For nearly 40 years, Le Thi Quy has given herself to the care and rescue of Saigon’s forgotten felines. By Dana Filek-Gibson. Photo by Vinh Dao.

Moving gingerly around a plastic chair, 80-year-old Le Thi Quy points to the black-and-white feline staring back at us from atop a shelving unit, her rail-thin frame covered by a matching pajama set.

“Take a picture,” she says. Click-click. Beep.

As soon as the photo is complete, her finger moves across the room. A tabby, yawning, sprawled across the television set, stretches its front legs. “Take a picture,” she repeats. Again, the photographer obliges. Then another: the orange cat just settling onto a plastic chair. Over the next 10 minutes, Quy uncovers three or four more felines before disappearing upstairs, beckoning the photographer to follow.

The cats are hard to see at first. You wouldn’t even suspect they were present if it weren’t for the smell. Instead, your eyes are drawn by the plastic bags, pink and blue and yellow, tumbling out of the shelving unit in the middle of the room, or the eclectic collection of plastic bottles huddled outside the front door. There’s a dingy electric fan in the corner where two clocks hang, one above the other, and a battered television set. Perhaps you’d notice these, but not the cats.

Until, of course, a flash of orange darts past in your peripheral vision or something topples down from one of the many surfaces buried beneath newspapers and bags of cat food, pots, pans and weathered clothes. One comes into view, napping on a rice sack, then two, three, four. Pretty soon, they’re everywhere: sleeping in cupboards and containers, batting at stray bits of string, observing the flutter of the clothesline. And at the centre of it all, Ms. Quy sits down, leaning into her plastic chair, an orange tabby on her lap, and says, “Go ahead. Ask.”

Saigon’s own cat lady has been rescuing felines since 1975. Head down to Dakao Market, where Quy sells fish sauce, fermented tofu and other odds and ends, or wander around her alley neighbourhood in Binh Thanh District and most everyone seems to know about Ba Quy, the woman who raises cats. Though news outlets have only picked up her story in the last couple months, with articles featured on Thanh Nien News, TuoiTre and Zing.vn, Quy has spent roughly half her life caring for her pets.

It all began as a cure for loneliness. Nearly 40 years ago, shortly before north Vietnamese tanks parked on the lawn of the Reunification Palace, Quy’s only daughter left for the United States. Alone and with no one to care for, she began adopting the stray cats she found on the street. Quy had a husband once, a man she married at 17, with whom she migrated from Hanoi after independence, but they separated shortly after her daughter arrived. The house to herself, she chose to fill it with feline companions.

When questions come up about her past life, however, Quy waves a hand as if to shoo them away; she’d rather talk about the cats. The longer she was alone, the more the cats became a part of her house. A few grew into five, then 10, then more. Today, Quy can’t remember exactly how many cats live in her narrow house, but the total is somewhere between 30 and 50. Most are strays that Quy finds and brings home, though some have been dropped off at her house, which now bears a small wooden plaque emblazoned with the words ‘Cat House’ in English.

The tabby in her lap fidgets, stands up and hops across onto mine. Quy cracks a wide smile, retrieving the animal and bringing it back to her lap. She prefers cats to people. “My closest friends are my cats,” she tells me. “They come first, family comes second.”

For Quy, the day begins at 5am, when she leaves her tiny house in Binh Thanh District, rolling a portable cart down the road toward Dakao Market. She works here in the mornings but by midday she packs up her things and wanders the stalls, asking fellow vendors for shrimp heads and other items with which to feed the cats. It’s a strict regimen: two meals of cat food a day, one meal with rice and fish. By Quy’s calculations, she spends VND 103,000 on the animals per day and goes through about 90 bags of cat food in a month. She hardly makes enough at the market to cover these costs but, in her later years, hunched over and slow-moving, she’s as passionate as ever about the cats.

“I love them all,” she says. “Of course it’s difficult, but because I love the cats anything is okay. Difficult is okay, exhausting is okay, I’m not sad.”

And so she seems: not especially downtrodden but still struggling to keep pace with the demands of her ever-growing brood. Upstairs, away from the well-stocked cupboards, a gated room holds most of her pets. They’re hard to count – some because they move so quickly, others because their size makes them easy to miss amid the boxes and newspapers – but 20 is a conservative estimate. They step over one another, meowing loudly, trying to escape whenever the door is opened. Here, Quy sits at mealtimes, picking up the smallest kittens in one hand and feeding them with a baby bottle.

At some point, two university students show up. They shuffle into the house, greeting Quy before they head upstairs to the newspaper-strewn room in which she and several of her cats sleep. On the threshold of the room, one of the girls shakes her head and gives a sigh. “There are so many,” she mutters. Stepping gingerly over kittens and litterboxes, the pair wade into the room and begin picking up those animals that need medicine. Neither one seems particularly invested in the project.

Later, in the market, Quy tells me that most people who visit do so for fun. “They don’t help, they just play with the cats,” she insists. “I still have to cook and feed them and give them medicine.” Sometimes, they overstay their welcome. A 16-year-old girl once came to her house to see the cats, Quy recalls, and stayed for three hours. By the time she left, the sun was nearly setting and Quy hadn’t even started to cook their dinner. Though she doesn’t mind the company, people sometimes forget that this is Quy’s home.

While her love for the cats is clear, the future remains uncertain for Quy and her pets. It’s possible she would let someone adopt a feline, but unlikely. Because so many of the cats she takes in are abandoned, Quy is hesitant to entrust a pet to anyone she does not know, fearing they’ll just throw them out again. As the years go by, however, Quy has begun to consider the inevitable. According to an interview with Tuoi Tre, she plans to enlist the help of a local animal shelter to care for her pets when she is no longer able.

For the moment, anyway, she continues the same routine, shuffling over the bridge to District 1, collecting shrimp heads and going home to her cats. As we chat in the market – me perched on a low stool, her on her sandals – another flash of orange brushes past, stopping at her feet. The cat stares up at me apprehensively, but Quy just smiles, gesturing toward the animal.

“Take a picture.”