It was about 10 years ago that I first arrived in Hanoi, fresh from the south of Vietnam to teach English to post-grad economics students.
On the surface, Hanoi was a very different place then. There was much less conspicuous wealth at that time; people were stashing their gold under mattresses, afraid to 'flaunt it' as they do now. But the wealth was there, it was just hidden.
The situation of street kids has followed an opposite pattern. Ten years ago, street kids were very visible in Hanoi. The photo above, taken in 2003, shows a few shoeshine boys from Hung Yen province, working on Hang Gai street, famous for its boutique silk shops. Such scenes were typical at the time. Street kids were pretty much everywhere.
Today, I often hear people commenting that Hanoi "doesn't have street kids." And on the surface, the city does seem strangely void of children begging, selling, and cleaning shoes. Just as often, people ask me: Why don't you work in Cambodia, where there's 'real' need?
Comments like this miss the point that, as with so much in Vietnam, there is always more than meets the eye. Far, far more.
Street kids in Hanoi try to camouflage themselves to fit in and hide among the mainstream. Standing out means discrimination, and possibly even detention in a "Social Protection Centre" or Reform School.
The camouflage takes many shapes. Street kids now try to dress like everybody else; they have learned that dressing in the cheaper, simpler clothes of their countryside makes them easy to identify.
The kids have also learned that certain times and places are safer to work. Safer, because the chance of being caught is considerably less. What times are safest? The kids have found that late at night is their best chance to earn money. Problem is, what kind of work can they do at night? Legitimate ways of earning money are much more difficult, so many kids have turned to theft and prostitution. These "jobs" also yield much greater income than the traditional jobs like shining shoes and selling bread.To avoid getting in trouble with the law, many kids have turned to breaking the law.
And finally, the kids are masters at finding places to sleep where nobody can find them. For those who hit the jackpot with a big income one night, they may head off to a hotel for a few days, often inviting their friends to join them until the money runs out. Others become expert tree climbers and hide out right under the noses - or, more accurately, above the heads - of tourists around Hoan Kiem Lake in trees like these.
It's been fascinating to watch the development of Vietnam these past 10 years. I find it hard to say that the lives of street kids are any better than they were when I first arrived, but there's no doubt that things are very different for them.