The untold story of a life saver
When we arrived at the single-story house next to Doc Vong petrol station, Km 8 Son Cam, Phu Luong district, Thai Nguyen province, spotting the nameplate “Overdose Rescue 24/24”, we realized we had arrived at the right place. This little house has long served as the office for members of the Thanh Cong-Phu Luong Group. The tall man with dark skin who welcomed us warmly was Le Trung Tan, also known as the “knight who saves people from overdose” of the tea land.
Established in 2015, Thanh Cong – Phu Luong Group is one of the units actively contributing to activities supporting the local people who use drugs. Not many people know that the foundation of this group was an arduous recovery from the drug spiral of Tan - the team leader.
Sipping a cup of tea, Mr. Tan looked into the distance, recalling the ups and downs of his past. "My brothers and sisters left and had jobs in government agencies. In my family, my parents only suffer because of me, their youngest son."


“When dropping out of school to work as a gold miner in 90s, I turned to drugs. To be honest, those days on the gold mine, if you were a hired worker, you would have spent the entire day in the cave. I had to lie down on the table after the oil lamp and smoke opium to act like a "big boss", a big brother...
Born into a poor family with seven siblings, Tan entered the world early in life to follow his friends to earn a living. In 1991, with the money he got from mining gold, the 25-year-old young man returned home to buy a Dream motorbike, then a Win motorbike. He said that it was very “fancy” at that time, and he had no plans to purchase a house or settle down. Then everything suddenly changed continuously for 2-3 years; Tan had to hire more than 80 workers in the mine but could not find gold. He was forced to sell all his motorbikes, and his life abruptly returned to empty. Because his parents wanted their youngest son to change, they asked him to work as a driver at a company in Hanoi. He followed the old track and was caught using drugs, so he was fired. Not daring to stay at home, Tan returned to life in the mine and continued spending his days immersed in using drugs.


Many times, Tan went to and from the drug rehabilitation center but still could not get rid of drugs. The young man drove around the North and South and then moved to the Central Highlands to do business and also to temporarily stay away from the "white storm" in the North. Entering Dak Lak, he rented a small shop in Buon Ma Thuot, sometimes cutting hair, sometimes driving hired tractors, repairing motorbikes and bicycles, and taking on construction projects. Then, amidst the sunny and windy Central Highlands mountains and forests, fate brought him to the love of his life.
Telling us about the first time he sat in a corner and peeked at her, Tan chuckled, and his eyes gleamed with joy and a little shyness. Those days were difficult, he worked hard at every job, even selling cow dung in the hopes of earning enough money to invite his lover out.
Dinh Thi Le, Tan's wife, could not hide her happiness when remembering old memories.
“We were hundreds of kilometers apart at that time. One day, after I finished working in the fields at my uncle's house, I covertly peeked at her shoe size. I thought to myself that my sweetheart was a little short, so I chose a pair of high-heeled shoes. I was quite difficult for me at that time, and it took me a week to get money. Rememering the shoe size, I went Buon Ma Thuot, found a pair of shoes I liked, and bought them as a gifts for Le
In the past, when I went to work, I always went barefoot. Now I know when I look at my feet, they are very ugly...
That little gift and sincerity touched the heart of the sweet little girl who was well-liked by her neighbors. Falling in love with Tan, she couldn’t ponder when people around her asked her if she was determined to spend her life with a drug addict. If she suffered later, she would have to endure it.
Born into a large family with separated parents and no conditions for education, Le went to work as a worker at a young age. Because of her challenging childhood circumstances, she recognized the kindness and genuine feelings that this experienced man had for her, and she opted to live with him.
“Sometimes I think it’s important to marry a husband with strong shoulders, but really, Tan was just unlucky to be addicted to drugs. I know he was a very good person…”


Once hoped that a warm family would make him stop using drugs, but Tan was mistaken, and he turned to drugs again. He was forced to spend 18 months in a drug addiction rehabilitation center when his wife was seven months pregnant.
Talking about that lonely time, Le choked up remembering the day when she was pregnant and had to go all the way to the South to give birth and then raise the child alone. At that time, her mother-in-law had just passed away, her father-in-law was old and weak, and in the North, she had no relatives and no stable job.
"I remember when I worked at a car wash that winter, I would leave my child standing at the door. There was a time when two or three people came to wash the car in a row. My child cried and kept raising his hands. He couldn’t speak yet, so tears and nasal balloons kept flaring. Because I couldn’t hold him, he stopped crying on his own. Another time, I laid a mat for him, and he slept while sitting."
Many nights in the drug addiction rehabilitation center, Tan crossed his forehead and thought about escaping back to his wife and child. As much as he loved his wife and children, he felt even more helpless, but then he fought to stay in rehab, looking forward every day to reuniting with them. When his child was over a year old, Tan was able to return home. All the father’s aspirations were dashed when his son, who had never met him, refused to follow him because he thought he was a stranger. In those days, their store was empty, and there wasn’t enough rice for meals. He was disappointed when the doctor determined that his youngster had level 3 malnutrition. Never before has life been so difficult for them.


I was thinking a lot at the time. I couldn’t go on like this forever; my wife and child were still suffering, so I had to make a change…
Le still vividly remembers 2013, the day Tan received a call from the commune informing him that he could start taking methadone. “Remember that day, while washing the car out there, Tan heard the phone call. He was overjoyed, he jumped and shouted that he was ready to take methadone”.
Tan’s health had steadily improved since he began taking methadone, and he had become more focused on business. Every day, he went around sugarcane juice shops, asking for sugarcane tops to plant on land borrowed from the neighborhood veterans association. During that time, he also supported the District Medical Center in community activities. After that, he founded a self-help group to support people who use drugs, and with his members, went to local hot spots to collect needles and syringes, reached out, and advised others on the benefits of methadone.
In 2015, with the support of the Global Fund for HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control Project, Tan was one of six people in his district to attend HIV screening training in the community.
After that, he called on more individuals who were dedicated to the community, forming the Thanh Cong-Phu Luong group with 18 core members. The club’s main tasks include reaching out to people who use drugs, harm reduction communication, HIV screening tests, referral to ARV treatment facilities, and supporting Phu Luong Methadone Outpatient Clinic to communicate about ARV treatment adherence and the benefits of methadone.
When asked about his motivation to pursue community activities, he shared, “The motivation, really, was because... I was so miserable! I remembered how miserable I was before, how wretched I was due to my addiction, and then let my wife and children suffer like that. I really want to guide people who use drugs to participate in useful work in society”.
Currently, the majority of the club’s members are ex-drug users. They, like Tan, have overcome adversity and moved upstream to find meaningful lives. Compassion, responsibility, and enthusiasm are the words that Thanh Cong – Phu Luong group members often say about their leader.
“That day, to be honest, I had just returned from rehab, not knowing what to do, lying helplessly at home. At that time, my hands were empty, my wife and children were separated, I had nothing to lose, and I was bored with many things. I was fortunate to meet Tan and become brothers. We get along well at work, like each other, and have been together until now. In general, Tan has nothing to criticize.”
Mr. Pham Hong Hai, a Thanh Cong – Phu Luong group member, shared.


Tan said that around 2015, in his locality, there were many people suffering from overdose. In just half a year, the cemetery had more than a dozen white wreaths of deaths from overdose. Participating in an overdose rescue training session organized by the Center for Supporting Community Development Initiatives (SCDI), he returned to the locality, connected with trustworthy members, and established an overdose rescue team of 6 members. Knowing all the locations where drug users gather, Tan left his phone number and gave leaflets to all hamlet and commune police, village health stations, and drug users so that if there was an overdose case, they could call him right away.
“I was very shaken the first time I went for overdose first aid treatment. I saw the patient’s face was pallid. I didn’t have much experience at the time.
“I felt the patient’s pulse and heart rate but saw nothing. I believed he was no longer alive. When the patient awoke, I was overjoyed and shouted, “He’s awake, he’s alive, he’s alive!”.
24/7 overdose rescue, regardless of sun or rain, morning or night, if the phone rings, he’s on his way again. Every time he successfully rescues the overdose, he and his teammates breathe a sigh of relief and gain more motivation for this job of “a fool for one’s pains”.
“About 2-3 months ago, when I was just starting to use drugs, I suddenly felt my eyes and nose darken, felt panicked, and then passed out without knowing it. When I awoke, I was both happy and terrified. Because there were so many people around me, I had no idea what happened to me. Fortunately, Tan arrived in time and saved my life; otherwise, honestly, I would not be alive till today”.
(Sharing from a client who was saved from overdose by Tan’s rescue)Then, of course, there were occasions when “no good deed goes unpunished”.
When the patient awoke, they either accused him of stealing their stuff or shouted at him. He had to pay for them to take a motorcycle taxi home occasionally. There were overdose recuse times with crying and laughing at the same time. He recalled when the patient woke up, had a craving, and looked for drugs. Noticing the package of drugs beside the patient, he quickly hid it to prevent the person from using it again and being overdosed. Tan took “the new friend” out to play around that afternoon and even went to the children’s play area to relieve his cravings. When he felt completely secure, Tan took him home with his family.
After nearly two years of implementing overdose rescue activities, the overdose rescue team of Thanh Cong Club – Phu Luong has saved about 130 people. Since June 2018, with SCDI’s technical and financial support, the group members have improved their capacity to deploy overdose rescue activities more effectively. Thanh Cong – Phu Luong group not only has the community’s trust and recognition, but they are also a reliable address and hotline for commune police and medical workers to call whenever a drug overdose occurs nearby.
They never recognized those as victories. Motivation for Tan and the group members to not be afraid of hardships to continue this work is simple.
Sometimes it’s just the handshake of an older mother, the tears of a wife when her husband is still alive, the thanks and promise to rebuild the lives of those who are just about to die.


Looking back on his past life journey, Mr Tan is even more profound in his understanding of the words in his father's will: “You should study hard. In our family, we only have pen, paper, and lighting for children to become human”. His journey upstream, breaking up with drugs and returning to support the community, has been a blessing.
As a former insider, he understands more than anyone the feelings and guilt of drug addicts.
“I’ve been through it, I know. Drugs are like a ghost”.
“I was aware of how hard I tried. When I saw my wife and children suffering, all I wanted to do was quit drugs and make their lives more fulfilling. However, there was no way to get rid of it. Every time I had a craving, I could not say no to drugs...”
Tan also talked about the day his wife told him to go to the commune to register the birth certificate for their child. He went twice, but each time he only dared to go to the police station and then returned. He was scared that if he walked inside, the authorities would question him about his drug use or the way he dressed. People like him were embarrassed and lost confidence at that time. But then Tan, with an optimistic voice, shared stories from the land of Phu Luong, where the lives of many people participating in methadone treatment are gradually becoming more stable and brighter.
“People who were addicted used to sleep till 9-10 a.m., waking up just thinking about finding drugs. Many individuals are now working hard, plucking tea, remodeling their homes, and their wives and children look much better. To be honest, I’ve seen many people’s wives suffer in the past. I used to be the same way; when I got stuck, I sold everything. Looking back, many individuals took methadone; they could afford to install air conditioners in the hot summer, having fans, radios, and electricity. Their lives are getting better every day.”


People often say that behind the knight is a silhouette of a woman. Behind Tan now stands Le, a resilient and tolerant woman. At every stage of his life, he has the trust, sympathy, and love of his neighbours. Building trust was tough for him when he first began participating in community events, but now, he feels proud and confident every time he takes his wife out. He has lived and continues to live a life worthy of all his wife’s hardships and sacrifices.
Talking about his dreams, he only hopes that his family meals will continue to be full of laughter in the future. Tan named his son Trung Hieu, expecting he would grow up filial, not give up in the face of challenges, and courageously go upstream, living a gentle and loving life.
“Now I think if a man’s life is to strive for his wife and children, it is something fulfilling. It might be sad if a man does not have that motivation.”
The hard work here is working late and early and doing all the work, including community work, so my children can see a father who always tries hard at work.

Article and Photos: Thảo Trang
Copyrights | Centre for Supporting Community Development Initiatives - SCDI Vietnam