It was the eve of Tết Nguyên Đán 2007, and the major streets of Sài Gòn were full of people, especially the streets in District 1 like Đồng Khởi, Lê Lợi, and Nguyễn Huệ where the New Year Flower Festival was taking place. Even though many people living and working in Việt Nam’s largest city had already gone to their home provinces to celebrate Tết with their family, on this night, Sài Gòn still seemed as bustling as ever.
I had been assigned to mission in Thailand, but was fortunate enough to be able to drop by Việt Nam during this most sacred holiday to celebrate with relatives and friends. I could not resist joining the crowds of Saigonese, mostly young people, as they made their ways down the various streets to bring in the Year of the Pig. I took a friend on the back of a motorbike that I borrowed from my cousin and we navigated through the chaotic city streets to take in the festive air all around us. But our fun could only last until 11 o’clock. Because at this time, I had made an appointment with a group of young people to help them do something very important.
This group of young Saigonese knew that on a night like this, while most people were making merry with family and friends, there were in fact many people in the city who had to go hungry, who had no one to share the holiday joy with, and had no one to wish them a happy and prosperous new year. Through their connection with an overseas charity group, they managed to have the fund to buy gifts that they would distribute to people who were wandering the streets late at night because they had nowhere to go. It was hoped that these small gifts of food and sweets would bring a little bit of joy to these people who were so miserable.
At 11 o’clock, the members of the group gathered at Thảo’s house in Tân Bình District. The leader of the group distributed the gifts to everyone present and divided up the ‘territories’. One group would go to District 1, another to District 4, and so on. I was assigned to the group that would distribute the gifts to the people in Gò Vấp District. The young people, two for each motorbike, with bags of gifts in hand, started to take off to their assigned destinations.
From Lê Văn Sỹ street in Tân Bình District, I and my companions made our way out to Trường Sơn, then to Nguyễn Thái Sơn, then to Bến Hải. At first, we could not find anyone to give the gifts to. We rode around for nearly an hour and the two large bags I had on my motorbike were still full. Khiêm, who went with me on my motorbike said anxiously, “I hope we don’t have to take these gifts home.”
I myself became a bit impatient. It was nearly one o’clock and I was getting a backache from riding around. But just as our worries peaked, we spotted a man wandering aimlessly on the street, his head in bandage. He had just come out of a nearby hospital. We stopped and inquired what happened. He told us he had been selling vé số, but was stopped and beaten up by a gang of men, no doubt gamblers or drug addicts. They took his money. He had gone to the hospital emergency room. He was told that he needed a scan, but he had no money. So they bandaged him up haphazardly and let him go. But he had nowhere to go, and no money to treat his wound. In the pocket of his worn out shirt, a stack of lotto tickets remain unsold. We gave him two portions of the gifts and an extra 100.000 đồng, but that was hardly enough compared to what he really needed.
Just as we turned the corner, we spotted four elderly people walking one behind the other. From afar, we could tell that their clothes were torn and ragged. I made a U-turn and stopped by their side. We greeted them and they stopped to return the greetings. Their accent told us that they were not Vietnamese but belonged to one of the ethnic minorities. From faraway, they looked poor, but when we saw them close up, they were simply pitiful. Parts of their hands were missing, parts of their feet were missing, and parts of their faces were missing. They had bandages in numerous places. These people were stricken with leprosy. We did not have time to ask where they were going and why they were wandering the streets. But we offered each person our small gift, gift that they could not accept with their fingerless hands, but had to receive with their old nón lá.
After the ‘dry spell’ of not meeting any poor people on the streets for nearly an hour, we came upon one after another after another – people who had no place to go or wherever they were going was not much to look forward to. At two in the morning on the day of Tết, a blind man was still holding his hat out begging in front of a Buddhist temple. A group of people were sleeping on the cement steps of a store. An old cyclo rider was still on the street corner waiting to be hired. And there were many others just like them. Our fear of having to take the gifts home turned out to be our disappointment and sadness at not having enough packages to hand out.
I have now left Việt Nam for my mission in Thailand, but since then I have been thinking a lot about this New Year’s Eve night. Even though I related mostly about the poor people that we were looking for and trying to bring a bit of happiness to, these days I am not thinking so much about them. As I write this article for the young readers of Dân Chúa Magazine, I am thinking more of the young friends in Sài Gòn who spent their New Year’s Eve in a vastly different way than most people in the city.
On that night, while everywhere you went in the city, you can see people having parties, sharing in drinks, congregating in joyous places, there was a group of young people who set their priority somewhere else. And that place was the dark corners of the city where the homeless slept, the cold streets where the poor wandered with no particular place to go, and the cement benches where the downtrodden sat to rest but had nothing to wait for.
These young people of Sài Gòn could have easily gone out to have fun at one of the many places that their peers were congregating in the city. If they had, no one would have complained or questioned them. After all, it was the eve of Tết, the biggest holiday there was in Việt Nam. They could have easily chosen another day to distribute the gifts. After all, tomorrow the poor would still be with us. Or the next day, or the day after that. There would never be a shortage of poor people. Instead, these compassionate young people felt that it was most meaningful if they shared with the poor, even if only in a modest way, during the first minutes and hours of the New Year. They wanted to bring just a little bit of joy to these miserable people during these sacred moments.
In recent years, young people in Việt Nam, and for that matter, young people all over the world continue to be the target of much anxiety, discomfort, and restlessness for parents, teachers, and leaders. Teachers worry that their students will go down the path of drugs and alcohol. Parents are afraid that their children will become addicted to internet porn. Leaders are afraid that young people can’t be responsible for the fate of the country in the future. As a priest, I have some of the same worries. Yet, when I consider the group of young people that I was lucky enough to share a brief time with on New Year’s Eve in Việt Nam, I feel much more optimism and greater peace of mind.
I decided to write this article because I believe that this sort of awareness, compassion, enthusiasm, and good-will exhibited by this group of young people does not have to be rare, isolated, and extraordinary. Instead, it can be very widespread and routine. It is my hope that by writing about them, the young people who read this article will become ‘infected’ by their spirit and display this spirit in your own family, in your own community, and in the entire world.