Caring by Foot by Sara Swenson
On Thursday nights, I join some friends who give away homecooked dinners to homeless people around Ho Chi Minh City. The young mother who organizes our gathering prepares the meals herself. She has plenty to keep her busy between work and family, yet she takes several hours each week to carefully cook and package each of the 130+ meals that will be distributed.
Two weeks ago, I invited a friend I met volunteering with another organization to join me for this Thursday night dinner run. For the sake of confidentiality, we’ll call her Jewel. Like Jewel, many of the charity workers I meet don’t have fixed relationships with just one organization. They tend to volunteer for multiple different groups, whenever their free time and interests align with the task at hand. We agreed to meet at the usual gathering point, and Jewel offered to drive me on her motorbike. Motorbikes are the fastest and easiest mode of transportation in Ho Chi Minh City, though notoriously not always the safest. Most charity runs happen with two people by motorbike: one person drives while the other carries the food. Jewel was already waiting for me when I arrived with 28 meals in Styrofoam containers and a large sack of milk pouches. I loaded my arms full of plastic bags and Jewel balanced the milk pouches between her knees while she drove. We turned onto a major street and stopped almost immediately when we found a group of four dusty, middle-aged men laying out cardboard to sleep on near the steps of a bank. We exchanged meals, thanks, and smiles before setting off again into the night.
It was easy to spot people bedding down on sidewalks and ATM kiosks. An elderly woman was laying out blankets in front of a freshly locked store gate, lit by the glaring neon lights of shops that were still open. A single mother was soothing her baby on a highway curb. I spotted a young man leaning on a park bench, but Jewel pointed out that he was only on a cell phone. We drove on.
We were chatting about Tet, idling at stop light, when suddenly Jewel’s motorbike sputtered to a stop. She broke out laughing. I did not. At the thought of having to push her bike while carrying 21 dinners and a sack of milk, the bags on my arms suddenly felt much heavier. We rolled the scooter to a vendor advertising bike repairs but the woman manning the stand couldn’t get her husband to wake up. We rolled on to another stand. Along the way, an uber driver stopped to ask if we needed a push. We remounted the bike. The young man set his foot against our back pedal to push us through traffic to a bigger repair shop. I nervously clutched the bags of meals between my knees and crushed one of the containers as we flew down the street, eerily soundless without an engine. There, the shop owner kicked-started our bike without a problem and refused to take any payment for his time. I felt a growing sense of irony. We had set out to do charity work, and instead we had become charity recipients from all the people who were helping us.
The bike died a second time at the next stoplight we hit, where a young couple rescued us with another motorbike-tow. 10pm had closed in on us and we were met by the blank stares of locked shop gates.
“We’ll have to finish our work on foot,” she joked. I laughed at the image of us toddling down the street with all this food under arm. We’d have to finish the job when her bike was fixed. Jewel directed our rescuers back to her home, where we rolled her bike inside around 10:30pm. I was already recalculating my schedule: if we put the remaining meals in her fridge to distribute them tomorrow, what time could I meet her again? While I was thinking, she pushed her keys and phone into my hand and took the milk sack out of mine.
“We’re going to look very strange,” she said, “Delivering rice on foot!” She laughed and set off down the street in her delicate golden sandals and a polka dot dress.
I jogged after her. “I thought you were joking!”
We crossed the street, followed the highway, and jumped the highway divider to give a meal to another elderly woman sitting on the sideway. “You aren’t even wearing good shoes!” I chided her. Jewel, however, was undeterred. We had a task to complete. Neither my pessimism nor her shoes could slow us down.
We walked close to 7 kilometers (over 4 miles) until midnight searching out people in need. While we walked, I was surprised again by how many people we had encountered already had dinners. Our group is hardly unique in Ho Chi Minh City: many friends like mine congregate at someone’s house to prepare meals and give them away to people in need. This informal charity infrastructure permeates the city to the point that I joked, “I think we need an organization to organize the organizations. How do we know if everyone gives away food on Thursdays, but no one gives away food on Mondays?”
Jewel shook her head and reminded me that this wasn’t the point. “A meal like this costs only 10,000vnd [0.44 cents US].” She implied it wouldn’t take much for people to be able to purchase their own meals. Rather, she explained, giving away food was only a small help, to show people that they are still cared for… but giving away meals alone, “doesn’t solve the problem.”
I was skeptical that we could find another 21 meal recipients wandering around on foot in the middle of the night, but it didn’t take us as long as I thought. As we gently set the last two packets of milk next to the head of a sleeping cyclo-driver, we finally relaxed and went off in search of a late dinner for ourselves. We split a few glasses of sugarcane juice and Banh Bao at a sidewalk café and marveled at how quiet the streets got after midnight. While Jewel daydreamed aloud about traveling to Korea, I quietly admired my friend’s dedication to finishing our volunteer work. She had never paused for a moment to put her own troubles ahead of our task.
I count how lucky I am every day to meet people like her, and like the mother who organizes the food distribution. Many of the people I meet hold no illusions about the impact they can make – they know offering one meal doesn’t solve the bigger problem of urban homelessness. Yet, that reality doesn’t stop them from doing whatever they can. Even if it the job must be completed on foot.