Ngoc was 13 when I met him, late in 2005. He was tiny and exhausted, selling flowers on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. Normally he'd start work around sunset, and walk up and down outside tourist spots and nightclubs until 2 or 3am.
His traffickers, some middle aged women, had brought him from his village in Hue province, in central Vietnam. Every flower he sold was for their benefit; his "payment" was a place to sleep on a concrete floor and some plain rice or noodles a few times per day.
If he didn't sell his quota of flowers each night, he was rewarded with a beating.
Angered by what I saw, and shocked by the compliance of 2 other charitable organisations with this trafficking, I asked one of our volunteers to help me find a way for Ngoc to escape and get back to his family. That volunteer, a uni student named Van, is now Blue Dragon's Chief Lawyer.
We found a way to get Ngoc away from the traffickers, and in doing so learned that his situation was not an isolated case. Dozens more kids just like him had been brought from central Vietnam to the south and put to work as slaves, mostly under the pretense of 'vocational training'. The parents were extremely poor - often living in tin huts or tents on beaches - and were easily convinced that their children were being offered an opportunity to escape from grinding poverty.
And so, in addition to helping street kids, Blue Dragon started helping kids who had been trafficked.
Six years on, we've rescued 92 kids who have been trafficked for slavery within Vietnam. The trafficking rings that took Ngoc and his friends to Ho Chi Minh City to sell flowers are long gone; we interrupted their business so much that they just gave up. We've effectively ended trafficking in 4 communes of Hue province, but there's still a huge trade in children from Hue being taken south to work in the garment industry.
The question for Blue Dragon remains: Can we end this trafficking of children from Hue to the garment factories permanently?
If we could bring down one trafficking ring, can't we bring down some more? And if we could end trafficking from 4 communes in Hue province, then can't we end it in all communes?
These aren't just hypothetical questions... These are the issues that my staff and I will be talking about this Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Van and I are in Hue now, to meet with our staff who are based here. We intend to come up with a strategy that will put a permanent end to the trafficking of children from Hue to the garment factories.
It won't be easy; and we're going to need a few years to really make an impact. But it's time for us to take this dive into the deep end. Our work so far has had some terrific results, and I am proud of what we've achieved. However, I think we can put our knowledge and expertise now to an even more powerful end.
Why is it important?
It's all about the kids. Ngoc is a young man now, and he has done brilliantly for himself. Although he had never been to school when I met him, he has since gone on to study a few years of primary school, and now works in a restaurant in Hanoi. He's an excellent chef, much loved by his employer, and he is one of the most responsible Blue Dragon kids yet. He's a great role model to all those around him.
There are just so many more Ngocs out there. The photo below is of some of the other trafficked kids we've rescued and have gone back to full time study. Last week our staff invited those who achieved excellent school results on an outing to a bookstore. The idea was for each of them to buy whatever reading material they wanted... but they saw some painting activities and decided to have a go at that, too.
These are kids who were working 18 hours a day in garment factories not so long ago. The chance to go to a bookstore, buy whatever they want, and join in some art activities must have seemed like a ridiculous fantasy - but why shouldn't they have the chance? Why should such a simple pleasure be denied them?
Dreams can indeed become reality; and my dream is that kids from Hue don't have to sell their childhood to produce cheap clothes in Vietnam's factories. Over the coming days, my challenge is to figure out how to do this!