For Tet, some people have ‘rice with tears’

By Thuy An   February 2, 2019 | 05:48 pm PT
Some inmates of a leprosy center suffer an added dimension to their disease – chronic loneliness – and it intensifies during Tet.

Once, the Da Bac Leprosy Center had about 150 patients, now there are just seven people left. Most of them died, a few others moved to hospitals. Those who are left suffer from chronic loneliness, which is accentuated during festival days like Tet, the Lunar New Year, Vietnam's most important holiday, primarily celebrated as a family reunion and get-together.

75-year-old Nguyen Thi Soi from the northern province of Vinh Phuc is one of the lonely inmates.

"Lunar New Year this year, eat rice with tears again because there is no one [family members] left," she said sadly.

Soi's parents died when she was 5. By age 19, she discovered she had leprosy. In 1967, Soi was the first person to become an inmate of the Da Bac Leprosy Center in Minh Phu Commune, Soc Son District, 40km east of Hanoi.

"It has been more than 50 years now," Soi said.

Nguyen Thi Soi (L) and Khuat Thi Oanh (R) sit at the center yard on Saturday morning. Photo by VnExpress/ Thanh Nga

Nguyen Thi Soi (L) and Khuat Thi Oanh (R) in the yard of the leprosy center a weekend before Tet. Photo by VnExpress/ Thanh Nga

Every day, Soi sits at the yard and looks out on to the street, hoping someone will visit. The harsh life with the stigma of the disease has robbed her of her youth and dreams.

Khuat Thi Oanh, 71, from the northern province of Phu Tho, has also lived in the center for nearly 50 years and shares Soi’s feelings. She is a member of the San Diu ethnic minority and does not have any children.

When she was 24 years old, Oanh felt there were ants crawling on her cheek and tapped on them to shoo them away but the feeling stuck. Then, when she dipped her hands in water, she felt no wetness, and she also found that she could not feel the heat. Shortly after, she was diagnosed with leprosy. She burst into tears as she recalled the moment.

After nearly 50 years, she views this place as her home. "Maybe this is the only place for me," she said. Oanh decided to stay and did not move to a new hospital.

The scenery is devastated and deserted at Da Bac leprosy center facility. Photo by VnExpress/ Thuy An

The Da Bac Leprosy Center wears a deserted look. Photo by VnExpress/ Thuy An

Le Thi Lien, 83, lives in a room at the end of the block. The makeshift room has a small bed and some old items. Lien, Soi and Oanh were the three people who never leave the center. The other four are able to spend time with their children, so they don’t come too often to the center.

Lien said that when she was 9 years old, her parents passed away and her brother also died shortly after. At age 15, Lien found she had leprosy. The young woman was shunned and lived an isolated life till she entered the center.

As an inmate for over 60 years, she has forgotten what Tet is like in the outside world.

A warm meal between lepers and volunteers. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nga

Inmates of the leprosy center and volunteers share a meal. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nga

Recently, there has been some welcome changes. The center has been receiving more attention from the community. When Tet is around the corner, the center welcomes many volunteer groups from across the country. This is a time when the ladies feel the happiest, because they get to cook and have meals with others, like a family.

The traditional Tet rice cakes, banh chung, branches of peach blossom are gifts that the elderly inmates are grateful for.

Said Soi: "Whenever somebody visits, it feels like Tet here."

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