The best

​There’s not much good to be said about living through a global pandemic, but experiencing such hard times has one silver lining: it brings out the best in us all.

I met Nhan on the streets when he was 14. 

He was working with an aunty who sold flags and trinkets at a major intersection in the city. All day long, motorbikes, cars and trucks raced by – a constant chaos of honking horns and traffic jams. 

It was late at night and I was just walking by, but Nhan stopped me with a huge smile and a friendly greeting. I stopped to chat, and immediately it was clear that this kid had something special about him. 

His life was clearly very hard, and as I learned in later weeks his relationship with the aunty was not very warm. Nhan desperately wanted to go to school, but she wanted him to earn money. It broke his heart, but his mother had left years ago and his father struggled with alcoholism. He simply had no other means of support, so he did his best to make it work. From time to time, he eased his pain with drugs.

When Nhan learned about Blue Dragon he decided right away that he wanted to join us. He knew it was a way to turn his fortunes around and get back to school. Nhan’s aunty wasn’t too happy about it, but she agreed to let him live in our shelter so that he would be off her hands and someone else could look after him.

Nhan did everything to make the most of his time with us. He joined every activity and took every class at the centre. But he lived with the trauma of his childhood: the poverty he had been raised in, his years working on the street, and the grief of not knowing his mother. Even though he was still a child, he felt guilty that he couldn’t fix his family’s problems.

After some years, Nhan was ready to take some steps toward independence. He joined a training program where he was studying to become a chef, and he moved out of the Blue Dragon shelter. He was excited to be starting a new chapter in his life. 

But it wasn’t long before things started to go wrong. Nhan found it difficult to keep up with classes and spent his nights remembering the pain of his childhood. Finally, he turned back to drugs to dull the pain and soon after dropped out of his training. 

Life spiralled downward very quickly. Blue Dragon was still in touch with him, but Nhan felt that he had failed and wanted to hide. When he needed a caring hand more than ever, his shame drove him into solitude and he left the city. Before long he was in a drug rehabilitation centre, where he spent the next two years. He was angry and disappointed with himself. He was sure that his life was over – that there was no way he could ever be happy again. 

When he was released from rehab, life continued to throw obstacles and challenges at him. Nobody would employ him so he borrowed money to start a business, which then failed. Despite another blow, Nhan refused to let this bring him down. He was determined to do things differently, so he reached out again to Blue Dragon. He was a young man by now and no longer a child, but he wanted to reconnect. Like any of us, he needed to know he still had people who cared for him and who wouldn’t judge him by his past.

So we invited Nhan to return to Hanoi and made plans for him to work in a farming project outside the city. It wasn’t exactly what he wanted, but it would give him an income for a few months in a nurturing environment, and we could provide as much counselling and support as he needed. 

But still Nhan was to face one more challenge. He was staying in Blue Dragon’s emergency accommodation preparing to head out to the farm when the COVID pandemic returned to Vietnam. A lockdown was called, and Nhan’s plans were on hold along with everybody else’s. 

It seemed like yet another blow to a young man who had struggled all his life. Yet this time, Nhan was stronger. 

Instead of being stuck at the emergency shelter, he saw it as a chance to shine. This wasn’t a setback; this was a time to help others, just as Nhan had received help when he needed it. 

Unable to leave the building anyway, Nhan joined with the staff to look after the boys at the shelter. He has become the big brother of the home, and spends his days taking care of everyone.

Nhan has put his training as a chef to work, cooking up incredible meals day after day, and teaching the kids along the way. He sits and listens to the boys share their stories of hardship and homelessness; and he shares his own, showing them that they don’t need to be ashamed. He can relate to their experiences, and they can relate to him. 

In the early mornings and late evenings, when the summer days cool down, Nhan organises games and sports in the yard. You could easily mistake him for one of the kids, laughing hysterically and joining in the fun. But the kids look up to him with a deep respect and if he calls them out for speaking rudely or playing roughly, they quickly apologise and return to the game. 

Boys at the emergency shelter making the most of lockdown.

Being in lockdown isn’t fun for anyone. For a group of teenage boys who were meant to be in an emergency shelter for only a few days, these weeks have been exceptionally hard. But having Nhan there, cheering them up and encouraging them to do their best, has made a world of difference. 

There’s no sign yet as to when the lockdown will end, but Nhan is in no hurry. He’s now wondering if he should focus on becoming a social worker so that he can spend his life caring for others. 

Nhan has had a rough start in life, and this is no fairytale ending. He still faces many challenges in the future and has yet to resolve some family issues that weigh on his shoulders. But it’s clear that this crisis has brought out the best in Nhan. He’s risen to the challenge and found a calling, even in these hardest of times. 

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.


His brother drowned. His mother went to prison. Then Chung became addicted to heroin. But despite all the hardships, Chung hangs on to hope for better days ahead.

Chung was stabbed at his home last Sunday night.

The details are murky. One version of the story is that somebody broke into his home, a sweltering concrete box by Hanoi’s Red River, and attacked him over some dispute. Another version is that he was in a fight with a drug dealer.

Chung is a heroin addict. He has been for about 15 years now, despite two separate stints in rehab and multiple periods in prison.

Life has always been very difficult for Chung. He was one of 7 brothers born into extreme poverty in an area of the city notorious for heroin and violence. One of his brothers drowned in the river when they were all still just kids, and when Chung’s mother went to prison for drug dealing his life spiraled out of control.

But there was always something special about Chung. When he first encountered Blue Dragon through our weekly football games in his neighbourhood, he became one of our most loyal and reliable followers. Sitting alone, his face would bear the lines of grief and hardship that marked his childhood. But when he saw one of the social workers or volunteers, his whole face would light up with joy, and he would become a child again.

People used to warn us to be careful: You should never trust an addict, they would say. For Chung, that simply wasn’t true. He would come to the Blue Dragon centre and collapse onto the sofas, falling into a deep sleep. At times he would spend the night there, safe and sound from the horrors that awaited him in his daily life.

We would let him sleep as long as he needed; when he woke up he would have a shower, change his clothes and head back out to the streets. He simply refused any further help, except on two occasions when he asked us to take him to a rehabilitation centre.

He wanted to clean himself up, and he gave it his best shot. Both times he stayed in rehab, he transformed into a gentle, smiling young man, but within months of going home he would relapse.

He never once stole or caused trouble. It was very rare that he would ask for anything at all. He knew that we cared for him and that was all he wanted.

As the years passed, Chung’s life slipped deeper into darkness. His parents both died of overdoses, and then his grandmother passed away.

Chung is almost 30 now – no longer a child. He finds every day a struggle, but that goodness of character remains. Through it all he is loyal and honest, and protects those he loves.

He has spent the week in hospital, recovering from his injuries. Chung doesn’t want to explain why he was stabbed, and he doesn’t ask for help. He’s just glad to have a friend visit and sit by his bed, sharing memories of football by the river and imagining what could have been.

Chung will stay in hospital for at least 2 weeks following his stabbing.

Not every child we help goes on to find happiness or follow satisfying career paths. Many do, but some like Chung will always struggle. And yet, every moment of being by his side, bringing back that smile to his face, is a moment well spent.

He’s still just a kid at heart, and his dream of an innocent, carefree life has never faded.

Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation  works with Vietnamese children and youth in crisis.