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Wheelchair wonder sees Viet Nam in motion

Update: August, 25/2013 - 22:41

Patriot: Chu Duc Toan contemplates the national flag he was given during the trip to the southern province of Phu Yen. — File Photos

by Phuong Tra

A large crowd have gathered in the commemorative area for Prime Minister Pham Van Dong in Duc Tam Commune in the southern province of Quang Ngai to welcome a very special visitor: 32-year-old Chu Duc Toan from Van Lam Hamlet in the northern province of Ninh Binh. Instead of travelling by coach or train, Toan has made a trip across the country in nothing but his trusty wheelchair.

Toan was born without the ability to move both his feet - an unfortunate insequence of his father's participation in the war. Unable to attend school with other children his age, Toan still learnt to read and write at the age of 13, thanks to the support of his relatives and his own zeal for study.

His two feet disabled, he had to move around on two small pieces of wood. With just his two hands, Toan managed to do all his personal activities.

He had never left the village where he was born until April 2012, when he could afford to buy a wheelchair to help him move around. It was not long before he would have an even bigger, almost "crazy" idea - to travel from the north to the south on his wheelchair; to challenge himself, soak in Viet Nam's natural beauty and experience things he had never seen before.

Without telling anyone, Toan secretly prepared for his trip; saving money given to him as an Agent Orange victim, modifying his wheelchair and equipping it with waterproof canvas and several small reflector-lights.

After the preparations were complete, Toan packed his bag; including a diary, blanket and two pieces of wood to move around when necessary. He said goodbye to his elder sister, saying he was going out and would be back in a few days.

"Friday, February 15, I started my journey. I got exhausted by the time I reached Yen Mo District (in Ninh Binh Province), so I rested in a roadside factory for a while. The spring rain chilled me to the bone. I quickly had to go to a shop to buy a raincoat. On that afternoon, I arrived at Tam Diep District...," Toan writes in his diary.

His trip remained a secret until the very last day. "If my relatives had known about my trip, they would certainly have prevented me. It was not until I reached the central province of Thua Thien Hue did I call my sister and tell her the truth."

Toan's two sisters were astonished when they learned that their younger brother had travelled several miles away. "We were very worried because our younger brother is handicapped and has many difficulties in daily activities. We thought he was travelling within the province. I advised him to return but he was determined to go, saying that he wanted to gain new experiences. I didn't know what to do but to call him daily and remind him to be careful and ask for help if there was any difficulty," says Toan's sister Chu Thi Tam.

Toan covered many miles on his wheelchair. When he got hungry, he ate in roadside inns, and when it got dark, he asked to sleep in nearby houses or pagodas. Locals came to admire him as he journeyed from place to place, offering him help and souvenirs.

"Knowing that I travelled from the north, inn owners didn't charge me any money. In Hue, while I was looking for a place to sleep, I accidentally met a man who offered to help me. The next morning, his wife even gave me some medicine in case I got sick. They were very kind to me," he recalls.

"In the central province of Quang Nam, one fisherman's family offered me a place to sleep and even consider me their adopted child. My adoptive mother is Nguyen Thi Hong, and now I have four adoptive siblings."

Unable to climb high slopes, Toan had to ask truck drivers to carry him over, which made him feel "a bit ashamed".

After nearly two and a half months, getting over early 900km from his hometown, Toan reached the southern province of Binh Dinh, where he visited Quang Trung Museum and marveled in several beautiful sites. He then stayed in Long Phuoc Pagoda for over ten days.

Easy rider: Toan visits Hoi An ancient town in the central province of Quang Nam.

Toan's diary is filled with even more stories as he visits new places, and he diligently makes note of all the help he receives. His photo album is thicker and his wheelchair has been adorned with souvenirs given by locals; among them two Vietnamese flags, a notebook and an electric torch for navigating dark roads.

"At first I didn't believe that Toan could travel from Ninh Binh to the south," says Nguyen Dang Minh in Phu Yen District. "It is difficult for ordinary people, not to mention a handicapped one. After talking to him, I felt great admiration for him. If I were him, I'm not sure I would have been able to do that."

Recalling his journey, Toan says the most interesting part of his 25-month trip has been seeing the beautiful scenery stretching from the north to central Viet Nam. "I was always impressed whenever I visited new places, because of the unique beauty. I think the central people are very sentimental."

"My plan is to travel to the southernmost part of the country, Ca Mau Province, then coming back to Ho Chi Minh City, staying in a pagoda for a while before returning my hometown."

The road is long ahead and while the wheels on the chair make for slow progress, nothing can dampen Toan's spirit.

"I have never had any thoughts of giving up and I never will." — VNS

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