Cao Nguyen Vu has not only taken the top prize at photo competitions around the world, but also for using his winnings to fund free English lessons for low-income children in his hometown.
Cao Nguyen Vu, a 39-year-old photographer from Quang Ngai City, Quang Ngai Province, Vietnam, spoke with Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper about photos he’s taken in his hometown that have won him international acclaim.
Capturing the moment
Vu began making a name for himself in the international photography scene in May 2020 when his photo, “Mua Len Trau” (The Buffalo Man), placed first in the “Highly Recommend” category at Drone Siena – an international photography competition in Italy.
Vu’s win confused Vietnamese photography fans, with many mistakenly believing he was a foreign photographer based in Vietnam, rather than a Vietnamese national, likely due to his pen name, Alex Cao.
But perhaps the biggest surprise wasn’t that Vu was, in fact, a Vietnamese national, it was that he was only a photography hobbyist.
Sharing the story behind the winning image, Vu explained that he had been traveling around Quang Ngai in search of beautiful scenery when he came across a house standing alone in the middle of the Diem Dien River.
He initially assumed it was abandoned but, after flying his drone over the house, he discovered it was the impressive heart-shaped structure of a disabled man and his beautiful wife.
"Da, the owner of the house, raises ducks on the river by surrounding the area with a cage.
“The cage makes a massive heart shape, which is unintentional, but I think it symbolic of the love he has for his wife.
"The photograph shows both the physical beauty of the area and a truly great love story,” Vu explained.
|Alex Cao’s photo 'Duoi Tan Rung Dua Nuoc Tinh Khe' (Carrying Spring Home) captures farmers carrying pots of flowers on their boats to sell ahead of the Lunar New Year in Vietnam. Photo: Alex Cao
Aside from photography, Vu also spends his free time volunteering with FQng Quang Ngai, a charitable organization that assists the low-income residents, particularly children, in remote areas of Quang Ngai Province.
Vu has also participated in “Tu Te Voi Moi Truong Quang Ngai” (Be kind to the environment in Quang Ngai) – a campaign which focuses on cleaning up tons of garbage at local seaports and restoring the nearby marine environment.
|Cao Nguyen Vu and his volunteer crew during a charity trip to help children from low-income families. Photo: Supplied
Of course, on every trip he takes with these charity groups, he keeps his camera at his side to document his travels.
"I have a routine of going through my photos to reminisce about the trips I’ve been on and the stories I've heard," he said.
To achieving international recognition
Vu considers himself a ‘peaceful soul’ who accesses his inner peace by traveling the country in search of breathtaking scenery.
|Alex Cao’s photo 'Cao Don' (Catching Clam) captures the moment of fishermen raking sand to catch 'don' (a mollusc from the same family of hen - baby basket clam) in Quang Ngai Province, Vietnam. Photo: Alex Cao
He is currently on a mission to capture all of Quang Ngai’s beautiful scenery on film before it disappears over the next five to 10 years due to development.
"A magnificent stone arch in Ban Than's Cliff in Nui Thanh District, Quang Nam Province, recently collapsed, leaving only two sharp tips visible to visitors at the moment.
"The once-beautiful coral reef in Ganh Yen, Binh Son District, Quang Ngai Province, is now desolate," Vu explained.
Vu has built friendships with people from all over the world thanks to the years he spent studying abroad, and whenever he posts pictures of his hometown on Facebook, these friends flood the comments with compliments and promises to visit Vietnam.
|Alex Cao’s photo 'Ma Tran Cua Nhung Chiec Thuyen' (Matrix of Boats) captures the moment of fishermen's boats lined up neatly when anchored to avoid typhoon in Quang Ngai Province, Vietnam. Photo: Alex Cao
“Mua Len Trau received plenty of praise and compliments from people around the world [when I entered it into a competition], and I found joy in that.
"I was even more delighted when the photograph was published in The Guardian magazine," Vu said.
In the two years since he submitted "Mua len trau" to Drone Sienna, Vu has had several other photographs that have been recognized, exhibited, and published in both international and domestic photography contests.
A scholarship and an English library
Piggybacking off the success of "Mua Len Trau", Vu’s "La Sen Cua Bien" (Ocean Lotus Leaf) won a gold medal at the Photographic Society of America's PSA contest.
The photograph captured the moment a fishing net was thrown into Quang Ngai's magnificent sea.
|Alex Cao’s 'La Sen Cua Bien' (Ocean Lotus Leaf) shows the moment a fishing net is thrown into the magnificent sea of the coast of Quang Ngai Province, Vietnam. Photo: Alex Cao
At the moment, Vu’s "Dai Lua Do May Man" (The Lucky Red Silk), which was taken at Co Luy Bridge at the Tra Khuc River in Quang Ngai Province, has surpassed hundreds of thousands of entries worldwide to be selected as one of the top 124 finalists in the Travel category at a photo contest in England.
Vu hopes the photograph will earn him a large enough prize to fund his community projects for children - the Victoria Public Library and the Victoria-Alex Cao Scholarship Foundation.
|Alex Cao’s photo 'Dai Lua Do May Man' (The Lucky Red Silk) captures the Co Luy Bridge at Tra Khuc River, Quang Ngai Province. Photo: Alex Cao
Vu explained that he was fortunate to learn English at a young age, which enabled amateur photographers like him to enter international photography contests.
Thus, his vision for his project is to provide scholarships to hardworking students and to assist them in learning English.
When completed, the project will serve as a library and space for children to learn English without the use of technology. It is currently sponsored by Vu, his friends, and the local government.
|Alex Cao’s photo 'Nghe Lam Chieu' (Straw Mat Making) captures a moment of an artisan carrying colored sedges, the material used to make straw mats, on her shoulder. Photo: Alex Cao