Samaritan alley: where everything is free for poor people

By Thao Vi, Thanh Nien News

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While tanks of free iced tea are common on Ho Chi Minh City streets, Alley #96 off Phan Dinh Phung Street is unique for providing things like medicines and even coffins for free for poor people. Photo: Thao Vi While tanks of free iced tea are common on Ho Chi Minh City streets, Alley #96 off Phan Dinh Phung Street is unique for providing things like medicines and even coffins for free for poor people. Photo: Thao Vi


Its official name is Alley #96 in Phan Dinh Phung Street -- in Ho Chi Minh City’s Phu Nhuan District -- but locals call it free alley or samaritan alley.
This is because it offers heaps of things, from iced tea to motorbike repair, from medicines to coffins, for free to poor people.
Samaritan is a 52-year-old man named Do Van Ut, who fixes motorbikes and operates a xe ôm (motorbike taxi) in the alley.
Ut, better known as Viet, lives with his wife, a part-time janitor, in a rented nine-square-meter room in a nearby alley. He earns a mere VND100,000-200,000 (US$4.6-9.2) a day. But the meager income does not prevent him from doing charity.

Do Van Ut, better known as Viet, repairs a motorbike at the entrance to the alley on May 26, 2015. Photo: Thao Vi

He had begun by donating coffins to people who were too poor to buy them for a dead family member.
Viet, who now heads a charity group consisting of 10 people, recalls, “Around 14 years ago I and some other xe ôm drivers looked for sponsors after seeing many poor people struggle to prove their financial status to local authorities to get a free coffin for their dead loved ones.
“Finally, we met a coffin shop owner in Go Vap District who agreed to donate coffins, now worth VND8-10 million ($368-460), for those in need without requiring any documents.
“No one asks for a free coffin if he or she has money to buy it.
“Some people can’t afford the burial and other expenses totaling VND10 million either.
In these cases, we reach our three main sponsors – individuals who give us only their first names and mobile phone contacts but always appear when we call them.
“The sponsor will visit the aid seeker’s home to verify they are poor before giving money.”
Those who go through Alley #96 can see two big cloth banners hanging on the wall on either side of the alley mouth saying free coffins and other funeral assistance will be provided 24 hours a day, and having Viet’s mobile phone number below.
Viet says he cannot remember how many coffins have been donated to people in need from various districts around HCMC over the past 14 years.
The latest beneficiary was the family of a xe ôm driver in Phu Nhuan District, who died at 57 of liver cancer.
In early 2012 Viet set up a free medicine cabinet containing first-aid items for traffic accident victims.
“Traffic accidents are common on this busy [Phan Dinh Phung] street. In the past we had to rush to drugstores 200-300 meters away to buy iodine, cotton, and adhesive dressing. But at noon or late night, the drugstores would be closed. So we set up a medicine cabinet with money from local residents.”
Also in 2012 he and his wife placed a jar of iced tea in front of the alley for thirsty passers-by.
“We spend only VND20,000 ($1) buying tea and ice and a little time boiling water every day but can help 100 people relieve their thirst with 40 liters of iced tea,” he says.
“Passers-by, students, lottery ticket sellers, cargo tricycle drivers, and anyone else can drink here or fill water in their bottles for free.”

A passer-by stops to drink Viet's free iced tea on May 26, 2015. Photo: Thao Vi

Viet fills the tank of iced tea on May 26, 2015. Photo: Thao Vi

Late last year Viet decided to put up another medicine cabinet containing analgesics and drugs for flu and diarrhea with financial support from locals.
Both cabinets are on the right-side wall at the alley entrance.
Viet said in the beginning he had not locked the cabinets, but has had to do so after several thefts.
These days, Viet, Do Van Phuc, 61, his friend and another xe ôm driver, and Hanh, a woman who sells bánh cuốn (rolled rice cake) in the alley through the night – but who does not want to speak with the media or reveal her full name -- each keep their keys to ensure that the medicines are always available for those in need.

This medicine cabinet has been hung on the wall since last year. It contains analgesics and drugs for flu and diarrhea. Photo: Thao Vi

Viet has also repaired motorbikes for free and gifted tires to disabled customers for years.
His kindness has inspired other people who live or work in the alley to follow suit, Phuc says.
He now offers free rides for the poor.
In recent years, on four days every lunar month, Viet and Phuc, Hanh and seven other local residents provide free vegetarian meals for around 300 poor people a day.
“It costs VND8 million a month for the vegetarian meals. We raise funds from locals and cook the meals,” Viet says.

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