At Saigon orphanage, babies are left with no names and lots of questions

By Hong Phuc   January 24, 2018 | 02:45 am PT
At Saigon orphanage, babies are left with no names and lots of questions
Two boys play with chairs in the front yard of Thien Than Orphanage in Saigon. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen
Meet the mechanic who has 65 'kids' asking: 'Why don’t I have a mom?’

It was a cold winter night and the stray dogs were barking endlessly.

It wasn't unusual for the dogs in this rural village on the outskirts of Saigon to be noisy, but there was something about their tone that night that prompted a guard to go and check.

He flashed his torch at the window of a nearby orphanage and spotted a small plastic basket.

Inside was a screaming baby, a little bit bigger than an ear of corn and wrapped in an old towel.

The umbilical cord was still hanging from her belly, and she was bruised, wrinkled and cold.

The watchful guard quickly woke the staff inside the house, and they attempted to warm the tiny baby up by hugging and massaging her, but to no avail. Eventually, they had to drive the baby more than 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) to a major hospital, where she was treated for pneumonia.

She’s a healthy two-year-old now, and lives with more than 60 other children who have been left at the orphanage over the past seven years.

The orphanage is named Thien than (Angels), as its founder believes that angels protect his children even at the worst of times.

Bui Hiep witnessed many children lose their parents during the war in Cambodia in the 1970s, and told himself then that if he survived, he would try to care for any child left behind.

Hiep left the army in 1983 and worked as a guard before he opened a mechanics shop.

After his children had all grown up and he had built up some savings, he discussed the plan with his wife, and she agreed.

He built the orphanage on a muddy plot in District 9 using the money he made from the mechanics shop.

The children call him father and many have his surname, although some take the names of their biological mothers if Hiep gets to meet them.

One woman from the southern province of Kien Giang became pregnant out of wedlock at the age of 20. She was afraid of the gossip, so she fled 300 kilometers to Saigon where she wandered around parks and ate instant noodles bought with money she begged for on the street.

A person who knew about Hiep’s orphanage tipped him off.

Hiep cried the first time he saw the woman. “She was like a skeleton,” he said.

She had given birth seven weeks prematurely. Hiep named the baby Bach (strong), and just as he hoped, he grew up into a healthy boy.

Another girl gave birth without even knowing she was pregnant while she was playing with a skipping rope at the age of 16.

“I can't raise this baby,” she told Hiep.

An ‘orphan's’ questions

Hiep said he sent some of the children to a nursery school last year, but had to take them out soon after. He couldn't afford to pay the fees, and the bigger problem was explaining to them why they were different from the other children.

He said that the teacher introduced them to the rest of the class as “orphans”, prompting questions about what an orphan is.

“Orphans are children who don't have a mother or a father,” the teacher said, accurately but insensitively.

Hiep’s children were teased during break time for not having mothers or fathers. Unsurprisingly, the children returned to Hiep with a lot of questions.

“Dad, what's a ‘mom’?” “Why don’t I have a mom?”

Hiep said he had to tell them he was busy and would answer them the next day. One of them did not give up. The boy kept following him, and finally said: “You are not my dad.”

“So why am I raising you? Why do I hold you at night?” Hiep replied.

“But the other boy said you are not my real dad?”

“Why don’t you believe me?” Hiep replied, with another question.

The boy was silent for a while, and then asked: “A woman visited us with a boy, then she left with him as well. Why didn’t she leave him here?”

“Because he’s her son. She had to take him with her.”

“Then where’s my mom? Why hasn’t my mom taken me with her?”

Hiep said he had no answer for the confused boy.

“I was out of words. I almost got mad,” he recalled in tears.

Hiep said that he knows he has no right to judge anyone, but he does not hide his disapproval for the “moms” and the way they leave their children behind.

He has received less than five visits from the children’s mothers, each for less than 30 minutes, and none have returned for a second time.

On one occasion, Hiep had to call and ask a mother to visit because her child was heavily sick, only to have to apologize for "bothering" her.

One mother visited four years after leaving her daughter with Hiep, and brought with her two strangers. Before saying anything to her daughter, she pushed the girl over for them to look at and take photos, “like she was a piece of merchandise”.

Hiep refused to give up the girl for adoption, despite constant pestering from the strangers for weeks.

He said he has never let any of his children be adopted.

“All the children here have been through so much pain already. If I give them to the wrong family, I will put them through a tragedy for a second time,” Hiep said.

“Our job is to raise them, not to give them away,” he said.

Bui Hiep rocks a boy to sleep at his orphanage in Saigon. He refuses to show his face. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen

Bui Hiep rocks a boy to sleep at his orphanage in Saigon, while refusing to show his face. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen

Future built on love

Saigon is home to 2,900 orphans, the highest number of all cities and provinces in Vietnam.

Private facilities like Hiep’s take care of 80 percent of the workload, according to officials.

Hanh, one of 10 babysitters at the center, knows all the children and their stories.

One four-year-old girl, for example, loves to be hugged and cared for, and cries for hours if she's not. But that same girl never fights for toys and loves to help out by showing the younger children how to get dressed or checking their temperatures.

“If you don’t give her something to do, she’ll make a face and cry,” Hanh said.

Another girl really loves dogs and likes to pick them up almost every half an hour.

“If I say no, she'll try and sneak off and do it anyway,” she said.

Hiep said his 65 children all have their own personalities, and he has no plans to teach them otherwise.

But there are certain traits the children share. “For one, they all love each other,” he said.

They can also take good care of themselves. Babies can hold their own milk bottles and the older children will take bitter medicine without complaining.

“Maybe they know they are orphans and they have to work harder,” Hiep said.

The children have no festivities apart from a break during the Lunar New Year, which will be here in less than a month. On those days they will not have to wake up before 6 a.m. or attend morning classes with the nuns who teach them. They will also be be able to eat when they like, including candies, but there won’t be too many sweet treats on offer.

Hiep, now in his 60s, said he just about makes enough money to put food on the table. The children don't even have proper clothes or shoes.

During a recent visit, a girl was jumping around the front yard wearing one plastic shoe, not bothered about where the other one was.

Pham Dinh Nghinh, director of the Childcare Center at Saigon’s social affairs department, said that Hiep’s is one of the most difficult orphanages in the city.

If someone wants to volunteer, it would be the one to go to, Nghinh said. “I can feel the love and efforts in that house,” he said.

But Hiep himself is not asking for help.

“I volunteered to do this. I will keep doing it as long as I can.”

He also refused to be photographed. “I am not doing this for the recognition,” he said.

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