|Nha Trang street scene, near the beach|
He asked, “Would you take our picture?”
I obliged, and taking his camera, snapped a photo of him and his wife, a beautiful blonde American. He had to be one of the tallest, most muscular men in all of Vietnam. I had no doubt that he was Vietnamese, but he spoke perfect English. I recognized him, but decided not to intrude on his privacy. I had just encountered Vietnam’s most famous refugee of today. The burly man was Dat Nguyen, former linebacker of the Dallas Cowboys in the National Football League.
The Vietnamese have a name for former refugees like Dat, that have returned to Vietnam. They call them Viet kieu, which means ‘returning Vietnamese’. Most of these refugees have returned in the years after the economy liberalized. Some like Dat Nguyen come back only to visit, while others move back for the long term and invest in local business. The Vietnamese who never left tend to view these returnees suspiciously, although they still do business with them.
In Nha Trang, I met a very unique returning refugee named Kim. She was one of the Viet Kieu who came back and stayed. Being of Chinese descent, her family fled as refugees in 1980, after the border war with China. At the time the Vietnamese government was repressing the country’s ethnic Chinese.
“I lived in Canada,” Kim told me, but her stay there wasn’t permanent. After reaching adulthood, she returned to Nha Trang in the 1990’s as a teacher, and later opened a bar. Settling in for the long term, she became part of the community.
One day outside a pagoda, she was speaking to a Vietnamese street child, and was horrified to learn that the youngster was a child prostitute. Investigating further, she came to learn that child prostitution in Nha Trang had become a serious problem.
By 2002, Nha Trang had become a seedy location for pedophiles to meet their victims. The beach was littered with syringes, used condoms and other rubbish. The town had become a foreign pedophile magnet.
Unbelievably, local police paid little attention to the problem, even though some of these children were human trafficking victims. They had been brought down from a poor village in the north, forced to sell postcards in Nha Trang. When Kim tried to have some of the pedophiles arrested, the police told her, “What do you care? They’re not your children.”
Frustrated at their unwillingness to pursue these perverts, Kim and her Australian boyfriend began fighting the pedophiles themselves, sometimes literally. In more than one instance, they physically attacked these men.
“The police started calling me ‘Crazy Kim’, she told me in her pub. “That’s why I call this Crazy Kim’s Bar.”
|'Crazy Kim' speaks to the children at her annual Christmas Party|
As she sought to have the pedophiles prosecuted, she fed information to the local police, foreign police, and even to Interpol. Her Australian boyfriend helped with her crusade for a while, but he eventually left. The lack of action by local police was frustrating. Still, there was some progress. Two pedophiles who had been visiting Nha Trang, were convicted and imprisoned in Germany.
International media eventually brought the problem of foreign pedophiles in Vietnam to the world’s attention. In 2005, the infamous rock star Gary Glitter made headlines when he was arrested and convicted for abusing two underage Vietnamese girls in Vung Tau, another beach town further south. He was convicted, and spent two years and nine months in prison before being deported in 2008.
As Kim got to know the street kids better, she learned that none of the children were attending school. So she expanded her assistance to include education, and she opened a room adjacent to her bar as a one room schoolhouse.
Crazy Kim’s Bar also began selling t-shirts, emblazoned with the warning message, “Hands Off the Kids”. Some of the street children began wearing the shirts as well.
Seeing my interest in Kim’s work on behalf of the children, Kim said to me, “Next week we’re having a Christmas party for Nha Trang children. Would you like to come?”
How could I refuse? Most Vietnamese are Buddhists, but the spirit of giving at Christmas isn’t just for Christians. It’s a time to share with everyone, especially with children in need such as these.
I came to the party, and what a sight it was. The children packed the bar’s back room for the festivities. As I greeted Kim, one boy who looked about eight walked in, and immediately approached her. He gave Kim a big hug, before joining the party. As he walked away, Kim told me his situation. “His mother is a prostitute.”
|Nha Trang's children enjoy themselves at Crazy Kim's Christmas party|
In recent years Nha Trang's beachfront has been mostly cleaned up, both of trash, and the pedophiles. Now it’s clean, suitable for family vacations. The beach is popular with foreigners and Vietnamese alike.
With Nha Trang’s public image vastly improved, the beach town hosted the 2008 Miss Universe Pageant. Won by Miss Venezuela, the event was broadcast worldwide. With that kind of exposure, it’s no surprise that Nha Trang has become the most popular beach destination in all of Vietnam
Through Kim’s work protecting the children, and through her efforts to draw public attention to the problem, the number of foreign pedophiles visiting Nha Trang has declined drastically. Today, her classroom continues teaching the kids, only now many of those attending are not just abused street children, but also kids from poor families.
Now in her 40s, Kim has put on a few pounds since those early years. She doesn’t have any children of her own, but one thing is certain. Kim’s efforts to protect Nha Trang’s street kids have saved countless Vietnamese children from sexual abuse. Vietnam's foreign pedophile problem has not been totally eliminated, but thanks to Kim, it has been reduced.
Who says that one person can’t make a difference?