It all began with a dead baby in a bag

By Diep Phan   October 20, 2019 | 03:07 am PT
It all began with a dead baby in a bag
Nghi stands next to the coffin ride he paid for to help a couple take their dead infant from the HCMC Children’s Hospital 1 to their home in Hung Yen Province, 1,600km away. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.
The phone rang at 5 a.m. An infant had just died of heart disease and the parents couldn’t afford a coffin ride home.

"I’m coming," Vo Thanh Nghi said.

The call had come from the hospital. At 29 years, Saigon resident Nghi has seen more than his fair share of dead infants, because he helps poor families give them a decent burial.

Before leaving the house, he made a Facebook post asking for donations for the family. But he did not wait for any money to be sent. He took VND10 million ($430) of his own money, jumped on his motorbike and accelerated towards the HCMC Children Hospital 1 even before the first sun rays hit the city streets.

In 30 minutes, Nghi had arrived at the hospital mortuary and paid for the fees for the ambulance to take the family and their child to their hometown in northern Hung Yen Province.

"I gave the baby her last ride as a present, so she could rest in peace and also to help release some pressure off the family. This is what I find necessary and meaningful," Nghi said.

Sitting inside the mortuary, Dau Thi Hong Xiem’s eyes were swollen from crying for her dead daughter. The infant had passed away after 20 days of treatment. Xiem and her husband both work at a factory in Saigon. The two only had VND5 million ($215) left in their pockets after paying the hospital fees, while the trip back home would cost them three times that money.

"Hung Yen is the furthest trip so far," Nghi said. The distance between the province and Saigon is about 1,600 kilometers.

Nghi has been helping poor families administer the final rites for their children in their hometowns since 2017. He has helped more than 100 families to date.

He kept checking his phone to see how much money he had raised from his Facebook post for the family going to Hung Yen. When the amount reached VND9.4 million ($405), Nghi updated his Facebook status, telling his friends the goal was reached and to stop sending money. If the family needs more money, he will add more of his own, his status read.

He gave the VND10 million he’d taken with him to the family, telling them this was a gift from the community.

"I wish you get home safe and sound," Nghi told the family. The father, his eyes welling with tears and his face dull from the pain of losing his child, took the donation and thanked Nghi.

At 11 a.m., the family prepared the baby girl to rest in the coffin, which was also a gift from Nghi. The couple held Nghi’s hands and expressed their gratitude again before entering the ambulance and leaving for Hung Yen.

The first story

Nghi was already volunteering at the hospital in 2017 when an old lady looking very sad came to him and said: "I see that you help a lot of people here, do you think you can help me too?"

"What can I do for you?"  Nghi asked.

What followed next was a turning point in Nghi’s life, and something that’s imprinted in his mind forever. The lady took him to the hospital mortuary, pointed to a travel bag on the hallway bench next to an extremely fatigued, depressed couple.

The lady opened the bag, removed a bunch of scarves and towels on top, and took out her 2-month-old granddaughter.

The infant hadn’t made it. Her entire family only had a couple of hundred thousand dong in their pocket, which was enough for them to get back to An Giang Province in the Mekong Delta, but not for a private car and a coffin.

"I had to wrap her tightly and put her in the bag. If the driver finds out, they will kick us out," the grandmother told Nghi.

Nghi was deeply shaken. He asked himself: "Are there still families who can’t afford a couple of million dong ($1=23,200) for a car to bring their children’s coffins home?"

He consoled the grandmother and asked several friends to help with some money for the family. The little baby and her family were taken in a private car to their hometown the same night.

That was the first "rest in peace" trip Nghi coordinated. He has since done the same for families and their deceased infants to return from Saigon to the Mekong Delta, the Central Highlands, and as far as northern Vietnam.

Doctor Tran Thi Tuyet Mai, who works at the social service department of the HCMC Children Hospital 1, said: "Every time we call him to inform that somebody needs help with a trip to go home, Nghi always comes, even if it is in the middle of the night."

Such calls come every five to seven days, but there have been times when Nghi has got two calls the same day.

Friends and families have expressed their concern about his investment in the mission, considering that his income is only enough to feed him and his parents.

But he looks at it differently. "If I have free time to go eat and party with my friends, I also spend money there. So, instead of that, I can use my time and money to help others who are less fortunate."

Nghi is single and has not thought about marriage, because he fears having a family will take time away from his mission at the hospital. "I only wish that I had a big brother so I could share the burden of taking care of my family with him, and I could just devote myself to this work."

While Nghi understands that there might be people who would take undue advantage of his kindness, he has seen the other side of it as well.

Some families have refused the donations he offered, putting the money back in his hands and asking him to save it for the next person or persons in need.

One of the recent trips Nghi arranged involved a poor family in the Mekong Delta who lived a makeshift hut so fragile it could be destroyed by a single heavy downpour or strong breeze. When the car arrived, the family went around the neighborhood to borrow VND500,000 ($21.5) as a gift to the driver. The driver didn’t take it, so the family gave him and Nghi a bunch of chicken eggs from their farm.

Nghi does not foresee an end to his work. "I don’t think I will ever stop doing this."

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