At 10 a.m. on a weekend day, Cao Manh Tuan attends to his sleepy 10-month-old daughter, a stickler for a snug cuddle. After a while, Bu, the little girl, falls asleep on her father’s lap.As much as Bu loves being around Tuan, so does De (Goat), his five-year-old son.”Perhaps because I spend a lot of time with them, playing games, they tend to stick to me,” a beaming Tuan, 42, said.The former full-time journalist had one child after getting married in his 30s. Not long after, Tuan and partner Phuong learned little Meo (Cat) suffered from Down syndrome, alongside blood cancer.The couple quit their jobs and focused on taking care of their infant girl for six months before she passed away, leaving Tuan and Phuong desolated.
Tuan and Bu. Photo by VnExpress/Phan Duong.
Two years later, Phuong gave birth to De. When the boy turned four, his mother had her thyroid removed and experienced serious morning sickness during her third pregnancy. Tuan, still working at the time, decided to resign.”Each of us has a reason for taking a new turn in our lives. Things related to our children can create unexpected change. The death of my first child made me realize life is impermanent, so I want to share more experiences with De and Bu on their journey to adulthood,” Tuan maintained.Since, the father has been managing the social media pages of a local television station and some online accounts related to traveling and nature to make more time for his family while partner Phuong runs her online business.
Tuan and his son, De, on Con Dao Island. Photo courtesy of Cao Manh Tuan.
At six months old, De often traveled around Hanoi with Tuan. When the boy turned three, the family took a trip to the Maldives. Little De was so excited by his first trip abroad he got lost at the airport for 15 minutes.Not too long after, De was taken to deserted Hon Goi Island in northern Quang Ninh Province. Walking through a jungle to reach the sea, his legs and arms covered in mosquito bites, he was hesitant to enter the water.The couple, not wanting to force their child into anything, soon realized how into nature the little boy was.After countless trips, including to three in four great Vietnamese passes (O Quy Ho, Pha Din, Khau Pha, Ma Pi Leng) and beaches across the country, De soon grew strong and tall, his skin tanned dark and eyes glistening.One of Bu’s first trips was to the mountains and rivers of Phuong’s hometown in Hanoi’s Son Tay District. In late February 2020, Tuan took De and Bu, five months old at the time, to Con Dao Island in southern Vietnam.The little girl soon attracted plenty of attention on the island, her father on various occasions finding her immersed in a game with local children.On Con Dao, the family stayed at resort boasting an isolated beach where they spent hours catching many types of snails.”When we brought the snails to the restaurant to cook everyone was surprised at how big they were,” Tuan recalled.When the Covid-19 pandemic stranded the family on the island, they moved to a local homestay were they could cook their own meals. Phuong woke up in the morning to visit the market, while Tuan and the two children combed the beach for seafood delicacies.”Sometimes we hired a canoe and went camping on a deserted island, enjoying a BBQ party in the moonlight,” Phuong recalled.Her island experience persuaded the mother to be more adventurous when traveling and avoid the trappings of luxury.”I understand and support my husband’s idea of letting our children grow closer to nature,” Phuong affirmed.In early May, after the nationwide social distancing ease, Tuan’s family briefly returned to Hanoi, before again visiting Con Dao after a month to join a sea turtle rescue program.On a small island reached via a mangrove forest they waited at night for the tide to rise and bring dozens of sea turtles ashore to lay their eggs in the sand.”De has taken part in this activity thrice before, so he was excited to show his friend how to transport the eggs to a safe place for hatching, and the newborn turtles to the sea the next morning,” Tuan said, adding the experience proved more valuable than anything.Though his current work earns him no more than VND10 million ($431) a month, the father knows how to stretch every penny to allow his children to experience the magic of the outdoors.Each summer, Tuan takes De to look for cicadas, or to the zoo to visit the animals. Sometimes he buys a cheap fishing rod and takes the boy fishing on West Lake.”Children need to play, explore and use their energy,” the father of two stressed.
Bu takes her first steps on a deserted island. Photo courtesy of Cao Manh Tuan.
After visiting Con Dao several times, De finally returned to school, both Tuan and Phuong making a point to not pressure the boy when it comes to scoring good grades.Tuan has never regretted his decision to resign and spend more time embarking on memorable journeys with his family, even though his future career seems “gloomy.””If I had to, I would resign again to make my children’s lives more vibrant,” said Tuan, now living in a minimally decorated resettlement apartment from where the tight-nit family is preparing their next magical escapade.