Children &Youth

Designed by DragonBoyz
This image depicts a man with many memories of his dark and difficult past. 
The tattoos represent this image with its dark colors and imagery. 
The colors in the flower and the puzzle pieces show uncertainty but a hopeful future.



The Dark Side of Hà Nội


I’m Nam*, born and raised in a region of social evils in Hà Nội, where prostitutes, gang activities, crime, drugs, and money lending were rampant. It was notorious in Hà Nội back in the 70s and 80s as a place where criminals and disobedient individuals called their home. Teachers sent to teach at the schools in this neighborhood were terrified that they never went home alone. There were no cases of discrimination or harsh words towards any student because the teachers were afraid of retaliation. Imagine the worst possible neighborhood in Hai Phong; that’s what my childhood neighborhood was like.  For all intents and purposes, the dark side of Hà Nội.

I have an older sister and a younger sister. At home, My mother always favored me slightly while my father favored my two sisters. It is just a norm in Vietnamese society, and there’s always an invisible rift in my family. When I was with my mother, I was myself. No matter who I was or how society viewed me, I was still my mother’s little boy. This was even the case when I got married. Yet, when my father was present, I had to be tough  because he hit me so much. Still, the expectations on me were greater, and the failures meant more to my parents because I was their only son. The higher the expectations, the further I slid down. Due to not meeting the high expectations, my punishments were mainly physical–chairs, yokes, and sticks. Whenever my parents heard complaints or anything about my bad indulgences, they would beat me so hard without considering any of my explanations. The usual punishment involved asking a few questions, hitting me, and then leaving for work. Rather than showing and discussing with me how to behave and do things such as cooking, I was reprimanded emotionally and physically. This teaching method was wrong, especially for me. I prefer sweet words, so these wrong teaching methods led to a bad child. If my father had explicitly shared with me what he wanted me to become and how to act, I would have been different.

My parents, especially my father, were always busy. He did not notice me or attempt to get to know my characteristics. I was his son, but he never looked after me. I do not blame them because they were so busy providing for our family. They worked from 4 am to 11 pm, and they couldn’t supervise me with that hectic schedule. This lack of supervision took away the chance to learn from my parents and gave me the perfect opportunity to engage with a bad crowd. I became naughty, and spoiled; that was the beginning of my long decline.


School Is Scarier Than Prison


Since the first grade, I have been scared of school. There were no specific reasons, but the classes and their quiz sessions gave me chills every time. Hearing my name being called was enough to paralyze me. I hid this fear because the more it showed, the more likely I would be called on. There were times when I would fake raising my hand to camouflage amongst the other students, but alas, the teacher still called on me. One time in particular, I received a zero, and my parents were invited to the school to discuss it. 


If someone asked me to do physical work, I would willingly do that–but if they asked me to study, then I would feel afraid. So, when I was at school, instead of being a good student, I didn’t go to class or study. In fact, I was expelled from school 4 times. One time, I even hit my Physical Education teacher because he forced me to run in the heat. It was very hot outside. As a result, no other secondary school would accept me again. At the time, I was 13.  


Perhaps They Don’t Need Me Anymore


I used to run away with my friends. Our first runaway, my friends and I, three of us, walked from the school to my hometown. The roads were long and dark, and none of us knew the way. Our hazy memories told us to walk towards the mountain, but no more after that. After no sign of us anywhere in our hometown, our families searched for us the entire day. We were completely lost until a couple found us– they were relatively well-off, so they bought us bánh mì and gave us a fare to travel back to Hà Nội. We could have been lost. Thinking of that scares me even now. Every time I ran away, I wished that people would find me. Especially by the end of the runaway because wandering around was scary and tiring. We all wanted to return home after 3 or 4 days stranded.

The police would come out at night and chase us away so merchants would have a place to sit in the morning. Then, we would move to Hoan Kiem Lake and sit there until we felt bored and hungry. To satisfy our hunger, we only dared to steal fruits sold in the morning, but we got hungry again in the afternoon. At that point, we wanted our family or even a stranger to find us despite the awaited punishment. I would gladly take any beating because there was nowhere else like home–you could eat until you were full, and your bed would always be there. But, this realization would not last and I did not learn my lesson. I would always run away again after a few months. After so many times of finding me when I ran away, my parents told me, “If you run away this time, don’t ever come back,” because they got tired of searching for me. This upset me, so I ran away again because I believed that they no longer needed me. 

One thing led to another, and I started to engage in destructive activities. When I was 15 or 16 years old, I began hanging out with people gathering in nightclubs and was introduced to the fast life– racing, gambling, and drugs. It was once a glorious time. Even though I knew racing, drugs, and clubbing were dangerous, I still partook in those activities because of my ego: I wanted to show off, and seeing people applaud made me happy. People died in front of my eyes a lot on Ba Trieu Street. I would feel scared for a few days but then silently go back to racing again. At that time, my parents did not notice. They thought I was hanging out with my girlfriend. The guys in the group would also share clothes and take care of each other; even just going out drinking by the lake was fun. Unlike how people treat their friends nowadays, it was a mix of fun, happiness, and tenderness, unlike how people treat their friends nowadays. Back then, we treated friends more like family and we were more happy.

Once I turned 16 or 17, my family’s financial situation got better. It was the most beautiful time of my life, and my parents indulged me a lot. Back then, if your family was wealthy or super rich, you could access tobacco, heroin, or black opium. My parents tried everything to intervene and stop me from engaging in these activities. Once, they invited a shaman, and I have no idea where he came from. I think it was Lai Chau. The Shaman tried everything- snake liquor and bile- to no avail—multiple times. At one point, my parents even hired a chaperone. That also did not work. Instead, I lost everything because of my addiction


I Was Too Young To Redeem Myself


If one wants to reduce the charge, one must learn by heart dozens of rules. Even though we had to do work like sewing balls, gluing paper items, or knitting canes all day, we still had to study the rules late at night. The charges were so long that if one cannot have it reduced, they cannot imagine when they will be released. There were no papers to help remember those rules. Everyone had to learn by heart all the rules and recite everything upon being asked. But not everyone had the confidence to speak in the crowd. Some people were able to fluently say the rules in private, but they trembled as officers called them up to say the rules in front of people. So they just lost the chance to reduce their sentence time. The government did not care about the fact that people had to work and study at the same time. After a long day, each of us were trapped in our own thoughts; no one talked to anyone. While some had tea and discussed the work, others wrote letters and diaries. The diaries were so precious since it was like a record of one’s life.

Each time after being released, I went to prison again for a couple of years. For some, discrimination from society is high due to being released from prison. This tension would cause them to return to drugs and thus, back to prison. For these people, there was no direction in life. Everything was a non-exit loop. They kept meeting old friends whenever they went to prison. The first time I went, everything was fine. However, the second time, my ex-wife divorced me. I once had a dream about a healed family with my children, wife, flowers, and a dream house. But, everything is gone. There will never be a family like that for me.

My ex-wife was from the Old Quarter. She was in her 20s, and she was too beautiful to wait for someone like me. Her family told me that once I have a daughter, I’ll understand their decision and why this is the outcome. I understood, so I agreed with every term of the divorce, just to release her from me. Many sought revenge, but not me. She was my wife. This situation was my fault. It was due to my involvement in bad activities, and I had to pay for that. But sadness still filled my heart after all. The tears dropped all over my pillow as I cried. I stayed up for nights after that. In the winter, my blanket was still drenched in my tears. I still did not believe that she was gone. She was my first love, with so many beautiful memories. 


Little Things Make Up My Motivation


My family visited me a lot when I was in prison. In fact, my father came to see me the most, and he would bring my son with him. The journey to see me was not an easy one. They slipped a lot before coming to see me. They were all covered with mud because back then the road to the prison was difficult to travel on. There were too many stones. When my father came to see me, he shared a lot. He even cried. It was only then that I realized my father loved me a lot. But he never expressed it before and I was too young to understand. I could not say a word. If only he told me those things earlier.


This time, I made up my mind not to go to prison again. I am too old now and being in prison once more would be the end of my life. There are important people in my life that also serve as motivation for me to remain sober and be a good person: my parents, son, and even my current partner. Every aspect of these little things became my motivation to refrain from my past activities. Now looking back, my life is still lucky after all.

Here We Welcome Everyone


Being fresh out of prison meant a feeling of crushing isolation. Hà Nội’s society has moved forward in time but I was stuck at square zero after spending a few years in prison. Simple things like inserting money into vending machines left me puzzled. Day in, day out, everything I saw wore me out, so I locked myself indoors. Going out with close acquaintances was fine, but other, more nitpicky people, did little to hide their attitude. They wouldn’t say it, but I noticed everything. My self-consciousness made me prefer doing everything in solitude. One year had gone by before I had a place to work. They had required me to cover my entire body, even in the flaming heat of Hà Nội. I wasn’t about to put up with the discrimination, so I quit. But, the discrimination still lingers and is not forgotten. Now I cover myself with long sleeves whenever I go somewhere new since I understand the gravity of first impressions. I eventually found my current job, which supplies me with a stable income for food and rent. They were wary of me, but over time they have come to see me for who I am. 

The rest of my time I devote to social work. The organization where I work never fails to bring me joy. Here, I do not need to hide who I am and where I come from, nor am I required to cover up my tattoos. We welcome everyone here, especially newly released ex-convicts with nothing to their name. Many who come here experienced worse than I ever did. So we gather here and try our best to lift each other up. It is hard to think about what other options we would have if this place did not exist. Returning back to society feels deserting, isolating, discriminating, and overwhelming in addition to other hardships. 

One year ago I had an epiphany: to accept my life as it is and to stop clinging to my past. Everything I had was lost, and trying in vain to salvage what’s left of my former life was not worth it anymore. It was the darkness that beckoned me that led me towards the never-ending cycle of addiction, depression, self-blaming, and denial. I still have my health, and this is a blessing to many. All I need to do is to lead a virtuous life and take it day by day. If I see an old lady begging on the street, I will cut 20k of my cash for her, even though I only have 50k. My dignity is all I have. There’s nothing I fear more than losing it.

Who does not want the future to be kind to them? Everything comes with a price. Cash in my younger, criminal years meant nothing to me. Honest money is much harder to earn, and that is more precious to me. Now all I want is a small house for us two to live in, somewhere to call home. It could mean next to nothing to some, but to us, something to work towards. 

*Storyteller’s name has been changed