The phone rings while Lee Kyeong Hee eats in her apartment in Hanoi’s Nam Tu Liem District.
“Hi Ha, how’s it going?” she beams into the phone.
On the verge of tears, the Vietnamese caller responds: “I miss you so much. It’s been so long since I last held you close.”
Nguyen Thi Thu Ha was born in northern Hai Phong City in 1986 and met Lee as a student. Ha’s parents had just divorced, causing her to retreat into a shell. Discovering her situation, Lee took her in.
The 49-year-old says, with evident pride: “Ha gradually opened her heart to me and began caring for others. Later, I helped her apply for a scholarship at Dong-A University in South Korea. She’s like a daughter to me.”
Ha currently teaches Vietnamese and Vietnamese culture at Myeonglyun Primary School in South Korea. She is one of many Vietnamese who Lee has supported financially and psychologically.
Lee is a volunteer consultant at Christian charity International Youth Fellowship (IYF), which seeks to teach youth life skills and broaden their insights.
Lee with local children during her Tet (Lunar New Year) holiday trip to northern Lai Chau Province in December 2018. Photo courtesy of Lee Kyeong Hee.
Her fondness for Vietnam took shape over the course of years. In 2009, she brought her two sons to join her husband, then manager of a company in northern Phu Tho Province. Though her friends could not comprehend her decision to leave prosperous South Korea for a poor country, all she wanted was for her family to be together.
Fresh off the plane in Hanoi, sans friends or family, she had to do everything herself. The first sight of butchers killing and stripping feathers off live birds in wet markets horrified her.
“I shook like a leaf watching people cut apart a freshly slaughtered pig. I’d never seen anything like that before.”
To commute, she bought a bicycle from a supermarket. One time, after shopping, her taxi’s splash fender dropped off, the driver and nearby security guard blaming her. “Vietnamese are so mean,” she recalls thinking at the time.
Following the incident, Lee and one of her sons shut themselves off from local society for more than a month.
Things changed forever when Lee met her neighbor Hien, mother of an autistic son. Lee noticed that however naughty the little boy acted, his mother would remain calm. “Her face would appear lit up even after a long day of caring for her son. How beautiful she was.”
Enquiring if Hien ever tired of looking after such a child, the mother said: “Think of someone you love, close your eyes, and try to feel it deep in your soul. Loving your child is the same; if it comes from the heart, you never grow tired.”
Lee could do little else but also change her attitude, existing her bubble and opening her heart to learn more about local customs.
The first new thing Lee learnt was crossing the road. The second was to face the local butcher. After a mere week, she could handle both the traffic and a dead chicken. Lee grew fond of visiting the market, talking to anyone within reach though she could hardly understand their response.
“I saw joy on people’s faces and wondered what could make them so happy. I want to experience the same happiness,” Lee explained.
Two months after her arrival, Lee bought a textbook for first-graders, a Korean-Vietnamese dictionary and taught herself Vietnamese, devoting up to ten hours a day to the task, even when sick.
After one year of study, coupled with frequent market trips, Lee’s Vietnamese improved to the point where she could easily communicate with vendors.
The kindness and warmth generated by that simple and small gesture, non-existent in South Korea, gradually melted Lee’s perception of Vietnamese.
Questioned on the sanitary quality of market vegetables, Lee held: “What mattered was that I could meet, talk and bond with vendors. Think of someone you love, close your eyes, and try to feel it deep in your soul. In this way I experience my love for Vietnam.”
Harnessing her earnings, she established a free program assisting fellow South Korean women in Vietnam to better integrate. To her dismay, rumors held she merely befriended people to sell real-estate, prompting her to introduce student tuition fees.
On learning a security guard in her building was struggling with his mother’s medical bills, Lee handed him her first earnings.
Assisting others came naturally to Lee, who had been involved in philanthropy work in South Korea as part of IYF. With her new-found love for Vietnam, she naturally extended a hand to locals in need.
After helping the security guard, she utilized her income to provide jackets to children in mountainous regions. Seeing many barefoot, Lee decided underfloor heating, as found in South Korean houses, could be a viable answer.
With donations from friends and profits from her cosmetic distribution company, Lee requested permission to construct three model ondol houses in provinces along the northern border, before the transferral of technology to local authorities.
Unafraid to get her hands dirty, Lee assisted in the construction of each house. “Conversing with locals in Vietnamese, many helped me carry materials, or even gave me water. These small wonders make me appreciate the Vietnamese even more,” she remembers.