But the unexpected fame has elicited a love story that touches the heart.
The heart-shaped fence is in a photograph titled “The Buffalo Man” taken by Alex Cao, which was highlighted at the annual Drone Photo Awards. It shows buffaloes herded by a man stirring up the soil in waterlogged fields around a house with a heart-shaped fence in the central province of Quang Ngai Province.
The “Buffalo Man” is Pham Duc Quang, 55. People usually call him Da.
The house with the heart-shape fence stands on a manmade island that Da and his wife, Phung Thi Thuy, spent 10 years to form, taking soil from the mainland to a mudflat in the middle of a local stream.
It was built 25 years ago, and locals began calling it the “Happy Home,” given the coincidence of the heart-shaped fence.
“The Buffalo Man” by Alex Cao. Photo courtesy of Alex Cao.
But the Happy Home was no bed of roses.
Thuy and Da lived in Son Tinh District’s Tinh Khe and Tinh Hoa communes, respectively, just a few kilometers apart. Poverty forced her to stop going to school when she was in the ninth grade to help her family sell chickens for a living.
Once, when she attended a friend’s wedding, she met Da, who was wearing a white shirt and had trendy, unruly hair. Thuy joked with the shy young man and encouraged him to drink with other people at the table.
She thought to herself that he looked “stylish and modern” and unlikely to be serious about affairs of the heart, unaware that he had already fallen for her. Since this happened when cellphones were not around, Da befriended Thuy’s friends to approach her.
He always wore stylish clothes and kept his arms in his part pockets when hanging out with Thuy, who thought that was just his style. Several months later, a friend told her that Da had lost one hand when he was a child.
Shocked, she doubted the wisdom of choosing a disabled man when there were many men interested in her. She started dating other men, but Da was persistent, appearing whenever she hung out with her new dates.
After a year of this, she gave up on seeing new people, noting that Da was always there for her. “He is not perfect, but he loves me truly,” she told herself and decided to open her heart to him.
Thuy and Da cover up their house before winter. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Linh.
However, even after their engagement, Thuy was hesitant to go further. Three years later, her father, who’d told her that she can think twice about her marriage, passed away. At his funeral, when Da and relatives came to help and comfort her, she finally accepted that this was her man and decided to become his wife.
Their farm is located on the opposite bank of the Diem Dien stream, so they have to hire a boat and their neighbor to go during the harvest seasons.
Many people who were worried about how their marriage would work out are now open in their admiration of the couple who support each other in everything they do.
Soon after their wedding, Da thought of forming an island on a mudflat in the middle of the river, around 200 meters from the mainland.
Although the Diem Dien stream is shallow with a weak flow, they planted a lot of trees in the soil that they carried to the mudflat for 10 long years, at the end of which they had a 400-meter-square island on which they could build a hut to raise ducks and stop by when traveling to their farm.
Living on the mainland with their children these days, Thuy and Da still visit their home to have lunch, after which one of them stays to look after the ducks. Handyman Da has succeeded in installing an electricity line, so that he can use fans and watch TV on the island.
The Diem Dien River, of which the stream is a tributary, has been separated from the sea by the Bo Dap Reservoir for around 50 years. This has helped locals irrigate their fields and flower gardens.
Da frequently suggested to local officials the adjustments that could be made to the reservoir’s sluice gates to prevent inundation and salt water intrusion. Recognizing his competence and efficiency, he has been officially assigned the task of raising and lowering the sluice gate as needed for a modest annual salary of VND6 million ($259.13).
The local agriculture authority also gave them 200 ducks to raise around their island.
In May 2020, members of a photography club in Quang Ngai were looking for photogenic locations in their hometown when they stumbled upon the house floating in the middle of the river.
“I initially thought it was a deserted house, but it turned out to be a house with a happy heart – one formed by Da’s love and his imperfect hand,” said Alex Cao, author of “The Buffalo Man” photograph.
The mesh fence built to keep the ducks in was inadvertently shaped like a heart.
“The more I travel, the more people I meet, I learn that all we are looking for is peace of mind. Happiness grows from it, just like the couple in this small hut,” Cao said.
Thuy, who had helped her husband throughout in making the island and their home on it, remarked: “He patiently pursued me and built this hut.”