Man teaches Saigon street kids to paint in hope of better life

Seventeen years ago, fine arts student Huynh Tan Bao first came to the Thao Dan charity group to teach street children in Ho Chi Minh City. Now he has become one of the group’s veteran members.


Twice a week, the 39-year-old walks around the sidewalks or bridges to meet and talk to kids who work on the street selling candy and lotteries, then asking them to draw what is in their mind.

“Looking at the pictures they paint, I see their life,” Bao said.

The technique Bao uses to encourage the kids is drawing what he thinks they may like first, in the hope of attracting them and then opening them up.

Some children start with doodling, some draw some lines then laugh and run away.

Bao said he always has to smile and be patient.

The target age of the students he aims to teach is from four to 15 years old.


According to Bao, these children are suspicious or taciturn initially, but there is a world hidden inside them, a secret one that they hardly share with anybody, even their relatives.

“Once they call you teacher, they are honest and closely connected to you,” Bao said. “I realize that most of them cherish the dream to change their life, not only theirs but also their relatives’.”

Bao said he still remembered the first days he started his job, when he biked to the Nga Sau Phu Dong roundabout in District 1 to wait for the kids to finish their jobs on the street and then teach them math and spelling.

The teaching job sounded easy but it was a challenge to keep the kids coming to the class.

Bao and other volunteers had to come to the children’s houses to call on them to continue studying, or even had to convince them or insist that their parents allow them to study, even if only for “just a bit.”

As time has gone by, Bao and his street classes have become familiar to many poor kids in the city who voluntarily gather, wait for Bao to teach them and express happiness at seeing him show up.

They even complain if Bao comes late.

Love always wins hearts, and there were also days when he was sick and could not hold classes.

On these occasions the kids came to see him, reminding each other to keep silent so that he could rest, with some even leaving a small cookie for their teacher.

Not only does he teach the children to draw, Bao also gives them moral lessons.

He once privately told a kid who was accused by another student of stealing not to do it again.

Teacher Bao smiled and talked to the nervous child to reassure him, while the kid was worried that the teacher would look down on him.

Another memory that Bao recalls was when a 15-year-old boy borrowed his bike, his biggest asset at the time, and said he would return it immediately but did not.

By the end of the class, the student still had not come back.

After waiting for a while, Bao was about to walk home until he saw the student come back with an apology.

“Though they are street kids they still have pure souls. It’s adults that do not believe in them,” Bao said.


Bao has not been married, saying that having a family will tie him down to more responsibilities and not allow him to take good care of his students anymore.

Instead, he has a big family to put his heart into so as to redraw their lives with the color of hope.

Bao, who teaches everything from basic drawing to oil painting, has become a museum of secrets of the homeless and poor children; not an easy burden for everybody to bear.

Last Mid-Autumn, Bao organized an exhibition showing his children’s artworks, attracting a number of people who came to buy the paintings in support of the children.

The thing that encourages Bao to follow his path of teaching is seeing them changing.

Bao said there was one student who swore all the time, even when he got excited after he successfully drew or wrote something.

That little boy has now grown up, become a college student and still respects his teacher.


Tuoi Tre

Believing that painting could heal the wounded soul of poor children, Bao usually asks them to draw about their family.

Among the pictures submitted to the teacher, Bao found one which included only a boy and his mother, without the father. The reason given by the boy? “I don’t like my father because he often beats my mother.”

Teacher Bao then brought the picture to talk to the family, and later, the little boy showed him a picture with his father, though the father was painted pale and in the picture, the son does not hold his father’s hand.

“Finally he welcomes his father into his mind, and though it’s not very welcoming, he accepts his father,” Bao expressed his happiness seeing the student change.

Moreover, one of Bao’s street students has followed him to do charity for another organization.

Goodwill will be successive, he believes.


Tuoi Tre

Despite his success, Bao still feels upset that he cannot help all of his students. Some of them cannot get rid of the street life and become gangsters or work at ‘bia om’ (drinking beers while hugging ladies) restaurants.

“I cannot do anything to help them anymore,” Bao said while seeing the pictures of those students. “They’ve grown up, but their life is gloomy.”


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