It was January 3, 1946, in a small village in the very center of Vietnam with a strange name almost impossible to pronounce. The vestiges of the Second World War were still very visible and the conflicts of the Indochina War were already foreseen. At 7:19 pm, a cry echoed throughout the village: Xuan was born.
Xuan was the youngest of 7 siblings who all spent their early years in the middle of the rice paddies, where their parents, as well as all the other inhabitants of the small village, worked. In 1957, two years after the start of the Vietnam War, Xuan saw his father killed by the South Vietnamese military, he and all the other men accused of belonging to the Viet Cong, a guerrilla movement fighting for North Vietnam. After being thrown to the ground by one of the soldiers her mother shouted to Xuan to escape. In tears Xuan began to run without stopping, without looking back, as the minutes went by, the noise of the shots was far behind, the screams she heard were only in her head. She walked for a week without a destination, all she found were destroyed villages, dead people, lost children…
Along the way she made friends with other children, and together they managed to find a place to stay in an abandoned village, and shared tasks among them: some went to look for food, others kept watch to see if the military were coming, and others cooked.
Gradually, more people came to the village and life went back to normal. At the age of 18 she married a man 11 years older but at 19, when she was expecting her first child, everything happened again, as if it were Deja Vú. Dead men, some women and children too, others raped, the village ablaze. She saw the image of her mother on the ground shouting to escape, and once more she started to run without stopping, until the noise of the shots was again far away, and the noise of the screams was once more only in her head. Memories that were still so present were once again reality.
Years later the war was over and only then did Xuan remarry. Her daughter Ly, born amongst the bushes a few days after the massacre, was already 13, and at 19 she married and went to live with her husband, and Xuan never heard from her again. She became a widow at the age of 61 and at 64 she went to live alongside other peasants on the outskirts of Hoi An, a small tourist village on the coast. From then until the present day (she’s now 72) she’s spent every night by the river selling candles to the tourists so they can put them in the river and make a wish, each candle costing 15 cents.
This is a fictional story, but it could just as well be the story of this lady, who, with 70 years of life and after having gone through many of the wars in her country, has to go and beg tourists to buy a candle from her. I saw this lady for the first time in November 2017, crouched by the river with the candles in front of her, begging people to buy one. I did not have the courage to photograph her, but I was fascinated by her wrinkles, and I found her again in April 2018 on the trip that I was leading for The Wanderlust, and this time, after much weighing up of the pros and cons I asked if I could photograph her. I do not think she understood correctly because as I was asking, every second dozens of tourists were stopping in front of her and photographing her as if they were in a zoo.
In November I went back and there she was still begging…
*This as all the other articles on this site are translated by my good friend Devo Forbes!!