Ngan, 34, woke up early and went to a local market in Saigon to buy some offerings to place on the altar, preparing for her store’s opening.
Her sons were excited and happy to see their mother in new clothes and to accompany here.
“I like it when you wear nice clothes, you look beautiful like you did before, Mother,” Ngan’s eight-year-old son whispered to her.
The “beautiful” woman, just about every inch of her body scarred, sighed. Tears pricked at her eyes as she thought about what happened three years ago in the coastal province of Phu Yen.
Her husband, suffering from tuberculosis and hounded by creditors after having lost money gambling, decided to end it all, not just for himself, but his family as well.
After she was set on fire, Ngan tried to find the key to open the door and take her two sons to a neighbor’s house, but she fainted with 92 percent burns.
“I thought I would die. (Before losing consciousness) I told my sons to live with their aunts.”
Neighbors rushed in to put out the fire. The kids were saved and Ngan was hospitalized. Her entire body except for the eyes was covered in bandages. Apart from the searing pain, the fire that burned her house down haunted her.
Ngan survived, but recovery was not easy. For months after her discharge from the hospital, she had to depend on relatives for all her activities. Her young sons learned to buy food at the market and cook for their mother.
Ngan works with her sewing machine. On the opening day of her store, some of her friends sent her flowers. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.
Burning desire to live
One day, they came home to find their mother trying to take a few steps. They were thrilled and quickly rushed to embrace her. Her family had installed a metal rod on the wall that she could hold on to, to practice walking. She fell repeatedly, and there were times she thought of killing herself, but she kept going, somehow.
Deep inside her, there burned a desire to survive and confront her husband about his dastardly deed. She had to ask him how he could do such a thing to her and her children. And she also drew strength from her children.
“After months, that was the first time I saw my sons happy. I suddenly wanted to get better to support them,” Ngan recalled.
She eventually visited her husband (who was also burned and survived). He did not dare look into her eyes, but she decided she was not going to dwell it.
“If I keep holding on to the pain, it would drain me. I thought that I should let the hatred go, so that I can care for my children….”
The next day, she sent an official letter to the court, asking the judges to reduce her husband’s sentence. In November 2019, he was sentenced to prison for 16 years. She even waived the damages the court would have ordered for the house cum internet café that her husband destroyed.
Hoping to start a new life where her children can forget what happened to their mother, she decided to move to Saigon.
Three days before the Lunar New Year in 2020, the three of them left their hometown.
“Under the street lights and the night rain, as I looked at my sons lean on the suitcases and sleep, I remembered that when I was 11, I had worked as a helper in Saigon. Then I learnt to sew, opened a clothes shop and two internet café. I could even afford a house. I did it once, I can do it again if my health is good, I told myself.”
After the Lunar New Year holiday, her sons started going to their new school while their mother started her job at a local textile factory. The summer heat in the factory with its metal roofs hurt her healing scars, so Ngan asked her employers to let her sew new clothes at home.
Working slowly with her badly burned hands and several fingers reduced to stubs, she had to keep at it round the clock. She also sold air tickets to augment her income.
After seven operations and a lot of practice, Ngan could move her muscles better. Seeing netizens make live videos to sell goods on the internet, she invited some blind friends to her house and made videos to sell goods, mostly medicated oil.
Life remained an uphill climb. Sometimes, they could not sell anything for days and had to suffer cruel words from some netizens who complaining about their appearances.
“I used to have everything and lost them all in a second, and I almost died, so I think life is impermanent. Those comments cannot upset me. I sympathize with and love my disabled friends.”
Pitying her plight, some people offered her money, but she rejected it, saying she wanted them to buy her products and give her motivation, instead of giving her money.
Over the last six months, her income stabilized somewhat, with with her sewing job and the online store. But she was not done. Earlier this month, she decided to open a store where she would sell the medicated oil and sew clothes. The stop is located at No. 15, National Road 22, Tan Thong Hoi Commune, Cu Chi District.
Outside the shop, she has placed a big water bottle for thirsty people passing by.
Ngan and her sons stand in front of her store in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.
Daring to dream
“This store is my next step. In the future, I will invite more disabled friends to come and work as masseurs. Those who have good voices can make live videos and sell goods online,” Ngan told VnExpress. It is worth noting that she had declined to speak to the press a year earlier, saying she did not want people to think she was inviting their pity. She’d told VnExpress she would talk only when was okay with her new life.
“Ngan is resilient. She only cried once when the doctor found a vein on her toe to prepare for the intravenous fluids because they could not see any veins on her body,” said Kim Anh, a 29-year-old woman from the southern province of Dong Nai, who had also suffered burns and was in the same ward as Ngan in the hospital.
Several months ago, Anh was surprised when she saw Ngan sell goods in a video on Facebook.
“I look at her and see how useless I have been, I have my family by my side but do not dare to walk outside,” Anh said.
Ngan is not just focused on her fending for herself and her children. She takes her sons to local orphanages often to support the children there. She also connects with burn victims to inspire them and help them find sponsors for surgeries.
She maintains that even though she no longer the beautiful woman she used to be, and has to move forward slowly, she will get back what she lost as long as she works hard.
Her younger son once told her that he wanted them to return to their hometown. Memories of the fire that all but killed her are still vivid, but the idea of returning has definitely crossed her mind.
Sometimes, she tells herself: “Instead of running away and getting scared when looking at the burned walls of the old house, why don’t I try my best so I can return to Phu Yen and rebuild my internet and clothing stores.”