|Tran Viet Anh (front) and a group of friends cycle along HCM City's Nhieu Loc – Thi Nghe Canal to spread the message of keeping the canal clean. A few days earlier, he swam in the once-filthy canal to raise money to buy warm clothes for poor kids in the northern mountains. — VNS Photo Van Dat
by Van Dat
HCM CITY (VNS) — On a chilly day just after Christmas, curious passers-by stopped at Hoang Hoa Tham Bridge in HCM City's District 1 to gawk at a young man who jumped into the Nhieu Loc – Thi Nghe Canal.
In the poor light at dusk, many peered anxiously, wondering what would happen next.
A few seconds later they breathed a sigh of relief: The youngster had merely decided to swim in the canal.
Hai Phong native Tran Viet Anh, 24, had taken a bus from Phan Thiet to HCM City after a friend had dared him to swim in what had been for decades an exceedingly dirty canal. At stake was a VND10 million (US$470) donation from the friend — whose name Anh refuses to divulge — for his charity campaign which has taken him on a bicycle to 39 provinces and cities.
He is raising money to buy warm clothes and medicines for 1,000 children in Son La Province in the northern mountains.
The canal, into which people hitherto only jumped to commit suicide, was recently cleaned as part of a massive city project.
"I had to do it for the VND10 million," he tells Viet Nam News.
Anh, who had lived near the canal last year, knew about its clean-up.
"As long as there is fish swimming in the canal, I don't worry much."
But he admits that the act of jumping in was hair-raising: "My heart stopped beating for a few seconds since I did not know if there were rocks or something else which could hurt or even kill me.
"Several people asked me if I had known about the canal's [earlier] polluted state before accepting the dare. I said ‘yes'."
Obsession with canal
Last year he had lived in nearby Phu Nhuan District for a while and exercised near the canal every day. Just like then, people still throw rubbish into it and he unhappily wonders why.
While swimming, he saw plastic bags, helmets, bottles, and even an altar in the water.
A few days after his swim, while sitting in a cafe with friends and discussing cycling in a group, the idea of going along the Nhieu Loc – Thi Nghe Canal to spread the message about keeping it clean struck him.
His friends immediately agreed to join. The next morning Anh and 30 others rode along the canal, handing out T-shirts to locals with a message saying "Don't Throw Rubbish In The Canal" and speaking with them about environmental protection.
Among the riders was Vu Tuan Anh of Da Lat, who decided to catch a bus to HCM City after seeing Anh swim in the canal.
"Viet Anh's actions to maintain the cleanliness of the canal and help needy children are so meaningful. I admire him," he said.
He tells Viet Nam News that a decade ago he saw the canal seriously polluted.
"Now, it is blue. However, there is still some rubbish.
But it did not stop him from emulating his namesake: A few days after the bike campaign, he jumped into the canal himself to swim a little further upstream.
Biking for needy
Tran Viet Anh went to Ha Noi last year and found a white-collar job. But after a few visits to poor Tan Xuan Commune in Son La's Van Ho District, where he saw many children without access to social welfare services, he quit his job and decided to do his bit for them.
He began to cycle from Ha Noi on August 15 last year on an old bike he borrowed from a friend.
He hoped to raise VND50 million ($2,350) for his Nu Cuoi Mua Dong (Smile Winter) fund, and though he has already collected the amount after completing just half his itinerary, he has no plans to stop.
He is back in the north to hand over the clothes and medicines yesterday, but will soon return to the south, where he plans to cycle next through the Mekong Delta and Central Highlands.
"It's very cold in winter there but they don't have sweaters to keep them warm," an anguished Anh tells Viet Nam News.
"Every child in the northern mountainous region is an angel. They are the same with other children who need care and love."
During his tours, he gets by with his small savings and an income as a freelance correspondent for a newspaper. But many strangers also open their doors to him.
"When people know I'm riding for a charitable purpose, they offer me support immediately. They feed me and make food for me to take away the next morning."
After all, as someone said, the more you give, the less you need.
He has so far stayed with more than 100 families.
"I love to stay in people's houses. They are nice and hospitable and I have great memories." — VNS