"Those who know about lion dancing would indeed notice. We have to do better," he urged the troupe.
Le Van Nam (in black) and some members of the Long Nhi Duong lion dance group. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.
Over the past decade, the Long Nhi Duong lion dance team has sheltered many of Saigon's homeless youth.
"When I was 14 years old, I spotted a group of vagrant kids while crossing Cha Va Bridge connecting Districts 5 and 8. Some had a family, but didn't want to return home because their parents were addicted to drugs or HIV positive," Nam recalled. "So, I asked them to join my lion dance team."
Nam, the third among five siblings, dropped out of school in third grade to become a scrap collector and lottery ticket vendor in Cho Lon, Vietnam's largest Chinatown in Saigon.
Forced to be independent at a young age, Nam sympathized with other destitute youth, trying to invent activities to keep them from harm's reach.
"All children love lion dancing, especially those in District 5 and District 8, areas mainly inhabited by Chinese and the cradle of many famous troupes. I thought it is the most suitable discipline to pursue."
At the time, members would work at a packaging factory in the morning and gather at night to practice lion dancing. They would stop and study the techniques of other squads practicing in a temple yard or on the sidewalk.
The first time Nam's Long Nhi Duong team made any money was in autumn 2010.
"Your kids should perform at my shop, I will pay you after," a woman told the troupe one night during rehearsals.
After the performance, the group got paid VND50,000 ($2.15), enough to buy 10 dumplings, but too little to divide among the 12 members. The kind dumpling shop owner eventually gave them two more for free.
"That memory is something I'll never forget," Nam said.
Every Mid-Autumn Festival and Lunar New Year since, the team has earned a living by performing at numerous venues across town. However, since street kids are often viewed as uncouth, many doors have been shut in their face over fears of theft.
Nam believed it important to break this mindset if the troupe were to survive, urging members to attend classes for fundamental education. Anyone found cursing in public would be fined VND500-1,000 ($0.04).
After each show, the group puts what little money it made into a shared piggy bank, using the savings to purchase more clothes, drums, and flags at the year end.
"I've known Nam since 2011 when he and the group joined a local youth union. Nam's lion dance team has attracted many destitute children," said Le Hung Cuong, deputy secretary of the Youth Union of District 8.
To date, Long Nhi Duong includes nearly 40 children, aged from 6-22, of which 20 reside in the shared Luong Ngoc Quyen home in District 8.
Aware lion dancing offers but a "short term" solution to its members, Nam is eager for each to become fully literate and find jobs.
"I met Nam seven years ago when his lion dance team struggled to buy equipment. The children came from all walks of life, but were well behaved. They work hard," said Ma Dao Ngoc Bich , a 42-year-old business owner.
Once, considerably down-and-out, the troupe found work at an egg factory. Despite similar difficulties, the thought of disbanding Long Nhi Duong has never crossed Nam's mind.
Two Long Nhi Duong members prepare ahead of a performance. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.
Three years ago, during a training session at the foot of Cha Va Bridge, a woman left both her boys with Nam. With little choice but to take them in, he called on local authorities to help locate their relatives.
The two brothers, aged 4 and 5, would watch the troupe practice during the day and remain awake at night crying for their mother.
After the Covid-19 outbreak, Long Nhi Duong struggled to find work for nearly half a year, Nam revealing the group had spent all its saving in a mere two months, forcing him to pawn his motorbike and phone.
For several years now, members of the team have taken turns cooking for the elderly and less fortunate, despite having to survive on very little themselves.
Over the next few days, the troupe is scheduled to perform at a homeless shelter and hand out gifts to the children there.
"I want the members of Long Nhi Duong to realize there are way less fortunate people than them, hoping it would motivate them to push ahead."