'Untouched' love

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Tran Van Cau (L) sorts tamarinds with Nguyen Thi Dieu. The couple have enjoyed a platonic relationship for more than 30 years.

He is 97 and she is 71.

They aren't married. They are not related. But they have found happiness together for over 30 years in a remote mountainous area in the central province of Binh Dinh.

Nguyen Thi Dieu, better known as Hai, said she first met Tran Van Cau, or Muoi, in the late 1970s when both of them were working at the construction site of Binh Dinh's hydropower plant.

In her late thirties then, Hai's job was to carry cement sacks. Muoi was also a porter, although he was in his sixties and had only one good functioning arm.

During holidays, when most workers returned home, they stayed at the site, frequenting houses at the foot of the mountain to do their cooking, until one day, a local landlady offered to donate them a piece of land to build a house and do some farming.

They accepted the offer and built a thatched-house on the land, and then, "I worked in the fields to take care of him like a brother and a sister, like friends"¦," Dieu said.

Asked about their life before the meeting, Dieu said she was from the central city of Hue. She got married at 17 and followed her husband to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). Eight years later, her husband died in war, leaving her to bring up two children.

"Then the children grew up." Her daughter got married, and her son followed his elder sister to work, while she herself "kept floating, looking for jobs to earn a living."

Dieu said the last time she met her daughter was when she was working at construction site of the hydropower plant. Then, she visited her daughter once in the southern province Long An.

But upon seeing her mother's worn-out worker clothes, the daughter frowned, asking the mother to wear better clothes or "my husband's family will look down on us."

Since then Dieu hasn't contacted her children.

For Cau, it's another story.

According to Dieu, he hails from Binh Dinh's Hoai An District. When he was young, he loved a woman and they got engaged. But, everything changed when he was disabled by an accident. One of his arms then became useless, while he has limped since then.

Once, as he was visiting his fiancé's house, he accidentally heard her mother ask her to cancel the wedding because "he is handicapped now and good for nothing."

The words hurt him so badly that Cau returned home, cut his pinky finger and swore that he would never get married.

"At 97, Muoi is still a virgin. He never lets anyone, including me, touch him," Dieu said, smiling.

Love conquers

Silent to all questions about his life, Cau only replied when asked if he loves Dieu.

"I love her, because she asked me to live with her."

As companions, they have gone through many difficulties together.

There were times their house was damaged by floods and later re-built with the support of local authorities. Even after being rebuilding, the house is still as simple as it used to be with three rooms: one for him, one for her and the kitchen. Each of the rooms has a single bed with several worn-out clothes. Dieu's has an altar to worship the Buddha, while Cau's room has a small radio that he listens to every night.

Dieu said over the past few years she has leased her small field on the mountain to a local resident, because her health is not good enough to work on the farm. Now she goes around doing odd jobs - from drying rice to picking peanuts, to "earn a few dong to buy mam (salted fish a traditional dish of Vietnam) and vegetables for Muoi."

She only has to cook and do the washing for Cau, Dieu said, adding that he eats well with mam and knows how to take care of himself, so he rarely suffers from any illness.

Cau, meanwhile, does not work, as his legs have no strength and his eyes can't see clearly. Still, every month he gives her VND120,000 (US$5.83) that he has received as welfare since he turned 90. He also plants banana and chili near their house "to get my body to work and to feel less ashamed (of having her do all the work)."

However, it is getting more difficult for the two old people to have a proper meal these days.

Showing two tomatoes, two old cucumbers and a pan with pieces of brined fish, Dieu said this has been their lunch for the last two weeks, accompanied by a bowl of rice for each meal.

Dieu was not complaining, however. She said they were blessed with care and love from local residents.

She said some residents visited them during the Tet (Lunar New Year) festival with banh tet (traditional sticky rice cake wrapped in leaves), while others gave them clothes, a fish or a few thousand dong in the market.

During the harvest season, although they had enough people to work, some landlords still hired her so she could earn some money, Dieu said.

She also recalled a time when Cau fell into a dry well because its edge had collapsed. Some people came to help him. And, "a couple of months later, a person came to give us VND1 million (US$48.55) to rebuild the well.

However, Dieu and Cau are not mere recipients of generosity from the people around them. They also reciprocate in kind.

One woman named Dung said she had given Dieu a few thousand dongs a couple of times at the market, and one day a mam seller gave her a bunch of bananas from Dieu.

Dao, a worker who picks peanuts, said the workers often teased the two elderly people by asking them for rice or even chicken.

She said Dieu and Cau we always willing to meet their requests, not realizing that the workers were pulling their leg.

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