Man honored as patriot for saving 100 people in historic central region floods

By Phong Linh   December 17, 2020 | 07:00 pm GMT+7
When the central Quang Binh Province suffered the worst flooding in 41 years in October, a grandfather swung into action to rescue marooned people, mostly seniors and children.

Standing on a stage and getting an ovation from thousands of people, some of whom were in tears, Vo Van Binh, 66, appeared to be embarrassed when he was presented with the shirt he had worn while throwing himself into the floodwaters in his hometown.

No one could tell the original color of the shirt since it was now dyed the color of mud.

In those dark days in October, Binh had only one goal: saving as many lives as he could.

He came to the event held in Hanoi last week to honor patriots in a suit he had borrowed from a neighbor since all his clothes had been swept away in the floods.

Other honored patriots at the event include doctors who joined a successful 13-hour operation to separate 13-month-old conjoined twins Hoang Truc Nhi and Hoang Dieu Nhi in July, agricultural engineer Ho Quang Cua, the creator of the ST25 rice variety which won the annual World's Best Rice award last year, and Ha Anh Phuong, an English language teacher who had given up a job in Hanoi where she could earn thousands of dollars per month to teach poor students in rural mountainous areas in northern Vietnam.

For the 500 km trip from his hometown in Hien Ninh Commune in Quang Ninh District to Hanoi to be honored, Binh had brought along just two sets of clothes, both donated by flood relief teams.

Vo Van Binh stands on stage to be honored as patriot in Hanoi, December 10, 2020 as the host of the event holds the shirt he wore when driving a boat around to save people during the historic flooding in central Quang Binh Province in October. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy

Vo Van Binh (R) stands on stage to be honored as patriot in Hanoi, December 10, 2020, as the host of the event holds the shirt he wore when driving a boat around to save people during the historic flooding in central Quang Binh Province in October. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

"It was only because of you that I am still alive today," Nguyen Thi Luyen, 38, said from the audience.

She was one of nearly 100 people Binh had saved in Hien Ninh.

The downpour had begun in the central region on October 6, and lasted two weeks. While spared of the devastating landslides that hit Thua Thien-Hue and Quang Tri provinces, Quang Binh was the most severely flooded. In fact the water level was nearly a meter higher than during the record 1979 flood.

Lying at the confluence of two rivers, the Long Dai and the Kien Giang, Hien Ninh Commune was under two meters of water on the night of October 18.

That day, when the water started to rise, Luyen and her son moved their belongings to the attic. By evening the water had inundated their house.

By the next morning only the roof of their house was above water. By that time her mobile phone had almost run out of battery. She called the commune number for help and waited in vain for rescuers to turn up.

Mother and son were stuck on the roof for three hours. Terrified, she kept calling until the battery finally died, but no one came.

Left with no other choice, Luyen and her son swam to their neighbors' hoping to find help. Then she heard the sound of a boat engine, and saw a man and a teenager on a boat helping an old woman get out of a flooded house and leaving.

It was Binh and his grandson.

She screamed hard but her voice was drowned by the sounds of the engine, wind, rain, and waves.

Her son said: "Mom, they are not coming back. Stop trying."

Luyen broke down in tears.

But shortly afterward Binh returned. He struggled to sail his boat through tree branches and a barrier that had been under the water, but eventually reached the duo.

After depositing them in a high, safe place to shelter, Binh and his grandson left immediately to look for more marooned people.

As Luyen recalled the story, Binh said: "In such an emergency situation, the commune rescue force could not save everyone. I just wanted to lend a helping hand."

He had been so focused on rescuing people as quickly as he could that he did not remember how many he did save.

It turned out that in seven days he had saved almost 100 people.

His house overlooks the Long Dai River.

Ten days after the floodwaters had receded it was still in a mess with furniture swept away and scattered in the yard, broken. On the wall the water mark could be seen at a spot higher than a normal adult’s head.

He and his grandson, Vo Nhat Thanh, 15, live by themselves. His wife is deceased and his daughter, Thanh’s mother, works in Ho Chi Minh City.

Thanh dropped out of school in seventh grade and works at a stone processing facility.

Binh used to work as a tax official but quit during the "bao cap," or subsidy period, when everything was rationed by the government, and became self-employed.

Besides running a noodle shop, five years ago he spent VND50 million ($2,165) to buy a boat to carry people across the local rivers and also serve tourists.

In August he took a group of students on a tour of some of the province’s renowned caves, but after that the boat lay idle for almost two months. But come October, when the historic flooding arrived, it was used more than it had ever been.

Recalling the first day of Binh’s rescue efforts, Thanh said his grandfather had received a phone call and hopped into the boat without thinking twice.

When passing their submerged gate, he had shouted at Thanh: "I have to go and save people. Want to join?"

Thanh shook his head since he was busy moving up whatever he could to the attic.

Binh did not wait any longer, and left "without even looking back to check his own house one more time."

He returned home in the evening after spending the day in the rain, floodwaters and wind. He ate raw instant noodles since there was no way to boil water, and went straight to sleep in the attic without changing his clothes.

His daughter called home to check. Learning that her father was out looking for people to rescue, she posted the information on her social media page along with his mobile number.

Thanks to this, Binh received dozens of calls asking for help.

The next day Binh had to climbed up to the roof of his house to get into the boat. This time he was joined by his grandson. While Binh piloted the vessel, Thanh looked for ways to approach stranded people and get them into the boat.

Many of those they saved were elderly people and children.

The duo took all the people they rescued to high ground around four kilometers from the commune.

Asked about the motivation for his week-long mission, he said simply: "They are all my people. How could I sit back after knowing they have not been rescued?

"They are all old people and kids. The rest are away from home for work and there is no one to take care of them."

One morning when he was on his way to buy fuel for the boat, he was at the meeting point of the two rivers when the boat was sucked into a whirlpool.

Binh was lucky enough to jump into the water and survive. The boat was swept to the foot of a bridge and smashed.

Without the boat, he could no longer continue his rescue operation.

Vo Van Binh stands by a damaged boat he had used to rescue many people when heavy flooding hit Quang Binh Province, central Vietnam, October 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

Vo Van Binh stands by a damaged boat he had used to rescue many people when heavy flooding hit Quang Binh Province, central Vietnam, October 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

He sat in the house, waiting for the floods to recede. His phone had also died. "I guess people continued to call for help, but I could not know."

Quang Binh and Quang Tri were among several central provinces hit by flooding and landslides caused by a series of storms and tropical depressions in October and November.

The government estimated they caused losses of around VND30 trillion ($1.3 billion).

 
 
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