Nguyen Thi Van, born with spinal muscular atrophy, stays busy as owner of a graphic design company and running her Nghi Luc Song (Dream Seed) Vocational Training Centre in Hanoi, which helps people with disabilities.
She is a “if you want it, go get it” type. She has never let her physical condition restrain her from doing what she wants, whether it is running her business, dyeing her hair, shopping, or even pursuing the man who caught her eye.
Van co-founded the Nghi Luc Song (Dream Seed) Centre in 2003 with her brother Nguyen Cong Hung, who had the same condition as Van, providing ITC and social skills training for people with disabilities in Vietnam.
The centre, based in Hoang Mai district, hires dozens of workers, with more than 70 percent of them living with different kinds of disabilities. Van has managed the centre by herself after her brother died in 2012.
So far, the centre has provided vocational and skills training for nearly 1,000 people with disabilities, a majority of them going on to land stable-income jobs, with some even setting up their own businesses and helping other disadvantaged people.
Van said technology is a lifesaver for people with disabilities like herself, though most in the community often limit their occupations and hobbies to handicraft, sewing, or weaving.
“Let’s face it. Technology is replacing jobs, not only for able-bodied people, but everyone in the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” she said.
“Our centre aims to help as many disadvantaged people as possible to take advantage of technology to support themselves.”
Van herself travels a lot, joining different forums both at home and abroad to realise her initiatives and gather like-minded partners and resources to help improve the living quality of the Vietnamese disabled community.
In 2016, she established Imagtor Social Enterprise, providing photo, video, and IT solutions, as well as real estate marketing services.
More than 50 percent of the company’s in-house staff are people with disabilities, working under the motto “Creating a better, independent, and empowered future for people with disabilities.”
Imagtor offers free training, not only in occupational abilities, but also social skills.
“It is not just about ensuring a basic livelihood for disabled people. It is about time for us to think of ways to help the community experience some indulgence, including fancy services and events,” said Van.
Van has hosted courses to train her staff and trainees in party etiquette.
She has also hosted several fashion shows in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Hoi An Ancient City, featuring models with disabilities. The shows made headlines nationwide, creating resources and momentum for those with disabilities to have pride in their bodies.
“Putting them in the spotlight on these stages is a way to give them hope and self-esteem, as I believe they can gain greater confidence and integration from the experience,” Van said, adding “Just like when reporters like you reach out to interview me, I feel more empowered.”
Van cited Nick Vujicic, an internationally successful motivational speaker born without arms or legs, as saying “I was never crippled until I lost hope. Believe me, the loss of hope is far worse than the loss of limbs.”
Most people who know Van are in awe of her, enchanted by her can-do spirit. Little did Van herself know that her positive energy was so inspiring that it brought her future husband from Australia to Vietnam.
Neil Bowden Laurence, 51, is an expert in telecoms, cybersecurity, and cybernetics working for the Australian Government. The Australian engineer enjoys travelling and big motorbikes with high-tech gears.
Their story started from a response Neil commented to Van’s Facebook post, “Having tea alone, join me if you are free”, to one day, Neil knocking on her front door.
“I said I wanted to drink tea with her, and I really meant it,” Neil said.
After three weeks in Vietnam, he returned to his hometown. However, just three months later, he returned to Vietnam again and this time he stayed.
Neil decided to give up his big motorbike and global travelling to be with Van.
“I just knew that I did not want to lose this woman,” Neil told the Vietnam News Agency about his decision to leave everything at home in pursuit of love.
“For the first time in the 12 years since my divorce, I felt a real vibe when I started talking and spending time with Van,” Neil recalled, adding he was so struck by the wide grins and smart jokes on Van’s Facebook page after seeing even a few comments and messages.
In his line of work in Australia, Neil had to travel a lot, meaning much time away from friends and staying at hotels. The engineer felt bored, lonely, and at times, even directionless.
Explaining why he quit a well-paid job to move to Vietnam, Neil said, “When I first met Van, I found her work very meaningful as it has made a true difference to the lives of many disadvantaged people. So I want to be a part of what she is doing.”
When he’s with Van, Neil said, he enjoys every single day and welcomes the next. His current lifestyle sees him spending most of his time assisting Van and participating in her projects.
Summarising his wife in just one word as “fun”, Neil added, “I fell in love with her smile. She is a lot of fun and jokes around.”
He demonstrated his strong objection to the term “person with disability” when describing Van, preferring to say “she has a differently physical condition”, as he explained that Van is indeed able to do things that are impossible for many abled-bodied people.
Van said she initially doubted Neil, saying “At first, I thought he must be crazy as who in the world would do this?”
As time went by, Neil’s genuineness and dedication convinced her.
He was supportive in helping her to stand up, move around, and comb her hair. The doting husband also took care of her home, repainting the walls her favourite colour, cleaning the kitchen, and fixing electrical appliances around the house.
“I can feel within my heart that he truly wants to be by my side and that there is nothing wrong with him. I believe it is just that what he values differs from others,” Van told the Vietnam News Agency while gazing, smitten, at her husband.
After getting married, they bought a new house, new furniture, and developed a new daily routine, including drinking tea together.
Neil, holding his wife’s hand, said “I don’t think too much about the future. We just enjoy each day together and welcome each new day to come. As long as we have it together, we will be happy.”
As for Van, she believes there is no such thing as good luck in love.
“Many said I am lucky to have him. Most of reporters who have covered our marriage entitled it a fairy-tale story in which I am the lucky one, but I wouldn’t see it that way. We just think that we are both happy having found each other,” Van said. –VNA