“We Just Had to Escape…”

Simon Stanley finds out how one Saigon community lost everything, and how an army of strangers stepped in to help. Photos by Vinh Dao.

The day began like any other for Truong Trang. The 41-year-old grandmother ran a small refreshments stall beside Quan Ut Ut restaurant in District 1 and lived nearby in the network of alleyways strung between Yersin and Ky Con streets. It was the first day of December 2015 and she’d taken the afternoon off to do housework.

“I was up on the top floor of my house trying to do the laundry,” she says. “The city engineers were working on an electrical box on Vo Van Kiet Street and the power had been cutting in and out all day. I couldn’t get anything done while that was happening so I decided to go down to the second floor and lie down.”

As she slept, the bustling little community went about its daily business below her; the banh mi seller weaving through on his bicycle, the meat vendor sharpening her knives, elderly ladies peeling vegetables for the evening meal.

Fire 2

It was around 3pm when the breakers in the junction box upstairs stuttered and failed as a sudden electrical overload smashed into the house, arcing with brilliant blue sparks and super heating the surrounding wood panelling. The sparks soon turned to flames and no one would know what was happening until it was too late.

Tran Thi Hoa sells chickens from her doorstep. Now 70, she has lived in the area since she was 16, spending the last 15 years in a single-room stacked house behind Trang’s measuring no more than three metres wide by two metres deep. Like her neighbours, many of whom are low income hourly workers, street vendors, cleaners and security guards, Hoa survives on very little, making just VND 10,000 profit for every chicken she sells.

Fire 3

“It’s a poor neighbourhood,” says Andrew Ho, a Vietnamese-American who had become familiar with the area and its inhabitants while working at Ut Ut. “I would come and buy food from them and take breaks with them,” he says. “I got to know them and their families.”

“I was sitting on the step of my house,” recalls Hoa as Andrew translates, “just selling my chickens and thinking about life. Then I heard someone shouting that there was a fire. I went inside to collect my purse so I could go and see what was happening. By the time I got outside the flames were already at my house.”

“Everything was a blur…”

As the fire began to tear through the room above her, Trang was woken by her uncle. “I didn’t know what he was shouting about at first,” she recalls. “Then I heard him say that the house was on fire. I ran downstairs but he was yelling at me to go back up, to try and save our belongings. We managed to get the television but the fire was already too big.”

Trang’s husband had passed away just a few months before and the only photograph she had of him was hanging on the wall of her bedroom. When a fire extinguisher was thrust into her hands, she made one final perilous trip inside to rescue it.

“But there was no pressure in the canister,” she says solemnly. “It didn’t work. I just had to escape and leave the photo behind.”

Within a matter of minutes the whole block was burning. “No one was thinking about saving anything,” adds another neighbour. “There wasn’t time. We just had to escape.”

Precious heirlooms, photographs, legal documents and cash savings; all was lost. As their lives disappeared before them, collapsing loudly into piles of burning timber, many could do nothing but stand and watch.

“I was staying in a hostel down the road,” says Andrew. Born in Texas to Vietnamese parents, the 26-year-old was preparing to leave Saigon to travel before returning to the States. “We could see the smoke from the window. I read on Facebook that Quan Ut Ut was on fire and the first thought I had was of the little kids I knew so I ran straight down there.”

“My family were only able to save 10 of my chickens and a small television,” says Hoa. “I knew that my house was going to be ruined. It was so unlucky because we had just bought a new refrigerator and our first air-conditioner.”

Andrew explains that the purchase of such items represents a huge milestone in the life of someone like Hoa.

“They were only three-months-old,” she says desperately. “Over the past 15 years I’d slowly made my home a little nicer whenever I could afford to. All of that hard work was gone.”

“People were crying all around me…”

Lists of names were quickly compiled and everyone was confirmed as safe.

“They were very lucky,” says Andrew. “It happened during the day when a lot of people were at work and the kids were at school. If it had been at night there would’ve been a lot more people around.”

By 5pm the fire was out and news channels began reporting a total of 13 houses damaged. While shelter, clothing and food was provided by local volunteers and a nearby temple, Andrew was saddened to see some families still having to sleep out on the pavement that evening. “I knew we had to do something,” he says. “I knew we had to get some money to these people as soon as possible.”

When the damage was properly assessed, the initial figure of 13 houses had more than doubled to 30: 17 totally destroyed, 13 severely damaged and around 100 people homeless.

With cash savings and legal documentation now gone, their future looked bleak. “Morale was very low,” says Hoa. “Our biggest worry was that someone might take the land away from us for development.

“I was living at the temple and I’d lay awake at night worrying if there would be anything for us to return to. My house was so small I was worried people wouldn’t think it was worth rebuilding.”

Andrew immediately scrapped his travel plans and began a gofundme.com campaign to raise cash for the desperate residents. With the help of travel and food blogger Kyle Le, news of the community’s plight spread around the world and within two weeks $5,000 had been donated (the initial target was $2,500). When Andrew distributed the funds at the end of December, he’d raised just over $7,200. After taxes and fees, he was able to hand the 30 households VND 5 million each to help rebuild their lives.

Fire 4

It’s now early January and Hoa is back, sitting on the step of her brand new home as her chickens chatter away in a nearby pen. Less than a month ago all that stood here was a charred slab of concrete. Around her, dozens of hands are still at work. An endless parade of wheelbarrows zig-zags past as pulleys and ropes hoist bags of cement and building materials high overhead. The sounds of construction ring out like a chorus of triumph.

Hoa’s ceaseless smile tells exactly how thankful she is. “I didn’t think I would be able to recover after what happened,” she says. “People were so kind to raise this money for us.”

Hoa’s next-door neighbour, who is perched at the entrance to her gleaming new home, looks over. “We just want to thank them all,” she says, “those strangers who reached out to us, for helping people that they don’t even know. From everyone here, we thank you.”

Published February 2016 – AsiaLIFE Magazine

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