Simon Stanley visits a corner of Saigon where those in need are given a helping hand. Photo by Vinh Dao.
54-year-old Do Van Ut, known as Viet, has lived on Hem 96, Phan Dinh Phung Street in Phu Nhuan district his whole life. For the past 30 years he has occupied a spot on the corner of the narrow alleyway offering roadside bike repairs and xe om rides.
Ten years ago, noticing how so many road accidents were occurring nearby, Viet decided to keep a small collection of medical supplies with his tools to assist those in need of urgent care. If it was a particularly bad crash, Viet and his xe om buddies would take people to the hospital in District 1. The price for all of this? Nothing – “mien phi”, as the Vietnamese goes – particularly for those who could not afford it. For Viet, it seemed natural to help those in need, even if at the time he could barely afford it himself.
As word of his idea spread, local residents were inspired by Viet’s generosity and began donating other types of medicines and medical supplies. People also collected funds for a small medicine cabinet as those less fortunate families came to rely on Viet’s offerings to help them with coughs, colds, headaches, sore throats and diarrhoea.
Ten years on and Viet is still there, the original medicine cabinet now joined by a much larger one with both bolted to the wall of the alleyway’s entrance and filled with pills, medicines, bandages and ointments all purchased with the community’s own money or with the funds kindly donated to them.
The alleyway’s charitable offerings have also stretched much further than free medicine. With the help of local and international donations, Viet and his neighbours are now able to volunteer a wide range of free services to the poor, the most popular of which appears to be the urn of iced tea parked out on the main road, with street vendors, road sweepers, scrap dealers and recycling collectors rolling up every few minutes to quench their thirst.
For those who cannot afford it, Viet also gives free motorbike repairs and xe om rides. “I want to help people because I know what it is like to be poor. I have been there myself,” he says, referring to a period in his life when he too was without money, without a job and, for a time, without a home. “Also, I am Buddhist,” he adds, “so it is very important to me. For the lottery-ticket vendors, they must sell 10 tickets to make just VND10,000 in profit. It’s so little. So when they need to repair their motorbikes, I don’t want to take anything from them.”
In Saigon’s baking heat, purchasing just one small bottle of water represents a massive outlay for someone who earns so little. Of course, there are those who take advantage of Hem 96’s generosity. “Yes, everyone drinks the tea,” admits Viet, “but I don’t mind. To me, it doesn’t matter who you are. Even if someone came and drank one or two litres, it’s fine.”
Hem 96, which has become known as ‘Samaritan Alley’ or ‘Free Alley’, has appeared in the Vietnamese press several times over the past year. As more and more come to know about the good work of this close-knit community, the number of donations continues to rise. Viet and his neighbours can now provide a twice-monthly free meal. “Everybody around here helps out,” says Viet, “either by donating a little bit of money or cooking a particular dish.”
In addition to medicines, iced tea, bike repairs, xe om rides and food, a local coffin maker completes the list of freebies, providing free coffins and funeral services when needed, something that frequently draws grieving families in from every corner of the city.
Although Hem 96 has become famous for the number of services it offers, all over Saigon, citizens are engaged in small everyday acts of charity. Despite recent reports that local authorities in Hanoi were banning the practice, urns of iced tea labelled ‘mien phi’ are ubiquitous all over Vietnam; a small, but in some cases, lifesaving gesture.
In September 2015 Thanh Nien news told the story of Nguyen Quoc Cuong, an 18-year-old street cobbler in HCMC who refuses to charge disabled people, lottery-ticket vendors, cyclo drivers, street workers or those from disadvantaged families. “There are many poor people who can’t even afford to have their shoes repaired. We just want to make life a bit easier for them,” he told the newspaper.
Further afield, a free bread and water cart quietly appeared in Hanoi recently, apparently wheeled out from a nearby shop each morning, with more than 100 banh mi rolls being made available throughout the day.
Like Viet, the people behind the bread cart have been extremely modest about their kindness. It seems to be the Vietnamese way; this natural and selfless propensity to help those in need.
Despite earning very little himself, Viet always refuses any personal donations, preferring instead to add everything to the pot for the next round of meals, or to resupply his medicine cabinet. “It is good for my heart,” he says. “I don’t care so much about money.”
So if you ever find your self with a flat tyre near the Phan Dinh Phung / Hai Ba Trung bridge, look out for Viet and tip him well. Your money will be going to a good home.