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Fall in Love With the People of Hai Phong, One TikTok at a Time

Being a late-bloomer who is slow to catch up with social media trends, I only just got TikTok installed on my phone about a month ago. As I've found that the majority of the clips on this platform are about entertainment, I usually give them a quick pass. It would be nothing short of a mistake, though, to assume that there is no exception.

Read the article in Vietnamese here.

Some time ago, I came across a one-minute long clip from an account called 16 Memories. To my own surprise, I actually watched it in its entirety. The video was made with a good production value, but what truly got me going through all of its siblings in the channel’s playlist — not without teary eyes and a tingly nose — were stories capturing the lives and humans of Hai Phong.

The Tales of Hai Phong

I had never been to Hai Phong before, so naturally this question arose one day when I met with a friend who hailed from the city: “What is it like there?” Immediately, she graced me a with list of all the local “offerings”: grand seaports restless at all times, phượng flowers draping the city like a blanket as summer comes, mouth-watering crab noodle soup and breadsticks, roads stretching wide, with electric bikes whooshing along them.

Thanks to social media and other publications, these spectacles from the port city are already a familiar sight to many people. But, it was through the lens of 16 Memories that Hai Phong becomes a fleshed-out, holistic narrative. This is how the channel has become the unusual resident storytellers of Hai Phong.

In the 16 Memories universe, the main roles go to the common folks: a 16-year-old motorbike mechanic, a deaf-mute garbage collector, or a husband-wife food-vending duo. Each “episode,” the group approaches people working on the street, asks permission to take their photographs and then gifts them the resulting shots. All is followed by an interview about their daily life, work and hardships. There is no script, and no planning in advance.

Those featured on 16 Memories are people working on the street.

Why 16? “16 is Hai Phong’s former municipal code for license plates, and ‘Memories’ are, well, memories. The meaning of 16 Memories is embedded in its name. It’s how we preserve memories of Hai Phong and its people,” said Tiến Huy, the channel’s cameraman, about its unique name. The group avoids giving clichéd life lessons, instead opts to capture the most real and rugged snapshots of the city.

The crew consists of only two members, Tiến Huy and Anh Huy, both college students from Hanoi. Their channel, created on January 24, has garnered more than 970,000 followers along with millions of views for each clip.

These successful metrics, however, are not the biggest motivator for the group. “As we built our channel, we were able to meet a lot of people, and their stories have given us a lot of insights about life, about different jobs and about the hardships that the working people of Hai Phong have to endure,” Tiến Huy commented.

16 Memories filming a featured story.

Want a feature? Gotta catch ‘em all

Since 16 Memories is the first media project that two Huys have ever participated in, the pair’s creative process is one of trial and error. One of their most memorable accidents was the time when they lost track of their chosen featured person, a street mechanic. Having taken and printed out his photograph, the pair returned to interview him, only to find out that he was gone. They mounted a search and asked the people at the scene to no avail. It was the first time after many successful attempts that they failed to deliver a story. Taking a photo of someone and giving it to them might seem like a no-brainer, but more often it is like a tough, adrenaline-rushed chase.

Among more than 30 people and stories featured, some more somber or hopeful than the others, the one that made them think the most was Tường, a garbage collector. “We saw him one evening on Nguyen Duc Canh Street. We watched him for a while before approaching him for photographs. It was a painstaking process because it was dark out and he was constantly moving. When we finally caught up with him, we realized that he couldn’t see in one eye, and couldn’t speak or hear either.”

The photograph that 16 Memories gave Tường.

“His wife had the same condition, and his daughter could hear but she could barely speak. When we gave Tường his and his family’s photos, even though they didn’t say anything, we were able to tell from their gestures that they were happy and grateful. Tường even shook our hands and bowed when we were saying goodbye. We can never forget that,” the pair recounted.

More places to go, more stories to tell

Explaining their decision to put 16 Memories on TikTok, the pair said: “A lot of young people are active on this platform, but there isn’t a lot of healthy content for them to consume. Apart from the entertaining stuff, there’s a lot of harmful content that can have a negative influence on young users. So here we’re gearing them toward developing a more humane and thoughtful perspective on life. TikTok also has a huge coverage, which allows us to quickly reach a lot of people and spread our messages.”

The group’s clip about Tường, a garbage collector living with disabilities who is the main provider of his family. Source: 16 Memories’s YouTube channel.

So where is the channel heading to? Everywhere: “We want to go to even more places so we can share stories from people not just Hai Phong but other cities as well. We'll be able to share more meaningful stories that way.”

16 Memories is bringing their storytelling to the world outside of Hai Phong

16 Memories is a shining example of how creativity can emanate from the most mundane aspects of life. The channel’s number of followers are flying through the roof and will soon hit the one million milestone. It goes to show that humane values, when illustrated with interesting narratives, can captivate the attention of young people, and have a profound impact on them.