Every weekend over the past 10 months, Nguyen Bao Ngoc has been walking around the Sword Lake in Hanoi, dressed up as Doraemon, a popular Japanese comic book character that is half cat half robot.
Stretching his arms out, he tries to hug as many strangers as possible. Some stop to hug him back before putting money into one of the boxes that his friends are holding. Some others walk faster and avoid eye contact with him.
Ngoc, 23, says he started the “Hug Me” (Om toi di) campaign in February, inspired by the Free Hugs social movement in Australia.
The difference is his hugs are not free, because he wants to raise money to help children in poor and remote areas around the country.
The senior college student who is studying to become a TV reporter has been doing charity work for three years. In one of his most successful attempts, he worked as a xe om motorbike taxi driver in his free time and donated all the money he could earn to poor families in his hometown in Quang Binh Province.
But “Hug Me,” Ngoc says, is his favorite because with it, he can get the attention of his peers.
“Young people my age have been more into social media than real life. We may cry over a sad story on Facebook but when we witness the same story in real life, we can be indifferent.
“I want to live and love in the real world, not the virtual world.”
As hugging in public is not very common in Vietnam, Ngoc said he puts on costume so that strangers will not feel uncomfortable. Doraemon the cat is in fact famous for its friendliness and kindness. Sometimes, for a change, he also dresses as a bee or a puppy.
Many students who gave him a hug donated more than VND5,000, which is what he hopes to receive, allowing the campaign to earn between $50 and $200 each week. Some also brought old clothes and books.
Ngoc has organized two trips to bring gifts and food to children in Quang Binh and the northern mountainous province of Yen Bai this year. The third has been planned for December.
Nguyen Bao Ngoc gives gifts to children in Yen Bai Province. Photo courtesy of the campaign
Ngoc has been diagnosed with first stage bone marrow cancer but he says his condition is "stable."
He says he does not want to be defined by his illness. Having cancer is not the motivation for him to help others.
“I’d do it anyway. I want people to see me as a student doing charity work, not a cancer patient doing charity work."
His next "Hug Me" session will be held between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. on November 20 by the Sword Lake in downtown Hanoi.