The life of a widow with 14 children

By Tue Minh   July 22, 2016 | 01:33 am PT
Brave Hanoian woman's days start at 3 a.m. and end late at night.

Raising 14 children as a poor widow sounds impossible, right? Not so.

Forty-six year old Hai lives on the outskirts of Hanoi with eight sons and five daughters. Another of her daughters passed away last year due to cerebral palsy. Her oldest child is 27 while the youngest is just three. None of them were born in a hospital; they were born at home or when Hai was out working in the fields.


Hai with her children and grandchildren.

Hai did not plan to have so many children. The reason is simple: preoccupied with work, she had no clue she was pregnant until she noticed the bump in her belly. By then, it was too obvious and abortions would have been out of the question. 

Now, Hai lives in a 30 square meter house with eight children and five grandchildren, while the others have married and moved out. Four months ago, her husband died of lung disease, leaving her to care for their family.


Hai's house. Her children love running around barefoot, turning the house into a total mess with footprints everywhere.

"Over the last five years, my husband was in and out of hospital countless times. We couldn't afford the treatment, so his lungs just got worse and worse. Although he could not shoulder the financial burden with me, he was always a strong role model the whole family relied on. Now I am alone, life is harder," Hai said.


In her house lies a piece of furniture, the only one she has bought in the past couple of decades. It's an altar for her late husband. Her relatives and neighbors all chipped in. It's how Vietnamese remember and honor their deceased loved ones. 


The altar - the only new piece of furniture in Hai's house.


Hai and her four-year-old son. He is suffering from an eye problem which prevents him from seeing clearly. But the cause is still a mystery as Hai cannot afford a hospital check-up. 


It seems that Hai hardly has a second to spare. She works all day long.


Hai and her eldest son go fishing to find food for the family.


Everyone has to work, no matter their age.

Early in the morning, her family split up into two groups. One goes with Hai to catch shrimp, fish or snails while the other stays at home to do housework and take care of each other. Hai usually goes back home at 11 a.m. to cook for the family.

With no toys, no money and no time to go playing in the park, the children have come up with their own ways to have fun. 


Playing cards with their neighbors.


Catching and raising birds.



Typical conversations between the mother and her children go like this:

"Have Sang (bright in English) and Tuoi (radiant) cleaned the house yet?"

"Duc (virtue), you hit your elder brother Phuc (happiness) again, didn't you?"


Cooking together is a rare moment during the day when the family can get together for a chat. Just like that, cooking became something of a play time. 


The food usually disappears within ten minutes as everyone rushes to fill their empty stomachs.


After finishing his meal, Hai's eldest son rocks his nephew to sleep.


"Mum, I want to go to the park. I have never been there but my friends said it's really fun. There's so much to see like elephants and tigers..." Hai does not know how to respond every time Sang asks these types of questions. She does not have money or time to take them. To her, having enough food each day is already a blessing.


To Hai's children and grandchildren, the future is uncertain, but  they keep on going. As Hai said: "I accept my fate. I bore my children; I have to look after them till my final days."

Photos by VnExpress/Xavier Bourgois

Related news:

First-person: My childhood lost to social pressure

Life inside a super tiny house

A people apart: life in one of Vietnam's poorest villages

go to top