The man we all failed

By Calvin Godfrey, TN News

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Nguyen Van Duong at his home and office - the traffic circle at the end of September 23 Park - six months before he died. Photo: Calvin Godfrey Nguyen Van Duong at his home and office - the traffic circle at the end of September 23 Park - six months before he died. Photo: Calvin Godfrey
The first time I met Nguyen Van Duong, he was sitting on a stone bench at the southern end of September 23 Park, resting his head on the seat of a beat-up Honda Cub.
Sensing a deal, I woke him up and hired him to drive me home for about US$2.50.
In the ensuing weeks, I came to realize the old man never left the traffic circle—except to take others home.
Somehow he managed to sleep in the din that swirled through the intersection of Cong Quynh, Pham Ngu Lao and Nguyen Trai.
At night, he napped between customer, in the same impossible pose I found him in.
When it rained, he'd get up and sleep in a doorway across the street.
His body was small and slight. He wore the same blue work shirt and black pants every day.
A few faded hand-drawn tattoos dotted his bony arms, but they were hard to make out.
His skin, at times, seemed to match the dull purple of tattoo ink.
Our rides weren't the most comfortable.
Duong's lungs and his cub's 50cc engine rattled as they dragged my huge, beer-soaked frame to the edge of Phu My Hung every Thursday night.
At times, I'd nod off on his back and wake up to find I was crushing him into his handlebars.
He kept his distance from the guard gate outside the giant white towers of Hoang Anh Gia Lai III and usually just raised a grateful hand when I gave him a red VND50,000 bill.
After enough rides, I began to think of him as a friend and started paying double the fare.
He remained tired, sick and poorly fed.
After I'd taught myself to drive, I stopped hiring him to take me home.
Some nights, I hoped he would just disappear.
The question of where Duong came from and how he bottomed out finally overwhelmed my desire to forget him. So I set up an interview with a translator.
He brought his two brothers Hung, a Cambodian war veteran, and Tai an ex-con fresh out of jail for running heroin.
Hung, the oldest, did the talking. Tai said very little.
The three had grown up together in their parents wet market stall across the street. The police allowed Duong to do business in that circle, they said, because he was a lifelong local.
Both brothers, he said, were conscripted to fight the Khmer Rouge across the border soon after the Vietnam War ended.
They slogged from the ravaged villages in the Mekong Delta all the way to the edge of Thailand, where nationalist soldiers continued to launch deadly attacks and kidnap tourists well into the 1990s.
Neither man received any compensation for his service—no one had, in fact.
Hung kept hearing rumors that the Cambodian government intended to pay him and his brother some remuneration before the end of the year.
Strange as it sounded, meetings with veterans and military organizations provided no definitive answers—except to say that Cambodia would do no such thing.
Like most I spoke to, Duong and his brother believed they were entitled to no benefits beyond those the government already paid to the very poor and disabled.
But that involved filling out stacks of paperwork, starting at the ward level.
Which seemed to be more than anyone could ask from either man.
Hung produced a document attesting to his own extended service in the war against the Khmer Rouge, but said that when Duong returned home racked with malaria after two years on the front, he found his wife had taken up with another man.
One night, after a fight, she burned all of his identification papers and kicked him out of the house.
Duong and his wife had a son in college somewhere in the city that he met sometimes over coffee.
Hung spent much longer fighting in Cambodia—a fight he had a hard time letting go of.
His right trigger finger is now permanently curled toward his palm—as though constantly firing a gun. He says he sustained the injury from a piece of grenade shrapnel.
The stout, heavy man didn't take well to peace time.
Hung shot heroin, drank and spent his life in and out of jail. He continued to fight at home with knives, bottles and fists.
A few years ago he got clean and took a job as a motorbike attendant in front of a pho shop on Nguyen Trai Street.
Duong never recovered. Repeated malarial flare ups rendered him unable to work for large stretches of time.
Hung's narrow home in a tangle of alleys a few blocks from the traffic circle grew packed children and relatives. During a visit to his house, and asked me to adopt a young girl picking chewing gum out of her hair.
“Whatever life you could provide her would be better than what she's got here,” he said.
Duong lived on the street, it seemed, almost as a courtesy to everyone else.
About a month after that meeting, Duong painted the various parts of his Honda Cub in bright rainbow colors in the hopes of attracting more foreign customers stumbling out of the backpacker district.
The bike never looked better; he had never looked worse.
On the few nights when I needed a ride home, he waved me away.
The skin of his face and arms burned red with fever.
Duong slept on the bench all day and all night. Once, I saw him pissing into the street while driving home from work. Another time, I saw him dipping into his shirt pocket and swallowing a mouthful of pills.
I started to hand cash on my drives home.
Then, one day, he disappeared.
Hung told me they'd pawned his bike for $25 and dumped him at the Saigon General Hospital on Le Loi Street.
The next day, I found Duong lying shirtless on a wooden bed in a crowded hospital room, not two blocks from people eating brunch for the cost of his treatment.
His roommates said they had given the old man money and food, but they were running out of charity. I gave him $25 and said I'd be back the next day. Two days later I returned to find that he had been thrown out onto the street.
No one I spoke to could think of an institution or organization that would provide help to anyone in Duong's situation.
Without his papers, whatever Duong did during the fight against the Khmer Rouge didn't matter to anyone.
I was in talks with a Catholic organization that ran a hospice for AIDS patients when he returned to his bench without a bike. A week later, his health faltered again and he disappeared.
Exasperated and without options, his brothers took him to a government hospital on the outskirts of town where he died alone. A few months later, the government began offering $100 monthly stipends to Cambodian war veterans.
Now, even Duong's bench is gone.
The oblong concrete divider he once occupied has been raised, painted and filled with flowers.
There's no sign or marker for Duong—the man we all failed.

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