Business circles in Ho Chi Minh City admire her success in business, success that comes from her own bare hands. Those concerned with charity admit that she is really a great supporter of charity. Through the last 21 years, she has left her footprints in 61 provinces and towns, coming to see miserable people. Wherever anyone is in need, one or many living in severe conditions, she reaches out to soften their suffering and hold out for them a torch of hope for the future. Newspapers have written a lot about her, respected as an example of kindness and success. That success is the desire of many young people. But it was surprising that when we asked her about her intentions for the future, she replied without hesitation: “I only hope that there won’t be another Tieu Huong in society.”
Everybody has a hometown to remember, but Tieu Huong never knew where she was born nor even what her birthday was. On her Identity Card at present it is written that she was born in 1968. Let’s let that be the year she was born. She just vaguely remembers the hot sun of the stern central region, with trains up and down from the north to the south, exciting, hurried, and crowded with people. There was an old lady with curved back leading a little girl going to beg food from the passers-by. That little girl is Tieu Huong now, but she has no memory from her childhood of what the old woman’s name was. In 1978, the economy was really bad because of a poor crop, and everyone was poorer. The old lady felt herself weaker and could not keep a growing Tieu Huong with her. So, once on the train, the old lady met a married couple from Vinh Phu. Desiring that Tieu Huong’s life be better, she had them help bring up Tieu Huong. However, the old lady’s dream was not fulfilled. Tieu Huong’s foster parents were teachers, and of course they did not get a big salary. Their manner was also very strict and unusual. Tieu Huong’s life in that family was full of tears and whipping. Even more terribly, her foster father occasionally attempted to rape her. She was so frightened and looked for a way to run away. Fortunately, some kind neighbors knew the pitiful story. They gave her a little money and took her out to Am Thuong train station. From that moment, trains, coming and going with sacks, chicken cages and passengers, became Tieu Huong’s warm roof. She followed the trains up to Lao Cai, then down to Thanh Hoa, Nghe begging money from passers-by to live day by day. Many nights she was battered by hunger and starvation. Moreover, bad treatment by gangsters on the train made Tieu Huong exhausted.
During that miserable life, Tieu Huong had a period of happiness that seemed like a dream. Once while hiding from the inspector on a train, she sheltered underneath the seat of a soldier woman named Miss Ai. After understanding Tieu Huong’s situation, Miss Ai took Tieu Huong to her troop, and Tieu Huong was allowed to live in Miss Ai’s camp for a while. For the first time in ten years, Tieu Huong was eating on time and slept on a bed with quilt and net. This lasted only six months. Then something happened that she does not understand to this day. One night Tieu Huong was woken up by an alarm. She heard Miss Ai saying that she could not stay there any longer due to some military reasons. At first, Miss Ai said she would send Tieu Huong to her parents in Hai Duong province and ask her parents to take care of Tieu Huong. But Tieu Huong had once escaped from foster parents and now was scared like a bird shot by an arrow. She persisted in refusing the arrangement. In the end, Miss Ai gave Tieu Huong a little money, wept her tears away, and brought Tieu Huong back to the train station where she found Tieu Huong. Then, Tieu Huong returned to her homeless life again.
Tieu Huong lived at the station six more years with all sorts of careers from being a beggar to being a smoking ice tea seller. She was wary of placing herself in dangerous situations. Also, Tieu Huong was becoming a beautiful young woman. Many times she had to protect herself from the bad actions of vagrants. One bastard even burned her chest with cigarettes.
Tieu Huong turned to follow the gold rush group up to the west of Nghe Tinh, Binh Tri Thien. She did everything she could to have food to eat, but that food was mixed with her own blood and tears. Tieu Huong could not forget the shower of whips of the owner “Tu” at the gold beach A Luoi. He ordered that anybody who did not wash two pans of dirt would have their rations cut. One day, when Tieu Huong had washed nearly a full pan of dirt, waved from a passing boat made the pan of dirt in her hand rock back and forth, and then fall into the river. Seeing that, Tu rushed to Tieu Huong and struck her unmercifully. She fell down unconscious. Everybody standing around did not dare to try to stop him for fear of losing their only rice and vegetables. Too frightened, she escaped from the gold beach running through the forest. She was so hungry and exhausted she even ate herbs. In 1986 Tieu Huong came to Saigon and chose Mien Dong bus station as a place to hide. In the mornings, every time she saw a passenger car stopping, she rushed and washed that car, not even knowing whose car it was. In exchange, some kind men would give her bread or a bowl of rice or noodles. At nights, she did not dare sleep at the park. Instead she found a place to sleep on the wooden bridge of public toilets on a Saigon river bank. A few months later, a bus owner named Huynh Van H., seeing her working hard, accepted Tieu Huong as a foster daughter. She lived with his family on Ham Tu Street, District 5. It was this place that Tieu Huong formally got a surname, replacing in his population register the name of his daughter who had been missing 10 years. Her foster parents were very kind, but they and their ten children all depended on the old bus, so family life that was originally hard now became harder. Eventually, Tieu Huong’s foster brothers and sisters became jealous of her, and she could not avoid bad words and treatment from them. Finally, she thanked her foster parents for their golden hearts and once again returned to the bus station, making a living by her “knocking-noodle” career.
During the days, Tieu Huong worked hard at the bus station. One morning, Tieu Huong saw a baby girl left near her place. Having sympathy for the baby, Tieu Huong decided to pick her up. She named her Anh Dao. Day by day, she went around selling cakes, and at night she brought Anh Dao to sleep next to the public toilet. Anh Dao grew, and the burden on her shoulders became too much. Both mother Tieu Huong and Anh Dao now moved to Bach Dang port. Tieu Huong had somebody look after Anh Dao while she rushed around at various jobs: selling coffee, chewing gum and cigarettes, and evening being a porter at quays to have enough money for rearing Anh Dao. For herself, she ate leftover food from restaurants and slept any place she felt was safe. Yet even living this way she continued to grow, and as a young woman she faced indignities. More than once she suffered the bad actions of bastards even though she resisted to the point of exhaustion. Many times she was going to jump into the Saigon River, but she would hear the faint sound of Anh Dao’s crying and think, “How would it be after I went away? Anh Dao would be thrown away and left in the street like a second Tieu Huong.” So, she ignored indignity, held the baby in her arms, endured in silence and went on living.
During her time living at Bach Dang port and wandering in the streets of the central city, Tieu Huong picked up some Chinese words. Knowing this language helped her to know a Taiwanese tourist by the name of Chao Lai. He used to go around Bach Dang port at midnight to take fresh air and to drink coffee on the pavement. Witnessing Tieu Huong’s hard life, he tried to help her by renting a flat on Nguyen Hue Street and looking after baby Anh Dao as a foster child. However, only a few weeks later the owner called Chao and forced him to end the arrangement because Tieu Huong often brought tens of homeless people home for washing and relaxation. Chao Lai rented another flat on Le Van Si Street, and then Dang Thi Nhu Street. But none lasted more than a month, always for the same reason: all of Tieu Huong’s friends were wanderers or homeless.
Tieu Huong’s life became better. Then, unexpectedly, one day Chao embraced her in his arms. She realized Chao’s kindness had an ulterior motive. Tieu Huong grasped a knife on the table and put it near her throat, threatening to die by her own hand. Fearing she would carry out her threat, he promised not to meet her again. He kept his promise and also left Tieu Huong twenty ounces of gold with the advice that she should take care of herself and buy herself a house to live in. This was on December 10, 1989, the day Tieu Huong chose as her birthday.
Tieu Huong bought a house on Nguyen Van Cu Street right then, a real bargain. Later, she decided to sell that house and made a great profit. After that, she bought another house on Le Hong Phong Street and started her rental car business. She even entered a new job without any experience: she became a tour guide for Taiwanese business people coming to Vietnam for investment. Knowing a little Chinese language, Tieu Huong won them over not only by her language but by her keen intelligence as well. She led Taiwan business people to many houses or flats and eventually became a real estate agent. When the land fever in the city was at its peak, Tieu Huong would receive US$30-40,000 for medium-sized transactions. She now owned property worth billions of dong including 4 houses and a dozen hectares of valuable land.
Soon after acquiring her first house, the first thing Tieu Huong had to do was bring baby Anh Dao home. Sometimes in her spare time she would pick up some children in the street to feed. She bought an area to build a mansion in Long Thanh – Dong Nai for the children and had nurses look after them. Up to this point she was Godmother to 1,000 wandering children throughout the country. Among them, some were newborns, some were three years old, some were five, and some were ten. All were given food to eat and a place to stay and the chance to go to school to learn. As for Anh Dao, she is now a school girl, sixteen, able to speak two foreign languages fluently. Tieu Huong has said that the success of children is a part of her life. On her birthday in 2000, she received more than 700 greeting cards from her foster children. These cards were made by the children themselves. Looking at the innocent, scrawling handwriting, Tieu Huong burst out crying in happiness.
Tieu Huong has also shared the suffering of older men and women with unlucky lives, miserable people. Recall the time she was staying in the house on Le Van Si Street – in District 10 of Thanh Pho Ho Chi Minh. Seeing lots of people living in the street, she would go to market at 3pm to buy chicken, meat and 50kg of noodles, and then cook it for them. In order to join them, she would also sit or stand and eat with them. Looking at this picture, some might think it was only an act, but for Tieu Huong sharing sufferings with the poor is really a great enjoyment.
Tieu Huong’s charitable activities are not only in Ho Chi Minh City. Wherever it was needed, she would come with all her heartfelt spirit. In 1999, she spent over US$40,000 for flood relief in the central region of Vietnam. She was also an active member of the Vietnam Handicapped Sponsor Association in that year. Once while visiting an orphanage and disabled children’s center, she recognized that as adults they were never able to get a job. She decided to build a purified drinking water production factory under the brand name “Ultra-V” so as to create jobs for them as well as to sponsor charitable activities and the other children’s centers. Furthermore, during three days of Tet in 2001, Tieu Huong went to a hospital. Her friends and a benefactress came to see her and gave her the sum of 30 million dong. Upon leaving the hospital, she sent all of that sum to the Handicapped Children Sponsor Association with a simple proverb: “The good leaves cover up the bad.”
Tieu Huong has said that during times of suffering, sometimes her only dream was to have a piece of bread, not even a piece of meat; only a loaf of bread to be eaten at midnight in a strong, chilling wind. Now, she hopes that children will be happy and go to school, and that there will be not be another “Tieu Huong in society…”
In order to make her dream come true, Tieu Huong is making all efforts to construct a building for lonely elders and orphans at Tay Dong Hiep commune – Di An district – Binh Duong province, using her own capital. The center’s infrastructure is now completed and preparations are under way to welcome those with lonely and miserable lives. She also is mobilizing another support source to build a hospital for the poor. She remembers her former life: nights with nothing in her stomach, disguised as exhausted in front of a hospital in the hope that she would be taken into the hospital in emergency and be fed for several days. After leaving one hospital, she would go on to the next one with her odd trick. Now, in gratitude for the kindness in the past, there is a fee-free hospital for the poor.
There is one thing that nobody knows: she shares so greatly, but her present financial condition seems to be “going on clouds.” All of her capital is being concentrated on a handicapped and orphaned children’s center in Binh Duong. Meanwhile, income from the bottled water factory is only enough to cover labor costs. Tieu Huong is worried about what she has to do to go on sharing the sufferings of those with lonely and miserable lives.
Ngo Giang Son
Kien Thuc Newspaper