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Two People, 54 Ethnic Groups, One Photo at a Time

Through their photography project, Vietnam the People, Alden Anderson and Nguyễn Thị Yến Trinh have documented most of the 54 officially recognized ethnic groups in Vietnam.

By finding members of different ethnic groups around the country, taking their portraits and conducting interviews, Anderson and Nguyễn have created a collection of photos and captions that tell the stories of individuals and share unique aspects about their cultures with a global audience.

The photographs and captions, which can be found on Instagram at 360Nomad, are meant to serve as conversations between the audience and the subjects — a way for people around the world to get to know members of Vietnam’s diverse ethnic groups from afar, said Anderson, who is originally from Los Angeles.

“They’re just these very unique, interesting cultures that I feel sometimes get brushed aside,” says the photographer, who was previously based in Hoi An but returned to Los Angeles after the latest COVID-19 outbreak in Vietnam.

While the project is currently on hold because of the pandemic, Anderson and Nguyễn have already documented 43 of the 54 ethnic groups around Vietnam and plan to resume their work as soon as possible.

In the meantime, Anderson said he hopes the photographs can continue to inspire, educate and bring the spirit of travel to people around the world who are stuck at home.

Hac, a member of the Lao ethnic group in Lai Chau.

Origins of the Project

Vietnam the People began in 2018 after Anderson and Trinh met in Da Nang and discovered they shared a passion for learning about ethnic minorities and raising awareness about their diverse cultures and customs.

The pair spent much of the last three years traveling around the country, with her conducting the research to locate members of various ethnic groups and assisting with translation, and Anderson taking the photographs. But for each of them, the desire to learn and discover new people and places traces back to earlier in their lives.

For Anderson, the itch to travel and see the world started as a child in Southern California, where he was raised in the strict management body that governs the Church of Scientology, a self-described religion founded in the 1950s by American author L. Ron Hubbard. Though Anderson eventually left Scientology at the age of 21, growing up in a cult that had a strict set of rules and cut him off from the rest of society influenced the rest of his life.

Lận, a 79-year-old woman from the Cham group in Phan Rang.

After finally leaving Scientology, Anderson worked for about 10 years in the film industry and started saving money with the hopes of eventually travelling the globe. In 2016, while working on a visual effects project for a cruise line in Europe, he stepped off the boat in Barcelona and started a grand adventure that took him through Eastern Europe, the Middle East and different parts of Asia before finally settling in Vietnam.

It was the freedom of driving a motorbike down dirt roads, the warmth and openness of the Vietnamese people, and the connection he felt with the farmers in the rice fields, having grown up himself farming on the ranch in Southern California, that captured his heart and inspired him to stay.

Trụ, 30-year-old woman from the Hà Nhì ethnic group in Lao Cai.

For Trinh, 27, who is originally from Kon Tum in the Central Highlands, growing up surrounded by villages belonging to the Ba Na ethnic group sparked an interest in learning about other ethnic groups around the country. She had many Ba Na friends and was involved in programs aiming to help people in rural areas.

“When I started documenting the ethnic groups it motivated me to share these stories with more people. Both in Vietnam and internationally,” she says. “There are so many beautiful and unique ethnic cultures in Vietnam that I would love to share with more people.”

Ethnic groups in Vietnam

The Vietnamese government officially recognizes 54 ethnic groups, though experts say more small groups and subgroups of ethnic peoples exist across the country, many with their own unique languages. The Kinh people, Vietnam’s ethnic majority, account for 87% of the country’s population.

Among the 53 recognized ethnic minorities, the most populous are the Tày, Thái, Mường, Hoa, Khmer and Nùng, each with a population of around 1 million, according to the government. The smallest groups are the Brâu, Rơ Măm and Ơ Đu, with several hundred people each.

While ethnic minority communities can be found across the country, most are located in mountainous highland areas, which cover over three-quarters of Vietnam’s area.

Xrim, 93, lives in Ninh Thuan and is from the Raglai ethnic group.

But while Vietnam has made great strides to reduce poverty rates and improve living standards for all of its people, ethnic minorities still make up the majority of the country’s poor. According to the World Bank, ethnic minorities constituted 73% of those considered poor in 2016, even though they made up less than 15% of the Vietnam's population.

Rates of poverty vary widely among the different ethnic groups. For example, the poverty rate among the Sán Dìu, a group concentrated in the country’s northern midlands, is 27%, while the H'Mông people, who live mainly in northern Vietnam near the border with China, have a poverty rate of 88%, according to the World Bank.

Ethnologists have also pointed out problems with the government’s official list of ethnic groups, including that some distinct groups are lumped together under one classification instead of being identified separately. There are also many subgroups that are not present on the list. When meeting members of ethnic groups, Anderson said people will often refer to themselves as belonging to their local subgroup.

Raising Awareness

For Anderson and Trinh, raising awareness among Vietnamese people about the ethnic minorities in their own country is just as important as bringing knowledge about these groups to a global audience, since prejudice toward ethnic minorities still exists in Vietnamese society.

“I hope that when people see the photos and read the stories they have more appreciation for the Vietnamese people and can appreciate my country a little more,” she said. “I also would like to help more Vietnamese people learn about all of the different cultures.”

Vietnam the People is meant to give audiences slices of the lives of the subjects, and in many instances, capture details of cultures in danger of disappearing with their elders.

Many of the people Anderson and Trinh spoke to and photographed are older, some even more than 100 years old, and have lived their lives in villages largely untouched by modern technology and development.

“This is how I usually dress at home,” reads the caption of the most recent post on the 360Nomad account, which depicts a portrait of Brê, a man in his 80s who is a member of the Mạ ethnic group in the Central Highlands. “We used to drink, sing, have fun and play gongs a lot. Now the young generations don't know much about our culture, they just know how to drive motorbikes.”

In addition to teaching people around the world and across Vietnam about the country’s ethnic groups, the duo aims to help the people they photograph, as well as their communities. The pair often return to villages and provinces to deliver printed portraits to the subjects as well as food, clothing and toys and sometimes financial assistance. The project is mainly self-funded, according to Anderson, and any donations or money earned through selling prints goes back into the project.

One picture, posted in May 2020, depicts an eight-year-old girl from the Brâu ethnic group in Kon Tum holding a brand-new princess doll from the Disney movie Frozen in her right hand and a framed print of her portrait taken by Anderson in her left.

“Right after this picture, she ducked into her house,” the caption reads. “Inside, her and three friends were eagerly unwrapping the doll and the many accouterments, inspecting each closely.”

The Spirit of Travel

Through traveling, meeting different people and learning about various cultures, Anderson said he feels he has become a better person and hopes the same can be true for others. Inspiring open-mindedness, curiosity and empathy is what he hopes he can do with the Vietnam the People project, especially now that COVID-19 has made it difficult for people to travel and have these experiences for themselves.

In the future, Anderson said he hopes to return to Vietnam to continue documenting the ethnic groups in the country and eventually create a book of his photographs.

“I feel like the world is a better place because people learn from other people and travel,” he said. “I think it makes you more compassionate and more understanding of the human condition.”

Top photo: Nhiến, 80 (left) and Là, 87 (right), two Pu Péo women living in Hà Giang.