Street Children in Ho Chi Minh City
By Dylan Foley
After Luong’s mother abandoned him in the center of Ho Chi Minh City, the nine year-old washed
cars to survive. Though he was exploited by his boss and paid virtually nothing, he was glad he
had a safe place to sleep.
As Vietnam undergoes rapid economic growth and much social upheaval, the number of children
fleeing the desperate poverty of the countryside for the relative opportunity of the city has
skyrocketed. According to several non-governmental organizations, there are 30,000 street
children between six and eighteen years old in Ho Chi Minh City alone.
Though many of the street children come to Ho Chi Minh City to try to escape poverty, some run
away from abusive home situations. The children work shining shoes, selling lottery tickets and
newspapers. Some kids sell postcards and gum to foreigners. Others make a living as sex workers
and petty thieves.
“There are three categories of street children,” said Huy Nguyen, a staff member at Save the
Children UK, the British aid organization. “There are children who have no family and live and
work on the street, there are children who live and work on the street with their families and
there are children who spend most of their time on the streets, but do return home.”
The streets of Ho Chi Minh City can be a brutal place for the children that live on them, noted
Huy Nguyen. Many of the children are routinely exploited, some beaten and others sexually
abused. “There have been cases of children being kidnapped and murdered,” he said.
Several private aid groups have programs that work with street children. The Thao Dan Street
Children Project was founded five years ago to help children protect themselves against
economic and sexual exploitation. The group is run by a staff of 12 and has a shoestring budget
of $11,000 a year from Save the Children.
The project also has 30 to 40 street children volunteer outreach workers. The outreach workers
are recruited by the Street Children Project to teach their peers how to protect themselves
from sexual molestation and other violence.
Last winter, Save the Children held a convention of street children from cities around Vietnam.
Held in Ho Chi Minh City, the goal of the convention was to train them how to educate other
kids about how to avoid HIV and AIDS. At the conference, the kids role-played on how to protect
themselves from sexual abuse from both adult Vietnamese and foreigners. They were educated on
the “ten golden rules” of how to avoid such abuse, including screaming to attract help and
running away from trouble.
The peril is not only from adults. Recently, a 13-year-old girl who worked on the street
selling lottery tickets was almost sold to a pimp by a 17-year-old hustler. Tam Truong, a
former prostitute and an AIDS educator who works with Save the Children, heard about the
dangers facing the girl. Truong sought her out, gained her confidence and returned the girl to
Harassment from the police is also commonplace. “Occasionally, the police round up street
children for security reasons during big tourist events,” said a Vietnamese-American aid worker
familiar with street children projects in Vietnam. “Official organizations like the Women’s
Union and the Youth Union work with street children, but it is necessary to get to the root of
the problem -- the poverty that brings the children from the villages.” She notes that a family
working in a small village may earn $150 a year, while a family in the Ho Chi Minh City may
earn $900 a year.
In an effort to provide skills for the street children, the Street Children Project holds
Vietnamese literacy classes and English lessons, literally on the street corner or in the
“We try to convince the children we work with to take more stable employment like factory
work,” said Huy Nguyen. He explained that more lucrative jobs like shoeshine work are unsteady
and can involve dangerous contact with adults.
Hong Nguyen, who is not related to Huy Nguyen, is the founder of the Thao Dan Street Children
Project. An intense man in his early forties, Nguyen says that he became interested in working
with street children after a rough life of his own. “I was a drug user for 23 years,” he says.
“When people ask why I am good at helping children, I tell them it is because I have tasted the
bitterness of life. I know that everyone has their own personal value.
“Society is quick to condemn,” he said. “For example, people say that prostitution is evil and
that women who are prostitutes have choices. For the women, the choice is often between being a
prostitute and not being a prostitute and starving.”
Hong Nguyen has set up two houses for 20 homeless boys, most who have been abused by older men.
The first is called Safe House, which is for boys under sixteen, and the second is called
Brother House, for boys sixteen to eighteen. “We encourage them to go back to their families,
The small apartment that makes up Safe House is spartan, but the mood is lively, with the 10
boys playing a variety of games after a day of work. The children run their own newsstand and
have other jobs. Luong, the nine-year-old car washer, lives at the house now. He looks three
years younger than his age, but a sharp wit radiates from the boy when he is playing with his
For the long term, Hong Nguyen plans to develop a 24-hour drop-in center for street children,
where they can take a shower and have a meal, and possibly even have access to basic health
“At Thao Dan, we also hold recreational activities and large cultural festivals for the
children,” says Hong Nguyen. “We want to bring them some happiness, for their lives are so
Copyright 1996 All Rights Reserved Dylan Foley
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