Season of Mist and Coloured Hair

Hanoi is a grey place at this time of year, with fog and pollution hanging low over the city.

But standing out from the drabness: swarms of blue, purple and yellow hair.

Every year, right before Tet (Lunar New Year), the Blue Dragon kids dye their hair as a way of entering the new year with something different and striking. Their hair-dos can be pretty wild and wonderful. Of course, as soon as Tet is over they have to shave it all off in order to be allowed back to school!

A special touch this year is that one of our older boys, “Than”, has just graduated from a hair styling course and has volunteered to colour the hair of all the other boys.

He’s been busy.

The excitement as Tet draws near (February 5!) is palpable. And the coloured heads of Blue Dragon bring it all to life.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.

The rise of the baby farm

The first time he tricked a woman and sold her to a brothel, Mr Nam earned about $50.

He had thought it would be  more, and was promised that next time he would be much happier. The buyers were right. 

In between his on-again / off-again job as a xe om (motorbike taxi), Mr Nam was easily able to befriend young women who came into town with empty pockets in need of a job. By giving them a little money from time to time, and free rides around town, he quickly built their trust. 

So when he told them about a lucrative employment opportunity to the north in China, most were quick to agree. 

Soon he was earning up to $500 for each young woman he could hand over to Mrs Ping, his Chinese friend. 

But when he added it all up, he knew that the cash he received did not compensate the months of work it took to get each woman across the border. 

There had to be an easier way. 

Eventually Ping rang him with a brilliant idea. The women could be taken into China and kept there in the countryside; nobody would buy them. Instead, single men in need of an heir could pay to impregnate them, and 9 months later could have a child. And then, after a few months to recover, the women’s womb could be rented out again – and again and again. 

Instead of each woman earning $500 just one time, they could yield much more on an ongoing basis. The stress of finding new victims would ease right off and the money would roll in. 

A genius plan. 


This story is fiction. I don’t know a “Mr Nam” or a “Mrs Ping”. But I know they are out there, because right now their victims are starting to be heard.

In October last year, Blue Dragon rescued a young woman who had been sold into forced surrogacy just like in the story. And then in December, her information led the Chinese police to the location where she had been held; altogether 9 women were rescued, and there is evidence that there had been even more women held there in the past.

This week, Chinese police handed 4 women back to Vietnam, all of whom had been found in a raid on another “baby farm”. As of this moment, their statements are still being taken in their home province of Nghe An, in north-central Vietnam, and soon they will be home with their families.

People often ask me if trafficking is getting better or worse. Usually that question refers to the statistics: are there more people being trafficked, or is it in decline? The truth is that data is so unreliable that it’s virtually useless.

What we are seeing, though, is a constant evolution and adaptation of human trafficking: and yes, it’s getting worse.

I cannot imagine the horror of a woman being deceived into visiting another country then held against her will and sold; then raped until she is pregnant; only to have her baby taken away and sold, so that she can be raped again.

And I struggle to believe that this nightmare scenario is being played out right now, in 2019. It should be impossible, but it’s not.

There are many urgent challenges facing our world, and human trafficking is up there towards the top of that list. We have to stop this.

It can’t be allowed to go on.


Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.

Dirty hands

I lived on a farm in the outback of Australia for 6 years as a teenager.

I hated it, and they were the best years of my life.

At the time, I hated the isolation. We were 30km from the nearest village; to get a haircut was a 120km round trip. There was nobody my age nearby – no other houses in sight of our own – and for some years we were off the grid, with no electricity connection and our water was collected from a nearby stream.

As a teenager, I dreamt of being elsewhere.

But in hindsight, it was an amazing experience. I had the freedom of the outdoors, I could walk where ever I wanted, I could ride motorbikes up and down dirt tracks.

And I learned the value of hard work. If we didn’t get out in the garden, or feed the chickens, or build the goat pens, then we didn’t eat. I learned where our food comes from, learned to be self reliant.

I’m thankful that I had this incredible experience as a teenager.

Living and working in Hanoi now, I am in a bustling, noisy city where construction work never ends. At Dragon House, I work with teens and young people who have mostly come from rural parts of Vietnam but are now in the capital city, living in internet cafes or under bridges or in drain pipes. Their lives are all about survival – and not in a healthy sense.

So in recent months, Blue Dragon has been giving these kids opportunities to get out of the city and reconnect with nature.

Girls who have been rescued from sexual slavery, and boys who have spent years living rough on the streets, have had opportunities to spend time in the countryside doing treks, fishing, gardening, and – well, getting their hands dirty.

It’s been wonderful to see their shining faces after a day of being out in nature. They’re certainly not just having holidays; when our young people go out to the countryside, they have responsibilities to help. Some have been gardening; some have been cleaning up paddocks; some have been hauling scrap from a dam. Others have been in charge of preparing meals, which includes catching fish or killing a chicken!

Without exception, the kids are loving it. Being in nature is somehow more ‘real’: when our hands are in the earth, we have a sense of connection.

And it’s this connection that the Blue Dragon kids need most in their lives. Working in a team to make one little part of our world cleaner, and to put food on the table, is teaching them some valuable lessons that they will never forget.


Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.

Development should not be perfect

“Son is just fantastic,” the cafe owner said. “He’s one of my best staff. To be honest, I don’t know what I’d do without him.”

You can imagine my pride at hearing this.

Son is a terrific barista, and I always enjoy dropping in to the cafe where he works, in the centre of Hanoi, to have a cup of his best cappuccino. He serves ambassadors and officials, visitors to Vietnam and locals who have grown up here, always with his shy grin.

But very few of his customers know that Son once lived a very different life.

He was 14 years old and collecting scrap on the streets when I first met him. Another of the Blue Dragon boys met him and brought him to our centre.

Son was always a lovely kid, but as he grew up there were plenty of hiccups along the way. He ran away from home as a child and simply could not reconcile with his family. Even after Blue Dragon took him in, he refused to go back to school. The first time he got a job, he stole the boss’s motorbike. And at age 17, he was arrested on drug charges and spent several years in prison.

It was only after all of this that he finally settled down, took on a job, and put his whole heart into making something of his life.

So when I am asked, as I regularly am, about Blue Dragon’s success rate, should I include Son as one of our ‘success stories’?

I have my own views on how we should define success. My thinking is that if we’ve done everything in our power to help a young person out of crisis and on to a better path, we should consider that a success – even if the young person chooses a path we wish they hadn’t chosen.

After all, we can only control what we do. For all our struggle and sweat, we have no control over how the people in our care will respond.

But my thoughts on the subject of success are not the mainstream. When I am asked about our success rate, my reflections on the meaning of ‘success’ are rarely welcome.

People want to know the hard, cold data. Of all the young people we work with, what proportion ‘graduate’ and get good jobs?

And there’s the problem.

I actually don’t know. Blue Dragon’s work is much too complex for such simplicity. In Son’s case, we can ultimately say that he has been ‘a success’; but if you’d asked me 3 or 4 years ago, he was clearly not.

And what of all the girls and women we rescue from sex trafficking? After being deceived and sold by someone they trusted, held in captivity in a foreign country, rescued in often terrifying circumstances… at what point should we decide whether they count as a ‘success’ or a ‘failure’ in our data set?

Even as I say this, you know that I could be making this easier. You know that I could create a simpler definition of success – like how many get a job after receiving Blue Dragon’s help – and create a quantifiable measure of success.

Yes I could. And that would be a good thing, wouldn’t it?

It would surely make our reporting easier. It would mean we could monitor our own effectiveness so much more transparently.

Or so it would seem.

The idea of a single measure of success is incredible attractive to organisations working in charity and development, like Blue Dragon. And there’s an enormous pressure on us to do so.

There is also an incredible danger in this approach. It’s this: in choosing an easily measurable yardstick of success, we would then need to work towards a high success rate.

And how could we do that? Put simply, we would have to start selecting the young people to receive our help according to their likelihood of ‘success’.

I see this over and over in the development world. Organisations set their definition of success – often around job placement rates, but there are other measures as well – and then choose only those beneficiaries who are most likely to be successful.

It makes perfect sense, of course. But if Blue Dragon did so, would we have ever helped Son?

Would we have persevered with him when it seemed he had no interest in education? Would we have continued to care for him even when he stole from his employer? Would we have maintained contact while he was in prison? Or introduced him to another employer when he came back to ask for another chance?

The allure of 100% success is powerful. Donors love to hear that 100% of the students get a job after graduation, or 100% of the children move back into community based care after just 12 months in care. Wonderful!

Who doesn’t love a success story?

However, the dark side of this is all the young people denied a chance because they are deemed ‘too difficult’. There are kids Blue Dragon has taken on who nobody else would because they would ‘screw up the KPIs’ of organisations who measure their success and market themselves to the world on the basis of their perfect results.

There is certainly nothing wrong with success. But life is messy and not adequately measured by any single variable.

Any effort to achieve a 100% success rate must by necessity involve making compromise, and that compromise is usually the human rights of a person who needs help.

Development is not perfect, nor should it be.


Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.

Down in the dirt

Recently my social media feeds have been showing selections of outstanding photos from 2018.

So here’s my own ‘photo of the year’ from Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation.

The photo was taken by one of our Outreach workers during a routine visit of the hiding places where street kids in Hanoi live. There are two homeless boys in the shot, and another of our Outreach workers sitting with them.

This image captures who we are.

We’re out in the field, down in the dirt, where we are needed the most.

We’re sitting alongside those who are alone: joining them, accepting them.

We’re not afraid to get dirty, and there’s nowhere we won’t go if someone needs our help.

Rescuing kids in crisis sounds glamorous and exciting. Sometimes it is. Mostly it’s not.

This photo says exactly that.


Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.