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Bridge-building volunteer forges links with community

Update: August, 21/2014 - 10:17
New home: Kurt Jensen pictured in his garden. From a plot of white sand, he and his wife have built a farmhouse and lived there happily for many years helping local people. — Photo courtesy Tungxichlo.com

After settling in Viet Nam, Kurt Jensen decided to help the disadvantaged population of his new hometown.

An elderly Danish citizen has demon-strated that building bridges can not only connect localities, but also communities around the world.

In the central province of Binh Thuan, Kurt Jensen, 78, enjoys coffee with his Vietnamese wife, Tieu Thi Ngoc Sang, as the sun rises over their idyllic little home.

Jensen then gets up and waters his trees and flower beds and his wife feeds the chickens. Life is simple and happy.

The former sailor once worked on cruise ships and as a fisherman. At the age of 54, he sold his fishing boat and started travelling around the world.

On his first trip to Viet Nam, he met and fell in love with Sang, then 45, who was selling chom chom (rambutans) in a small town, 80km from HCM City. When Jensen saw her for the first time, all he wanted to do was to see her again.

Despite the language barrier, their love bloomed. Jensen returned the same year to visit her home. At the time, Sang, a widow, lived with her mother and children.

"I know that in Viet Nam as long as I won the mother's heart, I could marry her daughter," said Jensen. Jensen took Sang to Denmark in 1994.

Two years later, the couple realised that they didn't enjoy sitting around and doing little with their lives, while people in Viet Nam faced many hardships, but were still content.

So they decided to settle down in Viet Nam and see what they could do to help their community.

Local residents asked Jensen to help them repair an old and unsafe bridge over a strong stream. He thought about it and then decided he would try and organise a new one.

Jensen then returned to Denmark to raise funds. The donors, including the Danish Embassy in Ha Noi, gave him 500m of used suspension-bridge cables from a disassembled bridge in Denmark, concrete, timber and other materials – plus freight to Viet Nam.

He and his wife worked with the local government and residents to build the bridge in Bao Loc District's Loc Thanh Commune. It was 1.2m wide and 65m long. It took them all a month to complete the job – and everyone was delighted with the effort.

The success of the project spurred the couple to build more bridges. Jensen received great support from the Danish Embassy in Ha Noi and friends.

So far, he has designed and organised the building of 24 bridges and six schools for disabled children in Lam Dong and Ninh Thuan provinces.

"If I had more money and better health, I would build houses for disadvantaged people – and more bridges," said Jensen.

The couple also converted waste land into a small garden and built their own house. Sang raised a flock of chickens and sold them to buy furniture.

With the money they earned from selling chickens and vegetables, she bought chairs and tables, turning one room in the house into a drink shop which helps them pay for everyday needs.

Their house stands out from an ocean of sand like a green oasis with a deep-water well and luxuriant gardens. "We have everything and are very happy," Jensen said.

The couple always wake before 5am to walk, drink coffee, eat bread and water the plants.

"We start our mornings early to avoid the midday sun. Sometimes we are stunned by the first sunlight of the day," Jensen said.

Tourists are a problem. Buses travelling along National Road 1A often drop passengers to relieve themselves near the site of their garden, so Jensen built four toilets next to the highway and opened them free of charge.

"Sadly, shortly after the restroom was built, thieves stole all of the bulbs and water tanks," he said. "Sometimes they also steal our chickens and construction materials."

Jensen said he doesn't regret anything after years devoted to Vietnamese people. He and his wife now lived on a US$1,000 pension from the Danish government each month and the income from selling chickens and groceries.

Despite all his good work, Sang has to travel 100km to Phan Thiet City to renew her husband's visa.

"I worry that one day when I can't walk, who will help him get an extension," she said. "Now he belongs to this place."

"He said he's been happy to stay in Viet Nam because he loved me and this land," Sang said. — VNS



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