HA NOI (VNS) — As Nguyen Hung stepped foot at the Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City, he almost cried.
Along the 600-km journey from the city to his hometown, the central province of Phu Yen, he could not close his eyes for even one second, although he was completely exhausted.
He could have died in the Philippines, after being washed away by the fierce typhoon Haiyan.
But now, he was back in his homeland and on the way to meet his family.
The former soldier, who used to serve in an artillery unit in 1986, said his unit defended the Gac Ma (Johnson South) Reef in Viet Nam's Spratly (Truong Sa) Archipelago in 1988. Many of his comrades went missing, while some died. Yet, he managed to stay alive.
But returning home now had greater meaning, he said. Back then, he was single; now, his wife and twin daughters were waiting for him.
He arrived home at three in the morning. His parents, his wife and daughters were all awake, waiting for their loved one.
He was unable to stop his tears of happiness at seeing them.
"I won't be able to forget my near-death experience in Tacloban," Hung said, recalling the time when the typhoon made landfall.
"I was sleeping when the house's roof was blown away by the fierce winds. When I tried to hold on to the stairs, I was lifted up. I fell on the floor and was injured," he said as he revealed deep cuts on his wrists.
But he survived thanks to the helmet he wore at the time.
Four hours later, the storm had passed, but the house had been destroyed, leaving him and his nephew, Tran Van Quyen, with no food or water.
They could not go outside because looting was rampant after the storm.
Filipino neighbours who knew Hung for years eventually came and gave him some water and biscuits they had received as part of food aid.
"At those moments, all I thought about was death. And my family," he added.
"I will never forget that when I had nothing left, it was human kindness that saved me," he remarked.
After five days, another Vietnamese found Hung and his nephew and helped them to reach the Vietnamese Embassy in Manila.
As he recounted his experience, Nguyen Duy Duc said he couldn't believe that he is still alive. When the Haiyan typhoon struck, he, his son, Nguyen Nhat Duy, and son-in-law, Huynh Tien Phat, were inside their home in Tacloban. The powerful typhoon ripped apart the house's roof. They had to hang on to heavy furniture, and wear motorbike helmets on their heads to protect themselves.
Along with the winds, torrential waters soon rapidly flooded his house. The three men were forced to flee outside and climb a coconut tree. But strong waves started slamming against the tree, which was uprooted. Mountains of debris slammed into the tree as it fell, and the men were pushed towards a neighbour's two-storey house, which had also lost its roof. The three men managed to jump onto the second-floor balcony and clung on for their lives.
For four hours, they endured winds as fast and strong as a speeding train. They cried and howled. When the storm passed, they saw that everything around them had collapsed, except for the two-storey house, which had saved them. Most of their neighbours had died and there was no clean water or food left.
They swam through the high waters, crossed piles of debris with their shoeless feet and navigated their way around hundreds of bodies as they walked towards the centre of Tacloban City, where they found other Vietnamese. From there, they embarked on a difficult trip to Ormoc, where they stayed with a Vietnamese family for a short while before catching a ferry to Cebu. There, they waited for their exit clearance and air tickets to go home.
Like Hung and Duc, 27 other Vietnamese have also lost everything to the super typhoon. The situation for them is even worse because many of them had arrived in the Philippines on a tourist visa and had been trading on the streets without a permit. They will need to pay heavy taxes and fines if they wish to return home. A good example is Duc, who has stayed in Tacloban for 13 years illegally; he owes the Philippines Bureau of Immigration approximately US$7,000.
Nevertheless, you could say that luck has still been on the typhoon victims' side. The Vietnamese Embassy in Manila, members of the Vietnamese community in the Philippines, as well as international organisations joined hands to help the typhoon victims.
Officials from the Vietnamese Embassy travelled to Ormoc and Tacloban to search for Vietnamese victims and provided them with initial support. The Embassy quickly issued new passports for those who lost theirs to the typhoon and lodged applications to request the Philippines Bureau of Immigration to waive tax and fines for the typhoon victims.
The Philippines Bureau of Immigration, however, took some time before making its decision, which added to the agony of the victims, who had nothing left.
But human kindness shone through even in these dark times. Vietnamese families in Ormoc, Cebu, Surigao, Tagbilaran and Manila opened their homes to provide free shelters for the victims. To prepare for the victims' repatriation, Vietnamese living in Manila started to raise funds to purchase air tickets for them. Within a few days, there were people who came forward to buy 18 international tickets for the typhoon victims. The rest was donated by the family of Jonathan Hanh Nguyen, who also funded domestic air tickets, which helped several victims to reach Manila.
The Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration (AVRR) programme of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) decided to give a cash grant of US$1,000 for each returning Vietnamese typhoon victims.
As an "eventful" year comes to an end, Nguyen Hung said he plans to enjoy the New Year with his family.
He said he would really miss the Philippines, where he had made several good friends and had neighbours who taught him how to live a better life.
He even recalled one incident when a man ran after him to return the money he had dropped.
But he pointed out that he is happy now, since he can be closer to his loved ones.
"I lost all the money I had earned and saved in the typhoon. Life is certainly difficult now, but money means nothing if my wife lost her husband and my daughters lost their father," he said.
"I'm back. That's all they will ever need. And as a soldier, I will be fine," he added, smiling. — VNS