I knew I wanted to and could join this one, and with a bit of work to gain permissions, we were on the way!
The place was Van Mon leprosy village and hospital in rural Thai Binh Province, about 3 hours from Hanoi. I had heard about place previously, and welcomed the opportunity to not only visit, but to be part of a group doing some good as well, though admittedly, the students did much more than me, as I was usually out meeting people and looking for images!
Below are a few of the lives and stories we encountered here. I can honestly say that in no place in Vietnam, and I believe any of the countries and places I’ve been, have I ever met nicer, more humble and appreciative human beings. Many of them are in the twilight years of their lives, with obvious and not so obvious health conditions, yet most were still quite sharp, and just lit up with joy when I would walk by or pop in their room with a hello and an interest in them. I don’t think this is something they’re used too, but they certainly did welcome us like they knew what they were doing!
One of the first residents we met, Do Thanh Nhi, 86, set the tone for the interactions and meetings to come, greeting us with a large smile, and being nothing but open when asking him about his life and how he came to be here. He told us he was brought here in 1974 when he was 21 by his parents because he was suffering from leprosy. They never returned he said.
In Vietnam, as in many of the affected parts of the world, lepers carry with them a stigma, and are ostracized by the communities they come from, thus making necessary village such as Van Mon where they can live in peace.
Vu Thi Teo, 75, came to Van Mon when she was 18 years old. She says she contracted leprosy at age 7, and started showing physical symptoms at 13. She tells us during this time she was ill but still living in her village, that she would sleep at the market and shower in the river, which was also shared by animals and livestock she added.
Teo goes on to tell us that the people in the market didn’t want her there, and threatened to shoot her if she did not move on. She says she heard about Van Mon from someone, and that they might be able to help her, so she walked for three days to arrive here, where she has found refuge and peace ever since.
Cao Do Truy prepares a glass of hot tea for us. As was the case with most here, and on course with Vietnamese traditions, guests must be offered tea, or whatever is available, even despite our many assurances that we didn’t require it. Of course for them, it’s an opportunity to receive visitors that doesn’t always happen, so we were happy to oblige.
Truy’s wife, Nguyen Thi Duom, prepares their monthly ration of one kilogram of pork she says they receive from the pastor who presides over the church on the village grounds. They cook it all at once, as they have no form of refrigeration, but try to make it last by eating just a little per day, until they run out and wait for the next months ration.
Vu Van Sa, 90, in portrait in his room. Something about his look and style intrigued me and pulled me into his room, where his smile and vibrance for life didn’t allow for a dull moment.
He shares the room with his wife, Le Thi Mai, and they appeared to be as inseparable as anything you could imagine.
Just a few days before heading out on this trip, I had a recollection that I had a drawer full of instant film I had been saving for something, but what I wasn’t quite sure what for. It struck me that this could be the best possible use for it.
I took along an instant camera and film, and made portraits of everyone who was interested, which was just about everybody! I know that photos of yourself are hard to come by in general for their generation, and especially images that you can see and hold right away. And as many of these guys are realistically in their final years, I knew it could also make an irreplaceable memory of their existence, for whomever might like to remember them.
Though it was a bit taxing to explain how the instant camera works each time, the look on their face when their images emerged from film was all worth it!
This man, though I can’t recall his name, was one of many former soldiers we met who now call Van Mon home and proudly display their former uniforms and honors in their rooms, perhaps as a way of remembering their younger and more active days of life.
A woman collects peanuts from a garden in front of one of the no longer used and decaying building on the grounds.
Vu Quang Yen, 13, who lives just outside the gates of Van Mon has come to visit 83 year old Nguyen Duc Bang once a week for as long as he can remember. Duc has been a patient and resident here for more than 60 years he tell us. Yen says usually brings Duc some vegetables or whatever he can find. He says he used to come with his mother and how now he just enjoys Duc’s company, and I’m quite sure that Duc enjoys it very much as well.
Thought she’s smiling, Nguyen Thi Mui, 85, tells us about a great pain in her hands. Issues with the hands and feet are very common among those affected by leprosy. Unable to open her fingers on her left hand any longer, she’s put a small cloth between her fingers and palm to stop the fingernails from digging into the skin.
A resident of the village, and affected himself, brings lunch to his wife who’s currently in the hospital ward. He says she often refuses the food, but twice a day he makes the short but slow walk through the village to visit her and try to make her eat.
Hoang Thi Yen, whom her neighbors told us has mental issues, locks her door with a tied string every time she comes out, even it’s only to sit and wait for her daily portions of rice to be delivered by the staff.
While it was obviously not the happiest place on earth to be, many of the staff and residents did all they could to make it so, with laughs and smiles not being hard to find at all.
I wasn’t able to learn everyone’s name and story, though I did try. Though I didn’t get her’s, this lady was so photogenic that I though a frame without a story is better than none at all.
Though I didn’t the instant camera out when I first started meeting the residents, I knew I had to go back and revisit those I first met and offer them an image as well. Here, Nhi, first pictured above, readies himself for a portrait.
Nguyen Thi Canh, 85, takes a second for a portrait while she’s occupied cleaning up the leaves outside of her room.
As she also readies herself for an instant portrait,
Pham Hien, 86, another long time resident, laughs and smiles as we confirm her suspicions that my translator, is in fact my beautiful girlfriend. She says she thinks we will have a baby boy someday, and gives us an imperative to bring we and he back for a visit.
A long time resident spends time with a youngster that was abandoned here by his parents. Though Van Mon is primarily a village for victims of leprosy, there was a small center on the grounds run by nuns who care for children whose family’s aren’t able to. She obviously very much enjoys spending time with the children, and I’m sure the kids like the company as well.
Though another I don’t think I got her name or full story, this lady inspired me with not only her joy, but her sheer creativeness and will to survive. Having lost all of the digits on her hands, she must tie a spoon around her hand with string to eat, of which she’s able to do with pretty amazing speed.
Though I also didn’t get his name, this man, whose sight and hearing were significantly depleted, sat in a perfect position to make a portrait of him through his room window. When I tried to say hello several times, and see if he would also like an instant photograph, he responded only “I have nothing to sell today.” We came to learn just after that some of the residents keep the rations or gifts they receive, and sell them to other residents who might need something they don’t.
And finally, the last shot taken as the bus was waiting and honking it’s horn at me to come aboard to carry us back to Hanoi. Ba Sinh, 86, another long time resident of Van Mon, examines her eye in the mirror after she says it started to hurt. While it appeared fine on the surface, one of the major side effects of leprosy is losing one’s sight, so she does have legitimate reasons to be concerned.
Should you like to learn more about the lives of those living with leprosy in Vietnam, please view my gallery entitled The Ex-Patients. It’s an ongoing personal project, and will be updated with new images and stories as soon as I’m able to venture out to meet some of these amazing people once again