Selfless saleswoman takes homeless seniors under wing

By Diep Phan   September 10, 2020 | 08:48 pm PT
Meeting seniors abandoned by their families, Hong opened her home to those in dire need.

As dusk is falling, the front yard of a house is filled with more than 40 elderly, deep in conversation. Without relatives to call on, some have experienced strokes, dementia, unstable mental health, etc. All are in the care of Nguyen Thi Hong, 54, from southern Dong Nai Province.

"It is time for milk and cake. They have got used to the timetable and always sit and wait, I never have to remind them," Hong said.

For nearly 15 years, her house has been nicknamed "Mrs Hong's foster home," accommodating hundreds of homeless seniors. Currently, 76 elderly are receiving care here, of whom 32 are paralyzed due to strokes.

Hong (L) and Nguyen Thi Bay, 70. Bay has a granddaughter living in the coastal town of Nha Trang with her husband. She sent Bay to Hongs home three years ago, and could not be reached starting last year. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

Nguyen Thi Hong (L) and Nguyen Thi Be, 70. Bay has a granddaughter who lives in coastal Nha Trang with her husband. She sent Be to Hong's home three years ago, and they have broken off contact since last year. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

"Once, three days after Tet (Vietnamese Lunar New Year), I opened the door and saw an old woman crawling towards my house, she could not remember anything, only saying she was coming to stay with Mrs Hong," the 54-year-old recalled.

Hong and her partner used to sell petrol along the river, which is how she found her calling. Along their route, Hong had witnessed many seniors collecting trash or selling lottery tickets to make a living.

"I wish when our kids grow up, I could have a bigger house to care for the elderly in need," Hong told her partner repeatedly.

Tran Thanh Thuan, opposing her idea, said: "If you love them that much, why not send money to foster homes where caregivers could take care of them. They are old and sick, how would you deal with that?"

In 2004, the couple built a house. Hong used all their savings to make it as large as possible, without revealing her secret plans to Thuan.

A year later, Hong visited her children in Dong Nai's Bien Hoa Town and spotted an old woman crying on a riverbank. She subsequently learned the woman did not have a family or relatives. At 70, she could not find a job due to ailing health. With neither job nor home, all she could do was weep.

"If you don’t have a place to stay, come to mine. I will care for you. My family is vegetarian though, is that okay?" Hong asked the destitute woman, who had little choice but to agree.

Taking the senior home, Hong was afraid her husband would overreact, but Thuan supported her decision right away.

"I want to say no because I’m afraid you would have to work too hard, but I know I cannot stop you," he told Hong, surprised at his reaction.

Over the next four years, the couple welcomed four more seniors. Each day, after long hours at work, Hong and Thuan would give up their beds to their elderly guests, sleeping on the floor instead.

Ten years ago, Hong learned of a lone cyclo driver in Saigon. After a debilitating stroke forced him out of work, his landlord decided to contact Hong for help.

Running out of space, she persuaded her partner to build another house on the plot next to theirs. The new abode was divided into two, one part housing four seniors and the other reserved for Hong and Thuan.

Nguyen Thi Bay (sitting), 40, has a mental disorder and has been homeless since she was a child. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

Nguyen Thi Bay (sitting), 40, has a mental disorder and has been homeless since she was a child. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

Construction took three days. On the fourth, Hong took the old cyclo driver home.

"That’s when I realized the vacant part was actually meant for the stroke patient," Thuan recalled. That year, Hong decided to stay home and care for her mother, along with her other charges, leaving the petrol business to her partner.

Besides Thuan's support, Hong is also assisted by siblings and neighbors. Nguyen Van Loi, 42, residing around 100 meters away, visits Hong’s home at 2 a.m. daily to help with the cooking.

"There are a lot of seniors, but few caregivers. I am still healthy so I can help. I assist with the cooking since the elderly wake early. I come home after and go to work," Loi explained.

When her personal savings eventually dried up, Hong sold off a piece of land. In the last five years, she has received rice, diapers and other donations as words for her goods deeds spread far and wide.

Hong and Thuan. Thuan helps shower the seniors and has stopped selling petrol. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

Hong and Thuan. The man helps shower the seniors and has also stopped selling petrol. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

The southerner maintains a modest life: no new clothes, no vacation, no eating out.

According to Vo Thanh Hoang, vice chairman of Phu Huu Commune, Hong helps the destitute across the locality.

"During Tet, she encouraged donors to support the poor. Seniors at her foster home are all provided with insurance, residence registration, and death certificates," Hoang confirmed.

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