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Vietnamese student donates scholarship to needy hospital patients for past 9 years



For nearly a decade, Doan Luc Nghi has donated his academic scholarship to needy hospital patients in Ho Chi Minh City with nowhere else to turn.

Nghi, a 24-year-old senior at Ho Chi Minh City University of Medicine and Pharmacy, has had no qualms with donating the entirety of his academic scholarship to needy hospital patients in Ho Chi Minh City for the past nine years.

At Cho Ray Hospital, where the patients Nghi helps receive treatment, both patients and staff consider Nghi’s support a godsend.

Do Thi Thanh Lan, a staff member at the hospital’s Social Work Department, dubbed by patients as the ‘room of love’, has spent nine out of her ten-year-career at Cho Ray welcoming Nghi’s donations.  

According to Lan, Nghi – then a 10th-grader at Le Hong Phong High School for the Gifted in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 5 – was shy the first time he visited the hospital to make a donation.

It took some digging before he finally admitted that the money came directly from an academic scholarship he had been awarded.  

Since then, Nghi has visited the hospital twice a year, every year, to donate his scholarship money to patients in need.

A special philanthropist

Nghi’s high marks throughout his academic career, as well as earning a top-notch score on the national high school graduation exam, helped earn him admission to the Ho Chi Minh City University of Medicine and Pharmacy, one of the country’s highest ranked medical universities.

After spending nearly a decade helping patients financially, he is eager to expand his support to the realm of medicine.

“The more I cover in my curriculum, the more challenging my school work becomes. This means it’s become quite difficult to continue earning scholarships,” Nghi shared. 

“What keeps me motivated is the patients who are dying for money to pay their medical bills. My academic performance not only means I’ve gained knowledge, but it also empowers me to help the needy.”

Though Nghi’s family is not particularly well-off, altruism is a value that he and his parents hold near and dear. 

His father works at a state-run company while his mother earns a living as a tailor. 

Together, they live in a 30-square-meter house at the end of a narrow alley in District 10. 

As a child, Nghi would follow his now 51-year-old mother, Luc Thi Yen Nga, to major hospitals in the city to lend a hand to needy patients.

Those moments stuck with him, eventually leading to him seeking out an internship at Cho Ray.

“One night after work I saw a father sleeping with his child in the hospital corridor,” Nghi recalled.

“It filled me with emotion.”

Other inspirational moments for Nghi include learning about a group of caregivers who sought treatment for an orphan suffering from critical heart disease from doctors throughout the country. 

Such care and empathy is what motivates Nghi to continue helping others.

“What I do may be small, but I just want to lend a helping hand,” Nghi said.

Currently, Nghi is training hard to become a qualified doctor so that he can continue to help.

Of course, Lan and the other healthcare providers at Cho Ray are excited to know someone with such dedication will likely join their team in the near future.

Until then, however, he plans to continue helping in whatever ways he can.  

Le Minh Hien, head of Cho Ray Hospital’s Social Work Department, shared how impressed he is with Hien’s dedication to the hospital and its patients.

“The youngest donor here, Nghi, has been active in the hospital’s charitable work over the past nine years,” Hien said.

“We’re moved that he is able to help others through his own academic achievements.” 

According to Lan, over the past nine years Nghi has made more than 20 donations, totaling more than VND50 million (US$2,195) in value.

His aid, along with that from many other benefactors, is not only a physical gift, but also a spiritual boost and source of strength that has helped many patients recover.

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Seaweed: precious natural gift of Quảng Ngãi Province




BIRD’S-EYE VIEW: Harvesting seaweed in Bình Châu Commune, Quảng Ngãi Province. VNS Photo Phạm Anh

At the crack of dawn, hundreds of fishermen from the coastal communes of the central province of Quảng Ngãi sail their coracles to the sea to harvest a special gift of nature bestowed upon their homeland: seaweed.

Containing a wide range of vitamins and minerals, including iodine, iron and calcium, seaweed is increasingly favoured due to its high nutrition and original taste.

To the locals, besides onions and garlic, this “sea vegetable” is another plant that has brought them a significant source of income.

The harvest season of seaweed starts at the beginning of July when clumps of seaweed appear abundantly on the cliffs and coastal coral reefs. According to local fishermen, this plant grows and thrives from mid-April to July every year.

Sitting in his boat, 52-year-old Nguyễn Hùng from Châu Thuận Village in Bình Châu Commune points at the bubbles on the water surface, explaining: “Some villagers are diving in this area to cut seaweed.”

Emerging from the transparent blue water is a young man wearing a diving mask, swimsuit and oxygen tube. After resting for a few minutes, he continued to dive from two to five metres from the surface.

The net is cast around the diver’s position to gather the seaweed floating after being cut. Another fisherman on the boat hastily uses a long pole or a racket for fishing out the seaweed and places them onto a nearby raft or basket. If they are slow, water might push the seaweed out of the net, making it difficult to be collected.

According to Hùng, the seaweed harvest typically starts at around 5am and ends in the late afternoon. Many fishermen and divers also bring food to have lunch by the sea.

A day’s dive could collect 400 to 500kg of fresh seaweed. After drying, each tonne of wet seaweed will reduce to 300-350kg of dried seaweed, depending on its age.

HARVEST SEASON: Fisherman Nguyễn Hoàng, 51, from Châu Thuận Biển Village, Bình Châu Commune is happy to have a successful seaweed season this year. VNS Photo Phạm Anh

Families of many members often invest in specialised equipment like oxygen tanks and rafts, while the work is divided clearly. Those with limited budgets might wait until the tide has ebbed in the late afternoon to pull their rafts and collect the seaweed along the shore until night.

Exploitation combined with conservation

OCEAN’S BOUNTY: A fisherman uses a long pole for fishing out the seaweed and places it onto a nearby raft. VNS Photo Phạm Anh

Fishermen in coastal communes such as Bình Hải or Bình Châu in Quảng Ngãi have a successful season this year when the demand of the market is high. Traders immediately purchase all the freshly harvested seaweed.

“In the past three weeks, my family could earn about VNĐ1.5 million (US$64) per day from seaweed. The price of one kilo last year was only VNĐ6,000, but it has increased up to VNĐ9,000 this year, so locals are happy to go to sea, no matter how hard the work is,” Nguyễn Văn Phụng from Phú Quý Village in Bình Châu said.

PROCESSING: Fresh seaweed is dried naturally under the sun for 3 to 5 days before being ready for use. VNS Photo Phạm Anh

Collecting the “sea vegetable” is more accessible and less expensive than fishing. The fishermen only need to row a coracle or a small motor boat 600-800m from the shore to cast their net and begin diving.  

However, according to Phụng, harvesting seaweed is arduous. It is an aquatic alga that grows on the sandy bottom about 1-1.5m below the water surface. Therefore, divers are normally male and must be in good health to stand the sun and wind and be able to dive for a long time underwater. The elderly and children can also earn extra income by collecting seaweed by the shore and drying it for other households.

The harvest season of seaweed mainly runs from June to August. Most fishermen focus on harvesting seaweed instead of seafood at this time of the year. They say this year’s season may end sooner than usual.

After being harvested, seaweed is initially processed to remove garbage and rocks that still cling to the root. Then it must be dried naturally under the sun for 3 to 5 days before being ready for use.

PICTURE PERFECT: Fresh seaweed is dried along the coast of Quảng Ngãi Province. VNS Photo Phạm Anh

Dried seaweed has become a famous speciality of Quảng Ngãi. It can be cooked into many delicious and nutritious dishes with simple methods like soups or salads, so the plant has become increasingly favoured.

Harvesting seaweed can bring high economical efficiency and reduce pollution caused by old plants drifting ashore. However, over-exploitation a few years ago seriously affected the marine ecological environment.

Among the varieties of seaweed, sargassum, which grows mainly on coral reefs, is a food source and creates a place for other species to shelter and reproduce. It also creates a favourable environment for dozens of coral species to develop.

To avoid any negative effects, the Quảng Ngãi provincial authority has specified the time for exploitation. Accordingly, the harvesting, trade and transport of seaweed are forbidden in the province from December 1 to the end of April of the following year, except for research work approved by the authority.

Local fishermen are allowed to harvest seaweed after May 1 every year. They must not uproot the plant but cut at least 10cm from the root and must not exploit over 75 per cent of the seaweed area for aquatic species to have a shelter to reside and reproduce. At the same time, they should avoid trampling or anchoring ships in the seaweed area in order not to damage the coastal coral reefs.

The regulations are based on the plant’s growth characteristics, ensuring its growing standards and preserving spawning grounds for aquatic species.

“Thanks to seaweed collecting, local fishermen have had a decent income for their living,” said Nguyễn Ngọc Tài, deputy director of the Quảng Ngãi Agricultural Promotion Centre. The commune now has about 400 households harvesting seaweed.

“Local authorities have encouraged fishermen to exploit seaweed properly in combination with preservation. Harvesting the plant must be done in the right season, otherwise, it will affect the growth of fish and shrimp,” he said.

“Local fishermen are well aware of its importance and strictly follow the regulations.” 

According to Tài, it is necessary to develop seaweed farming and exploit the potential areas suitable for growing species with high economic value, not to waste resources.

He also stressed the importance of calling for business investment in indigenous seaweed species to turn them into processed products with high added-value, which is also a direction to restructure the agricultural work in the fisheries sector and for rural development. VNS



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Beware, the vlogger pandemic is upon us



By Paul Kennedy

They came, they saw, they vlogged. They are the pests of the tourist industry; the self-obsessed ‘influencers’ whose hands are more preoccupied with their precious mobile device than their wallets. 

As Việt Nam fully opens its doors to overseas visitors in our continued recovery from COVID-19, another pandemic is upon us — our bars and cafes infected by a new breed of Tây ba lô

With them comes a new variant of man-bunned backpackers. Where once visitors were lured here by the insatiable desire to soak up Vietnamese culture, history and the rich tapestry of everyday life, for some it seems little more than a box-ticking exercise to ‘do Asia’ as part of a parentally funded gap year (pronounced gap yaaar).

Illustration by Trịnh Lập

The new Tây ba lô may still sport the obligatory tie-dye tees and probably own spandex psychedelic pants, but after two years of pandemic lockdown, the 2022 travellers’ sole obsession seems to be to narcissistically stare at their own image, recording their experience rather than absorbing the sights and sounds of the here and now.

Even if you are unfamiliar with the term ‘vlogging’ or social media influencing, you will instantly recognise those who make it their passion.

There is a generation of fame-hungry wannabe travel correspondents who, despite having never set foot inside a journalism college, believe they are Anthony Bourdain on a global culinary tour, or think deep-dive investigations into the average price of fake Nike T-shirt makes them the next Woodward and Bernstein. Or should that be Woodbine and BeerStain? 

Armed with the latest GoPro camera and selfie stick (fact: the size of the selfie stick increases in proportion to that of its user’s gargantuan ego), no passer-by is safe when the next-gen backpacker is on a recording spree. As we try to wind down with a quiet drink with friends after a busy working day, we increasingly find ourselves having to navigate past these desperate attention-seekers, the vloggers attempting to get their heads into the mobile camera frame as if they are Francis Ford Coppola directing Marlon Brando.

Their real agenda is clear, of course. What they crave is sufficient ‘likes’ and ‘clicks’ to build a fan following large enough to convince shareholders within the tourist industry to promise a lifetime of free travel, free accommodation and free food.

Now don’t misinterpret my disdain. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with promoting this amazing country to a wider audience, and we all love our holiday snaps and videos triggering spectacular memories. But there is a critical difference between capturing the moment for our own enjoyment and posterity — a chance to relive happy times — and the more insidious trend of implying a personal experience is a fair reflection of what it will be like in a country, or particular venue, for all future visitors. Experienced travel writers — trained journalists — understand there is a sense of responsibility to be balanced, fair and, most important of all, accurate with their dispatches. Sadly, these standards are neglected and ignored by the worst vloggers.

Take that famous vlogger ‘Uptin’. Since Việt Nam reopened in April, his most recent clip on our country has attracted an astonishing audience in excess of 1.8 million. The content is generally slick and entertaining, but severely let down by a grasp of basic mathematics so dire one can only presume he is suffering from dyscalculia. 

 Uptin’s currency conversion is inaccurate and damaging. 

In one particular segment, he claims VNĐ2,000 is worth $0.08. That is correct, but then in the very next breath, he calculates that VNĐ20,000 is equivalent to $0.20. Er, no, basic maths mate, $0.08 times ten equals $0.80. 

The American then goes on to say that a bowl of phở, or a bánh mì, will set you back around $1-$1.50, which is correct, but he then makes the outrageously inaccurate claim that the average minimum wage for Vietnamese is $2 a month.

Really? Come on, Uptin. With so many viewers you have a responsibility to be so much better than this. By such mathematics, Vietnamese can only afford to eat two sandwiches each, per month! 

And therein lies the problem. A real, experienced journalist — subject to the most basic editorial standards and control — would not present such nonsense as fact.

Sadly, for content creators obsessively chasing online traffic, the truth appears to be an optional extra. 

In the past few weeks, I’ve experienced first-hand the embarrassing, unpleasant behaviour of many western backpackers.

Although my Vietnamese is pretty poor, in my local bia hơi, I’m often the go-to westerner the staff call upon to help a tourist navigate the menu. Last week, two Tây ba lô, male and female, were ushered my way. I asked what type of food they would like, to which their response was the “cheapest thing on the menu”.

“Clearly they are working to a tight budget,” I thought.

Then, to my disgust, vlog filming began as they tucked into the ONE plate of noodles they had purchased to share, while consuming their own drinks they had brought to the venue. The locals in the bia hơi unwittingly found themselves cast as extras in this cheap couple’s low-budget production.

There was a similar episode the following day. This time two men (one with man-bun, one with beard) splashed out a little bit more and added a few bia hơis to their two plates of mì xào bò. Again, armed with GoPro, they set about creating content of their amazing experience eating a plate of beef noodles. What thrilling viewing. Suffice it to say, Coppola and Martin Scorsese can sleep easy in their beds tonight.

When they came to pay, the bill came to VNĐ14,000 shy of VNĐ200,000. Did they tip? Did they say keep the change? No, of course not. They waited for the server to count out VNĐ14,000 and went on their merry way. 

If you’re not sure how much VNĐ14,000 equates to in western currency, don’t ask Uptin. 

Tipping is hardly compulsory, but here is a free one from me to any vlogger reading this: if you are using a restaurant as a set location while filming staff and customers without permission, some old-fashioned courtesy, good manners and, yes, the occasional leaving behind of change would not go amiss. That VNĐ14,000 means a hell of a lot more to the server than it does to you. ​

I have saved the worst until last. The biggest western backpacker shame was served up courtesy of a young American man and his two Scandinavian female friends. 

When I offered help with their ordering they explained they would like chicken, pork and a beef dish, served with rice. So far, so reasonable. 

I’d left before they had finished only to receive a frantic video call from a friend who works at the bia hơi who duly put the trio on the phone. Screaming and shouting, they claimed they were being ripped off, and more to the point, I was in on the scam.

Their bill came to less than VNĐ250,000 between them, a little over $3 each. Good value for a slap-up meal with drinks on top, you would imagine. Now they were claiming they had no money. One can only presume they thought they were doing the bia hơi a favour by blessing it with their presence and, presumably, social media reach, dining out in a make-believe world in which actually paying for food and service is discretionary.

It’s doubtful these observations will have any effect on the future behaviour of visiting Tây ba lô. Many are lured here because they believe Việt Nam ‘is so cheap’ and therefore ripe for exploitation. 

We welcome tourists. We want tourists. We need tourists. But more than ever post-COVID 19, we also want them to play and pay fair, understanding the needs of, and investing in, our local economy rather than using our bia hơi as a means of fattening those wallets they seem so reluctant to open when here. VNS


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Time stands still in Nà Vị Village




An aerial view of Nà Vị Village. VNS Photo Hà Cương

Phương Hà

Nà Vị Village in the northern province of Cao Bằng charms all nostalgic souls with its ancient stone houses and unique traditions that have been maintained by generations of the Tày ethnic people.

Located at the foot of Phia Cao Mountain, about 100km from Cao Bằng City, the village is home to 110 households with 349 people, most of them are Tày ethnics.

Taking a walk along the flat paved road, on which both sides are green paddy fields and rows of bamboo, visitors can immediately feel the calm and the peacefulness of the area. Through the early morning mist, the ancient stone houses gradually appear at the end of the winding road. Traces of time can clearly be seen in the faded colours of their tiles.

Nông Văn Thịnh, vice chairman of the Minh Long Commune People’s Committee, said: “This village has a very long history. Each of the houses was built by local people with stone, mainly quarried in the surrounding mountains, so they are very durable. After more than 100 years, the stone houses still stand the test of time.”

Among nearly 100 stone houses in Nà Vị, 40 retain their original architecture and have been home to three to four generations of the Tày living together.

One of the ancient stone houses in Nà Vị Village. VNS Photo Hà Cương

According to the elderly, these stone houses might be 100 or even 150 years old. Whenever one is broken down, its owner will find appropriate stones from nearby mountains and use sand in the river or stream beds to fix it themselves, which helps preserve its original structure over time.

It takes from one to two years to complete a three-room stone house in Nà Vị Village. Each house is from 7-8m high and roofed with terracotta tiles. Created from stones of various sizes, stacked and bonded with a mixture of limestone and sand, the 30cm-thick walls are firm and solid, helping to make the house cool in summer, and warm during the harsh winter of the north.

Besides the ancient houses, Nà Vị is also preserving a hundred-year-old handloom.

Nông Thị Phượng works at the last traditional handloom of the village. VNS Photo Hà Cương

Nông Thị Phượng, an 81-year-old fabric weaver in Nà Vị, said: “In the past, weaving was considered a norm to evaluate a Tày woman’s virtue, ingenuity, and diligence. Therefore, most of the women in the village were very skilful in spinning and weaving. Many families had one or two handlooms for making costumes and household items like curtains, blankets and baby clings.”

According to her, the woven fabrics also have both material and cultural meanings.

“People in the village used to weave various items as a dowry for their daughters when they got married to supplement their future daily needs, such as closing, curtains, blankets, baby slings or bags. These products would accompany the women in the village from birth to death,” she added.

Tày women in Nà Vị Village in traditional clothes. VNS Photo Hà Cương

The traditional costumes of both Tày men and women are woven from cotton yarn and dyed indigo, having almost no decorative patterns. The women’s clothes might include linen indigo belts. Though most of the villagers have switched to wearing modern clothes during their daily activities, for convenience, traditional clothes are indispensable on special occasions like weddings or funerals.

A man in Nà Vị Village performs then singing for a visitor. Photo

Visitors to the border village might also have a chance to listen to a traditional art form of the Tày – then singing, which was recognised as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

Like traditional clothes, then singing, accompanied by the sound of tính musical instrument, is an integral part of local rituals, festivals and fairs. It is also a means for the local youth to confess their love for their boyfriends or girlfriends.

Nông Đức Tướng, a member of the then singing club of Minh Long Commune, said: “Ever since I was a child, I have been immersed in the rhythms and lyrics of then songs of my father and our neighbours. I was taught about the melodies by the elderly when growing up, which were gradually absorbed into my mind and became a passion.”

Even though he is 82 now, Tướng is still collecting ancient tunes, composing new then songs praising the native land and people, and teaching the younger generations then singing, to pass down his passion.

A visitor to the village, photographer Vũ Khắc Chung, said he was particularly impressed with the original structure of the ancient houses in Nà Vị that have been preserved by local people, as well as the hospitality of the villagers and the naïve smiles of the children.

From Nà Vị Village, tourists could also visit numerous nearby tourist attractions of Cao Bằng like Ngườm Khu Cave, Phia Cao Mountain, and Tô Thị Hoạn Temple.

The local authority is building a plan to turn Nà Vị into a community-based tourism destination with homestay facilities to meet the tourists’ wish to spend the night in the lost-in-time village. VNS



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