Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Dong in the House Sing Big

Over the last few weeks we’ve had some stress over violent attacks on our kids – sometimes near their schools, sometimes near the Blue Dragon residence, and usually with weapons. But last night was a complete change of pace; I took one of our street kids to the Hanoi Opera House.

The Opera House (“Nha Hat Lon” in Vietnamese – literally “House Sing Big”) is arguably the most beautiful building in Hanoi. I wanted to take one of our boys, named Dong, there to let him see a side to the city that he knows too little about. Dong has a long and very sad story; he has no parents and has lived on the streets for years. He’s only completed Grade 2 and at age 13 has lived such a wild life, stealing in the markets to survive, that it’s unlikely he’ll ever return to formal education. But since joining our Link program he has moved into a home and is attending informal classes at our drop in centre; he’s really calmed down and has given up the street life for good.

Still, he’s not exactly the kind of guy who hangs out at the Opera House very often.

Last night was a special occasion: the 35th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Vietnam and Australia. To celebrate, the Embassy threw a party complete with an Australian soprano, Annalisa Kerrigan, singing with the accompaniment of the Vietnamese National Symphony Orchestra.

Annalisa visited Blue Dragon on Monday – her trip to Vietnam was organized by AFAP, who we partner with in some of our programs, so she came to meet some kids and see our centre. But until last night I hadn’t seen her on stage… and wow was she something. What a treat to be there.

For Dong, his first trip to the opera was certainly memorable. He loved the orchestra, he loved Annalisa, and he even got to go on stage with all the VIPs for a group photo. It was wonderful to see him mixing it with ambassadors and dignitaries, cheering at the end of “Let the Bright Seraphim”, and sticking his fingers in his ears when the applause reached fever pitch.

In many ways, Vietnam is the land of opportunities. The country is racing forward and developing rapidly. Who knows… maybe one day Dong will be visiting the Opera House in a suit and tie himself.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

House building

At long last, I have some photos of two houses that Blue Dragon has built in Hue. We don't normally build houses for families - only when there's a really serious need - but I think most people would agree that both of these cases would qualify...

Both houses are for families of kids who were trafficked but are now at home and going to school.

House 1: Hung's house


(A note about the banner on the front of the house: The custom in Vietnam is for the donor to attach a plaque to any house that they pay for - even if they only pay a tiny proportion of the total cost. I don't like to do that, as it implies we still own the home. But the families often want to recognise us in this way - it increases their status in the community! - so our compromise is to hang a banner for the party when the house is being 'officially' opened. )
House 2: Viet's house

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It's...

Back to school we go!

Thirteen year old Duong was a runaway when we met him in Hanoi 18 months ago. He'd escaped a tough family situation, and although we tried to get the family back together Duong ended up living in our residence and joining our Link program.

But on Feb 14, Duong will go back to school - something he told us he would never do. It's been a difficult decision for him and he'll need lots of support, but here's hoping we can make this a success!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Days of feasting

One key to understanding Vietnamese culture is in understanding the importance of food, and eating together.

At Blue Dragon, we have a program called The Link, which brings together some of the toughest street kids around and helps them work toward a more normal, safe life. As difficult as these boys are to handle, the one time of day that they are quiet and cooperative is when they are sitting on a straw mat in the evening having dinner.

Meals are always enjoyed with friends and family; people rarely eat alone. And unlike typical meals in the west, all dishes are shared. Diners pluck their meat and vegetables from bowls in the middle of the mat or table.

In the lead up to Lunar New Year (Tet), food is even more precious. It’s a great honour to be invited to somebody’s home to share a meal in the last days of the year, as well as in the first days of the new year.

We had a few very special food-based celebrations with our kids in the lead up to Tet. The first came on Australia Day, January 26, when the Australian Ambassador and his wife donated a massive cake and fruit hamper to the boys in our main residence. None of them had ever seen such a large cake – I’d never seen such a large cake! – but even with 18 kids (and a couple of larger helpers, me included) there was still some left over for the next morning.

That same night, another very special occasion. One of our boys, named Trung, has just secured his first job as a kitchen trainee in at the Hilton Hotel in Hanoi. What a place to start work! I first met Trung some years ago, as a tiny 13 year old orphan shining shoes to survive. Over time, Trung has come and gone, but he’s back now, he’s grown up incredibly quickly, and he’s got a terrific job with great potential. To celebrate, Trung cooked a feast for dinner at the Residence, with about 8 dishes plus dessert.

This was his way of saying thanks to everyone for supporting him while he looked for a job; and also a way of building his own confidence as he prepared to join the workforce.

In the days leading up to Tet, our kids took to distributing food to poor families in our area. A volunteer from the US, Minh, worked with the kids to buy rice, sweets and banh chung (a special rice cake), and the kids had to decide who should receive the food packages. Minh and the kids then went about handing out the gifts – which involved going across Long Bien bridge to the island in the Red River, and clambering about under staircases and overpasses. This gave our kids a chance to share the joy that they experience at Tet, and let them engage in some community service.

Now Tet is coming to an end, and the normal hectic pace of city life will return soon. In the six years that I’ve been in Vietnam, this has to be the most peaceful and satisfying Lunar New Year that I’ve experienced.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Say cheese!

It’s the Year of the Rat!

Day 1 of the New Year was Thursday, so Hanoi has been very quiet for the past couple of days. Most of the Blue Dragon kids have headed back to the countryside; I’ve been looking after just 5 boys who have no family to go to. Our drop in center is running on a skeleton staff in case of emergency – but thankfully, everything has been peaceful so far.

Going about the streets has been nice; there’s hardly anybody about so for once the traffic isn’t totally insane. One odd thing has been that people have abandoned wearing helmets. Back in December, the government introduced a regulation that all motorbike riders must wear helmets, and their enforcement was so good that easily 99% of people have been following the law. But for some reason, Tet seems to be the time to leave the helmet at home…

Blue Dragon will get back to normal on Tuesday in the coming week. I’ll add another post over the weekend about some of the food-related fun of the past weeks.

Chuc mung nam moi!