Changing lanes: from homeless HCMC youth to successful business owner

June 27, 2022 - 08:16

Despite his car and well-to-do looks, he grew up on these streets, doing what he had to do to survive.  


Phùng Ngọc Phong at his garage. Photo

HCM CITY — Driving around districts 1 and 5 brings back a lot of memories to Phùng Ngọc Phong, the 44-year-old director of a private company in Bình Thạnh District, HCM City. 

Despite his car and well-to-do looks, he grew up on these streets, doing what he had to do to survive.  

"From a street kid, I now have a family with my wife and children. I have bought a house, a car, with my self-earned money. At this moment, I feel so happy and don't need anything," the director of Phùng Nguyễn Cao Tốc Co., Ltd told Dân Trí online newspaper.

Born in a family in HCM City. Phong's parents left HCM City for Bình Dương Province to earn a living. Then they took him to Cambodia to find other jobs. 

In the vague memory of an 8-year-old boy, Phong remembered his family living with another group of Vietnamese people in Cambodia where his parents did many jobs. 

He stayed with his father, and sometimes with his mother after his parents divorced.

One year later, Phong left his family after being hit by his mother and began a street life. 

Phong earned money by delivering small goods to border gates in Tây Ninh Province, on the border with Cambodia. 

"The transportation of goods through the border gate was strictly controlled. However, I could easily transport many items because I was a child, so the customs force at the border point did not pay attention to me," Phong said.

After living like that for about a year, Phong arrived at Chợ Lớn Bus Station in District 5 on a bus with just a little bit of money in his pocket and joined a group of street kids here.

Not long afterwards, Phong and the other children living on the street were gathered up and taken to the city's Youth Education Centre.

At the centre, he was offered food and education. But he decided to escape as there was no freedom and it was full of strict rules.

To have money for daily life, Phong and his gang went around the streets and alleys to steal, or rob rich couples dating in the park.

"Fighting became my daily routine. I was always ready to fight, even when my hand was in a cast," said Phong.

He was sent back to the Youth Education Centre for the second time.

At the centre, there were all kinds of teenagers committing crimes; robbing, murdering, raping.

Phong, with his experience on the streets, became the leader of a group of 60 street children. 

Life turns to a new page

After two years of being educated at the centre, Phong returned to street life and immediately searched for his old street acquaintances. But he found many of them were in prison or had died of drugs. 

A thought crossed Phong's mind: "If I continue to live like before, my life will end up like them."

By chance, Phong found Tre Xanh (Green Bamboo) house, which had taken in many youths from the street. He asked if he could stay.

Thanks to the help of Trần Minh Hải, who managed Tre Xanh house, Phong found a job in a cafe. 

Every day, he worked at the cafe and went back to Tre Xanh to sleep. 

Once, he worked as a porter at a market until 2am, Hải refused to let him in that night, accusing him of staying out late to steal.  

Phong became enraged when Hải refused to open the door for him, using a hammer to destroy Hải's bicycle, who was still a student at that time.

"When I first met Phong, I looked at his profile and knew that Phong was always the leader of the street kid groups in any youth education centres where he was in," Hải said. 

"Phong was a very 'good leader' and very brave."

However, their troubles were resolved. 

Phong was determined to have a better life. Taking a meagre salary from manual labour jobs and despite being bullied in the workplace, Phong knew better things were to come. 

"At that time, there were not many cars in HCM City. I loved cars very much and always looked at the beautiful cars on the street," Phong said. 

"I often told the students, who worked in the same cafe with me, that I studied automobile."


Phong and an employee check a car. Photo

After nearly a year of studying automobiles in a vocational training centre, Phong found a job in a garage.

The young man worked very hard but was often bullied by skilled workers.

Phong knew he had to be a better worker than them, to leave them and their troubles behind. He worked harder and harder every day.

Hải said Phong thought about dropping out of the centre after only one month of studying because repairing cars requires skill and meticulousness.

However, Hải always heard good news from Phong's teachers when he visited Phong at the vocational training centre. The hard-working student completed the nine-month course.

Thanks to his hard work and improved skills, he had the opportunity to work in a famous Japanese car company in HCM City for three years. 

Looking at the rich customers in stylish clothes of the company, Phong wanted to be a person like them. 

He decided to take an extra class at night. 

Phong was also very happy when for the first time in his life he received a citizen's identity card when he was 28 years old, with the help of Hải and the local police.

"Holding a small piece of paper, I was very happy and went to register for a driver's licence immediately," said Phong.

In the same year, Phong co-operated with a friend to open a garage on Điện Biên Phủ Street, Bình Thạnh District.

"From a street kid, Phong is now a successful person and contributes a lot to society. He earns a lot of money from the garage and also accepts students for internships and vocational training," Hải said. 

"He also supports me in talking and guiding students about career orientation on Youtube."

"University degrees are not the only path to more money and success. Being good at a job is also very important. I'm proud that my auto repair career has turned my life in a better direction. Besides my own efforts, I am very lucky to have a best friend like Hải and other like-minded friends," Phong said. — VNS