The 10-year-old boy who lives alone in the forest

By Trong Nghia   November 29, 2019 | 11:12 am GMT+7

When he received his father’s photo for his funeral, Khuyen was shivering and thought “so this is how my father looked.” 

It seemed like forever since he last saw his father. 

At 10 a.m. on November 15, Dang Van Khuyen, 10, was in class at his school in northern Tuyen Quang Province’s Ham Yen District when his uncle rushed in to inform him his father had passed away in a road accident. 

Khuyen started to tremble and clench his fists but suppressed his tears. With his face lowered, he asked his teacher for three days off. 

He pedaled his old bicycle over the three-kilometer path home crossing four hills. At home, his uncle and neighbors helped him get his father’s photo. 

Khuyen’s mother had gone away abandoning the family while his father had left the village to work five years ago. The boy was living with his grandmother. Last year she remarried and moved to another place 60 km away. Since then the boy has been living by himself. 

Khuyen’s stilt hut is at the edge of a forest 200 meters from the nearest neighbor. After being alone for a year he has gotten used to it. Photo by VnExpress/Trong Nghia.

Khuyen’s stilt hut is at the edge of a forest 200 meters from the nearest neighbor. After being alone for a year he has gotten used to it. Photo by VnExpress/Trong Nghia.

Feeling concerned for him, his teachers started collecting money for him. In a few hours they raised VND10 million ($430), enough for Khuyen to go and receive his father’s body. When he returned from the trip, he sat quietly, hugging his father’s portrait. 

In a black funereal shirt, the boy stood still for nearly 12 hours. After the casket was lowered he went home and cooked a bowl of rice porridge soup. 

"Only when his grandmother came did he became a bit more lively", Ly Thi Chung, his aunt, said. 

It is 5 a.m., November 24. In his hut on the side of a mountain, Khuyen wakes up at his usual time though it is a Sunday and he does not have school. Silently looking at the photo of his father behind the incense, he slowly folds his blanket and mat, and puts them in a corner. 

His home is bare. The roof and floor have holes. His possessions consist of a few pots, baskets and bowls given recently by others. He picks up a shovel and heads to a hill to dig up some cassava roots and sell for some money. 

Once he went up a hill five kilometers away and collected a sack of cassava. When coming down he slipped and got overridden by the sack. It was a long time before someone came and helped him, but he was smiling when he stood up: This work is his only joy. 

Khuyen is delighted he could dig up a big cassava root. Photo by VnExpress/Trong Nghia. 

Khuyen is delighted he could dig up a big cassava root. Photo by VnExpress/Trong Nghia. 

In summer he accompanies other villagers to pick bamboo shoots. The rough, sharp bamboo buds cut his bare hands. On a trip he could earn around VND20,000 ($0.9) by picking 3-4 kg of bamboo shoots. 

But since bamboo shoots are only available in summer whereas cassava is available throughout the year, the later is his staple source of income. 

In his free time he carries rice for others and in exchange gets enough rice to eat all year round. During Vietnamese New Year (Tet) and other festivals villagers gift him a few kilograms of rice. 

In 2018 his grandmother got married to a man living far away and went away with him. Khuyen cried every night then. For three months his uncle came over every day to take care of him. He told Khuyen to go and live with him, but the boy refused. 

He says softly: "My uncle’s family is poor. I would be an added burden." 

Initially, without any cooking skills, Khuyen simply ate instant noodles. When he got bored of it, he would go into the forest with a cast iron pot, look for any edible plant, boil it on the spot, and eat it. 

Now he has a rice cooker and knows how to make some basic dishes, yet it is usually rice with salt and sesame. Looking at the kitchen, he would often think about beef or chicken. 

Khuyen sits on the floor to study. Photo by VnExpress/Trong Nghia.

Khuyen sits on the floor to study. Photo by VnExpress/Trong Nghia.

"When my grandmother went away after marriage, some nights I would dream that my father returned, gave me a bow and told me to go hunting. 

"Once, in my dream I kept running until I got exhausted, and eventually caught a rabbit. My father said ‘Stay strong’, and I woke up." 

His father’s message in that dream became a motivation for him to keep studying and living by himself. 

His grandmother is occupied with her new family and only managed to visit him twice last year. The boy has only one dream - to live with his grandmother. "When my grandmother strokes my hair, I can sleep so well," he says wistfully, looking through the window.

 
 
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