A young homeless child sleeps on the streets of Hanoi. In Vietnam, they are called ‘tre bui doi’ – children of the dust. Photograph: STR/Reuters
As night falls in Hanoi, the crowds thronging around the Hoan Kiem Lake begin to dissipate. Do Duy Vi scans the crowds of teenagers hunting Pokémon on their phones, women dancing and street vendors hawking the last of their wares.
“You learn to look for the signs,” says Vi. “Sometimes they’ll be dirty, or carrying bags of clothes. Sometimes you can tell from the way they sit.”
Vi is making his nightly search for destitute children sleeping on the streets of Vietnam’s capital city. “They’re seen as the lowest of the low. In Vietnamese they’re called ‘tre bui doi’ – ‘children of the dust’,” he says.
Vi, who’s 29, is the chief outreach officer for Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, an Australian-founded NGO that has been working with street children in Vietnam since 2004. He has been in the job for seven years.
“I used to live on the streets myself, when I was 14 and 15,” he says. “My parents didn’t have any money. We lived in a small village about 130km from Hanoi. When I was 14 I decided I needed to find a job so I got on a bus and came to the city.”
For two years, Vi slept on the floor of a hostel and worked shining shoes on the streets. On a good day he could hope to make the equivalent of 80p. He still remembers the hunger and fear of those days. “I was beaten up a lot,” he recalls.
No one is quite sure how many children are homeless in Vietnam. A Human Rights Watch report from 2006 estimated that there were 23,000. Unicef says that official government figures for 2014 were down to 7,300. But these statistics do not accurately reflect the prevalence of children living and working on the streets, according to Vijaya Ratnam-Raman, acting chief of child protection for Unicef in Vietnam. “Previously [they] were much more visible, however, this decrease in visibility does not necessarily equal a decrease in the actual numbers.”
These days Vi is happily married with a young daughter. But it was a chance encounter 14 years ago that changed his life. One particularly hot summer’s day, Vi was searching for customers, and bumped into Michael Brosowski, a teacher from Sydney. Brosowski had set up a free class for children who couldn’t afford to pay, running lessons out of a small cafe on Sunday afternoons.
“Vi had a real spark about him,” Brosowski remembers. “He was clearly a bright kid, and very confident. He gave me a huge smile and just said, ‘Shoeshine!’ – which was the only English word he knew. We sat in the little courtyard outside my house and he polished my shoes while we chatted.”
Vi started attending Brosowski’s classes and a year later his mentor set up Blue Dragon. These days the centre offers free meals, clothes and classrooms for more than 200 street children a year. It also has dormitories for children, with beds for around 30 – they are always filled.
Vi lived at the centre for five years, and later returned to Blue Dragon to offer children the benefit of his experiences as a social worker there. Now he is known as the organisation’s “miracle worker”. “He can get through to kids no one else can [reach],” explains Brosowski.
“I think it’s the common ground – we’ve both been through the same problems,” says Vi.
Other young people have followed in Vi’s footsteps. Blue Dragon now runs an official social work training programme, to help more former street children to become outreach workers. Four young men recently graduated.
Vi combines his nightly walks with mentoring sessions for the younger students interested in social work. Tonight, he is shadowed by a quiet 16-year-old.
He crosses a busy square to chat a group of boys he knows. Minh*, a tiny 12-year-old, hops forward on his crutches, his arms streaked with scars, and throws his arms around Vi. One leg of Minh’s tattered sweatpants hangs redundant – he lost his leg when he was electrocuted, and his family failed to get him medical treatment. Now Vi is working with Minh to encourage him to stop begging and come to the shelter full-time.
“There are gangs round here,” says Vi, “and worse. We know there are a lot of paedophiles that come to this area, both Vietnamese men and foreigners. These children face a lot of abuse.” He says that one child he met recently was propositioned six times by men on his first night sleeping rough in the city.
Vi emphasises that building trust is a slow process. “The first time you meet these kids you know they aren’t telling you their real story. So at the beginning I don’t ask too many questions – I just try to be friendly, talk to them about sport, like football. Tell them about my life as a street kid.”
He recalls one boy he met two years ago. The 14-year-old was being preyed on by paedophiles and had turned to methamphetamines to dull the pain.
“I worked with him for months. I said, ‘If you need money we can help you,’ but he refused. He was on this path to self-destruction – he kept going back to paedophiles and drugs,” said Vi.
“Every time I saw him he would cry. I didn’t know what to do. After three months of reaching out I’d said everything, done everything I could think of. People asked me why I kept going. I’d say, ‘I don’t know – all I can do is be his friend.’”
Vi’s persistence paid off. A year ago, the boy turned up at the shelter, and now it is his home. “He has never turned back to his old life,” says Vi, proudly. Then he sets off on another of his tours of the streets, looking for the next child to save.
*Name changed to protect identity
Saving Hanoi's street children from abuse, hunger and self-destruction Maeve McClenaghan in Hanoi 5 October 2016