In late December 2009, after spending Christmas in Hanoi with the Blue Dragon kids, I headed to Ho Chi Minh City for a short holiday.
I love Saigon. When I moved to Vietnam in 2002, my plan was to live there. Although I'm happy now living in Hanoi, I still miss the south and love to spend my holidays there.
So this year I wanted to spend New Years there. I figured it would be fun and relaxing, and I went with no real plans other than to catch up on some sleep.
Late on the 31st I walked the streets of the city, watching some outdoor concerts and enjoying the festivities. But, not being much of a party animal, I decided to head back to my hotel at about 1130.
It was a long walk, and by midnight I was getting close. I knew it was midnight because I could hear the firecrackers start far off in the distance.
At that exact moment, a small boy appeared out of nowhere with a huge smile and a friendly "hello!" He was oblivious to the fact that it was new years eve and midnight, and that he was missing a great display of fireworks not too far away. He was just genuinely excited to be talking to a foreigner.
I quickly learned his name was Vu, and he was selling helmets by the side of the road at a major intersection. I'd walked past this same spot half a dozen times, but never noticed him before. On this night, he was there with his 2 cousins, whose mother owned the stall but had already gone home for the night.
Vu was 14, and his cousins were about 17 - but all looked far younger. They were a bit dirty and were clearly very tired, but the sudden distraction of a foreigner who could speak Vietnamese cheered them up immediately. We chatted for about fifteen minutes before I wandered off, smiling to myself at what a happy and unexpected encounter I'd had.
Over the next few days, I met Vu and his cousins repeatedly. The older cousin, just turning 18, was pregnant. The younger one, a boy, worked until 2am each day in a side-of-the-road restaurant, earning about $70 per month. So the long day of selling helmets was mostly left to Vu and his aunty, who I spent many hours with at the intersection, talking about her life in between customers and learning about how she had come to sell helmets with her children and Vu.
Having worked with street kids for over 7 years now, I'm fairly good at getting a sense of the character of young people. Vu impressed me. At times he was like a child in kindergarten, wide-eyed at a new toy or jumping on the spot with joy at seeing a friend. But every time a motorbike crashed near his stall - which was at least two or three times a day - he would run out into the traffic to help someone get up, brush them down, and see them on their way. Over and over I watched him go out of his way to help complete strangers, never for any reward, and many times he was treated with disdain by passersby on expensive motorbikes, but it never deterred him. He wore the same infectious smile no matter what happened.
Until, that is, the day I was leaving. When it was time for me to return to Hanoi, Vu was inconsolable. Trying to hide his tears, he told me that he had an eye infection, but he was clearly distraught and for the following week I had constant text messages from Vu, using his aunt's mobile phone, to ask what I was doing and when I would return to see him.
Since that eventful new year, I've been back to visit Vu and his family several times. His cousin has given birth to a baby boy, and Blue Dragon helped out with some medical costs as well as a small allowance until the baby's father got a stable job. Vu's enthusiasm for text messages has eased off a bit - I imagine his aunty had to sell quite a few helmets to pay the phone bill - but we've still been in contact regularly and Blue Dragon has helped the aunty with some cash each month to support her nephew. They live in a tiny room, 4 people and a baby all together, and work unbelievably long hours to scratch together a living. What could I do to make things better?
A few months ago, I contacted a man named Paul, who runs the Saigon Children's Charity. Vu had told me that he wanted to study, and I was happy to pay for a tutor, but I was wondering if Paul could help me find a suitable teacher.
Instead, Paul asked his social workers to look into the case, and eventually they came up with a way to help Vu get back to a proper school. This was something that I simply couldn't do from Hanoi! And on top of this, they found a reputable local shelter that was prepared to accept Vu so that he could have better living conditions. In short, this was to make sure he wouldn't be compelled to work until the early hours of the morning, which would certainly mean that he couldn't keep up at school. Vu has been out of the schooling system for a couple of years, so he needs all the support he can get.
And finally, the Saigon Children's Charity staff found a vocational training course for Vu's cousin who has been working in the restaurant. He now studies motorbike repair in the morning, and helps his mother sell helmets in the afternoon.
This morning, Vu went to school for the first time in 3 years. He's in Grade 5, and one of the staff from the shelter sent me a message to say that he's doing really well.
Vu's outlook is great. He's back at school, living in a secure environment not too far from his aunt, and his cousin is studying a trade with a guaranteed job upon graduation.
If only every story could have such a happy ending!