Children &Youth



I was born in a shanty district, named Hai Ba Trung, in Hanoi in 1976. I lived with my mother for the first few years of my life and never got the chance to meet my father. During the mid-1970s, there was a Subsidy Period in Vietnam. My mother left me with my grandparents in Bac Giang. She would work in the marketplace in Hanoi to make money for us. When my mother left, I felt as though I was abandoned and would cry often because of how much I missed her. My mother was my world and I could not bear to be without her. My mother understood this and at 6 years old, she came back and brought me to Hanoi to stay with her.

My mother’s main job was selling food coupons and diluted fish sauce at Mo Market which was never enough to provide for us both financially. My mother had a severe gambling addiction that added to our money constraints. After the subsidy period ended, I had no choice but to leave school when I was in third grade. And at the age of 12, I would help my mother daily to carry water, wash clothes, and provide cleaning services for other people’s homes. It was disappointing to have to end my education so early. And without a stable place to live or a school building to spend my day, I spent most of my time hanging around the marketplace. At night, we would have to wander around the neighborhood and ask strangers for a place to sleep. We would often do housework for the people who we would stay with.

At the age of 14, we began living with a man who was so close to my mother that she considered him as a brother who I called him “Uncle.” Growing up I never had a father figure, but when I think of what a father figure would look like in my mind, my uncle’s face always appears. He was respected and feared by my neighbors because he had a strong criminal record. But he always made me feel safe and that no one could ever hurt me. Although my mother and uncle and I would never really say out loud how much we cared for and loved each other. We all had a deep familial love for one another that has lasted to this day. My uncle had an opium house where he would sell drugs to people in my community and started it to provide for his family. Most people in my family and community took drugs, it was something that was considered normal and I was always curious watching the teenagers and older people around me take them. Usually, drugs would be taken in groups of four to five people, and knowledge about addiction and the dangers of drugs were not known or discussed.


Drugs and prison

When I was 16 years old, I met my ex-husband when I went to wash clothes in my neighborhood by another drug house. He was 18 at the time and he approached me, flirted with me, and charmed me when I walked by him. I did not have a lot of money when I was a teenager, but he would take me out to the movies and steal me trendy, new bikes when I wanted them. That type of security made me like him at the time. In 1994, I got married to him when I was 18 and he was 20. Even though there was a strong attachment between us, it never really felt like love because I was also afraid of his violence toward me. There were so many highs and lows in our relationship where sometimes I felt we were on good terms and were happy, and other times when the abuse and addiction were too much to bear. I did not have my uncle or family very involved in our issues and suffered mostly alone. I was afraid that if I did not marry him he would get offended and hurt me. I felt that marrying him was a mistake and that I was pressured too young into making that commitment to him and not something that I truly wanted in my life.


My ex-husband was addicted to heroin when I married him and throughout our marriage. For work, he would steal motorcycles and resell them for a profit and ended up getting caught for stealing. After only 10 months into our marriage, he was sent to prison. I realized that I did not know how to provide for myself on my own and struggled a lot financially. At first, I got into prostitution to be able to provide for myself. Later, I turned to what I saw other people in my community do to make money - selling drugs. I started off selling sleeping pills to people in my neighborhood so that I could be able to get enough money to buy harder drug substances like heroin. I let my curiosity about drugs get the best of me and began to experiment with them. The first time that I tried drugs I was with a group of my friends. At first, they told me that they were not taking anything too serious but I knew that they were using heroin. The instant that I took it, I became violently sick and vomited. Although taking it for the first time was a horrible experience, I still asked my friends to let me join them whenever they would take it. After a while, I got used to the sensation, and my body adjusted to the substances. I began to crave drugs more and more. I soon found myself in a vicious cycle of addiction. 

I was caught and arrested for selling drugs during national holidays when there was heavier policing. Most drug dealers chose not to work during those periods due to the increased supervision, but I was so desperate to make money and took the risk anyway. I was sent to prison in 1999 and was sentenced to 9 years. During my time in prison, I did not reflect that much on my actions or try to change. I did not have that bad of a time there either. I was able to cook for myself and did not get into serious trouble with anyone. Compared to my life outside of the prison walls, I felt more secure and stable. I did not have to worry about financial burdens or any other responsibilities.

Because of my bad behavior in prison, I got out only a year early, in 2007, at the age of 31. I went back to Hong Mai to live with my uncle’s family. My uncle and I would take drugs together. I felt as though my actions and mentality had not changed much. I soon went back to selling drugs to get money. Our addiction grew stronger, and my mother even asked me to provide substances for my uncle. I realized the severity of the situation when I could not go over 2 hours without taking heroin. The urge was so strong that I felt as though I could kill my mother in order to get the drugs if I needed to.



Since I went back to drug use and selling behaviors, I did not enjoy my time away from prison for long. Two years later in 2009, I was sentenced to 16 years in prison. This time, I was sent to a new prison facility where the living conditions were much harsher than the previous one. It felt as though I was in a living hell. The food was terrible. I had no choice but to eat instant noodles every day. The thought of eating them now makes me nauseous. A lot of people were packed into one cell, making the living conditions very crowded. The guards were strict and made it difficult for us to interact with others, especially with the men's section. However, this was where I met my current boyfriend. We would exchange hand gestures when we saw each other across cell blocks but never fully meet until we both finished serving our sentences.

During this time, my uncle and mother were also sent to prison. My uncle was caught holding my drugs. He was sentenced to two years in prison and died from an overdose in 2019. As for my mother, she turned herself in to the authorities by saying that she was a drug dealer and a gambler to escape the death threats of dangerous money collectors she had gotten involved with. My mother was sent to the same prison as I was in in 2010. And although we lived in separate parts of the prison, we were able to see each other often. This was only possible after I had asked the guards numerous times to make an exception. Seeing my mother in prison made me start to reflect on my own life. I thought about the choices I had and began to see how addiction and drug dealing had ruined the lives of my loved ones and I. I wanted a fresh start in my life.

My mother was able to get out of prison after 7 years, in 2017, and went to live in Bac Giang while I continued to serve my sentence. In prison, I began to take up my capability of making handmade items and practiced the art of sewing.

At the moment


I was released from prison at the age of 43, in 2020. My boyfriend got out a day after and we finally got to see each other in person. When we met it felt as though we had known each other in a spiritual sense for years and the connection was instant. The first thing I did after I regained my freedom was go to the store to buy grapes. I enjoyed them at my tiny apartment while watching a movie. Although it was a simple treat, it was one of the happiest moments of my life and I truly felt free. Outside the prison walls, life felt completely different, the simplest things brought me the most joy. I was freed from addiction. I was not bound by needing to spend most of my money on drugs. 

However, I faced many difficulties trying to adapt to how much the world and society had changed. One time, I did not even know how to call an ambulance and had no choice but to walk to the hospital alone while experiencing excruciating pain in my stomach. Even with these difficulties, I was still determined to turn away from my old ways and change my life around. By using the sewing skills I had learned in prison, I managed to secure a decent job at a private sewing factory where I consolidated my skills for 3 months and made an honest living for the first time. Unfortunately, the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic hit hard across the country's job economy, and I lost my job. After that, I decided to embrace freelancing as a means of making money. It was hard, but I did enjoy it as I was more comfortable doing things in a flexible, free environment. I took up several different jobs, ranging from helping to clean people’s houses to taking care of patients in hospitals and serving at restaurants. 

Currently, I rent a place with my boyfriend in my childhood neighborhood, Hong Mai, which is also near my uncle’s house. Every year, I go on vacation with my uncle’s family, and we are very close. I am very thankful to have the chance to be close to them and I feel as though my community finally embraces me. Reflecting on my old friends and people who I was close to, they have all either died from overdoses or HIV. I was blessed to never have contracted HIV and to be alive. My actions in the past were very reckless. If I had any piece of advice to pass on to the younger generation, it would be not to fall into the trap of taking drugs or any kind of substances with bad company and try to live an honorable and honest life. Poor choices can impact the trajectory of your entire life. I still dream about the horrible times I had in prison and feel like one of my biggest fears is being sent back to that place again. I work hard today because I want to be able to provide for my mother and myself financially. Right now, I only have her to care for. I do not want a family as the cycle of poverty, addiction, and generational trauma my mother and I suffered from is not something that I would want to be passed onto another life.