A man tumbles off his motorbike while driving through Hai Phong. Foam pours out of his mouth, his skin turns black and black as his legs and arms begin shaking.
A group of pedestrians recognize his symptoms as a narcotics overdose and drag him onto the sidewalk. A Good Samaritan pulls out a cell phone and makes a call.
A few minutes later, a man pulls up on a motorbike with tattooed, sunburned arms.
“The knight’s here,” someone in the crowd says.
There are six such knights in Vietnam’s northern port city. All earned their unofficial titles by volunteering to rescue heroin addicts on the streets.
The knights struggle with addiction themselves; some are HIV positive and have decided to spend their remaining days helping others.
Ha Quang Hiep, the man who showed up on the afternoon of November 5, applied chest compression with one hand while massaging the unconscious victim's arms and legs with the other.
Hiep slapped the unconscious man’s face lightly and called out to him several times.
The victim gradually opened his eyes.
Hiep talked to him and learned that the 31-year-old had started using heroin six months ago, following a family tragedy.
AIDS is among the top causes of premature death in Vietnam, the United Nations Program on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) said in a report released Monday, the World AIDS Day.
Around 256,000 people living with HIV in Vietnam, where nearly 71,000 have died of AIDS-related illness, the report said.
1,500 people have died of AIDS-related illnesses in the first nine months of 2014, it said. About 28 percent of new HIV infections occurred among women who are in long-term sexual relationships with men who are living with HIV, particularly men who injected drugs, according to the report.
A knight's tale
Hiep lives deep in a small alley on Hang Kenh Street in Le Chan District.
The 36-year-old currently takes methadone twice a day to treat his addiction and antiretroviral medicine to keep his HIV in check.
He began volunteering to help rescue overdosing drug addicts in 2012, after joining a local club called “Vong tay be ban” (The arms of friends).
“We're grateful for this job because it lets us understand the value of life better and gives us a chance to rectify our mistakes," said Nguyen Huu Nhan, the head of the club: “We are just helping people who share our plight. It’s no big deal.”
Hiep talks about the work as if it's a duty.
“A heroin overdose is very dangerous," he said. "The victim can die unless they're resuscitated
on the spot.
“I've been there, so I understand and want to help them,” Hiep said.
Five other knights are also member of the club, which is based on Ton Duc Thang Street in So Dau Ward, Hong Bang District.
The club operates with funding and licensing granted by the Community Development Initiative in Hanoi.
Ha Quang Hiep prepares a shot to save a drug addict from an overdose on Hai Phong Street. File photo
Every month, Hiep and other volunteers are given syringes, needles and naloxone--a drug that help reverse the life-threatening effects of narcotic overdose. They're also given notebooks to keep a log of their activities, and VND1.2 million (US$56) to cover the cost of their cell phones and gasoline.
Hiep says the amount of money does not matter to them because they want “to do good.”
They work mainly around downtown Hai Phong, near the Quay bridge area and along the railway crossings with Me Linh, Cau Dat and Tran Nguyen Han streets.
Locals have the volunteers’ numbers to call them whenever necessary, day or night, rain or shine.
The danger in doing good
Hiep’s notebook contains notes on more than 100 rescues.
He said each addict has a story, but they are all the most miserable members of the society.
Early this year, two young fishermen from the northern province of Thanh Hoa collapsed after shooting up on the street.
“It was around midnight and raining and freaking cold. I was sick but I was afraid that they would die, so I rushed over,” Hiep said.
Another time he just started lunch when his phone rang for help.
When he arrived, the person had managed to wake up and left. Hiep returned to his meal.
Hiep said it’s not always easy to do the right thing.
Sometimes the addicts that he rescues accuse him of stealing their money and phones.
One time, he went out to rescue someone without bringing his identification.
"A heroin overdose is very dangerous," he said. The victim can die unless they're resuscitated on the spot. I've been there; so I understand and want to help them."
--Ha Quang Hiep, a drug addict turned drug overdose rescuer in Hai Phong City
So the addict and his friends ganged up on him, leaving him with five stitches around his eye.
Some private citizens have thanked him profusely for his help and tried to shove money into his hand--money he said he didn't take.
“They already help me (by making phone calls).”
Hiep said what makes him happy is that some of the addicts that he saved have listened to him and are seeking help.
Dark, inspiring past
A childhood bout with polio left Hiep’s left leg deformed.
He said he grew up depressed and was lured into using drugs as a teenager.
He became completely dependent on heroin at the age of 19 when his habit cost him around VND400,000 a day--much more than he could earn working for a wood factory in the area.
Five years later, in 2002, he contracted HIV after sharing an infected needle.
Hiep said that, at some point, he decided to close that dark part of his life.
He tried to get clean, several times, alone, by chaining his legs and arms to a window.
He ended up severing one of his fingertips during the cravings and relapsed every time.
So he went to Hai Phong's Gia Minh Rehab Center.
Hiep was discharged in 2008 after he developed cysts in his neck. Doctors said he'd soon be dead and thought he'd be better off at home.
"Luck has spared me until today," he said.