I was riding a bicycle across Hanoi’s famous Long Bien bridge when the boy, “Hieu,” appeared from underneath the railway lines.
Long Bien is a city icon, and serves as the rail bridge across the Red River. It’s also home to countless homeless children – and adults, too – who find hiding spots in the most dangerous places to keep away from unwanted guests.
I had known Hieu for some time; he’d been at Blue Dragon previously, but then been sent to Reform School and had only recently returned to the city. He was now 14 years old and, reformed or not, he was homeless.
We joined a group of kids who were playing games on the island in the middle of the river. For a couple of hours Hieu played and laughed like any normal boy; he looked tired, but enjoyed the chance to be with friends.
During a break, I quizzed him on how he was doing and how he had survived the past few weeks. Hieu looked a little uncomfortable and said that someone had been helping him. I could see that something was wrong, so I asked the simple question: “Who has been helping you?”
His answer chilled me: “Olivier.”
Olivier is the name of a French doctor who is now back in France awaiting trial for sex crimes against children in Vietnam. At the time I spoke with Hieu, he was living and working in Hanoi, and his name had come up in countless disclosures from street children.
Knowing that Hieu was in contact with this man left me feeling physically ill. I quietly vowed to myself that I would do whatever I could to ensure Hieu was safe.
It’s now more than a year since Olivier was arrested, and since then just one other man has been arrested for the same crime: a Vietnamese con artist who traveled the northern provinces with a group of underage boys.
Since 2012, Blue Dragon has worked directly with over 60 boys aged under 16 who have been sexually abused. Almost all are boys who came to the city due to problems at home, and found themselves either tricked or coerced into going back to a stranger’s house, or to a hotel, for sex. While several of these men are foreigners, by far the majority are Vietnamese.
Over 60 boys have disclosed this information to us; and only 2 men have been arrested.
The city now has a network of pimps, and established meeting places where men target boys who are clearly homeless. Facebook is a much-used tool for men to communicate with their victims, or to send instructions to the pimps. Some of the men involved are powerful people, flaunting their wealth and connections to the children; while others work on the streets themselves.
Hanoi is a dangerous place to be a homeless child. The city has to face up to this insidious problem, or else face a future of being known as a sleazy child-sex destination.
Hieu is safe now; he’s been off the streets ever since that day on the bridge. He goes to school, lives in a stable home, and has big plans for a career in hospitality. And yet, not a week goes by that Blue Dragon does not meet at least one more boy caught up in the vicious cycle of sexual abuse.
While we’ve done all we can so far to keep Hieu and children like him safe, there will be more children tomorrow who are in danger unless someone intervenes in this rapidly growing mess.