Minh Tu
Minh Tu

Buddhist Nun & Founder, Minh Tu Orphanage/Duc Son Pagoda

Help Wanted: Buddhist women to live at orphanage with 165 children, many of whom are disabled. Must be willing to rise at 3am for two hours of prayer before waking the children, preparing them for the day, getting them off to school, and teaching additional classes afterwards. Must also be available to visit nearby lepers' hospital, help local victims of natural disasters, and support people afflicted with HIV/AIDS. Compensation: below poverty level.

How many people do you know who would respond to a classified ad like that? Yet, for the 18 Buddhist nuns who live at the Minh Tu Orphanage/Duc Son Pagoda in the ancient Vietnamese capital of Hué, that is exactly the lifestyle they have chosen.

It all began in 1987, when two Buddhist nuns literally found a baby on their doorstep. One of the sisters was Minh Tu. It was just twelve years after the collapse of Saigon that ended the Vietnam War, and Minh Tu saw a country still reeling from decades of conflict, struggling to preserve its heritage and rebuild for a brighter future. She founded the orphanage to offer those who would create that future (such as the abandoned infant on her doorstep) the building blocks of food, shelter, education, and—most importantly—love and hope.

Vietnam today: A phoenix still struggling to rise
Today, the orphanage is thriving, but the need is also still great. According to a 2010 UNICEF report, Vietnam remains a poor country, ranking 166th in the world in terms of per-capita GDP. More than 20% of children under age five are malnourished. And care for the country's 1.4 million orphans depends largely on religious organizations, NGOs, and other charitable institutions. In the case of Minh Tu Orphanage, which remains privately run, the government provides no support other than health care and school fees.

Yet, the children's stories can be heartbreaking. Many have lost one or both parents to flooding, disease (especially HIV/AIDS), traffic accidents, or the occupational hazards inherent in two important local industries: fishing and mining. Sometimes, they themselves are the victims of a war that ended more than 35 years ago. They or their parents may have been injured by landmines, which still are dug up to this day for their value as scrap metal. Others may have been affected by Agent Orange, a poisonous herbicide and defoliant used by American forces to destroy the jungles of Vietnam during the war. Food harvested from gardens with affected soil still has the power to harm the young.

In all, Minh Tu Orphanage provides a home to 165 children, 13 of whom are disabled. Ages range from pre-school to college and university students. "The kids are raised in an environment filled with love and harmony," Minh Tu affirms. "My greatest joy is the love we can give to them. They are dying for love!"

She notes further, however, that providing other basics—such as food, clothing, and "hygienic living quarters"—is a struggle, especially in a country whose inflation rate has only recently dipped below double digits. Without government support, the orphanage depends on outside support, such as occasional donations of food "from kind-hearted Vietnamese overseas," as she puts it.

Getting by with a little help from her friends
Grand Circle Foundation partnered with the institution in 2002 and is proud to have made life more comfortable for the children. Over the years, total donations of $95,441 have helped to renovate the dining hall and to purchase computers, new washing machines, new bicycles, and milk powder. We've also purchased an organ for the orphanage so that the children can enjoy music lessons.

Most recently, Foundation funds have been used to provide the children with more comfortable sleeping arrangements. Tropical Hué is subject to high humidity and flooding during the rainy season, so a decision was made to replace the children's wooden bed frames and wardrobes with stainless-steel ones. Not only will the stainless-steel furniture provide a healthier place to sleep and help keep the children's belongings clean, it also will last much longer.

With these and other improvements—and, more importantly, the hard work of Minh Tu and the sisters who have devoted their lives to the children—Minh Tu Orphanage is regarded as one of the best-run orphanages in the country. In 2004, Minh Tu was acclaimed by then- President Tran Duc Luong, who wrote in his letter of commendation, "On behalf of the Party and the State, I praise your elevated heart and that of other nuns, as well as Buddhists of Duc Son Pagoda, for all contributions implementing Party and State's social policies in the past years."

Yet, ironically, improvements to the facility have made it harder to raise funds. "Since we have improved the infrastructure, such as the dormitories for the boys and the girls as well as the enfant quarter, most of the areas in the building look much better," Minh Tu explains. "Therefore, it is difficult to raise more funds for future projects."

Looking toward the future by looking after the children
Still, Minh Tu remains hopeful and committed to helping the children develop the skills and confidence they need for a successful future. Twenty-five years after finding an infant on her doorstep, she still holds her leadership role at the orphanage, but also takes time to warmly welcome visitors—including travelers on Overseas Adventure Travel's Ancient Kingdoms: Thailand, Laos, Vietnam & Cambodia; Inside Vietnam; and From Siam to Saigon: Thailand & Vietnam Revealed adventures. And she remains the orphanage's greatest advocate.

For example, there is no age limit for the children who call the facility their home. "If they are over 18 years old and manage to get a good job but still need a shelter, they can stay and help the nuns look after the smaller children after work," she says. "This is their family. Many don't want to leave."

She encourages all the children to study hard so that they can improve their lives and to help themselves by helping others—a lesson she teaches by her own example. "We give the children the most we can, so that they can support themselves in the future," she says simply.

Editor's note: If you plan to visit Vietnam with Overseas Adventure Travel, Minh Tu has recommendations for gifts you might bring the children: hairpins, comic books, crayons, and lightweight toys.

Featured in our December 2012 E-Newsletter. Read the full issue here.