Today is the last day of the Lunar calendar. Throughout Vietnam, millions of families are finishing off their preparations and returning to their ancestral homes to spend the coming days together.
As a foreigner who has lived in Vietnam for almost 10 years, I enjoy watching the traditions and festivities, although I will never really be part of them. The great joy for me is having time to catch up with kids who I haven't seen for a while, hearing how their lives are going, and sharing in their joys and sorrows.
Two weeks ago I was in Hue, in central Vietnam, to celebrate Tet (Lunar New Year) with the kids we've rescued out of garment factories in Ho Chi Minh City and returned home. About 80 children and teens were there, all from villages around the coast which are targeted by child traffickers looking for cheap labourers to sell to the factories.
While I was making a short speech to the kids, one of the teen boys stood up to interrupt. He had something he wanted to say.
This was a boy named "G", about 16 or 17 years old (but without a birth certificate, age is just a guess). I met G back in 2008 - he's the boy featured in the first photo on this blog entry. G has never been trafficked, but his family was being approached by the traffickers and, frankly, it was hard for them to refuse. G and his younger brother lived with their mother in a tin shack which had recently been blown away by a typhoon. Neither of the sons had been to school; neither could read or write a word.
When you live like that, it's very easy to accept the "help" of a kindly stranger who comes offering a chance of training and employment. But of course, the "help" means 18 hours per day in a garment factory, learning nothing and earning a few cents per day.
So we built G's family a new house, and they went from living in this:
... to living in this:
That was a good start, but definitely not enough. G and his brother were too old to start in First Grade at school, so we found a teacher to come to their home and teach them basic literacy and numeracy. Later, when we opened a community centre in their village, they were able to join in many more classes and activities.
And later still, we started a small project in their village teaching families how to raise fish in the local lake to earn a better income. G's mother joined the project, and 2 years on she knows all about feeding the fish, preventing disease, finding buyers for her product, and so on. It's all very technical, but with this knowledge she's able to earn enough money that she and her sons do not have to go hungry any more.
With G getting a little older, he's thinking about the future. Although he doesn't know exactly what he wants to do, he's enrolled in a preparation program for a hospitality course. This means he now lives in Hue city, about 45 minutes from his home, and studies English every day. Just a few years ago he was illiterate; now he's learning English!
So there we were at our Tet party, and G stood up to speak. I was shocked that he had the confidence to do so; this is something completely new. The children were just as surprised as I.
G spoke for only a minute, but what he said was beautiful. He wanted to say thanks for all the help he has received, and to express his hope for the future.
Such a small thing, but for G to stand up and speak like this was a momentous act of bravery. Later, he came to me privately to say thanks again.
And this is what it's all about. For all of the difficulties, the setbacks, the failures, and the regrets, G's own personal success - which is his very own success, and not something he needs to thank anyone for - is a reminder of all of the good in our world.
There is hope.