This article was published in the San Francisco Chronicle on October 17, 2010.
By Tara Haghighi
HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — It’s a frightening scene: cars, motorbikes and bicycles whizzing by a half dozen middle-aged blind people, who hold on to each other as they cross a major thoroughfare.
The scene is another reminder of the stark contrast between Vietnamese cities and U.S. metropolises such as San Francisco, where guide dogs and traffic signals help the visually impaired cross streets.
“Normal people don’t follow the rules, so it’s hard” for the blind, said HoangVa Tuan, a teacher at a boarding school for the blind called Mai Am Thien An (Warm House).
Such centers are few in Vietnam for the estimated 3.9 million vision impaired, the nation’s most common physical disability, according to a 2009 government census. Nguyen Minh, a member of the Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange, believes the high number may be due to herbicide with a highly toxic compound used during the Vietnam War to defoliate jungle.
“Since dioxin may damage the immune, productive, and endocrine systems and (influence) genetic factors, there’s a possibility that it causes birth defects and blindness,” Minh said of the compound in Agent Orange.
At Warm House, Nguyen Quoc Phong, the 52-year-old director, says his job is to give students an education, job training and a sense of community. “We prepare them for the future,” he said.
Phong created the school in 1999, eight years after losing his own vision in a traffic accident. While riding a motorbike, he crashed into a truck laden with bamboo. A shard entered his right eye, which affected vision in his left eye as well.
Since few resources or institutions existed to help him with his sudden disability, Phong took correspondence classes on the Internet offered by the Hadley School for the Blind in Illinois, which he still attends. In 1996, he accepted a scholarship in Paris to study Braille, computers and how to live with blindness.
Through income from printing and selling books in Braille, manufacturing canes and donations from friends and families, Phong has helped more than 100 students in the past 11 years.
In school, students learn to read English so they can understand specialized software for the blind, play instruments, make bead work and hone public-speaking skills. Phong says most students become either teachers or musicians.
“We hope that they finish primary school and help them (financially) if they want to go on to secondary school so they can live independent lives,” Phong said.
On a recent afternoon, some 20 students gathered for a morning performance by 12-year-old Vinh Nguyen Thi Thanh, who sang a Christian song in English called “Peace Like a River.”
After lunch, Vu Cong Hao, 24, adroitly tapped at a keyboard in a computer lab. “We use a lot of shortcuts because it’s hard to use the mouse,” Hao said.
In another room, a blind Japanese teacher offered students massage classes.
“What I like most about teaching is that before a student can use a cane, they are very shy and have fear of going outside,” Tuan said. “But after they learn how to use a cane and go by themselves, they become more confident. I love seeing that confidence.”
To contact Warm House: 122 Nguyen Ngoc Nhut Ward Tan Quy, Tan Phu district, Ho Chi MinhCity.