Thursday, January 28, 2010

A wedding, and a coat of paint

There's been some excitement at Blue Dragon this week - one of the very first kids we met and helped, over 7 years ago, has just married!

Minh, from Ha Nam province, was working on the streets of Hanoi shining shoes back in 2002. He and many young people from his village had come to the city to earn money to support their families. At that time, Blue Dragon was still just an idea, but when we opened a residential home in mid 2003, Minh was one of the first kids to move in. Shortly after, we helped him apply for a job in a fine restaurant, and he's been working in hospitality ever since.

The picture below is Minh with his beautiful wife, Luan:

... and here's Minh back in 2003, studying English!

While we've been celebrating in Hanoi, the kids and staff at the Hoi An Children's Home have been rolling up their sleeves and PAINTING!

Some old friends from Australia, Peter and Robin, have volunteered at the Home in the past, and just before Christmas they turned up to help out with gardening and maintenance around the kids' home. Thanks to a whole lot of paint, and even more elbow grease, the place looks absolutely transformed - in the bottom photo you can see the difference between 'old' and 'new'.


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The VIP story

There’s a lot more to Blue Dragon than most people realize. On this blog I try to let people know about all the different things we have going on, but outside of our staff and volunteers, not many people understand the full extent of our operations.

A case in point: few people realize that Blue Dragon has been running a vocational training program as part of a motorbike rental business we set up in 2008.

The whole concept started with a donation from Lars and Julie Jaegar and Lars’ company, Partners Group. At the time, Blue Dragon had a volunteer named Andrew Souto who happened to be a mechanic, and had already been with us for 18 months running small training and job skills programs for street kids. Together we hatched the idea for VIP Bikes, which was to be a genuine business offering the best motorbike rental and repair service in Hanoi, and which also trained disadvantaged youth in mechanics and business skills.

What we didn’t realize, though, was how intense the demand for business would be once we had started. While we were still renovating the building we’d rented, Andrew’s phone started ringing from people who wanted to rent bikes. How could we say no? Once word was out, there was no turning back. And once the Hanoi community heard how good the service was, Andrew’s phone just kept on ringing.

Some other supporters cam on board as well: Jacqui Gregory from Queensland raised money to help VIP Bikes buy equipment, and St Joseph’s International School in Singapore raised funds to pay for training. Some of their students even came over and painted the building!

Fast forward two years, and Andrew is still volunteering at VIP Bikes (through the VIDA program), with the original mechanics working alongside him – plus a couple more! The rental business side has grown from 3 motorbikes to over 50, and there’s a constant stream of short term and long term trainees.

One of those trainees, Bao, now works full time at VIP Bikes: he’s now staff, and wears his uniform with pride.

Bao at work...

Another trainee, Nhan, has moved on to a training program at KOTO, which teaches hospitality skills. Although that seems to be totally unrelated, VIP Bikes taught Nhan a few skills that he needed before he could be accepted by KOTO: like punctuality, listening to the trainer, and following directions. Without those months under Andrew’s guidance, Nhan simply couldn’t have been ready for any other program or job.

This week saw a major milestone in the VIP story. What started out as a program under the auspices of Blue Dragon has now become a fully independent social enterprise. VIP Bikes has taken on a life of its own; it needed to break free from the rest of Blue Dragon so it could keep on growing.

A workshop for disadvantaged youth on bicycle maintenance

I can be pretty cynical about NGOs and the ‘empire mentality’ that I see at work in many of the big charities here in Vietnam. In a situation like this, it was very tempting for Blue Dragon to hold on to VIP Bikes – after all, why wouldn’t we want to hang on to such a huge success story? Why let go of something so good? But the truth is, VIP Bikes has much more freedom to grow and develop if it is not part of another organization. So we decided to separate, and register VIP as an independent social enterprise.

Blue Dragon kids will continue to train there, and I’m looking forward to posting stories soon about some of the teenagers who are about to start learning motorbike repair – including a couple of boys who were previously trafficked to garment factories.

So stay tuned. The VIP Bikes story has a long way to go.

Read more about VIP Bikes here.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Blue Dragon United

Blue Dragon United was launched this morning!

Our new team braved the winter drizzle to don the new uniform and kick off the first ever game of BDU.

A quick look back over the history of soccer at Blue Dragon...

We started in early 2003 with just 3 players! Our uniform was green then, and the team name was Real Betis Vietnam. After the game, we'd have lunch and an English class.

Late in 2004 we switched to a new uniform. By this time we were normally having 30-40 kids come and play each week, and we started running occasional workshops on issues such as HIV/AIDS after the games.

And here we are in 2010! At least 60 kids come every week, and as of today we are known as Blue Dragon United.

As you can see, half the shirts are orange with a little blue; the other half are blue with a little orange. This is because we play against each other in the Sunday games.

This morning was great - the rain cleared to give us perfect playing conditions. A terrific start to the new team!


Friday, January 22, 2010

United we stand

7 years ago, when I was just starting to work with street kids in Hanoi, my friends and I came up with the idea of starting a soccer team.

We'd been running weekly classes out of a room in my home, but as more and more kids came, we just didn't have the room to teach them. So we figured that we could fit plenty of kids onto the soccer field, offer a meal at the end, and then run classes for those who wanted to study.

That was back before we had even started Blue Dragon Children's Foundation - seems like a lifetime ago!

But 7 years on, Blue Dragon still meets every Sunday morning at 8am for a game of soccer. Just 3 kids came to our first game; these days it's common for 60 to 80 kids to be there.

At the outset, our team was named Real Betis Vietnam. One of the original Blue Dragon team, a Spaniard named Gonzalo Serrano, was a big fan of Real Betis, so we adopted that name. Now, though, we've decided to create a new team with a name that resonates more strongly with our kids:

Blue Dragon United.

The new team kicks off this Sunday morning, but the new shirt is already getting some publicity...

These are all real, I tells ya. Trust me.

We've created a website for the players to keep in touch with the latest news. It's just in Vietnamese at the moment but in coming weeks we'll have English as well. Check it out:

Blue Dragon United

After the launch on Sunday, I'll blog again with some more info, and hopefully some more photos. As I write, the rain is bucketing down outside, so we are all hoping for clearer skies very soon...


Monday, January 18, 2010

A big ask

With Christmas scarcely behind us, I know this is a bad time to put out a call for funding. And now the world is focused on the terrible emergency in Haiti.

But I need to ask for help for 2 families here in Vietnam.

For each of these families, we're seeking a few hundred dollars - in one case, to repair a home, and in another, to build a new one. For each of these families, this help will make a world of difference.

Thien, who lives with his parents and 4 siblings in Hue province, is one of the trafficked children we rescued in December. Below are some shots taken of their house from the outside as well as the inside.

Thien needs a new house. This current building is way too small, and far too miserable a place for kids to be growing up in. We already have a few hundred dollars for this, but we need another $800 US to build them a whole new home. His parents earn about $40 per month between them; building a decent home is way out of their reach.

Sang is a Grade 8 girl in Bac Ninh province, north of Hanoi. She's pictured below in front of her house with her brothers; and the second shot is taken inside the home.

Blue Dragon is already supporting Sang to go to school; but her living conditions are just atrocious. Sang's family needs to repair her home to keep out the winter, and for that they need about $380 US.

I know there couldn't be a worse time for me to be asking for help like this. But I've got to ask. Two kids and their families need some help.

If you can help out, drop me a line on


Sunday, January 17, 2010

More from Tet Awards

As promised, a few more photos of Tet Awards at the Sofitel Plaza last Thursday.

These are also on the Blue Dragon Facebook page - along with many more. If you're on Facebook, sign up to see them.

What the photos don't reveal, though, are the incredible stories behind the kids in the photos. Among the images are children who live in shacks... teens who have spent time in prison... kids who were thrown out of home when their parents remarried, so that the 'new' family can have new children.

That's the magic of Tet Awards: it doesn't matter one bit where you've come from, you're still a special, precious human being.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Big Night

Thursday night was a major event at Blue Dragon: Tet Awards 2010!

This was our 5th annual Tet (lunar new year) celebration - and without a doubt the best so far.

We invited all of the kids we work with in Hanoi - just over 250 girls and boys - for a huge celebration at the Sofitel Plaza. The children, their parents, and various foreign ambassadors and other special guests took part in a 90 minute party. complete with hip hop dancing, tap dancing, singing, a fashion show, and a dance off between the kids and Blue Dragon staff. I sat on the floor crying with laughter for the first hour.

There was also a serious side to the night: 38 children were invited to the stage to receive award for 10 different categories of achievement or endeavour. But every single one of the kids went home with a bag of presents, and most with a certificate recognising their best qualities.

I must say thanks to the Sofitel Plaza for pulling out all stops to make it a fantastic night. They gave us the room, food, and hot drinks all for free... they even through in an ice sculpture of a dragon!

Just a few pics below, and I will post more in coming days. I'm still gathering together the photos of the even, so just a teaser for now!

Saturday, January 09, 2010


NGOS (aka "charities") by nature are rarely self reflective organisations. The bigger they get, the more they are driven by the need to advance their own interests. There are notable exceptions, but it takes a very grounded NGO to stay focused on helping people rather than just getting their logo better known.

I've been thinking about this issue since I posted my last blog. In our work in Hue, we believe that one day in the forseeable future, our work will be finished. The end of child trafficking in certain communities in central Vietnam will one day be a thing of the past.

In three villages where dozens of children were being trafficked just 2 years ago, there is now no trafficking at all. The kids we rescued from factories on our last two trips were from a district of Hue province that was completely new to us. In other words, we have put a stop to child trafficking in the district we started in 3 years ago, and have now been able to move on to the next district.

But if you spend some time on google and do a search on the words "child trafficking increase" or "child trafficking on-the-rise", you'll come up with countless NGOs making press releases about how trafficking is getting worse, not better, and how therefore they need more of your money.

To which I can only say: FAIL.

If they are declaring that, despite all the millions of dollars they have so far spent, the problem is getting worse rather than better, do they really have the right to ask you for more donations? How will "more of the same" help if the problem is getting worse?

NGOs have a vested interest in declaring panic and emergency. Don't believe them. If they are spending millions and then saying the situation is deteriorating, they're either lying or failing. Either way, they don't deserve your support.


Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Out of the factories

In the final days of 2009, Blue Dragon staff went on a rescue trip to the factories of Ho Chi Minh City to find children who have been trafficked from central Vietnam to work in the south.

Altogether, the trip secured the release of 6 children, aged from 10 to 14, including 5 boys and 1 girl. With lunar new year coming up, the factories are desperate to keep the children in their service, so this was a real struggle - it took a day and a half of work before even the first child could be released!

One of the 6 kids went home immediately, while the other 5 went back as a group. Here's a photo of the 5 who traveled back together, along with a government official from Hue province who accompanied us on this trip:

Securing the release of the children involved an awful lot of negotiation and argument. The 2nd boy from the left (in the green shirt) is a 12 year old named Ty. He was desperate to get away from the factory, and his parents wanted him home, but the factory boss wouldn't let him go. Our staff had to hatch a plan for the boy to literally 'make a run for it' while they waited in a taxi down the street. Ty jumped in the car, they sped off - straight to the local police station to make a report. A bit frightening for the poor kid, but there was no other way to get him out.

The boy and the girl below are 2 of the many kids we were unable to take home on this trip... The boy is 12, the girl is 13.

The train trip back to Hue took about 26 hours: but the kids were thrilled to be reunited with their families.

... and the final step was to get together about 40 government and Red Cross officials from Hue for a debrief. This was on January 1, 2010 - so they were pretty keen to be there! At this point of the operation, our goal is to start 'fire proofing' the village by letting everyone know who the traffickers are, what life is like in the factories, and get the leaders to start thinking about how they can put a stop to this problem.

A great way to start the new year!


Saturday, January 02, 2010

New year roundup

Greetings from Ho Chi Minh City! I've escaped to the warm south for a few days to kick off the new year. Back to the cold, cold north soon.

For now - a quick roundup of Christmas and new year at Blue Dragon.

All the kids at our shelter in Hanoi had a festive "lau" at Truc Bac lake in the lead up to Christmas. Lau is a food along the lines of hotpot - and it's a real treat for our kids. They went off for karaoke afterwards, but I didn't join them for that!

On Christmas day, I went to the Sofitel Plaza with a couple of staff and a lot of kids for a meal in their Chinese restaurant. This was completely on the house - the Sofitel management went out of their way to give us a good time. A very new experience for our kids!

A rowdy Christmas party at the drop in centre...

At the Hoi An Children's Home, a huge party lead by our wonderful staff...

In the days after Christmas, I traveled north to the mountains with Huong, one of our social workers, to visit a family of orphans. We had some gifts to make their lives a bit easier - including study desks and lamps, and money for them to pay for lunch at school each day.

The next day, Huong and Giang (another of our staff) traveled south of Hanoi to meet up with a family whose son has been living with us for the past 18 months. That trip was not so positive - seems the family have refused to let the boy, who is 15 and tiny, continue at school. He's only in Grade 2, but now he's being sent off to work, probably on the streets of Thanh Hoa city. We have some more work to do on that case.

Meantime our lawyer Van was in Ho Chi Minh City looking for kids who work in garment factories. He and the government representatives from Hue were able to secure the release of 6 kids; they'd been hoping for more, but with Lunar New Year coming up in February the factories are desperate to keep the kids working. A journalist traveled with the rescue team, and we'd been hoping for a write up but so far there's been none. There was this, however, so we can't say that there's nothing important in the newspapers over the holiday period. (Just read the photo caption - that says it all!)

Hopefully I'll have an update within the week of the kids who were rescued from the factories.