Originally attracted to the beach because of its beauty, he left teaching to become a clerk in the Fisheries Department of the Ministry of Internal Trade. He only chose to move to Vung Tau with his wife and children “because of the beautiful sea and marine environment”. When he was temporarily transferred to Ho Chi Minh City in 1989, his family stayed in Vung Tau. But when he was asked to remain in the big city, he decided to quit and return to his family and the seaside.
He got a job with the management board for tourist beaches in Vung Tau and was assigned to the Coastal Emergency Center (CEC) in the emergency division. “At that time,” he admits, “I did not know what the CEC was!”
“I just knew that it did research and advised on measures, processes and drew up training programs for emergency rescue personnel. Actually, I was just an ambulance worker who flew the flag, blew the whistle and guided tourists. For exercise, every morning I swam in the sea for about 3km and I gradually got used to the routine.” Little did he know how useful that routine would become.
In 1991, there was an incident that I will never forget. It was on a Sunday, when a delegation from the University of Agriculture and Forestry in Ho Chi Minh city came to swim in the sea. After a while, they reported that one of their students was missing. We began an immediate search, diving into the sea and checking all the ponds (the sunken areas under the beach that were deeper than normal) but found nothing. They said the missing student was 1.7m tall but there was no sign of him.
The search continued until about 5pm and by this time there was only myself and the head of emergencies [Mr. Tran Duc Thien] left. Then I saw something underwater. Mr. Thien called an ambulance, while I went to collect the body. I felt very scared as I approached it. With great difficulty, I was able to bring the body to shore. But it took me days to get over it. I could think of nothing else, became irritable and uncomfortable. Three days afterwards I still could neither eat nor sleep: whenever I closed my eyes the image of that unlucky guy came to mind.
Then my wife told me: “You work to save people’s lives - don’t worry. You have me and our family here to support you.” That stuck in my mind and when I thought of the man, I fell asleep - the first time in three days.
“From that day on, I worked with the mind of a rescuer and all fear was gone. I always stayed close to the sea and followed the flow of the current, carrying the flag and whistle to make sure visitors were safe”.
“Back then there were no depth gauges or scanners, and my colleagues and I had to dive down to see how fast and deep the current was. Then we had to work out - assuming there were no other problems - where was the nearest place to take the victims before flagging to warn tourists”.
“We had to rely on our own eyes and strength, and with all the knowledge we had as a professional emergency service albeit without much technical support. Vung Tau beach is thought to be flat, but in fact, ponds near the shore are continually being formed by high tides and wind, and it can be treacherous at any time.”
Mr. Truong’s keen eye and sense of duty were rewarded when he was made Deputy Director of emergency services at the CEC and put in charge of the entire emergency force in 1997. Five years later, just like earlier in his career, administrative changes provided him with an opportunity. He ended up being assigned to write the program, from theory to practical, for emergencies covering the entire network in Vung Tau province.
Since those days, safety equipment has improved out of all recognition and Mr Truong played a valuable part. In 2007, he invented a lifebuoy with a seat belt attached. He explains: “This is less dangerous because if the wind blows away the lifebuoys, the seat belts can still attach to the body.” His invention won second prize for technical innovations in the province and he was awarded creative certificate by the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor.
By 2018, he was transferred to the provincial culture department and was able to reflect on 22 years of emergency work: “I saved a lot of people - I don’t remember specific numbers because I thought of it as my job. I also gained a lot of experience and trained many people including some 200 soldiers in sea rescues.”
From the initial 16 rescuers, the emergency force of Vung Tau city now has more than 100 people in all the tourist areas in the places. The emergency services in the province are strong and have been recognized by Guinness Viet Nam as the largest and most professional emergency force in the country.
That early career-change may have been for the sake of Mr Truong’s family, but through his bravery, diligence or inventive mind, it led to him becoming a lifesaver for many others.