Ha Tu Phuoc (left) sits on the ground to chat with one of the mental patients living with his family in the Central Highlands province of Gia Lai. Photo courtesy of Thoi bao Kinh te Saigon Online
Men come out of the coffee tree's shade on hearing the sound of a motorbike engine, walking like zombies and in bare feet, and gaze at the visitor with vacant faces.
It is the place locals call “the valley of crazy people.” It is along a slope in the Central Highlands Province of Gia Lai and around 10 kilometers from the capital Pleiku.
Some 60 people with mental illness and alcohol addiction live with the family of Ha Tu Phuoc in a wooden house on his coffee estate, Thoi bao Kinh te Saigon Online reported.
Phuoc, 48, brought home the first mentally ill persons after spotting them wandering the streets when he was a truck driver.
Later people began to bring their relatives after hearing about Phuoc.
The house has a common yard but is divided into two inside, one with a strong iron door for severely ill people and the other for the rest.
Pham Van Tai, 24, of the north central province of Nghe An came here a year ago after he suddenly attacked his father with a knife twice in a month, cutting his belly open one of the times.
His father brought him to Phuoc after getting out of hospital.
Dam from nearby Kon Tum Province was sent by his village and the police four months ago after he burned down a communal house.
Dam said: “What a waste; a lot of people built that house. I don’t know why I burned it.”
Nguyen Van Vinh, 27, from the southern province of Vinh Long suffered a mental breakdown after his parents’ broke up.
“My mother left and I lived with my father," he said.
"He worked at construction sites, was very poor. I suffered from headaches and dropped out of ninth grade.”
He was sad and wandered around, and his father thought he had mental illness and sent him to an asylum for two years.
He worked at a karaoke parlor after being discharged, but got the headaches again because of having to work late, and his father sent him to Phuoc this time.
As the least ill person, Vinh has the job of delivering food and cleaning up some of the others.
Phuoc said he himself had had a difficult life like most of his patients.
He dropped out of school early and learned how to drive trucks at 18.
“As a long-haul driver, I live here and there, sleep on the street, and so have a soft spot for those wandering around.”
He said it was difficult in the beginning since his income was already small for his family, which included two children and an aged mother, and many ofthe patients were uncontrollable.
He had to chain them to trees in front of the house when he went for work.
He picked up any mattress or blankets people threw on the street for them, and his wife made some from straw.
They were also short of food, but decided to manage themselves and not seek anyone’s help.
His wife now cooks 10 kilograms of rice a day, some fish or meat, and vegetables, and the family eats together with their 60 patients.
The family uses its own money and occasionally gets help from a business or charity.
Phuoc is known around the area since many of the ill people living with him have recovered despite showing no signs of improvement for years while in mental hospital.
He said his trick is to trust and respect them.
He has some of them working with him, loading cargo on the truck or plucking coffee seeds in the estate.
“For each seed they manage to put in the basket, they would drop one, but letting them work cures them faster,” Phuoc, who attended a short course in Da Nang in taking care of mentally ill people, said .
When he chained them to the trees, he had to promise that he would come back at 5 p.m. to release them so they could go around, have a coffee or a cigarette.
“So exactly at that moment, no matter what I was doing, I had to be home, as promised. Otherwise I had to apologize to them. That’s why they now trust me and listen to me.”
People have alleged he uses witchcraft, but Phuoc said no magic is stronger than love.
“And you will see they are not complicated like sane people. They are lovely and carefree.”
Phuoc also helped cure a businessman who became mentally ill after losing money.
“I took him to the cemetery in the evening, and we sat on a tomb and drank alcohol in silence.
"And he asked to come after just a little while.”
Putting someone among the dead can make them realize that it means little to win or lose since everyone ends up the same, he philosophized.
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