People call her ‘the quiet veggie lady.’

She quickly pulls her cart, heading to a kiosk inside Thu Duc Wholesale Market in Ho Chi Minh City as on the other end of the line, someone told Phuong that they saved her some bunches of leafy greens.

The market’s traders have generously given ‘Mommy Phuong’ tonnes of veggies.

19 years collecting vegetables

‘Mommy Phuong’ is the way traders call Huynh Thi Thanh Phuong, a woman who has spent 19 years collecting vegetables for local charity kitchens.

In the early days, she saw people throw vegetables, including those still edible, away.

She sorted them out, for herself and for nearby pagodas which offered hot, free and vegan meals to the poor.

Seeing what she did, sellers in Thu Duc Wholesale Market eventually started giving Phuong vegetables instead of throwing them all away.

She always holds a mobile phone in her hand, waiting for a call from a seller.

In her late 40s, Phuong can still run so rapidly that even some youngsters who give her a hand could not compete.

She had to sort through and select vegetables that were still good at first; now, traders set aside bunches of good greens for her.

There is even a seller lending Phuong her kiosk to gather vegetables which will later be donated to poor people, pagodas, churches, and child protection centers.

The more vegetables the woman receives, the broader area she can help.

On her productive day, vegetables can even be shipped to a pagoda in Dong Nai Province, about 30km away.

Phuong receives a bouquet of flowers from Scottish volunteer Mat Donald on International Women’s Day. – Photo: Kim Ut/Tuoi Tre

Huynh Thi Thanh Phuong receives a bouquet of flowers from Scottish volunteer Mat Donald on International Women’s Day (March 8). Photo: Kim Ut / Tuoi Tre

Giving hands

As people get to know Phuong and her good deeds, she is gifted more agricultural products.

Some days, the total amount reaches up to 18 tonnes.

Phuong and her helpers pulled their carts to carry those vegetables continuously. At the end of one day, she even passed out for a while.

Years of pulling heavy carts makes Phuong suffer from spinal pain. However, it could not stop her from doing what she wants.

“I’m here, from dusk to dawn, regardless of the weather or my own physical conditions,” said Phuong.

“I’m here all year round, 356 days and repeat.

“Only this lunar year’s first day [February 12], I could not go to the market as I was busy loading vegetables for a pagoda.”

The woman said she did not know how she is motivated to do such a laborious job.

“I find joy in it,” she said.

“Compared to what other people have done to help others, I see my things as nothing.”

Phuong is not afraid of heavy work but baseless rumor and suspicion. There was a time when she wanted to stop to live a normal life, just like others.

“A vicar encouraged me to continue,” she recounted.

“His words pushed me out of the dark time to keep believing in my path.”

Last year, after Giang Kim Cuc, a well-known philanthropist, shared the story of Phuong on her Facebook, more and more young people have come to lend her a hand on weekends, public holidays or simply their days-off.

Phuong poses with volunteers who come to assist her with loading and sorting veggies. – Photo: Kim Ut/Tuoi Tre

Huynh Thi Thanh Phuong, wearing a violet jacket, poses with volunteers who come to assist her with loading and sorting veggies. Photo: Kim Ut / Tuoi Tre

‘Phuong can do it…’

“All I know is pulling carts and loading things, I do not know how to communicate with people properly,” Phuong admitted.

“As an orphan, I was not educated by parents.

“That’s why I cannot cleverly convey my thoughts.”

She was adopted by a family.

However, at the age of 12, Phuong left home and started supporting herself by moving to Ho Chi Minh City.

She learned acupuncture at a pagoda and practiced it at Thu Duc Wholesale Market.

A typical day for Phuong begins at 5:00 am. She goes to the market to collect veggies until dawn then collects scrap metal and offers acupuncture services in the evening to earn a living.

“I can make ends meet by cooking for myself. If there is no rice, I will eat instant noodles or vermicelli and fried tofu,” said Phuong.

When people ask to donate some money to her, Phuong always turn them down.

“I can do it, just like I’ve always done it before,” she explained.

“I know how hard it is to make money, as I appreciate them, I cannot accept their offer.

“It is better that they use the money to help others who live in much more difficult situations than mine.”

Several groups are also collecting vegetables for charity kitchens at Thu Duc Wholesale Market yet ‘Mommy Phuong’ is the pioneer, according to Dam Minh Hoa, deputy head of the market’s security team.

Almost all traders know the woman and contact her whenever they have vegetables to give away.

Several trucks come to and from the market daily to transport vegetables gathered by Phuong to local charity organizations.

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