An Australian falls in love, renounces home and career for a differently-abled Vietnamese woman with an indomitable spirit.
No encounter with 31-year-old Nguyen Thi Van is uneventful.
Most people are awed and enchanted by her unbreakable, can-do spirit.
No one can testify to this better than 51-year-old Neil Bowden Laurence – an expert in telecoms, cyber security and cybernetics working for the Australian Government – who gave everything up so that he would not lose her.
Struck by the wide grins plastered on Van’s Facebook wall, he commented: “You have a very nice smile;” “You look so beautiful when you smile;” and so on.
Van was not above engaging in a bit of flirting.
Busy as she was, as the director of the Vigor of Life Center in Hanoi, which provides vocational education, training for people with disabilities, and owner of a graphic design company, she had time to spend on herself.
“I had seven boyfriends before I met Neil…so it was normal for me to playfully drop romantic hints at men,” Van said, tongue firmly within cheek.
It is not normal that a person paralyzed by spinal stenosis, which compresses the small spinal canal and shrinks the whole person, boasts of her amorous conquests.
But Van is not an ordinary person. She has never restrained herself from doing that a modern woman would do, whether it is dyeing her hair, going bar hopping and pursuing the men she liked.
One time, she posted a Facebook status: “Having tea alone, join me if you are free.” The post caught Neil’s attention, who responded: “Can I?” Van replied: “OK whenever you come to Vietnam, I’ll make tea for you.”
Much to her surprise, Neil booked a flight to Hanoi, asked for her address and made it to her place, to meet a woman who would never walk, needed a constant caretaker, and weighed a paltry 20 kilograms.
“Typically, visitors to Vietnam will go sightseeing and enjoy the food, but he was different. He always said: “I come to hang out with you”. I thought to myself this guy must be crazy because nobody would be like that,” Van said with a big grin on her face.
In the three weeks that he spent on his first visit, Neil paid close attention to her and what went on around her. One day, he offered to help her stand up comb her hair.
“He offered to buy stuff for my room, but I did not allow that. He cleaned the kitchen spotless and fixed all the broken electrical appliances in the house. He showed everyone in the house how to clean it quick and neat. He knew that I did not like the paint in my room so he repainted all four walls,” Van said.
“For the first time, 12 years after my divorce, I felt a real vibration in front of a special girl like Van,” Neil recalled.
After three weeks in Vietnam, he returned to his hometown. But just three months later, he returned, indefinitely this time.
Neil spent most of his time tending to Van, engaging in numerous projects with her, and teaching English for free at her center.
After three months of living together, Neil said he wanted to take care of Van for the rest of her life. Van’s heart skipped a beat but she quickly returned to reality and gave Neil a critical analysis of her situation and life in Vietnam. She wanted him to think twice before committing himself.
“He said that after divorcing his ex-wife, he’d had his fair share of affairs with other women, but when he was with me, he felt happy. I saw the sincerity in him. It is not that there is something wrong with him, it’s just that what he values in life different from others,” Van said.
A shock and a life-changer
After spending time together, Neil thought he had captured the heart of the little woman, but was shocked at what she said.
“What will happen when I leave?” Neil asked Van. She answered: “I will still go to work, still have friends and still flirt with boys.”
Neil asked again: “Next time when I visit, will you still welcome me?”
“If my house can accommodate you or if my new boyfriend approves.”
The very next day, Neil submitted his resignation and sent Van a message: “Wait for me, I will quit my job to be with you.”
In early April 2018, Neil officially departed his hometown to start a life with Van in Hanoi. They registered their marriage two months later.
Explaining why he quit a good career to live in Vietnam, Neil said: “When I first met Van, I saw that her work changed the lives of many people around her, even the most unfortunate found it extremely meaningful. I was doing my job for 15 years and I couldn’t help as many people as she did. So I wanted to be her support. When she’s in good health and helping a lot of people, I feel that I’m also indirectly helping them.”
After getting married, he bought a new house and Van bought new furniture. They rarely have conflicts but vigorously debate each other on various topics.
Van said that she used to nag him about how he pushed her wheelchair at top speed and even carried her up the stairs without asking for help.
“I had to sit down and explain to him if he kept carrying me around like that, people around us will not feel the need to feel help people with disabilities. The more he does this, the less they would support the construction of pedestrian walkways for persons with disabilities. This will further distance the disabled from engaging in social life,” Van said.
Now Neil walks much slower with Van’s wheelchair and always asks people around for help in front of a staircase.
Since he began sharing a home with Van, Neil doesn’t get enough sleep. Every hour or so, he gets up to turn his wife over, since she cannot do so on her own.
While he was prepared to do anything for her and she appreciated his dedication, Van decided to hire a caretaker to ease his burden.
“I don’t want to become his burden. Besides I still have my agency,” Van said.
She’ll get what she wants
Director Le My Cuong, a filmmaker and Van’s close friend, said: “She is a special disabled person, because she lives like a normal person. Van is confident, ambitious, a go-getter who, once she has her eyes on something, will achieve it, step by step.”