Under a scorching mid-day sun an ambulance arrives outside the National Cancer Hospital in Hanoi to pick up two patients suffering from lung cancer.
“Hello, Mr. Hai. You have just returned from northern Ha Giang Province but still have time to pick us up; we are so happy,” one patient says on seeing the driver, who gives them some money and takes them home to Nam Dinh Province, 90 kilometers from Hanoi.
More than an hour later he is done, but the patients’ families want him to stay for a while.
One of the patients introduces the Samaritan to his wife and children: “This is Doan Ngoc Hai of Saigon. He provides free ambulance services for the poor.”
They invite Hai to have lunch with them, but he quickly refuses, saying he needs to return to Hanoi to pick up more patients.
That was in early September, a few days after Hai, 52, a Hanoi native and former vice-chairman of Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1, arrived in Hanoi in his new ambulance to pick up poor patients at local hospitals and take them home.
He has for many years had a passion to support poor people. Instead of taking donations from people, Hai uses his own money for charity. “I do not ask for money because I am afraid of spoiling my reputation if I do not use it well,” he told local media.
He bought a piece of land and built a house for homeless people in HCMC’s District 12, and spent another VND700 million ($30,200) to buy a new ambulance.
“I bought the ambulance to drive poor patients and those facing difficulties to their hometown, and it is entirely free.” He even pays for their food en route.
He began in August and publicized his number plate, 51B-507.44, hoping those in need will know about his ambulance. He has driven all across Vietnam.
Doan Ngoc Hai in his ambulance in Hanoi, September 3, 2020. Photo courtesy of VTC News.
He receives hundreds of messages and calls from those in need of help and people who want to contribute their bit to his effort.
Last month, when he was having a quick meal at a public park in Hanoi, people recognized him and gathered to give him water, milk and money.
These days Hai spends most of his time driving his ambulance around, but also helps his wife with their family business, which is also to earn money for his charitable works, he says.
He is widely acclaimed for his selfless work.
At the age of 52, he has never once thought of stopping what he has been doing.
“I live a simple life, thinking for others more than I used to do. I drive the ambulance calmly and rarely honk.”
He wears cheap plastic sandals and gives up luxurious gadgets. “A simple life is truly interesting.”
Dr Ta Thanh Van, president of the Hanoi Medical University, has expressed his admiration and offered Hai accommodation when he was in Hanoi. He has offered to connect Hai and other hospitals so that more poor people could be helped.
“After these trips to take poor people to their hometown, I sleep better. My life is now filled with hours-long trips, and happiness.”
He will keep doing this as long as his health permits, he promises.
Previously, Hai, typically sporting a luxury watch and phone when hitting the streets, gained a legion of followers for activities that included catching stray dogs, chastising illegal anglers and clearing sidewalks.
Now, wearing cheap honeycomb sandals and a white shirt, not much has changed. While visiting Hanoi and central Quang Binh Province for charity activities in early September, locals piled money and food on him, showcasing popular support for his actions.
But there are also critics who claim he does charity to achieve fame.
“He can help people in silence instead of making his story public and telling people about all of the things he does,” one netizen commented.
Hai said: “I don’t want to be famous. I do this work because I feel happy helping poor patients.”
Others, learning about his efforts to help poor people, say they only care about his charitable efforts. “He just wants to do good things; why should people make it so hard?” Nguyen Thanh Thuy, 34, asked on her Facebook page.
Hai is no stranger to criticism though.
Doan Ngoc Hai (in white shirt) during his sidewalk-clearing campaign in early 2017. Photo courtesy of Tien Phong newspaper.
Three years ago, as vice-chairman of HCMC’s District 1, he was the main man behind a drive to clear sidewalks and reclaim them for pedestrians.
In February 2017 he put up barriers and deployed police officers to stop people from driving and parking vehicles on the sidewalks. Many vehicles, including government and foreign diplomatic cars, were towed away and invasive constructions that spilled out onto the streets, including by some five-star hotels, were dismantled.
He became popular with the public for his take-no-prisoners cleanup campaign but there was also a lot of criticism for ignoring the plight of poor people trying to eke out a living.
In January 2018 he resigned, saying his campaign had come unstuck because of businesses that had million-dollar interests on sidewalks and a large number of officials backing them.
In June 2019 he was appointed deputy head of the Saigon Construction Corporation, but resigned almost immediately. He had been a public servant for more than two decades.
He began to run marathons, finishing the 42-km race on many occasions. He says running made his mind sharp and gave him time to think about doing some business to earn money.
“Earning money for what? The sole purpose is to undertake more community activities to help the poor. My family does not need money anymore.”