Saigon man's community project spreads loves with free hugs

By Minh Tam   September 13, 2022 | 02:29 am PT
Saigon man's community project spreads loves with free hugs
Doan Thanh Long (L) hugs Pham Thien An on Nguyen Hue walking street, District 1, HCMC, July 26, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Tam
A man approached Pham Thien An, who was standing on HCMC’s Nguyen Hue street with a “free hugs” sign. The stranger hugged An.

"How was your day?" Thien An asked with a smile.

"My day was awful," said Doan Thanh Long, breaking into tears. An gave him another warm hug and patted his shoulder.

Long, a District 12 resident, revealed that it had been two years since he had received a hug with open arms from someone.

Even as a kid, he knew he was not straight, and wished he could dress like a girl. He didn’t dare to reveal his gender orientation to relatives since he was born into a traditional, conservative family, with his father serving in the army.

After a series of "family events" in 2018, he became depressed and tended to confine himself within the four walls of his house. Over the past four years, he has visited several therapists and his depression has subsided somewhat.

It was one day in late July that he came across An with his "free hugs" sign.

"These warm hugs helped me feel comforted and also a sense of relief," the 29-year-old said.

An has been holding many "free hugs" events on Nguyen Hue Street in District 1.

The 23-year-old native of the southern province of Long An Province describes himself as an introvert who is shy, prefers to be alone, and rarely interacts with others.

In early 2021, he moved to Da Lat Town in the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong to live by himself. During his time here, he took part in a psychology and mental health discussion program. At the end of the event, participants hugged and told each other: "I want to say thank you and I am sorry."

He recalled that he was shy on the first day and did not hug anyone. Someone then took the initiative to hug him and that action gave him "indescribable" feelings.

"In the days that followed, I began to open up more."

Later, he moved to Hanoi and lived there for a year. He was helped a lot by strangers in the midst of the pandemic. This inspired him to help others, not just physically, but also emotionally.

He launched the "free hugs" movement after relocating to HCMC.

While others have done the "free hugs" activity before, An feels the focus has been on the physical act of hugging strangers in public spaces and not so much on the feelings of the participants.

So he set out on the mission of reaching out and bringing people a bit closer to each other.

"I still call it 'free hugs' to make it easier to hear and understand. Actually, the real name of my movement is called ‘The Stories Of The Hugs.’"

He arrives at his designated spot of the day at 7 p.m with a sign that reads: "Free hugs. Keep going. You’re doing great." After placing the sign on the street, he stands with his arms outstretched in invitation.

"Hello, how are you today?" he asks before giving a hug to the person prepared to receive it. He also prepares small gifts - 99 different positive messages, 99 flowers or candy.

An (R) poses for a photo with Long (L) and a female participant next to his free hugs sign on Nguyen Hue Street in HCMC. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Tam

An (R) poses for a photo with Long (L) and a female participant next to his "free hugs" sign on Nguyen Hue Street in HCMC. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Tam

Since his first outing on February 6, he has done it five times on the Nguyen Hue pedestrian street and once in Vung Tau Town.

He said he was quite shy during the first "free hugs" session because he lacked the confidence and courage. But after some strangers came to give him the first few hugs and shared their stories, it gave him motivation to stand there for three hours.

"People didn't hesitate to give me hugs and share their feelings and stories, making me feel like that what I do is meaningful and helpful to them."

He said one of his most memorable experiences was when a 12-year-old child beggar came to him one evening in July, saying "Thank you for making me feel like hugging my grandfather."

According to the boy, his grandfather had died almost a year ago. He was frequently hugged and comforted by his grandfather as a child, so every night that An appeared, the boy ran to hug him and receive a candy.

"Everyone needs a hug at some point in their lives. It is not only a message to help us understand that we are not alone, but it also has a lot of spiritual value," An said.

For many, An has become a familiar sight over the last three months.

Tran Quang Phung of District 1 said he’d seen many videos on TikTok about the "free hugs" movement, but this was the first time the 18-year-old had the chance to experience it firsthand.

"After a bad day, a hug can be a medicine to dispel fatigue and give one more motivation," said the college freshman.

After two weeks of travelling in Vietnam, Elia, a Spanish tourist, was surprised to get a free hug in a public space.

"This is probably going to be an unforgettable trip for me," she said.

"A young man hugged me, smiled, and said good luck. It was fascinating. I assumed that this movement was only available in Europe."

A foreign tourist participates in An’s free hug movement on HCMC’s Nguyen Hue Street. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Tam

A foreign tourist participates in An’s free hug movement on HCMC’s Nguyen Hue Street. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Tam

According to a 2020 survey conducted by BBC of 40,000 people from 112 countries, the most common words used to describe physical touch were: "comforting," "warm" and "love".

Hugs, according to psychologists, produce oxytocin also known as the "love hormone." The more one is touched or hugged, the more it is produced. These are hormones that have been shown to reduce stress.

Vo Minh Thanh, a psychology lecturer at the Ho Chi Minh City Pedagogical University, said it was a traditional practice for people in Western countries to greet each other with hugs and kisses on the cheeks. However, Vietnamese are not used to such displays of affection, especially in public spaces.

"But we should look at it as a more positive and optimistic way. People should change their mindset and recognize that hugging is more than just physical touch; that it is a form of bringing people closer together and spreading love," he said.

A simple hug can go along way, especially when some young people feel lonely and isolated within their own family, Thanh said.

An said he hoped to take his initiative to more localities in Vietnam.

"I believe this will help lonely people make more friends and spark many meaningful relationships."

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