Vietnamese blind man flourishes as cow trader, becomes folk hero

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Nam Khong, a blind man from An Giang Province, checks a cow's health by touch. Photo courtesy of Lao Dong

The man walked around vehicles to cross the street holding a bale of straw above his head.

He then traversed chairs and tables in front of the house, and once inside, made his way deftly through an obstacle course of piles of clutter, motorbikes and people standing, on his way to delivering the straw to cows in the house's backyard.

"I have mastered the positions of the chairs, tables and vehicles here. And I avoided you by smelling," Tran Van Khong said to the people who had deliberately stood in his way to test him.

The tan-skinned, slender man from the mountainous Tinh Bien District in An Giang Province has drawn so much public attention he's become a living urban legend, as he could do something like that and call it "nothing," not to mention even greater feats, despite being blind, according to a Lao Dong report.

The blind man is one of the top cow traders in the area. Locals said he examines cows better than anybody, and for more than 30 years, he has been trading them successfully on the other side of the Cambodian border.

Better known as Nam Khong, as he was the fifth ("nam" in Vietnamese) child in his family, the 55-year-old said he went blind when he was about ten years old.

Khong said his father died then and his mother could not take care of all six children with the meager income from her small shoulder pole vending business.

"We were so poor then, and all six of us had to drop out of school to help out, doing things like catching fish," he said, recalling how the sequence of events led to his loss of sight.

"I still remember every detail of that afternoon. I was digging worms to catch some fish and my hoe struck an M79 shell and I heard a big boom."

His neighbors said they thought he was going to die, but he returned from the hospital blind, with some minor injuries.

Khong said he, like anyone else, thought becoming blind was "terrible."

"But I never thought about killing myself," he said with a smile. "I accepted that fate."

He said he immediately learned to live as a blind person and find his way around and outside the house by touching and smelling things; he then learned to do housework.

After three years, he could walk around the neighborhood like a normal person, cook a pot of rice, wash clothes and fetch water with a shoulder pole.

Nguyen Thi Le, Khong's wife since the early 1980s, said she fell for him partly due to his ability to do everything despite his disability and also for his singing voice.

"Another woman would not be able to bear him. He always insists on doing anything, big or small, on his own, as he would not be satisfied with others doing it for him," she said.

Le was born into a high-class family that owns ten hectares of rice paddies, so it drew the public's interest when she married a poor, blind stranger who came to her neighborhood seeking refuge from the genocidal purges being waged by Pol Pot in Cambodia.

The woman said her relatives protested, but her father gave his blessing.

"He said it's my business who I love, and that if I did not marry him, who knows, I could end up with someone worse."

After the marriage, Khong brought his wife back to his hometown near the border, putting up a makeshift tent. Together, they did odd jobs in order to pay for simple meals.

"My father offered to give us some land, but he did not take it. He said he's blind but he could find ways to make a living and wouldn't let me suffer," Le said of her husband.

And Khong has been able to keep his word.

The couple now owns 0.9 hectares of fields they were able to buy with money he earned from trading cows, a business which brings in around VND10 million each month.

His various odd jobs allowed him to network with local Khmer people, many of whom breed cows in the area.

He called it his "God-chosen destiny," explaining that his father used to raise cows and he learned much about the animals from years of spending time with them.

When Vietnamese people from inside the province came to ask him to bring them to the Khmer cow owners, he advised them what to look for in a cow, and they paid him commissions for such consultations.

He worked like that for a while until becoming a dealer himself.

He mostly buys cows in Cambodia, where the animals are known to be meatier and stronger than those available in Vietnam.

Each roundtrip to Cambodia is more than 100 kilometers, but he said it pays off as he profits more than VND3 million per each pair of cows, and he sells around three pairs a month.

Khong said he travels across the border so often that people at the border gate no longer charge him the crossing fee.

Chao Chien, his childhood friend and now a colleague, said both traders and customers respect him for his special chemistry with cows.

"He's very good. I have eyes but cannot be as good."

Khong estimates a cow's weight by touching it, and tells if it is strong by checking its hair.

"A cow with hair that swirls downward from its rear end, or across its eyelids, won't be any good for pulling or plowing," he explained.

For a customer seeking a cow for its meat, he touches the animal's back and runs his hand gently along its thigh.

Khong said he possess no secrets or special talents.

He said his lack of sight forces him to focus more on other factors like the smell of the animal, the sounds it makes when it walks or snorts, and he has learned from experience how to hone his other senses even further.

He used to travel with other traders, but now his youngest son keeps him company.

"I have two sons, and the elder is stupid as a cow when it comes to cows, but the other is excellent. He'll be my successor."

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