A Vietnamese woman has spent the last 27 years looking after an elderly woman whose husband, siblings and children gave their lives in support of the national liberation and protection of Vietnam.
Huynh Thi Bich Lieu, deputy head of the women’s union in Pho Minh Ward, Duc Pho District, Quang Ngai Province is known for her heart of gold.
Every day, after running her morning errands at the local market, Lieu makes a beeline for the dilapidated house a few hundred meters down the street where 89-year-old Huynh Thi Thinh lives alone, with only the memories of her deceased husband and children to keep her company.
Thinh is one of thousands of Vietnam’s “Heroic Mothers” – a solemn title given to women whose husbands and children made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
A lonely sorrow
A lively smile spreads immediately across Thinh’s wrinkled face the moment she sees Lieu making her way down the street each morning.
Both women share this mutual happiness knowing they will spend the next few hours in each other’s company.
The moment Lieu walks in the door, she gets to work preparing food and sweeping the house. Only after these vital chores are taken care of do the two sit down to chat and relax.
The tiny, dilapidated house is filled with reminders of the sacrifices Thinh and her family have made for Vietnam.
Elegantly worded plaques and shiny medals line the walls. She has no choice but to accept them as her companions, in lieu of family, for the remainder of her life.
The First Indochina War (1946-1954) robbed Thinh of her husband, Tran Sung, who fought to expel France’s colonial force from the country.
Her two young brothers shared a similar fate on the battlefields of the American war in Vietnam that ended in 1975.
Her younger sister was not a soldier, but that did not stop the enemy from taking her life while she was at school.
Tran Hoang Phuong – her only son and last living family member – followed in the footsteps of his courageous father and uncles and died for his country in 1967.
A fear of losing anyone else kept Thinh from searching for new love. Following the death of her son, she spent the next 25 years as a recluse, allowing herself to come to grips with a life of solitude. That is, until Lieu came along.
In 1992, Lieu – a newlywed at the time – followed her husband to Quang Ngai.
“That was when I met Mother Thinh,” said Lieu. “I saw that she had no relatives to lean on but still offered help to her neighbors and the needy in our community, so I began to form a bond with her.”
|An up-close take on heroic Vietnamese mother Huynh Thi Thinh, whose entire family sacrificed their lives in wartime. Photo: My Lang / Tuoi Tre|
Lieu began looking after Thinh in 1992, and it was not long before she considered the heroic mother a second mom to herself.
In the past, when Thinh was able to move with ease, Lieu would buy food from a local market and she would prepare her own meals.
As time passed, however, Thinh’s health began to deteriorate to the point that even standing became a chore.
The natural thing was for Lieu to take on the role of a cook.
Twice a day, Lieu finds the time to visit Thinh to prepare her meals and help her with daily chores.
“I’ve become so attached to Mother Thinh that when I find myself having to travel and am forced to rely on my relatives to care for her, I get very anxious and call her several times to check in,” Lieu admitted.
Though their bond is strong, caring for Thinh has not always been easy. After all, Lieu does have her own family for support.
In 2014, her father-in-law, then 94, was on his deathbed after being bedridden for nearly three years.
Though she wanted to fulfill her duty as his daughter-in-law, doing so meant she would have to abandon Thinh.
“Luckily I have my husband, who was very supportive of me continuing to take care of Mother Thinh,” Lieu said.
As Lieu’s kind gesture became well known in the community, other neighbors have chosen to chip in and help care for Thinh.
“Once they got wind of my situation, my colleagues arranged for me to leave work early so that I would have time to care for Mother Thinh,” Lieu said.
“Each month, the local People’s Committee gives Thinh a stipend which she is able to live off of,” she further added.
Despite her selflessness, in Lieu still lingers a pang of guilt, and a sense of regret of not being able to take care of her own mother, who lives far away.
But she has made up her mind to seriously take care of Thinh, as – from her reasoning – her mother has four daughters-in-law and capable sons, while Thinh enjoys only her companionship.
Lieu’s next goal is to help rebuild Thinh’s house, which has fallen into disrepair over the past thirty years.
“Despite her status as a heroic Vietnamese mother, Thinh never asks for anything.
"I just want her to have a proper house to live in,” Lieu shared.
From pity sprouts love
Since Thinh’s old age has made her weak, Lieu has began sleeping at her side in case she has a problem at night.
She only returns to her own house at 5:00 am each morning.
In 2014, she even steered a raft to Thinh’s house to save her from a flood.
“At first, I was worried. I don’t spend my nights with Mother Thinh because I feel obligated. I do it because it gives me joy,” Lieu admitted.
Talking of the future, Lieu said her mother-in-law too was killed by shrapnel during wartime when her husband was just six years old.
“I think of Thinh as my mother-in-law. My husband and I plan to care for her for the rest of her life,” she affirmed.