Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The OC

On Saturday morning, about 12 Blue Dragon staff and kids headed to Bac Ninh province, where we support over 350 students to attend school. The occasion: The 4th annual Opening Ceremony!

Our OC doesn't have fireworks or inflatable kangaroos, but it is a positive and encouraging event intended to kick the school year off on a high note.

It's also a bit more than a ceremony; the students receive their school bags, stationery, and text books in preparation for returning to school.

As always, a picture tells a thousand words...

Tom Cruise gave the opening speech

In Viet Nam, you can't have a ceremony without singing

A quick break for fruit and drinks

The kids lined up to recieve their text books...

... and then chose their school bag. This year, green is in.

And then it's time to go home and study!

A BIG THANKS to all the Stay In School sponsors!

Friday, August 24, 2007

Don't call me Baby

Before I came to live in Viet Nam, I travelled here several times on holidays as a backpacker. I still look back fondly on those days - carefree travel, coming and going as I pleased...

On my second trip to Viet Nam, I found myself in the central region, in Hoi An town. It was there that I first made friends with a street kid; a 13 year old boy named Nam.

Nam's father had died, and when his mother remarried he was sent out to the streets to earn a living. This is a common story, but Nam was luckier than most. He was met by a man living by the town river - "Big Nam" - who sold pottery on the street. The two Nams took a liking to each other, and soon were living together. Big Nam's wife and children came to see "Baby Nam" as a family member, and he grew up in their home.

Fast forward about 5 years, and Big Nam asked me to help him set up a restaurant in his home. Big Nam had been struggling financially, but had a big heart and I trusted him completely. So the two Nams set up the Blue Dragon restaurant, which is still running today and does really well.
This week, I went back to Hoi An for a very special occasion: Baby Nam's engagement ceremony. The very first street kid I befriended in Viet Nam is also the first former street kid I know to get married.

I think it's time I dropped the "Baby" nickname; Nam may well have a baby of his own before long.
It's so great to see the kids growing up...

Here are some shots of Nam and his fiance, Dao, at the ceremony. The engagement took place at Dao's home, which is pictured at the bottom.

Monday, August 20, 2007

He's a-walkin'

I wrote a while ago about an English volunteer who decided to walk the last 1000 miles of his world travels, in order to raise money for Blue Dragon.

Iain Purdie is well on his way... he's walked over 200 miles by now, and has the blisters to prove it.

C'mon, folks! You've gotta support this guy. He's obviously completely crazy, but he's making a HUGE effort for the kids.

Check out his blog http://www.iwouldwalk1000miles.me.uk/ and tell your friends!

I'm about to head to Hoi An for a few days - by plane, though, as much as I'd like to follow Iain's example. Some very interesting things are afoot... will blog again at the end of the week.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A moving blog

It's been in the pipeline for some months now, but finally I can reveal the big secret...

Blue Dragon is moving!

We've been in our current location, Lane 131, for just over 2 years, but we outgrew it in the first 12 months.

To make up for our rapid growth, we rented a second building... and then a third... and then a fourth. So at the moment, Blue Dragon is spread out over 4 buildings up and down our lane.

There are lots of problems with this, as you can imagine. Safety is a big one: our kids have to walk up and down the street from service to service. There's always a construction site somewhere on the street, and our neighbours are health hazards in themselves. (One of our boys, Nghia, likes to take my smaller dog Bear for a walk each day. One of the neighbours comes running out to attack them every time he sees them! No reason, just likes to get the futility of his own existence off his chest by beating up a child).

For the staff, communication has been an ongoing difficulty. With the team spread out over 4 buildings, getting messages through to everyone has not been easy.

And then there are the challenges of dealing with four landlords...

Our new center should simplify all that. We have taken out the rent on a 4 storey building that's deep and wide enough to consolidate all of our 4 current buildings. Some renovations have been needed, though, and the owners were good enough to let us do some pretty major work on their home. We've removed a staircase, knocked down walls, taken out their kitchen, built new rooms, repainted, created a new electrical system, and enclosed the balconeys to make the rooms larger.

The building work is almost finished - it's been going on for some weeks now. It's been expensive, of course, but all the renovation work is being paid for by the Schmitz Foundation in Germany. This means we don't have to use any of our general funds to pay for the building work. The final result will be a huge drop in center, with classrooms upstairs, a proper kitchen and dining hall, and all staff and services together in one building.

We're expecting that this new center will be our permanent home. It's too disruptive for the kids if we move often, so if all goes well we will be in our new home for many years to come.

I'll post some pictures soon!

Wednesday, August 08, 2007


My post on Monday was partly about a boy from Hue with a cleft lip; Ngoc, who is 13 years old.

Ngoc's life has been miserable, not to put too fine a point on it. In the year that I have known him, I've never seen him smile or even look remotely happy. I've never seen him talk or interact with anyone.

Now he's with us in Hanoi for the operation, and in just 3 days Ngoc has made leaps and bounds in his personal development. He's smiling, he's playing, he's taking risks, and to some extent he's even talking.

This morning, I walked into the drop in center to see the most amazing thing. It's hard to explain... But Ngoc was sitting on the floor, with several other kids and our social worker Giang. Ngoc was teaching the group how to make kites.

They've all just driven off to Lenin park to fly the kites they've made. Ngoc was smiling shyly and waving out the window as they drove off.

The confidence and interpersonal skills required to do what he has done this morning seemed far beyond Ngoc just days ago. I feel like I've witnessed a miracle.

Monday, August 06, 2007

An opening, and a closing

Close to 2 weeks since my last blog! But don't think this means nothing has been happening... It's actually the opposite. Some things just can't be blogged...

We have had some rough times - our staff have had to go out on some very long limbs to ensure the protection of a couple of kids, but all round we seem to be reaching good conclusions. It's hard to say more!

In the midst of it all, I went to a wonderful event last Tuesday night: the opening of a cafe.

By local standards, the cafe was pretty ordinary. Plastic flowers on the wall; a karaoke system loud enough to service a football stadium; and tiny plastic stools around tiny timber tables.

But for me, this was a very special opening night. The cafe owner, Tuyen, is the older brother of one of the teens at Blue Dragon. This boy - I'll call him Van - has had a pretty depressing life. Since his mother died a few years back, the family has fallen apart. Both Tuyen and Van have spent time shining shoes to support their family, and another brother has been in and out of drug rehabilitation over the past 3 years.

The opening of Tuyen's cafe was the first real success that Van's family has experienced in a long time. Tuyen and his wife Trang were so eager to please, and their drinks really were better then average. Their cafe will never make them rich, but it's their own cafe, and it's about a million times better than working as a shoeshine. Their determination and initiative deserve a medal. They won't get one, but the pride on their faces (and on Van's face) more than made up for it.

Also in the past week, the hope of a closing...

Blue Dragon has been helping about 30 families in Hue (Central Viet Nam), although we don't have any staff there, or even an official program. Once or twice a month, we take the train 600kms south to visit the villages and catch up with the families. Most of them have children who were trafficked to Saigon to work on the streets, and many have kids with disabilities or serious health conditions.

One of these is a boy named Ngoc, who at age 13 has a cleft lip. His parents consider their son to be cursed - and they tell him often. He's never been to school, never been taught to read and write, never been encouraged to think or talk or enjoy life.

We've been trying to get a hospital to operate on Ngoc for about 8 months, but every time we're close something goes wrong. Ngoc gets sick, or the hospital is busy - one time he even broke his arm. But we're sick of waiting, so on Saturday night we accompanied him to Hanoi on the overnight sleeper bus.

Ngoc will stay with us while we find a hospital to close up his cleft lip; and just as importantly we will help Ngoc to gain some confidence. Even though we have only a month or two, we should be able to teach him some basic literacy.

Ngoc's life is unimaginable to anyone who has not spent time in his village and seen what it is like. It's nearly impossible to comprehend how someone can be so badly treated by an entire village, including his own parents. I can't explain it myself, except to say that ALL of the children with disabilities in that area are treated the same.

Hopefully I'll soon be writing about a successful cleft lip operation - stay tuned.