Light through the cracks
Beneath the summer sun in June, we visited Que Phong, a mountainous district bordering Laos in Nghe An province and about 200 km west of Vinh City. People coming to Que Phong for the first time could never imagine that this small, peaceful district nestled amid rolling forests and mountains is widely known as a "hot spot" for drugs and HIV.

That afternoon, the sun was scorching; rarely did a gentle breeze blow through, shaking the leaves. Going through the small winding concrete road in the middle of the field, we crossed a few small bridges leading to the "hot spots” following the directions of members of the group Sao Va*. Finally, we reached a small house perched on the side of a hill.

A petite woman in her 60s with tanned skin and bright eyes quickly ordered H. – her youngest son - to clean the tables and chairs and prepare tea to welcome us. She sat on the steps facing the main door, looking at the rice fields left after the harvest and the rolling mountains under the yellow sunlight. With a not-so-clear Kinh accent, she told about her life, about what she and her family went through when her three children took turns getting involved in drugs and then, one after another struggled to rebuild their lives. 

“In this border district, almost every house has someone involved in drugs and HIV. My sons are no exception.”

Nearly 20 years ago, the "white ghost” spread into the village, bringing with it a haunting. Almost under every roof, there are people involved in drugs and HIV. Her three sons, the first one is nearly forty, the second one is over thirty, and the youngest one is over twenty years old, and they are no exception.
Because of substance abuse, her eldest son and his wife separated. Her second son has been in and out of jail several times for drug-related issues. The mother sadly talked about her youngest son, who left home after finishing high school to work at a company, carrying his parents' hopes but then lost his way and went down the path of substance use. She said that at home, her youngest child was timid and quiet, but drugs turned her child into a different person. "That ghost took my child away.”. Whenever he had a drug craving, he would scold his parents and ask for money to buy drugs. The whole family relied on the meager income from the father's construction work and the fieldwork of the mother, but "as soon as they harvested any rice, he would sell it all.”. Among those long struggling days, the most desperate one may be the day she learned that her children were infected with HIV.
“That day, I was working in the field when I heard that my first child was infected with the disease. I fainted in the middle of the field. People helped take me home.”
At that time, people in her village only knew that the disease was very dangerous; if you were infected, you would die. At that time, HIV seemed to be a death sentence for anyone infected with it. Then, the second son was also infected. The third son returned home after four years of working as a laborer, with pimples and acne on his body. She took her youngest child for testing and received the same results as her brothers. The mother could not hide her desperation when talking about the time that seemed like the end of the world. 
“No one in this whole village, district, commune... No! No one in this entire country of Vietnam is as miserable as me. All three sons of mine are addicted. What else is there to live for?”
All three sons of mine are addicted. What else is there to live for?
Family relationships started to break after hopeless advice and pleas, intense family meals, the tense atmosphere every time everyone gathered, the long sleepless nights of the father, and the fatigue and helplessness tormenting the mother. She also became more closed off and shy with her neighbors.
Despite being tormented by that disease, her son was determined to give up many times. He locked himself in his room, stopping eating, drinking, etc. Yet, those efforts have never been successful. Loving her son, she hoped to find a way or find someone who could help her son rebuild his life so that her family could be as peaceful as before.
One day, Mr. Lo Van Nhat, a member of Sao Va, a peer group that helps drug users and HIV-infected people in Que Phong district, visited her house. He has known the youngest son of the family since distributing harm reduction items and connecting him with ARV treatment. Mr. Nhat also regularly visits, shares information, and encourages the family. He told the mother that methadone, like ARVs that help people fight HIV, would help get rid of dependence on opium and not cost too much. At first, she was skeptical about what could make her long-standing wish come true. But thanks to Mr. Nhat's patient explanation, plus the fact that for her, there was nothing left to lose in life, the mother was determined to encourage her children to take methadone.

“Since my sons started taking methadone, I have gained 8 kilograms. Before, I was 40 kilograms; now, I am 48 kilograms.”

The eldest son was the first to take methadone among the three brothers. After a period of treatment, his health gradually stabilized, and he completely stopped using heroin. He has applied to work as a construction worker in town and occasionally sent money home to his parents.
Listening to his eldest brother and mother, with Mr. Nhat's enthusiasm, the youngest son agreed to take methadone. In the first days, Mr. Nhat came to his house to take him to the medical center to take methadone. Mr. Nhat also encouraged the youngest son that, at first, taking methadone might be a bit tiring and sleepy, but he will gradually get used to it. One week, two weeks, then a month, the youngest son quit using drugs. After his health stabilized, he followed his older brother to work. In his free time, he works in the fields or helps his parents cook and clean the house.
“My eldest son saved up money to buy my youngest son a phone, saying it was a gift. They are very close; my youngest son listens to his brother more than he listens to us.”
At this point, joy is shining in the bottom of the mother's eyes. Her youngest son once knelt in front of her and apologized, "I hurt you so much.”. He is also determined to find a stable job to help his parents. The mother knows that her son has returned.
Since the children gave up using drugs, the atmosphere in the family has changed completely. Laughter comes back to family meals after a long time. "Their father used to be quiet, but now he jokes with me a few times and chats the whole time.”
She told us that she had gained 8 kilograms. She is also not afraid to face neighbors anymore. The youngest child has a more relaxed spirit now and is more open to communicating with people. She said, "My youngest son loves children, and the children in the neighborhood also love him very much. By going to work with his brother on construction sites or working in rice fields with me, he can earn some money and use it to buy toys for the children. The children are very attached to him, always following him when he goes to take methadone every morning.” 

“When my second son comes home, I will definitely tell him to take methadone.”

She told us firmly like that. Her second son has been in and out of prison several times due to substance abuse. He was also determined to give up but was never successful. Every time he returned home from prison, he took the same route again.
But the mother didn't give up. Since her eldest and youngest sons started taking methadone, her family's life has completely changed. Now, her family also has the support of the Sao Va group members. They often visit the house to encourage and support the family. Instead of previous doubts, she now completely believes in what has changed the lives of her sons and her entire family.
Thank you so much for helping my children take methadone. I am so happy.
We joked, "After your son comes home and takes methadone, you will gain another 8 kilograms." She smiled, the corners of her eyes showing traces of time. She held our hands - the first time guests visiting her house - and gave the Sao Va group warm hugs.
During our visit, H., the youngest son, sat timidly and quietly beside his mother.
Perhaps he took a trip down memory lane, remembering the days gone by. He has come a long way, and on that journey, he used to lose his way and stumble, but there is always someone there to accompany him.
Pain has cracks in it, but that's where the light gets in. Then, the cracks in the past will be soothed and filled by love. Looking out at the fields after the harvest under the yellow color of sunlight, we all believe and hope that after those ups and downs, that family's life will be just fine.
*Saving the Future is a project implemented by the Center for Supporting Community Development Initiatives (SCDI) to control HIV infection among young people who use drugs in Vietnam. To date, this is the first and only project in Vietnam aimed at strengthening the quality of HIV intervention among drug users aged 16 to 24 through innovative strategies.
*Sao Va is a community group supporting drug addicts and HIV-infected people in Que Phong district, Nghe An province. The group joined SCDI in 2022 in the project “Saving the Future” and other projects implementing harm reduction activities for people who use drugs and people who live with HIV in Que Phong. H.'s family in the story mentioned above is one of the people the project intervenes and supports. 

Article by: Ngoc Anh
Image by: Thanh Hung
Copyright belongs to the Center for Supporting Community Development Initiatives (SCDI) - Vietnam.