|Bui Thi Dong, 57, of Hanoi's Nhat Tan Ward, prepares to reach families of HIV/ AIDS patients on her old bike (Source: VNA)|
Since 2000, Dong has helped countless AIDS patients, some in the final stages of the disease. She encourages families not to abandon them and to stay with them until the end. She has no money for her volunteer work, but is so well-known that even families of AIDS patients from nearby districts come to her for help.
Dong's kindness has spread beyond her district and made her something of a local celebrity, but she doesn't really like all the attention. "I do it as a good deed. I saw that many people were scared of helping sufferers because they were afraid they would become infected too, or simply didn't know how to assist them," she said.
For 20 years, she has been spending more time at the market than at her house since her first son died at the age of 25 and daughter-in-law at the age of 22, both of HIV/AIDS, about ten years ago. Her second son – a drug addict – has spent years in rehab.
One day, one of the other market traders came to Dong's tea stand and asked her: "Do you have no work today, Mrs AIDS?" "The fact she is here now means that no one in the village is going to die of AIDS today," explained a fruit-seller next to Dong's stall. "Whenever she gets a phone call or people come to talk about something related to HIV/AIDS, she leaves the stall without warning."
Nhat Tan village became a second home for Dong 40 years ago after she left her hometown in the northern province of Thai Binh to work as a brick layer for a construction company in Hanoi. In those years, Dong has spent 30 preparing dead bodies for their final rituals as her way of enforcing a belief in a spiritual life after death.
"Villagers ask me to help them enshroud the dead bodies because they believe that if the ritual is performed correctly and with care, then the dead can pass away in peace and avoid bad luck," she said.
However, in her worse nightmares, Dong never thought that she would be the only one to perform this last task for AIDS victims after her children died. She was devastated by their deaths and the way her fellow villagers discriminated against AIDS patients.
"When I was informed that my first son was a drug addict and had become infected with HIV/AIDS in 1990, I had no idea about the disease except that it was an infectious fatal disease and a social evil," she said.
But as a mother, Dong did everything possible to save her son, including selling her own blood and taking out high-interest loans to pay for his medical expenses. "After suffering for ten years, my 25-year-old son still dreamed of getting married and having a small family of his own, and he wanted to marry another villager who was also living with HIV at that time," she said.
Regardless of the dangerous virus, she accepted the marriage because they were human beings with the right to live happily. More burdens were placed on her shoulders, but she said she has no regrets.
"Sometimes, I was scared that I could become infected, but I was reassured by regular blood tests in the city," she said. "As a mother, I was the last person my children could rely on."
After that, other villagers whose loved-ones were dying from AIDS also started coming to Dong for help. In 2000, her first case was a 22-year-old male drug addict who had been receiving medical treatment in Tan Ky district, the central province of Nghe An. For his last wish, his family returned him to the village.
For two days, the family wore gloves and were afraid of being infected. They did not know how to care for him. Dong said she bought him food and helped him to wash. "I knew he would not give me an infection," she remembered. "He thanked me before passing away."
Dong set up a voluntary group to assist people living with HIV/AIDS in Nhat Tan ward in 2011. Bui Van De, one of the group's members and head of the ward's Red-Cross Society, said that the 40 members - including people living with HIV/AIDS, their families and representatives of local social organisations - have been working to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS prevention, how HIV/AIDS carriers can take care of themselves and how family members can help.
"Dong's kindness cannot be found elsewhere," De said. "She does this to ease the discrimination and suffering that the patients have to bear."
In 2005, Dong started going on various training activities run by international organisations on HIV/AIDS prevention and control. But for local villagers, no training or expertise can replace her, because she does her work with love. "I think of the patients as my children," Dong said. "My reward is receiving their gratitude before they die."