Photograph by Christian Rodriguez
Read Caption
Ma Hoang An rehearses with his wife, contortionist Nguyen Thi Thu Hiep, in Ho Chi Minh City. The two members of the city’s circus troupe married in 2012 after training together in Hanoi. They practice twice a day for the aerial act they perform.
Photograph by Christian Rodriguez

Behind the Curtain of Vietnam's Oldest Circus

Photographer Christian Rodriguez gets an inside look at the lives of circus performers in Vietnam.

This story appears in the September 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Circuses are spectacles that enchant an audience. But for me the real magic happens behind the scenes. The daily life I witnessed backstage at two Vietnamese circuses—before, during, and after performances—was a captivating parallel to the performers’ onstage personas.

During three trips from 2009 to 2012, I spent eight months in Vietnam. When I saw a circus in Hanoi, I was fascinated by its glamour. But as I got to know the performers personally, I felt compelled to show another aspect—to dignify their work and document their dedication.

Gaining intimate access wasn’t easy: Circus artists prefer that people focus on their feats, not their lives. To win their confidence I had to go slowly. On my last trip I lived as they did then, taking up residence for four months in an abandoned theater in Hanoi, where the performers had to build their own rooms out of wood and plastic.

View Images
Nguyen Thu Thi Huong, an elephant rider with the Vietnam Circus Federation, waits to go onstage in Ninh Binh, a small town some 60 miles south of the capital, Hanoi. American photographer Mary Ellen Mark—a big inspiration to me who passed away in 2015—documented this same circus in 1994.

My approach worked. When I showed a sincere interest in my subjects and tried to present their situation as honestly as I could, they invited me into their lives. Once they’d accepted me, I was simply there among them, taking pictures and sharing life each day. This is what it looked like.

View Images
In Hanoi purple light and a plume of smoke suffuse the Vietnam Circus Federation’s tent before a show. The performers—most of whom hail from small rural towns—begin training early every morning and stage several shows a day. Here and in Ho Chi Minh City, life behind the bright lights is full of sacrifice.

Christian Rodriguez is an Uruguayan photographer. His work focuses on issues related to gender and identity. He is a member of Prime Collective.