Lake lifesaver

Viet Nam News - - Front Page - by Leâ Bình and Trung Hieáu VNS

Quaùch Troïng Hoan works as a life­guard on Gia Lai Prov­ince’s Great Lake, row­ing his fish­ing boat to res­cue swim­mers and boaters who might oth­er­wise drown.

They call him "The Old Man of the Lake"---a moniker fondly cho­sen for him by the peo­ple who live around the Great Lake Tô Nueâng in the Taây Nguyeân ( the Cen­tral High­lands) prov­ince of Gia Lai.

Rod in hand, Quaùch Troïng Hoan, 74, from the Möôøng eth­nic mi­nor­ity com­mu­nity, is of­ten seen star­ing out into the wind-swept blue lake, from which he has res­cued as many as 12 peo­ple from drown­ing and re­trieved up to 68 bod­ies.

Known as much for his char­i­ta­ble na­ture as for his brav­ery, he is also the fa­ther of 198 adopted chil­dren.

He met us one sunny af­ter­noon by a set of old stone chairs at the Vaïn Ninh Tem­ple where he lives, pro­tected from the glare of the sun­light by a canopy of banyan, pine and bam­boo trees that rus­tled in the wind.

Pour­ing us a cup of tea, he paused to wipe away tears rolling down his cheeks with a towel he kept perched on his shoul­der, as he re­called the most trou­bling ex­pe­ri­ence of his life.

On that fate­ful day, April 30, 2001, at about 9am, a group of 12 stu­dents hol­i­day­ing at the Great Lake near the high­land city of Pleiku rented a mo­tor­boat to cruise through its wa­ters. With­out warn­ing, their boat crashed into a tree hid­den just be­low the sur­face of the wa­ter and sank. Hear­ing their cries echo­ing from about 200 me­tres away, Hoan ran to the lake, dove into the wa­ter and pulled five stu­dents ashore. But he could not save seven oth­ers who re­mained trapped un­der the sunken boat.

He later re­trieved their bod­ies and re­quested char­i­ta­ble peo­ple to help the vic­tims' fam­i­lies pay for coffins and a fu­neral ser­vice at the nearby ceme­tery.

Traàn Vaên Phaän, 45, one of Hoan's adopted chil­dren, said the "Old Man" of­ten vis­ited fam­i­lies liv­ing around the lake, just to en­cour­age them to find work. He of­fers aid to the poor, some­times giv­ing them rice, in­stant noo­dles, maize and sweet pota­toes. Since he is a strong swimmer and ex­pert diver, he rows out onto the lake ev­ery day with the pri­mary pur­pose of search­ing and res­cu­ing peo­ple in dis­tress.

"His most re­cent res­cue took place un­der the Treo bridge. Siu Vip, an eth­nic boy, had been play­ing there with his friends when he fell into the lake. Luck­ily, Hoan was work­ing nearby and saved him," Phaän noted.

Glo­ri­ous life

As a young man in 1965, Hoan left his home in the north­ern prov­ince of Ninh Bình to join the vol­un­teer youth force.

Dur­ing this time of lib­er­a­tion war, Hoan was as­signed to man­age the lo­cal Taø Khoáng ferry, which trans­ported troops, food and weapons from the north to the south of the coun­try.

Route 9 and neigh­bour­ing South Laos drew very heavy bomb­ings from Amer­i­can war­planes through­out the day and night. Youths work­ing on the ferry suf­fered many sleep­less nights.

Hoan re­called one night at the end of Oc­to­ber 1966, after he had safely trans­ported a group of sol­diers from the north across the river.

On ar­riv­ing at his des­ti­na­tion, he tied the ferry to a tree and fell asleep from sheer ex­haus­tion. Dur­ing the night, heavy rains caused a flood that swept away his ferry.

When he awoke, he was shocked to find him­self adrift on the Amahien River in Sa­van­nakhet Prov­ince in Laos.

To his great re­lief, he hap­pened across some Viet­namese vol­un­teer sol­diers. Giv­ing them his ferry, Hoan made his way back to his unit.

On another oc­ca­sion, while trans­port­ing in­jured sol­diers through the Great Lake re­gion, Hoan found a beau­ti­ful vast green lake, with pine forests nearby.

"(At the time), I made a wish that when the war ended, I would re­turn to live there," he re­called.

In 1972, he suf­fered a se­ri­ous bout of malaria. A Vaân Kieàu eth­nic man helped him to treat the dis­ease, and he re­cov­ered.

Hav­ing es­caped the Grim Reaper's "scythe of death," Hoan moved north to rest. There, he passed an en­trance ex­am­i­na­tion at the Eco­nomics Univer­sity.

After grad­u­at­ing in 1976, he vol­un­teered to re­turn to the Cen­tral High­lands to work for the New Eco­nomic Com­mis­sion in Gia Lai.

In 1991, Hoan grew de­ter­mined to make his wartime wish come true. He re­signed from his po­si­tion and moved to Bieån Hoà Com­mune, where he pur­chased two hectares of land for farm­ing and to go fish­ing on the lake.

When asked about his wife and chil­dren, Hoan said in 1972, after re­turn­ing home from the bat­tle­field, he got mar­ried and had four chil­dren.

His el­dest son is now a lieu­tenant colonel in the po­lice force of Gia Lai. His other son is an ar­chi­tect, while his two daugh­ters have grad­u­ated from univer­sity and are work­ing in the bank­ing in­dus­try. His wife now lives with his el­dest son.

"She un­der­stands me and agreed to let me carry out my wish," he ex­plained.

Of the two hectares of land he bought, he now only has one hectare, hav­ing shared the rest with his adopted son and pover­tys­tricken neigh­bours, most of whom are eth­nic Gia Lai, Ba Na and Seâ Ñaêng.

Per­haps most sur­pris­ing of all are his 198 adopted chil­dren.

"They are chil­dren I had saved from drown­ing and chil­dren from eth­nic fam­i­lies liv­ing around the lake."

One of them is Rô Chaêm Nul, 55, a Gia Lai eth­nic man. Nul lost both his legs and one arm in a bomb ex­plo­sion when he was look­ing for scrap metal.

"I have no ca­reer. I am de­pen­dent on my mother, who is nearly 80 years old, so our lives are very dif­fi­cult. On see­ing our plight, Hoan gave us 2,000 square me­tres (of his land) to live on and grow vegetables and breed poul­try, so we can make ends meet," Nul said.

"Hoan vis­its us reg­u­larly. Some­times he gives us a few kilo­grams of rice and noo­dles. He has been so good to us. We do not know how we can re­pay him," he said.

Other neigh­bours liv­ing around the lake echoed th­ese sen­ti­ments about Hoan.

In 2001, "The Old Man of the Lake" found refuge in the Bud­dha, giv­ing him the in­spi­ra­tion to build the Vaïn Ninh tem­ple, which looks sim­ple, yet solemn. On the door, he wrote, "Any­one who needs me can call me", and be­low that is his phone num­ber.

In the tem­ple, he ven­er­ates the Bud­dha and Pres­i­dent Hoà Chí Minh and has put up pic­tures of the chil­dren who drowned at the lake.

His Kova Award for be­ing a typ­i­cal ex­am­ple of liv­ing one's life in ser­vice of so­ci­ety also adorns the tem­ple wall.

Be­fore we parted ways, he said, "Life is only a tran­sient cloud. We should do use­ful things for so­ci­ety. Any­one who needs me can call me!"

As long as he is in good health as the years draw on, he in­tends to con­tinue liv­ing up to that prom­ise that so many have come to de­pend on.

Old Man of the Lake: Quaùch Troïng Hoan and his fish­ing boat, ready for res­cue on the Great Lake. Photo phap­lu­at­doi­

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