Dinh Van Phu, 61, has remained less than four feet tall since he was a first grader.
While his five siblings all grew normally, Phu spent his childhood being teased and bullied.
His lack of inches prevented him from having not only friends but also a career.
Phu said he had wanted to become an electronics engineer and applied to the University of Technology in Hanoi after graduating from high school, but the recruitment board said he did not meet their physical requirements.
“I considered myself an undeveloped product, but I was not deterred,” Phu told Thanh Nien from the café he opened in 2001 in front of his three-square-meter house on Hang Cot Street in the Old Quarter.
His mother and siblings gave him money to buy the house and open the shop, which was first meant to help him make a living. But it has since become more than that as it was where he started learning English and “opened my mind.”
Phu said Vietnam had fully opened its door by that time, and there were many foreigners walking on Hanoi’s streets every day.
“I just thought I should talk to the foreigners to learn things from them.”
His first foreign friend was Jim, a Canadian who got lost in front of his shop in the summer of 2001.
Phu helped him by pointing to words in a dictionary the man had with him.
The encounter changed his life.
Jim returned three days later and offered to teach him English for free. He also bought Phu a grammar book.
He came to teach Phu almost every day for three months until he had to return home for family reasons. Jim also accompanied him in four trips across Vietnam, including to Sa Pa and Ha Long.
“We helped each other understand the other’s culture,” Phu said on a national television program.
He said Jim was keen on helping him as he felt a connection because of his own difficult childhood, when his alcoholic father would regularly beat him up.
Support and doubt
Phu continued to make foreign friends and also became an amateur tour guides for them.
He even accompanied some of them to the top of Fansipan, Vietnam’s highest peak at 3,143 meters (10,312 feet), which has not been climbed by many people.
Phu even advertises his interest by putting up a sign at his shop that says: “Welcome to my shop. Please take moment [sic] to drink the best Vietnamese tea. I would like to study English.”
He also learns by noting down new words and stopping foreigners on the street to ask them to teach him how to pronounce them. Many are willing to help and even leave their email addresses so that Phu could write to them for help.
Some refuse, thinking he is weird.
Phu said he often gets asked why he learns English.
His stock answer is, “I learn English as I like to go everywhere.”
Go Everywhere has become the name of his coffee shop, which brought him to another teacher, Tran Thi Thai of the Hanoi National University. She reached out to him after reading one of many media stories about him and his desire to learn English.
Thai said she was impressed by the mission Phu set out for himself, which is not an easy one even for people without his handicap.
“Some of us don’t even dare to dream about going everywhere.
“I admired Phu for having that dream and I wanted to help him realize it.”
She took him into a class for high school students at her home, and he made a great effort to catch up with the others.
Thai taught him for free, and said both she and her children have learned from his motivation that they do not give up on things easily.
Phu said he has received as much discouragement as support during his quest to study English.
Many people who noticed how he tried to accost foreigners on the street told him “to look in the mirror” and “accept your life as a coffee shop owner.”
But a xe om driver who once said such things to him had to apologize later when he had a foreign customer and had to seek Phu’s help to converse with the customer.
'Repay the world'
In 2008 Phu appeared in a popular talk show on national television where he said Vietnam should have a support group for people like him “to keep each other confident to live normally.”
It was noticed beyond Vietnamese shores, and Phu was invited to a conference for people with dwarfism in the US in 2009.
“It felt like a dream come true,” he said.
Now he still offers free service as a tour guide to his foreign friends besides managing an English class in his coffee shop every Friday afternoon.
The teachers are his foreign friends and he assists them. The free class takes in any local kid who wants to learn.
“I want to repay the world. I owe many people a lot,” Phu said.