Trong has a mobile phone business. He buys and sells second hand phones from a shopfront in a winding alley in Hanoi. All day long, people stop by to recharge their phone credit, or repair their broken screen, or sell the phone they bought a few weeks ago but now can’t afford. It’s a booming business, and in his spare time Trong dreams of opening a second shop so his brother has a job too. But first he hopes to marry his sweetheart – once he convinces her parents to agree to the union.
Lan and Thi’s massage parlour is a 3 hour drive from Hanoi; it’s close to the beach in an area that’s popular with Vietnamese tourists during the summer, but quiet during the cold winter months. These days Lan mostly runs the business alone, while Thi cares for their infant son, but she’ll be back at work soon and in the meantime Lan earns enough to satisfy his family’s needs.
Luong is still at school, now in her senior years and starting to think about university. She is a popular kid in her class; her marks are good enough for her to consider studying law or finance, but her status in school and the community is down to her open and caring nature. She’s friends with everyone – always has a kind word, always has a smile, embodies all the values that Vietnamese culture prides itself on.
Trong, Lan and Thi, and Luong are following very different paths in life. But they’re all friends of mine; all count themselves as “Blue Dragon kids” and drop by our centre when they can.
Trong’s customers love his phone service, but they don’t know that the young entrepeneur behind the counter once walked the city’s streets shining shoes. After his mother’s death, Trong’s father descended into a drunken stupor, took another wife, and sent his 2 sons away to work. Just 14 years old, Trong had to fend for himself until someone from Blue Dragon met him and took him in.
There’s no question that visitors to Lan and Thi’s massage parlour know that the proprietors are blind. It’s not uncommon in Vietnam for blind people to be involved in massage businesses. But the extraordinary tragedy of Lan, now a proud father who has never seen his own son but as a child had the gift of sight, is unimaginable to most. Growing up in a poor but happy family in the countryside, his world turned upside down when, aged 9, he found a metal ball in the field and brought it home. The resulting explosion, when the grenade left over from the Vietnam-American war detonated, killed his mother, destroyed their house, and left Lan permanently blind. The only family member uninjured was Minh, Lan’s older brother, who had to quit school and make his way to Hanoi to earn money as a street kid. A family once devastated, Lan’s massage business is now central to their economy and keeps them afloat.
And Luong, a high-flying student so popular with her peers: I remember the day her panicked parents came to the Blue Dragon centre to report her missing. Aged 10, she spent the days walking the city streets selling chewing gum alongside her brothers and parents. This one unfortunate day, they became separated for just a few minutes. Luong was picked up and taken to a detention centre without anyone knowing what had happened; it was over a week before one of our lawyers tracked her down and helped her return to her family. That was the last time she worked on the streets. The terrifying incident of their only daughter vanishing was enough to make the family decide that whatever sacrifice was needed, Luong needed to be in school.
Trong, Lan and Thi and Luong live with a degree of anonymity. Most people they meet from day to day cannot conceive of the tragedies and horrors they have lived through. And yet from day to day they succeed in their endeavours; they work, they study, they hold their heads high. Nobody can know the fields of fire they have walked through to get where they are now.
Today as you drive to work, or walk through the market, take a moment to think of the people you pass and chat with. There are so many hidden heroes among us; people whose very ordinariness is a testament to incredible resilience.
We may never know the stories of those we pass in the streets each day, just as others may never know the stories hidden in our own hearts.