A view of the tent during the Ninh Binh tour of the Vietnam Circus Federation, 100 km south of Hanoi.

Lo Thi Ngoc Thuy in her room. She is an artist of the Vietnam Circus Federation. She is 19 years old and she joined the circus in 2010. She shares a room with 3 girls, Houng, Quyen and Houng in Lenin Park, Hanoi.

Nguyen Thi Thu Hiep wakes up and walk out of her room she built inside the old Le Thanh theatre in Ho Chi Minh City. She has two dogs and lives with her husband Ma hoang An and her brother Nguyen Hoa Hoang Vu.

Dao Nhu Ngoc, 23, after taking a shower, she walks through the old Le Thanh Theatre where the theater seating once was.

Dao Nhu Ngoc, 24, (black nightgown) looks at the skyline of Ho Chi Minh city from the roof of  the Le Thanh Theatre, where most of the artists live. Dao shares room with Do Thu Trang, 22, and Bnguyen Thi Dong, 22, (green nightgown).

A view of the makeshift houses inside the Le Thanh Theatre of Ho Chi Minh City.  The building was once a famous landmark but is in disrepair – even in danger of collapse – today. Artists build their houses in the seating area in front of the stage.

Nguyen Hoa Hoang Vu, 13, recently awake, eats a cherry tomato.  Ma Hoang An, 27, and Thi Thu Hiep, 21, are still sleeping. Le Thanh Theatre in Ho Chi Minh city.

Dao Nhu Ngoc, 23, fixes  hula hoops made ​​of bamboo for her act with the Circus Group.  Ho Chi Minh City.

House of Toan Thang Tong, 45,  one of the three team leaders of Vietnam Circus Federation.  Lenin Park, Hanoi.

Pham Duy Hai, 32, holding a photo of his father. His father was a tank driver in North Vietnamese Army during the War of Vietnam. “My father was killed by CIA agents some years after the war ended” he said. He never met his father. In the picture, his father is driving motorcycle in Saigon.

Photo commemorating the 50th anniversary of the battle of Dien Bien Phu in the first war of Indochina. Nguyen Vhi Vhu Huon’s grandfather (center, fifth counting from the right) was a soldier of Vietnamese army (Viet Minh communist-nationalist revolutionaries).

A room at the Vietnam Circus Federation in Lenin Park, Hanoi.

The bride’s feet. Hanoi.

Balloons decorate a wedding at the Vietnam Circus Federation in Hanoi.

A photo of Duong Thi Quyen, 22, with her boyfriend Le Minh Sinh, 23, is placed on Duong’s bed. They work together as trapeze acrobats in the Vietnam Circus Federation. Lenin Park, Hanoi.

Nguyen Thi Thu Hiep, 21, painted a mural on the wall of her house in the old Le ThanhTheatre in Ho Chi Minh City. She is married to Ma Hoang An, 27. The two perform together as contortionists and trapeze artists.

Tattoo detail of Do Thu Trang from the Ho Chi Minh Circus Group.

The circus magician shows the doves he uses in his performance in the Vietnam Circus Federation. Nam Dinh province.

Nguyen Van Giang is the elephant trainer in the Vietnam Circus federation. Lenin Park, Hanoi.

Nguyen Thi Thu Vu, 13, making an elongation exercise. He is the youngest of a circus family and the smallest of the Ho Chi Minh Circus Group. He lives with his sister Nguyen Thi Thu  Hiep and Ma Hoang An.

Nguyen Van Thang fell 6 meters during a rehearsal for the Circus Group. Ho Chi Minh City.

Nguyen Thi Thu Hiep casts her shadow during rehearsal for the Circus Group. She is a contortionists and trapeze artist.

Nguyen Thu Thi Huong, 21, standing at the door of her room. She is an elephant rider in the Vietnam Circus federation. Lo Thi Ngoc Thuy and Do Minh Duc (her boyfriend) are sharing dinner. Lenin Park, Hanoi.

Le Minh Tu walks through the apartments for the Vietnam Circus Federation performers.

Lo Thi Ngoc Thuy, 19, washing clothes with her roommate Duong Thi Quyen, 22. They perform for the Vietnam Circus Federation. Lenin Park, Hanoi.

Laundry dries outside the theater of the Vietnam Circus Federation. Lenin Park, Hanoi

Nguyen Thi Thai Yen, 23, center of the picture, waits for her cue to go on stage at the Vietnam Circus Federation, Lenin Park, Hanoi.

Hung, broadcaster of the show of the Vietnam Circus Federation, smokes a cigarette outside the circus tent at the campus of My Dinh National Stadium, in Hanoi.

Detail of a Vietnam Circus Federation artist before going on stage. Hanoi.

Nguyen Thu Thi Huong, 20,  waits for her number. She is an elephant rider in the Ninh Binh tour of  Vietnam Circus Federation.

Children watch as circus performers change during the Ninh Binh tour of  the Vietnam Circus Federation.

Nguyen Thi Thu Hiep warms-up before the show. Ho Chi Minh City.

Pham Thi Hai Yen, 24, after finishing her Hula Hoop performance. Nin Binh.

View of  the stadium  in “Toi khong nho” Tour,  Nam Dinh province.

The lights and special affects color the performance space inside Vitenamese Circus Federation tent. Hanoi.

XIEC by Christian Rodriguez

The Vietnam Circus Federation was founded by Ta Duy Hien (1889-1966) on January 16, 1956. It began as a private company to provide opportunities for artists to work in the circus, training them through circus school and bringing them together in one big family. After Vietnam gained independence from French colonial rule in 1954, Hien handed his circus over to the new Vietnamese government but remained as its director.


The founder of the Vietnam Circus Federation (black clothes, center right) Mr. Ta Duy Hien with leader Hồ Chi Minh (black clothes, left)

Xiec is a story about work. It is an intimate look at the lives, dreams and struggles of performers in two Vietnamese circuses, one in Hanoi, the other in Ho Chi Minh City. Inspired by Mary Ellen Mark’s Indian Circus (1993, Chronicle), I photographed the circus families from 2009 to 2012, searching for traces of universal values, such as commitment, struggle, sacrifice or love.

Xiec documents the everyday life of a circus performer. The performers must train at the circus school in Hanoi, the only one in Viet Nam. Those who graduate with merit are able to apply for work at the official company, Vietnam Circus Federation. If the quota is complete, the remaining graduates travel to Ho Chi Minh City to perform for the Circus Group. Almost all artists from the Vietnam Circus Federation live in Lenin Park, Hanoi, in a house or a room. The artists who are part of the Circus Group live inside the Le Thanh theatre in Ho Chi Minh City, where artists musts build their own rooms out of wood and plastic inside the cavernous theater. All the artists receive a salary of $100.00 a month and $4.00 for every performance. Because of the low salary, many artists perform private shows in nightclubs, karaoke bars, and hotels.

My interest is not only to show the effort and dedication of the artists, but also their real life, human stories. The girl who goes to the city to achieve her dream, the mother taking care of her son alone, and the growing families in the circus culture – despite their exotic profession –  they experience the same life struggles and joys as the rest of us.

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