Over the past four years, Laneway 96 on Phan Dinh Phung Street in Phu Nhuan district has been known for its many charity activities. On the right hand side wall near the entrance are two boxes full of first aid items and common medicines and medicated oils.
Mr Viet, also known as Uncle Ut, who is a motorbike mechanic, keeps the keys to the boxes. ‘I work here from 5.15am to 9pm,’ he said. ‘A lot of the medicine is provided by donors. Initially there was just one small box but then a bigger box was needed and now even that’s not big enough. All of the things in the box are to help the disadvantaged and anyone who has an accident nearby.’
The laneway, which is less than 300 metres long, provides a lot of information about charity activities, such as free eye surgery, heart surgery, and cancer treatment, and even free coffins, all coming from the kindness of local residents. They themselves struggle every day to make a living, by selling drinks or snacks or providing motorbike taxi service, yet are willing to help others less fortunate.
The owners of small footpath cafés are happy to allow elderly lottery ticket sellers to sit on their chairs and rest for a while and the motorbike taxi drivers are happy to take poor or disabled people around for free. Anyone who has an accident in the neighbourhood is given first aid by the motorbike taxi drivers, who then take them to hospital for free.
Such good-hearted people consider it perfectly normal to help others. ‘A lot of people describe our acts as great, but these are simple things in our neighbourhood,’ said one drinks vendor in the laneway.
For nearly three months Mr Ba on Nguyen Hoang Street in An Phu Ward of District 2 has provided free second-hand clothes to the poor every Wednesday and Saturday, placed on a wooden table under the shade of an umbrella.
‘I was born and raised in the central province of Quang Nam but have been living in HCMC for more than 20 years,’ he explained. ‘I’m now retired. My children have become adults and my parents have died. I don’t have to take care of anyone. I think a lot about poor people struggling to make ends meet. Buying clothes is always a burden for them, so I’m glad to see they are happy to take old clothes from me.’
The second-hand clothes come from different donors, including foreigners in District 2. Mr Ba sometimes buys some clothes to give to the needy and he uses his house as a warehouse for the second-hand clothes he collects.
Every few months he also rents a truck and takes some clothes to the needy in other provinces. In his late 50s, Mr Ba talks about his charity work so that others may feel inspired to follow his lead. But he seeks no recognition - when he heard a newspaper was to write about him he did his best to hide behind the ornamental plants he also grows to sell and fund his efforts.
In addition to clothes he also hands out bread and water, saying that sometimes people with families fill up a whole bag.
This is what Saigonese people are like. Many residents were not born in the city but have lived here for a long time and are just as kind as Saigonese, willing to help others even though their situations are not that much better. They know how much they need and want to do some charity work because, saying that when they give something they receive happiness in return and hopefully encourage others to act.
10 CENT RICE
An eatery selling cheap rice dishes was set up almost ten years ago with support from many donors and volunteers. The idea has now spread to other districts the city and their numbers have reached double figures, serving hundreds of people a day. One of them can serve up to 500 people a day.
A hearty meal for one costs just 10 cents and comes with soup and fruit for dessert. Additional rice is also available in a big bowl for free. Rather than providing the food for free, the 10 cent charge is to make customers feel like real customers. The eateries also sometimes sell second-hand clothes for ten cents a piece.
A box of free bread can always be found in front of a beauty salon on Xo Viet Nghe Tinh Street in Binh Thanh district, stocked up daily by the salon’s owner. She previously did some charity work in the countryside but in her old age finds the travel more difficult, so she puts out 150 loaves of bread in the box every day.
The bread is available from the time the salon opens at 7.30am until it closes at 4.30 pm. If it runs out the security guard puts some more in. Those who come for the bread include rubbish collectors, lottery ticket sellers, and poor students. A sign states that one person can get one loaf at a time. When someone takes two loaves, however, the security guard says nothing. ‘They need it for themselves and for their relatives at home, so it’s OK,’ he said. There are now similar boxes of free bread all around the city.
AIR AND REPAIRS
More than 20 years ago, Mr Luong, a bicycle and motorbike mechanic on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street in District 1, put out a sign that read ‘free tyre pumping and repairs for disabled people’. He provides the free service despite having his own struggles bringing up two young children aged 10 and 11 and living in a rented house dozens of kilometres from his repair shop. ‘It’s most difficult at 11 in the morning when I have to rush home to pick up my kids from two different schools,’ he said. ‘Then I have to go shopping and prepare their meals. After that I rush back here and work until 10 or 11pm before going home. It’s hard work but I’m happy I can help the disabled.’ Mr Luong is not the only mechanic who provides free repairs for the disadvantaged, as they can be found everywhere around the city.
Such is HCMC, the land of kindness and generosity.