Almost anything seemed possible for a Vietnamese man in Da Lat after he had a 200-pound tumor removed. Then reality set in. Words and photos by Lien Hoang.
Hunched over on his only leg like a tortoise, Nguyen Duy Hai inhales his fifth or sixth cigarette and stares at the television because there is nothing else to do.
He has lost weight, his eyes have sallowed, and the sun has toughened his now leathery skin. Hai is a far different man from the one who made international headlines last year, when doctors severed a 200-pound tumor from his leg.
At the time, all the major US news networks, along with BBC, The Huffington Post, and the Discovery Channel, carried the success story of Hai’s operation. He recalls going into the procedure with his mind at peace. After it ended, he reached out to where the cancer had been, the one that used to occupy most of his bed, and was happy to feel nothing at the end of his fingertips. He’d spent the better part of his life waiting for death; now he could look forward to possibility.
“After his surgery, I was so happy,” his mother, Nguyen Thi Cho Con, tells me in Vietnamese at the house in Da Lat where she looks after Hai.
But after every climax comes a drop. The first dip happened when Hai, 32, realised he couldn’t go to work repairing cellphones. He’d enjoyed fiddling with the devices for much of his bedridden years, and figured he could finally make a business of it now that the operation had rendered him mobile.
It would have been the first job of his life. Instead, Hai found that too often his hands would shake uncontrollably, so he gave up the enterprise. “I can’t do anything,” Hai says, picking at the skin around his fingernails and palms.
The second blow came in autumn, when the US consulate in Ho Chi Minh City rejected his visa application. Florida-based Tree of Life Foundation International will pay for a prosthetic leg to replace the one Hai lost during a previous surgery. But that requires he fly to Florida.
The boilerplate in the rejection letter explains, “Today, you are ineligible for a nonimmigrant visa because you either did not demonstrate strong ties outside the United States or were unable to demonstrate that your activities in the US would be consistent with the intended visa category.”
Perhaps it doesn’t help that Hai’s sister, Nguyen Chu Thi Minh, already lives in Florida as a manicurist. The family ties would make it easy for Hai to stay in the country after the operation, and that generally makes immigration officers wary.
“Stay there for what?” he says. “I have no friends there. I don’t know anything. And it’s probably boring.”
When asked why Hai’s application was declined, a spokesman told AsiaLIFE by email, “The US Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City does not comment on individual visa cases, due to privacy concerns.”
Hai, who stands at about four feet with the support of a metal walker, has resigned himself to a mostly sedentary existence. It’s a pain to get to his small house among Da Lat’s temperate mountains. Pedestrians must navigate two steep flights of steps chiseled into the stony hillside, while motorbikers have to edge down the precarious incline. Outside, a neighbour trims a tree with a knife attached to a switch, while a hen warms her four chicks with a wall of feathers in the cool of the evening.
Hai doesn’t sleep much, but watches comedies on a flatscreen Panasonic or listens to music in bed. His hands, which earlier were fidgeting with a toothpick, a cellphone, and then a lighter, have moved onto a wedding invitation, as he chews on the string removed from the envelope. The occasional wedding or birthday, and coffee with friends two or three times a week, punctuate a restless life otherwise spent inside melon-coloured walls.
Two years ago, with the tumor, he couldn’t do any of those things. And roughly a decade before that, he stopped wanting to. The cancer was still small enough that he could walk through the streets, but big enough to attract stares from strangers who said it was “ghe”, ghastly.
Things were different in the immediate aftermath of the surgery in Ho Chi Minh City last year. He returned home to a victor’s welcome in Da Lat, where neighbours would pop in to ask how he was doing or shuttle him around town by motorbike.
Now maybe he’ll open a tap hoa, one of those ubiquitous, lowkey convenience shops, if he can build up the capital. A guest jokes that Hai could be a cab driver. “Oh, you talk a lot!” his mother says with good humour.
Hai taps a cigarette on the box that contained it. The guest says he must cut back. “I’m sad so I smoke,” Hai responds between puffs. “I used to not smoke so much. It’s mostly in the past few years.”
Looking over to the hallway that leads out of the living room, I notice figures of Jesus and Mary standing behind a polished wooden cross.
“Are you Christian?” I ask. Yes. He used to go to church regularly.
“Do you ask why this happened to you?”
No. He doesn’t hold it against anyone and prays for good health. “I figure I must have done something in a past life,” Hai says, “and now I’m paying for it.”