Today I’m writing from New Zealand, the first stop in my annual fundraising trip. By tonight I’ll be in Australia and spend a couple of weeks there catching up with people and attending events before heading home to Hanoi at the end of the month.

One part of me loves these trips: I get to see friends from around the world, I share stories of what’s happening back in Vietnam, and I have the chance to see some blue skies. Another part of me dreads going away: deep down I’m someone who just wants to stay home with my dogs and be surrounded with my Blue Dragon family. Despite the adventurous life I lead, it’s the simple, familiar moments that I long for.

This time last year while travelling I watched Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. The movie resonated with me for that sense of being so far from home, out of sync with time and space. New Zealand really isn’t that far from Vietnam, but the message “Stay” somehow struck a chord with me.

So over the weekend, logging on to Facebook and seeing a film one of the Blue Dragon boys has uploaded brought me some wonderful cheer. I can’t share it here – I don’t have his permission for that – but it’s a clip of him looking into a webcam and singing along with a beautiful melody, all the while beaming with delight into the camera.

This boy, “Bin”, has had his own experience of growing up far from home. He doesn’t know his parents or why he ended up in an orphanage, but he spent all of his childhood in an institution.  Left to fend for himself, he never learned what it means to live in a family environment. While he is cool and tough on the outside, Bin feels unsure of who he is or where he fits in to the world.

Blue Dragon staff met Bin on the streets after he had run away from the orphanage, just about a year ago, then aged 12. He’s taken a long time to settle in to his new home with us, and it’s only been in the last few months that he has started feeling a real connection to the people around him.

Watching him singing along so happily, I can see a newfound contentment in his eyes. His courage in uploading his clip for all his friends to see is remarkable – I’d never do it!

For the first time in his life, Bin has a place where he belongs. Ultimately I believe that’s what we all need and want. Over the next few weeks, I may be far from home, but knowing that Bin has found his place gives me the inspiration to keep going.




The importance of 2000

On Sunday, Blue Dragon United played its 2000th game of football (or soccer, for my Australian readers!).

We started in 2003, before there even was such a thing as Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation. We were just a bunch of friends in Hanoi wanting to help out the city’s street kids.

The idea started with a Spanish member of our group suggesting the football as a solution to our overcrowded classroom. Maybe we could help more kids by taking our activities to a field. At that time they were mostly shoeshine boys, all kids from the countryside working in the city to support their families.

We spoke to the kids about this and they all, unanimously, agreed.  But on that first day, only 3 boys turned up! Maybe our idea wasn’t going to work after all.

The next week, a few more came. And some more the week after that. Word was out.

At our 2000th game, 105 kids came to play.


Many kids in Hanoi know Blue Dragon because of the football. Some only know us as Blue Dragon United and have never even been to our centre. Others start at the games, then come to the centre for activities, and end up receiving help from our Social Workers to go to school or look for a job. One of the great things about the way we work is that the kids decide what level of help they will receive from us; it’s up to them. If they just want to come and play football from time to time, they can. If they want to come to the centre every day and take part in our Career Preparation Program or study with a tutor, then we’ll accommodate that.

The kids we meet and help come from disrupted lives. They may have been abandoned, or abused, or their family has broken down for any number of reasons. One of their greatest needs is for stability: long-term care and unconditional love.

While Blue Dragon United is only one part of our work in Vietnam, it is a great representation of our approach. We’re not here for a one-off game; we play week after week, regardless of the weather or public holidays or anything else. (We’ve even met during a flood… although admittedly we couldn’t play that day). We let kids come and go as they wish, and interact with us as they choose. Nobody has to come to the games, but everybody is invited. All we ask is that the kids try their best.

Now that we have played 2000 games – and counting! – I can be confident to say that our formula works.




Bricks and mortar

Tin was 13 when she dropped out of school.

It wasn’t that she disliked school; in fact she loved to study and was a good student. But living up in the mountains, in a remote ethnic community, meant that getting to school was an ordeal. She couldn’t travel to and from every day; it would take at least 2 hours each way, and that was in good weather.

Her only chance to stay in school was to move away from home and live in a shared room near the school. The room was a mud hut without electricity; boys and girls of all ages lived together, with no adults looking after them, and all the kids had to fend for themselves.

Apart from the fact that Tin’s family couldn’t afford to provide her with her own supply of rice, bedding, and school gear, she was too shy to live in a shared dorm like this.

Tin’s story is not unusual. While Vietnam’s cities are booming along, the rural regions of the country are struggling to get ahead. Children who drop out of school, for whatever reason, are easy prey for human traffickers, who promise to provide education and training, but then sell the children into slavery. For kids like Tin, there are few good options.

And so, in partnership with an Australian-Vietnamese food chain, Blue Dragon is looking at creating some choices. We’re working with Roll’d to build a boarding home in Mun Chung, a village in Vietnam’s north-western province of Dien Bien. The home will be on the grounds of a secondary school and, along with renovation to some existing structures on the school grounds, will mean that 150 children have a safe place to stay while they go to school – with supervision from teachers, and with the care and nutrition they need to stay healthy.

It will mean that little Tin can go back to school.

Construction has already begun, and Blue Dragon’s Facebook page will run some stories in the coming weeks and months to report on our progress. The plan is for the boarding home to be ready by the time the new school year begins in September.


I don’t often get excited about bricks and mortar, but I know that this will make a huge difference for the children of Mun Chung. And more kids going to school means less kids vulnerable to human traffickers.

I can’t wait for the grand opening!

Ode to Joy, and Sorrow

Mr Triem dropped by the Blue Dragon centre in Hanoi on Friday afternoon with an invitation.

A renowned pianist, Mr Triem and his soprano wife Xuan Thanh have retired from public life and spend their days teaching the Hope Choir, a band of blind students who over the years have performed for visiting dignitaries – including Bill Clinton – as well as countless charity events around the city.

Triem and Xuan Thanh are an extraordinary couple. As someone with no musical talent whatsoever, I marvel at the magic they conjure on the stage; and even more of a mystery is how they develop the talent of the young people they work with.

They had organised a small event at a local school for blind children on Saturday, in honour of the upcoming Day for People With Disabilities. There were more chorists than audience members, and we gathered in what appeared to be an abandoned sports room at the back of the school. But with Mr Triem on piano, a few blind performers on traditional instruments, and Xuan Thanh leading the choir, I spent almost 2 hours in a musical trance.

Two Blue Dragon girls are among the choristers; Giang and Thuy, who stood side by side, holding hands as they lifted their voices to the sky. Giang was born blind, and has just finished her law degree; Thuy lost her sight around the age of 10 so was out of school a few years before going back and is yet to complete her studies. Both have incredibly difficult lives, and watching them perform famous Italian, French, Swedish, Australian (Waltzing Matilda, no less!), Venezualan,  Russian, American and, naturally, Vietnamese songs was an uplifting way to spend Saturday afternoon.

Most moving of all was their rendition of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. It’s a powerful enough piece of music in itself; somehow it becomes even more inspiring when sung by blind Vietnamese kids led by retired performers who once commanded international audiences – and all in an abandoned sports room.

The Ode was particularly stirring for me because, as I sat absorbed, I knew my team in Hue province were dealing with a very deep sorrow. One of our girls in the province, a 13 year old named Phuong, drowned on Thursday while swimming in the beach with her friends.

image1 (1)

Truong Thi Bich Phuong lived near the sea with her grandparents. Her own father died years ago, and her mother has been living and working in Laos. Blue Dragon has been making sure little Phuong could continue at school and supporting her socially through our community centre in her village. She was a bright girl, and dreamt of becoming a teacher when she grew up. Her loss is a tremendous shock to her family and her community, and also to my staff who saw her as their little sister.

On Saturday afternoon the staff went to visit Phuong’s home again and spend time with her mother, who they hardly knew but has returned from Laos, distraught with grief and torn with regret at having been working so far from her only child.

Life is an ode to joy, but it is also an ode to sorrow. It seems we can not have the one without the other.

Rest in peace, Phuong, and live long in our memories.




The cool kids

Thuan has a new piercing this week. He saved up money from his part time job and went down to the parlour around the corner from Blue Dragon.

Like some other teens from our Hanoi centre, he now has multiple earrings, a few tattoos, and his hair is dyed another colour every other day. It’s all very inexpensive – the kids do much of this “self renovation” work themselves – but the result is incredibly cool.

Trang doesn’t have any piercings, but she has defined herself through movement. In just a few short years, she has transformed from a girl who hung out on the city’s streets playing and fighting every night, to a dancer with a particular focus on hip hop. On the stage, she has a gleam of determination in her eyes and a massive smile that lights up the room.

Thuan and Trang are typical at Blue Dragon; at least, ‘typical’ insofar as they have cultivated their own identity and found their own special place to be. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that they are as different as everyone else.

Kids come to Blue Dragon because of trauma. The first time they walk through our gates, they are entering with fear and pain and trepidation. It’s not the lucky kids who come to us; it’s the kids whose lives have fallen apart.

Some have been sold into slavery. Some have been abandoned by their families and left to fend for themselves. Some have run away from homes where nobody loved them or knew how to care for them.

But visitors to our centre don’t see poor, miserable little children with puppy dog eyes. They see kids who are into dance, or theatre, or art, or music. Some of our kids just want to study – we have about 70 young people in college or university right at the moment. Some just want to play. Lots have no idea what they want, and need time to figure it out.

This is something I love about working with the Blue Dragon kids: where ever they come from and whatever has happened in their lives before we meet them, they are not defined by that. While their past may always impact on their future, it doesn’t have to hold them down. With someone to care for them, and a place where they can explore and be safe, they can be the cool kids too.

I may not always like the kids’ decisions to get another piercing or another tattoo, but I understand their need to control their own destinies and make their own choices. Watching them grow from tired, frightened victims into empowered, confident young men and women reminds me every day of all the good there is in our world.




The ‘R’ word

Among charities that work in the field of human trafficking, there’s a particular word which is considered highly contentious.

My own organisation, Blue Dragon, started using the word 10 years ago. I didn’t even know that there was controversy around its use.

The word? Rescue.

It’s controversial for some good reasons. In places, organisations have ‘rescued’ people who didn’t want to be rescued, or used it as a euphemism for ‘imprison’. There are stories of NGOs raiding brothels or night clubs and taking out adult sex workers who didn’t consider themselves slaves, and keeping them in ‘safe houses’ against their will.

In light of such incidents, ‘rescue’ has been branded by some as a dirty word. But I still believe that rescue work is a critical tool in the fight against human trafficking.

It was 10 years ago, in April 2006, that Blue Dragon conducted our first ‘rescue operation’. We travelled from Hanoi, in Vietnam’s north where we are based, to Hue in central Vietnam to talk to parents whose children had been taken to work in Ho Chi Minh City, in the south of the country. The parents had been told that their children were going to study, but they were not; they had been taken to sell flowers on the streets or work in garment factories. They were slave labour: unpaid, working up to 14-18 hours per day, and threatened with violence if they objected.

When presented with the facts of what was happening to their children, the parents asked us to find them and bring them home. The traffickers tried to stop us, so we took the children in the face of aggression.

0 meet

Meeting with parents in rural Vietnam to talk about child trafficking

Ten years on, when we conduct such work we normally have police or government officials by our side, but either way we are rescuing children from slavery. There’s no other word to describe it. The kids have been trapped and held against their will; we find them and get them to safety. That’s a ‘rescue’.

While we have rescued over 400 girls and boys from slavery within Vietnam, Blue Dragon is probably better known for the rescue of over 120 girls and women trafficked from Vietnam to China. Again, the convention is to avoid using the ‘R’ word, but ‘the Big R’ is exactly what we do.

My staff receive calls for help from girls and women who have been duped into travelling to China. The trafficker is normally known to the victim: a boyfriend, a neighbour, a family friend. These are not women who have wanted to go to work in a Chinese brothel and then changed their mind; they are sold against their will, and call for help at the first opportunity. Blue Dragon staff locate them, and then either work with Chinese authorities to set them free, or find another way to help the trapped person escape and run for their lives back to the border.

Vietnamese women are not only being sold into brothels; there is also a significant market in selling women as brides. The buyers tend to be Chinese men living in remote rural areas. Last year alone we rescued 35 such women who called for help after being trafficked and sold as someone’s wife.

One problem with the ‘rescue’ word is that it has emotive connotations, and the world of international development prefers to use a more academic and passive language. I understand that concern; but the truth is that rescues are powerful and, yes, emotional events. Conducting a rescue involves weeks of slow and deliberate planning; sometimes days of tedious travel and search; many hours of heart-pounding terror as the rescue plan is enacted; and finally the intense joy of being set free after months or years of captivity.

So I acknowledge all the problems with the ‘R’ word but I won’t be shying away from it any time soon. If we are to make any inroads against human trafficking, it’s not enough just to raise awareness and ‘build capacity’. People who have been trafficked deserve to have their calls for help answered. There is very great need for more rescue work to be done, and we should never be apologetic for that.




If only

Ton and Viet are neighbours in a village about two hours drive from Hanoi. The roads turn into alleys and then into dirt tracks, winding through the hills towards the quiet settlement that they call home.

Both boys are aged 15 now. Both are the only child in their family; both have grown up with just their mother; and both live in houses so dilapidated that they are beyond being fit for any person to inhabit.

With all this in common, both boys ran away from home together more than a year ago, and both found themselves targets of pedophile rings in Vietnam’s capital city.

Ton had been to Hanoi before. He had lived on one of the city’s bridges, surviving by scavenging at night and hanging out with gangs of teens who live by stealing. When he fell afoul of one of the gangs, he was beaten almost to death and left, bleeding and naked, by the river. He was just 13 then. One of the Blue Dragon social workers found him, took him to hospital, and nursed him back to health.

Eventually Ton went home, but his self esteem was through the floor. Home life was miserable: in a house with no electricity, no comforts to speak of, and holes in the wall, he was embarrassed to mix with other kids his age. Only Viet, living down the road, could share his feelings, and so it’s no surprise that they made a plan to run away together. They dreamt of excitement and a better life, as teens do.

The predators in Hanoi have their tentacles everywhere; they are constantly on the lookout for new kids, both girls and boys, arriving in the city and in need of cash. Fuelled by their sense of worthlessness, Ton and Viet succumbed to the offers of money and, over the course of a year, became the disposable playthings of dozens of men, both Vietnamese and foreign, who would pay them from $1 to $10 for sex in parks, hotels, and houses.

Some kids who experience this abuse feel compelled to find an escape as soon as they can. Others, like Ton and Viet, just give up all hope and let it happen. They allow themselves to be exploited, seeing it as a punishment they deserve to suffer. They ‘work’ for a few hours at night until they have enough money to last the next day, and drown out the pain with meth and computer games.

My staff at Blue Dragon spent many months caring for Ton and Viet before they would agree to receive our help. Social workers would meet them at the parks, or go to the internet cafes where they slept, and invite them out for a meal. Building trust took a long time, and critical to our approach was showing the boys that we would not judge them, no matter what they did.

Finally Ton and Viet agreed to go back to see their mothers. Ly, one of our social workers, and I traveled with them, doing our best to allay their apprehension at going home.

Sitting in Viet’s tiny, half-collapsed house, Ly put into words the feeling I had in my heart: “If only someone had helped these children a few years ago, maybe they would never have run away from home… And maybe none of this would have happened to them.”

Her thought was simple, yet profound. If only. All of this mess that has engulfed their lives could well have been avoided. If only someone had cared.

Ton and Viet are doing well now. They have worked hard to break out of the cycle of abuse they were caught up in. I don’t know how they have found the strength to do so, but their progress has been remarkable. I see them fairly regularly and they are adjusting as best they can to a ‘post-exploitation’ life.

And yet I can’t get it out of my mind: If only. How different their lives could have been.

We can’t change the past. If we could, Ton and Viet might now have very different lives. But for these 2 kids, it’s too late. The damage has been done.

It’s not too late, though, for someone else. There are so many young people out there, in Vietnam and throughout our world, who desperately need someone to care for them before disaster strikes. It’s not too late to prevent a similar cycle of abuse for another boy or girl who is living in misery and dreaming that life could be better.

We can’t allow more children to be trapped like Ton and Viet because the alternatives seem no better. We can’t allow ourselves to say “If only” for any more children.





Of all of Blue Dragon’s work with kids in crisis, it is our involvement in rescuing people trafficked into the sex industry that attracts the most attention.

Our rescues are in response to specific calls for help. Vietnamese girls and women who have been trafficked to China for sale as brides or into brothels call home for help; the message gets to us and we send a team to find them and bring them home.

Among the questions I am asked most about this work is a question of blame. How could the girls be so stupid as to go with the traffickers? Surely the families are complicit in this?

Such questions seek to place the responsibility for the crime on the shoulders of the victims.

Human trafficking is a lucrative business. A young woman from Vietnam can be sold into China for an up-front price of $5000 – $8000; or for a smaller up-front cost but with an ongoing commission of about $1500 per month. A trafficker can reasonably earn over $100,000 a year if he or she traffics just one victim every month.

With such massive profits awaiting them, the traffickers are prepared to put in time and energy. We’ve come across cases where traffickers have built a relationship with the victims for months  – even up to a year – before putting their plan into action. Trafficking is not about men grabbing unsuspecting women off the street and driving them across the border to China. It’s about someone building up a relationship of trust over an extended period of time: through friendship, or employment, or romance. Traffickers can be young men; old women; business people; neighbours. There’s no single type of person who can be identified as a trafficker. All they have in common is a willingness to deceive others and sell them into slavery.

After building up a relationship, there will come a day when the trafficker says: “Come with me on a holiday to China.” Or alternatively: “I need to go up to the border for some work – and I could really use your help.” By this time, the trafficker and the victim are acquainted. They’ve helped each other. They’ve eaten together. They may have slept together. And the victim, normally a young woman or a teenage girl, has no reason to think that she may be falling in to a well crafted trap.

Part of the genius of this approach is that the victim believes she has been complicit. She went willingly with the trafficker; she wasn’t forced against her will. The traffickers make their targets feel that they are responsible for what happens to them next.

But blaming the victim is letting the trafficker off the hook. These girls are not going off to China on a lark and then changing their minds. Their families are not selling them – in over 500 cases we have dealt with, I am yet to see a single instance of this happening.

Assuming that the victim or to their family must bear some of the responsibility only shows our deep-seated prejudices, akin to judging a woman who is beaten by her husband.

In human trafficking cases, let’s not start by assuming the victim is at fault. The blame has to go to the one place it belongs: the trafficker.




The player

An old friend came to soccer this morning.

Nam is 28 this year; he and his wife both work as chefs in Hanoi, and their beautiful son is 18 months now. But when I first met Nam, life was very different for both of us.

The oldest son in his family, it was Nam’s duty to quit school and earn money when his mother fell on hard times. Nam left his home in Thanh Hoa province and traveled to Hanoi, where he started work shining shoes on the streets.

We met by chance in 2003. At that time, Blue Dragon was just in its infancy and we had started a weekly soccer game for street kids. Our goal was to give the city’s homeless and working children an hour of no-strings-attached fun, some healthy food, and an introduction to our services.

Now called Blue Dragon United, we originally named ourselves Real Betis Vietnam. Just 3 kids turned up at our first game; 60-80 now come every week, and we’re close to playing our 2000th game. The football team has come a long way.

Of all its achievements and milestones, the real success of Blue Dragon United has been in meeting kids like Nam.

As a teenager, Nam was fiercely devoted to providing for his family, and equally dedicated to improving his situation in life. Although he lived across town, Nam turned up every week for the games, taking every chance to get more involved in our organisation as we started to grow. He stood out from the crowd with his quiet integrity and determination. He also happened to be a really amazing soccer player.

Over the years, Nam has come a long way. With an introduction from Blue Dragon, he started out working as a kitchen hand for Hanoi restauranter Donald Berger and rose to the position of sous chef. He’s now head chef at a restaurant overlooking Hoan Kiem lake, and is a winner of the Iron Chef Vietnam competition. And he has used his opportunities in life to get jobs for his younger siblings and his mother. Nam has moved his entire family out of poverty, and now his own son is growing up with chances in life that Nam simply never had as a child.


Nam, in the yellow singlet, at football 

Nam works such long hours that he rarely comes to football any more; today was a terrific surprise. After the game, we went for pho and coffee, and chatted about how much our lives have changed since that fateful meeting on the street so many years ago. Then he had to head off to his restaurant to prepare for the lunch crowd.

Like so many of the young people I meet, Nam has had every excuse to fail. He could easily have been bitter about his lot in life. He could have given up trying, could have blamed his mistakes on the hardships he grew up with. But he has never done that.

Instead he has used his tough beginnings as motivation to work harder, to learn more, to help those around him get ahead.

Both on the field and in life, Nam is a great player.




In the end

Over the weekend in Lakeland Florida, Angela McGrath passed away in her home.

Angie was a friend of the most special kind: someone who cared and loved with a genuine passion.

I first met Angie through Facebook. She had come across Blue Dragon after reading John Shors’ novel Dragon House, and started following our work. Even though I had never met her, Angie immediately became a friend – not just a ‘supporter’ or a ‘donor’.

Angie’s interest in our work wasn’t something new for her; as a mother of two, she and her husband Jim had made the decision to adopt a baby girl from China. A year later, they adopted another. But bringing two new children into their home wasn’t enough for Angie and Jim; they still kept thinking of all the kids around the world who didn’t have a family of their own.


Angie and her grandchild, February 2016


In her own community in Florida, Angie was a dynamic force for good. Through her church, Crestview Baptist, and of her own volition she would simply ‘adopt’ people – even whole families! – who needed someone to care for them. I remember laughing with Angie as she told me the story of driving through a hurricane to find a family who were huddled in a school hall because they had nowhere to go until the storm had passed. The mother was heavily pregnant, and her children were just toddlers… but Angie brought this entire family of strangers to stay in her home for a few days. There simply aren’t many people in our world who would ever do that.

What touched me most, though, was how Angie helped me personally through a deep crisis of my own. In early 2012, I lost somebody very close to me, and it was during the following months that the very best of humanity was brought out in everyone I knew. I experienced incredible support and care from many people; but Angie’s care stood out because, at that time, we had still never met. Simply through our online connection, she reached out shared my grief – and in the weeks and months that followed, she kept in contact and showed her concern in simple, human ways. She shared a song that she had heard. She wrote a letter. She emailed to just ask how I was.

All from a woman who I had only ever chatted with online.

In mid 2012, Blue Dragon was preparing to move to a new centre in Hanoi. Angie decided that she would help, and set about planning a trip to come to Vietnam and get involved. But without any warning, Angie’s own world fell apart. At work one day, she started feeling and behaving strangely; an emergency trip to the hospital revealed a massive cancerous growth in her brain. Surgery removed most of it, and just days later she was messaging me on Facebook to apologise that she wouldn’t be able to come to Hanoi and help.

Instead of Angie coming to Hanoi, I went to Florida. Angie sent us the money that she had saved for her trip so that I and Diep, one of my staff, could go to the US for our first ever fundraising trip there. I met Angie getting off the plane in Tampa. As I walked down the ramp, it occurred to me that I had no idea who I was going to meet – was she some crazy woman planning to abduct me!? Later I found out that she was wondering the same thing about me and Diep. But no: Angie, Jim and their family were the most gracious, hospitable, loving people I had met.

Diep and I spent a week in Florida making presentations, speaking in churches and schools, and getting to know this extraordinary family. Angie and Jim even took us horse riding and to Disney World; it’s a week I’ll never forget.

Last year I was back in the US. Angie was well, but I could see she was tired. This time there was no fundraising or presentations; it was  a trip to reunite and, although none of us said so, to see each other for the last time. We ate together, we chased a crocodile, we drove around town and saw the house where Angie and Jim first lived together. It was a precious time.

Angie chose to stay at home for her final days, surrounded and cared for by her family. The past few years were difficult; the last few days were painful.

All that is over now. For Angie, there is no more suffering, while for everybody else the grieving has just begun.

Death is a horrible thing. There is no good in it. It leaves in us a hole that can never be filled. The only ‘but’ that I can muster myself to say is that death gives all of us pause to reflect on life.

We all wonder, at some time, about our own death and what we will leave behind. Some of us want to leave behind a family, or an empire, or a name that will be known for years to come.

Death has been unfair to Angie, but I hope that in her last days she could see that her life was well lived. She didn’t amass a fortune, or build an empire. Most people reading my blog will have never heard of her before. But she knew that none of this mattered.

In the end, all that matters is how much you love, and Angie loved endlessly. She loved her family to bits. She loved her friends and all the people she met as a nurse in hospitals and homeless shelters. She loved kids in Vietnam whom she had never even met.

We all hope that death will be kind to us, but there’s really not much we can do to affect that. What we can control is how we live. And if we live a life like Angie did, with so much love and concern for others, we can be sure that in the end we will have no regrets.