Vietnam becomes fascinated with bridge-building Vietnamese-Danish couple

By Khai Don, Thanh Nien News

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Kurt Lender Jensen fell in love with his Vietnamese wife the first time he saw her in Ho Chi Minh City, at the tender age of 56. 
After marrying in 1992, Jensen and his wife, Tieu Thi Ngoc Sang, returned to Vietnam to engage in an ambitious charity campaign that brought 24 suspension bridges and five schools to poor rural communities throughout Vietnam. 
They now live in a makeshift house on a deserted plot in Binh Thuan Province, disillusioned, somewhat with what Vietnam gave them in return.
Weeks ago, a cyclo driver named Tung Xich Lo (literally translated into Tung Cyclo) met the couple at their home and posted the details of their efforts on Facebook.
Their story has gone viral ever since. The whole country seems to be captivated by their generosity and endurance. 
Falling in love again
When he was young, Jensen worked on a cruise ship which traveled around the world. 
As he got older, he bought a boat of his own and settled back down in Denmark.
In 1992, when at 56, he found himself newly divorced and curious about the world again. Shortly afterward, he agreed to accompany his two Vietnamese friends in Denmark to Vietnam.
While in Ho Chi Minh City, he met Sang--who had grown up in Long Khanh, a small town in Dong Nai Province, about 80 kilometers northeast of HCMC.
Sang, then 45, was selling chôm chôm (rambutans) and other hometown produce in Saigon. When Jensen saw her for the first time, he says all he wanted was to see her again.
He returned to Denmark, but he couldn't forget her, so he quickly returned to her home in Long Khanh, where Sang, a widow, lived with her mother and her children.
The couple married that same year. In 1994 they moved to Denmark; Jensen sold his boat and they bought a house.
But Jensen couldn't stand sitting around doing nothing. He came to think of the many places in Vietnam that lacked bridges--or proper ones, anyway. 
So he began calling Danish companies and asking for help. They donated 500 meters of cable, paint and other materials make suspension bridges.
An engineer sent him some free schematics for a bridge.
As he had no idea how he would get the materials to Vietnam, he called A. P. Moller, the general director of Maersk.
Soon he had everything in Vietnam. 
The Danish embassy in Hanoi gave Jensen concrete, timber and money to cover transportation costs.
Soon enough, he'd build his first suspension bridge in Bao Loc, a small town in the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong.
Jensen oversaw a crew of 40 workers, sent by the Bao Loc authorities, to build the bridge, while Sang worked as an interpreter.
After 25 days, the first bridge was finished. It spanned 65 meters and was 1.2 meters wide. The whole effort costed just US$4,500.
The day the bridge opened to traffic, an elderly woman asked Jensen to take her hand and cross the bridge. She burst into tears of joy and said: “I haven't been able to go across this chasm for 20 years.”
"There are children and elderly people who have never seen a bridge in their lives,” Jensen recalled. “They have a safe bridge to cross the river now. You know? Only 1/4 price, cheaper than other companies.”
Since then, the Danish embassy tasked the couple with overseeing similar projects throughout the country.
Jensen was so happy. He said he could build 10 more bridges, if someone could give them the money.
The couple was offered a sum equivalent of Danish unemployment payments to fund their work--a sum they happily accepted.
The Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) praised the economy of the first bridge and during the next six years, the couple built 24 bridges and five schools for disabled children in Lam Dong, Dak Lak and Ninh Thuan provinces with the support from the Danish embassy and their friends.
A simple life
Jensen and Sang said things started to get complicated after donations began disappearing into the pockets of a few corrupt local officials.
The couple felt that they should get back to Denmark to enjoy their peaceful life there. But in 2005, the Danish immigration agency rejected Sang’s application for residence in Denmark, saying Jensen's pension wouldn't cover their cost of living.
So the couple decided to settle in Vietnam and planned to buy a small land plot where they could spend the rest of their lives together.
But things didn't go as smoothly as they expected; they tried four times to buy a land plot but failed each time. 

In one instance, they offered a resident in Ninh Thuan Province VND800 million for a plot of land. They gave the man VND400 million in advance, but then they realized the plot was already set aside for a tourist project. The man then gave them back VND300 million, but kept the rest.

As a result, they lost their money, and a little of trust. Jensen spent his little remaining savings to buy a plot on a sandy hill near a cemetery along National Highway 1A in Chi Cong Commune, Tuy Phong District, Binh Thuan Province. 
Buses traveling along the National Highway 1A usually drop passengers to relieve themselves near the site where they're slowly building a house.
So Jensen built four public toilets near their home.
Capitalizing on their home's remoteness, thieves have broken in several times and made off with their mobile phones and several chickens from their flock of 40.
Kurt has been busy collecting materials to build a new house for the last two years and only recently finished the kitchen.
He is still building the house where he said disabled people are welcome to come and stay.
With the money they earned selling chickens, Sang bought some chairs and desks to turn one room of the house into a small drink shop.
The couple planted trees near their house; Jensen dug a well. The house and the white sand now stand in sharp contrast to the growing green around it.
“We have everything and are very happy,” Jensen said.
The couple always gets up before 5 a.m. to walk, drink coffee, eat bread and water the plants.
“We have our morning. She makes coffee and sometimes we are stunned by the sunrise,” he said.
He said he's been happy to stay in Vietnam because he loved her and the place.
“There are many bad people, but also too many good people.”
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