One big family. Image courtesy of Duc Son Orphanage
The open fields of Thuy Bang village offer a refreshing change from the busy traffic and the crowds of tourists one can find just 7 kilometres north of the village in the city of Hue in Central Vietnam. Up a little side road lined with huge shady trees you can find the Duc Son Pagoda. Inside the compound stands a sprawling Bodhi tree, which provides shade and a cool place for a break in the summer heat. It was at the foot of this tree that head nun Thich Nu Minh Tu found baby Tranh, wrapped in a blanket, cold and hungry. Barely two weeks old, the chances of baby Tranh surviving were low. But Thich Nu Minh Tu did not give up. Today, the sight of Thanh sleeping soundly in her crib warms the heart. Nursed by the nuns’ tender care and love, Thanh is now a healthy 3 month old baby.
Thich Nu Minh Tu with two of her children. Image courtesy of Duc Son Orphanage
Born in Hue 70 years ago, Thich Nu Minh Tu witnessed the horrors and tragedy of the Vietnam War. Saddened by the plight of the thousands of children orphaned by the war, she resolved to devote her life to ease the suffering of traumatized children. In 1986, she founded the Duc Son Orphanage to provide a proper home and hope for abandoned children.
This soft-spoken nun with her humble demeanour exudes an air of affection and motherliness that immediately warms one up to her. Offering me a cup of Vietnamese tea, she explained, “What we have here is a home where the children can grow up with dignity and loving care. Here we are one big family. Everyone, the nuns and volunteers, makes every effort to create a safe and caring environment for these children.”
The new addition to the family. Image courtesy of Duc Son Orphanage
As I walked around the orphanage, I couldn’t help but notice how calm and peaceful the place felt, infected no doubt by the nuns’ gentle and mindful manners. In a room with little infants, located on the first floor, I meet nun Thao who is gently lulling a baby to sleep. This latest addition to the family is just 2 months old, still to be named. Many of the children arrive at the orphanage with no names and no identity. To simplify the naming process, the boys take the surname “Cu” and girls “Kieu”. They are given names that reflect their characteristics or to guarantee them good fortune. They often include the traditional Buddhist term thien, which means “good person”. They are then registered with the local government for proper documentation, including ID cards, which are essential for school enrolment and future employment.
There are about 150 children at the Duc Son Orphanage. Some, like Thanh, were abandoned at birth. Some come from poor families whose parents could not afford to support them. Others have lost their families in Central Vietnam's many devastating floods. Most, like A Khai, have endured hardship and trauma in their lives.
A Khai before his eye surgery. Image courtesy of Duc Son Orphanage
A Khai comes from a distant village in the Sapa area in the far north, he is a Hmong—one of Vietnam's many ethnic minorities. His mother died when A Khai was young. A Khai right eye was damaged at the hands of his aggressive and violent father, after which he ran away from home. He was brought to the orphanage by an engineer who saw him freezing on the streets one winter night. Initially A Khai had many difficulties as he spoke little Vietnamese and felt like an outsider. He ran away several times. Over time, nurtured by the caring attitude of the nuns, he gradually settled down. Now at 18, thanks to a kind donor, A Khai had surgery and is gradually regaining vision in his damaged eye.
Much emphasis is placed on education in the Duc Son Orphanage. Image courtesy of Duc Son Orphanage
Like most parents, Thich Nu Minh Tu sees education as key to the children's future success. Her hope that every one of her "little birds will fly freely to a future of fulfilment and contentment." Convinced that a good pre-school experience gives children a head-start as they enter elementary school, Thich Nu Minh Tu set up a kindergarten at the pagoda. Children from the surrounding community are invited to join the classes. Even when faced with financial difficulties, like during the economic crisis, Thich Nu Minh Tu does her best to ensure that all the children receive proper schooling. Around a 100 children are currently enrolled in elementary and high schools in the Thuy Huong district. To encourage the children to do well in school, a reward system of certificates is put in place. Children are supported in every way possible—tuition classes by volunteers, supervised homework sessions, computer skills, badminton, swimming, and karate classes.
Most of Duc Son's orphans don't leave the orphanage until they are at least 20 years old. With a no-adoption policy, Thich Nu Minh Tu treats each and every child who comes to the orphanage as her own and tries to make sure that they are capable of supporting themselves before allowing them to leave. A group of the older children attend college or vocational training courses, including working in the nearby Tinh Tam vegetarian restaurant where they learn cooking and customer service skills.
Children enjoy a relaxed afternoon with colouring and drawing. Image courtesy of Duc Son Orphanage
From an early age, the children are taught to take responsibility for themselves, to help them develop self-reliance and confidence. This is evident from the way the children manage themselves throughout the day. In the morning, the children make their own beds, sweep and tidy the dormitories and the common areas before going to school. Both the girls and boys have to do their own laundry and help out with the preparation of meals, washing of dishes, and other chores around the home. In the evening, when all the chores and homework have been done, children relax by reading, playing games, enjoying their hobbies, or watching TV, before preparing for bed. On gardening day, everyone chips in, weeding, sowing, planting, and watering. And like kids everywhere, they learn to come up with their own fun and games, sometimes to the amusement of the nuns.
On special occasions, the children are encouraged to join the nuns in prayers. Though there is no pressure for the children to adopt the monastic life style, six girls have ordained as nuns and are now in their 30s, helping out in the home.
Almost all the work in the home is fully managed by Thich Nu Minh Tu and her team of 16 nuns, supported by a few lay volunteers. Each nun is assigned responsibility for different aspects of the orphanages' activities, such as gardening, physical education, cooking, entertainment, health, and so on. Dedicated and courageous, the nuns work long hours, often taking turns, along with the volunteers, to attend to the children’s needs, especially the little infants at night. Older children are also given responsibilities to help look after the younger ones with care and affection, just like big brothers and sisters would.
The older children are given responsibilities to care for the younger ones. Image courtesy of Duc Son Orphanage
With little support from the government, the home runs on the goodwill and support from local and overseas donors, who donate both cash and kind (food, clothes, school supplies, transportation, etc.). One of Thich Nu Minh Tu’s constant worries is funding to maintain the operations of the home and to ensure that every child gets to go to school. Education in Vietnam is not free. The average annual primary school fees amount to around USD25 for one child. In a country where the average income is less than USD150 a month, this is a major expense. When the students reach senior high school, the fees double. Then there are the additional expenses such as uniforms, stationery, transportation, and other needs. Even with the discount in school fees given by the local government, education is a major cost at the orphanage. In addition to the other costs such as food, petrol, medication etc.
Many of the chores in the home are done manually by the nuns. Image courtesy of Duc Son Orphanage
Despite the challenges, the undaunting courage and dedication of the nuns keeps the orphanage going. In their quiet way, they stand as towers of strength, examples for women who take up the monastic vows. With a gentle smile, Thich Nu Minh Tu says, “Charity is a natural part of pagodas in Vietnam. Part of becoming a nun is to do charity. We try emulate the qualities of the Goddess of Mercy as we take the vows of the Bodhisattva. The children are like the flowers and the nuns are the water. There are three kinds of nourishment that these flowers need to develop – material nourishment from food, mental nourishment from education, and nourishment for the soul that comes with love and affection. These children are all missing a piece of their heart without love from their parents. There is a hole, like a hole in the ground. But we can all work together to fill that hole. If we all bring forth some love, if we all throw rocks into the hole as well, then we can fill the empty space that exists."