HANOI—As Vietnamese preparing for the Lunar New Year holiday, or Tet, most children look forward to presents, money in red envelopes, and sweets as part of the general festivities. But for Hanoi's estimated 1,600 street children, 2010 promises to be anything but festive as the government prepares to move them for the city's 1,000th birthday celebration.
"They come to Hanoi and they are bullied by local people," Hanoi-based Red Cross volunteer Nguyen Thanh Huyen said.
"If the children want to polish shoes in Hoan Kiem Lake area, they must hand in a certain amount [of profit] or they have to pay based on how many pairs of shoes they polish," she said. "Otherwise, they can’t work in the area."
She said those who took to begging had a worse deal. "Someone gives them food and/or shelter, then the beggars are forced to beg and all of the money they make is taken."
Residents of Hanoi first became aware of street children about 20 years ago, when communist Vietnam began to open its doors to the outside world.
The children come to Hanoi from many different provinces to make a living, often because there is no one to take care of them at home.
The children, who range from pre-schoolers to teenagers, are often seen working as shoe polishers, newspaper sellers, lottery ticket sellers, trash collectors, and beggars. Less visibly, they are trained by adults to pick-pockets, steal and offer sexual services.
Some sleep on streets
Those who work with them say their lives are extremely hard.
In the evening, they sleep on the street or under bridges.
But most of them live together in cheap rented rooms just to save money.
"Children who work as shoe polishers or newspapers sellers, according to the government, are considered to have jobs," said Nguyen Van Thang, director of the IV Social Security Center in Hanoi's Ba Vi district.
"They are not qualified to live [here] at the center."
"Children who are beggars or children who lack nutrition are eligible to stay at the center," said Thang.
He said officials would later investigate a child's origins after they arrived at the center, and contact made with any relatives or local government officials.
"Only those who don’t have families or local government services, or who are orphans, will stay here," Thang said.
"They will receive vocational training so that they can go back into the community later on."
But many young people down and out in Vietnam's ancient cultural capital, which celebrates its 1,000th anniversary this year, won't be so lucky.
"These children lack care from adults and they become a social menace," said Hanoi resident Nguyen Tuan Anh.
"Most of them who grow up without families are involved in crime. When they are older, about 10 years old, they shine shoes, gamble, and smoke. And they do drugs when they get older."
According to health ministry figures, some 8,500 Vietnamese children are thought to be carriers of HIV, and a large proportion of them are street children, sometimes orphaned by AIDS.
Anh said lack of sympathy for the children among residents because of their association with petty crime and drugs meant that there was scant protection for them.
"Some children are getting together and causing social problems in the area," Anh said.
"Not many people sympathize with the children, so they are rarely protected."
She said "collection" campaigns such as that ahead of the 2006 Southeast Asian Games in Hanoi, or the current campaign for Hanoi's grand anniversary celebrations, are rarely successful.
"Collecting children and sending them to centers doesn’t change anything," Anh said.
"The cost to pay for these centers’ activities is increasing but they don’t work very well because the number of street children is not decreasing."
Human rights groups said the children were frequently kept confined in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions at children's centers in previous "clean-up" campaigns.
Some private enterprises have started charity programs under which street children are given board and lodging and taught a trade. Among these is Koko Restaurant at Hanoi's Quoc Tu Giam Street, which is owned by an overseas-based Vietnamese.
Here, children are provided with food and shelter and trained to be cooks so that they can become independent later on.
Another initiative is run by a monk at Gia Lam district's Bo De Pagoda, who takes in street children, giving them food and an education.
And the European Commission has earmarked around 43 billion dong (about U.S. $2.3 million) from 2004-2011 to help Vietnamese street children in 10 provinces and cities including Hanoi.
The goal is to help about 7,000 street children or potential high-risk children to return to their families, as well as to increase the income of 2,000 poor families that have street children, providing them access to medical services and an education.
Original reporting in Vietnamese by Hanh Seide. Vietnamese service director: Khanh Nguyen. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.