From poverty to prominence: how a cyclo driver from Nha Trang became an internationally exhibited photographer.

Everything changed in March 1995,” writes Mai Loc on his website of the twists and turns of a personal history that is as captivating as the images hanging on his gallery walls in Nha Trang.

 

Mai Loc, or Loc as he’s widely known, was a cyclo driver back in March 1995 when a chance meeting changed everything for the then 29-year-old.

 

Norwegian couple, Gunner Simonsen and Eva Mellquist were visiting Nha Trang on holiday when they hailed Loc for a tour around town. Until that point, Loc’s life had been defined by one struggle after another and had led him to a life of crime; at one stage he trafficked coffee across the Vietnamese-Cambodian border.

 

Times were tough. As a young boy at the height of the war, he was taught by soldiers how to shoot an M-16 rifle. By the time he was 12, he was selling cigarettes outside the local train station.

 

In an interview in 2010, Loc recalled how during the war, trucks on the highway carried dead bodies home from the battlefields.

 

“Some things you need to remember, and some things you need to forget to keep going on,” he said.

Photographic work by Mai Loc


Staring Death in the Face

 

After the war, nothing much improved for Loc. In 1989, he couldn’t rely on the support of his family any more after his father had gone bankrupt and deserted his mother; he had a decision to make. “I went to live up in the mountains and dig for gold near Cat Tien National Park.”

 

There, Loc contracted malaria and almost died. He was more fortunate than others, as many miners met their fate buried alive in the mountains from cave-ins. His illness forced his return to Nha Trang to convalesce and to work out what he was going to do to survive once he’d recovered. By then it was 1991.

 

“I came from the bottom of society,” recalls Loc as he takes a break from sorting out his postcards. “It took me three months before I had the strength to work again. I had no one to support me. Not long after that I became a cyclo driver for eight years.”

 

Loc doesn’t reveal how he got his break as a cyclo driver and moves on quickly. Instead, he talks about how it had dawned on him that life as a cyclo driver wasn’t sustainable; it was exhausting and he feared it would keep him destitute for the rest of his life if he didn’t find something else to do. It was already 1994 and three years as a cyclo driver had jaded him.

 

“I felt exhausted and bored,” he says while rummaging through a desktop draw. “I saw the value in being able to speak English, especially for tourism, so I went to school to learn it.”

 

He remained a cyclo driver until 1998 and continued to study English. The encouragement he received from the two Norwegian tourists kept him motivated.

 

But his chance meeting with Gunner and Eva turned out to be more than fleeting. They kept in contact and returned to Vietnam in 1996, and again in 1997 to attend Loc’s wedding. This was another pivotal moment in Loc’s life as the couple gave him his first camera as a wedding a gift — a solar-powered Canon Prima Sol — the thing that sparked his love affair with photography.

 

“So far I haven’t seen another one like it,” beams Loc, as he pulls it from the drawer he’s been searching in and places it in front of him. “When they gave it to me, I thought it was a radio.”

 

With his odd-looking camera with solar panels, Loc kickstarted an acclaimed 20-year photography career that has seen him exhibit photos locally and abroad. His portraits of people from Vietnam’s ethnic minorities are striking, particularly his ones of the elderly.

 

“Wrinkles are the experience of life,” he said in a 2010 interview.

 

Sadly, Gunner passed away soon after Loc’s wedding, but not before sending Loc US$6,000 to go towards his English studies and to start building a life for himself and his young family.

 

“Not long after I received the money, Gunner passed away,” says Loc as he looks out onto the street and points at an old motorcycle. “With some of the money, I bought a motorcycle; that one out there. I’ve had it for about 20 years.”

 

With the rest of the money, Loc continued his English studies, put his motorcycle to good use and became a motorcycle tour guide, all the while taking photos of anything that he thought was interesting.

Two more images by Mai Loc - Salt Labourers and Water Dancers


Rise to Prominence

 

Before long, Loc began receiving praise from his friends at the quality of his work and they encouraged him to continue taking photographs. Eva returned to Vietnam in 2003 for a holiday, which in turn led her to introduce Loc and his work to galleries in Norway to have his photographs exhibited for the first time.

 

In September of the same year of his exhibition in Norway, yet another moment in time would define the rest of Loc’s life; he realised his dream of opening his own gallery. Now more than 20 years on from that moment two strangers stepped into his cyclo and asked for a tour, his life can’t be any different.

 

“I love my work,” says Loc, gazing at a portrait of Gunner on display in his gallery. “From someone else’s generosity, I received positivity and fell in love with photography.”

 

Mai Loc Photo Gallery sis at 99B Nguyen Thien Thuat, Nha Trang. For more info, go to mailocphotos.com or call 0905 156711 

Matt Cowan

Managing Editor of Word Vietnam. Destined to be a dairy farmer until he accepted a spur of the moment job offer in Japan in 1998. After making it big in Japan, he now finds himself wrangling stories in Vietnam instead of cows in Australia. Matt has been living in Saigon since 2010.

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