When hundreds of young women were sent off to brothels, factories and eager husbands across the border, a local children’s foundation hatched a heroic rescue plan.
This story originally appeared in Latterly, a new quarterly magazine for international reporting.
On the back wall of the classroom at Sapa O’Chau, a bootstrap operation in Sapa town, far northern Vietnam, where hill tribe children study to be tour guides, colored-pencil drawings depict young girls with tears streaming down their faces. Some are shackled with metal cuffs; others are trapped in cages or giant jars. The most common scene shows a girl in a forest, trailing a male figure grabbing her by the wrist. “They may pretend to be your friend so they can take you away,” a tiny scrawl reads. “You must be very careful.”
The students drew the pictures in May 2012, shortly before participating in a made-for-TV documentary by MTV Exit, an initiative that campaigns to end human trafficking. At one point during the program, the members of Canadian pop-punk band Simple Plan sit in a circle with the kids and ask if any of them knows someone who has been trafficked. One girl, Ly, raises her hand. About a year ago, she says, her cousin boarded the motorbike of a handsome boy whom she trusted. No one has seen her since.
“I dream of her a lot,” Ly says in front of the camera.
I watched the video with Sapa O’Chau’s then-general manager, Peter Gilbert, one evening at the organization’s shophouse office in town. Onscreen, none of the other students volunteered an answer. But three of their own classmates had vanished down the mountain. One girl had been taken in the same manner as Ly’s cousin. The other two, also girls, had gone on their own. They had wanted to be tour guides, but their lack of English made this unlikely. “I think they felt life would be tough here, and they didn’t see much hope,” Gilbert said. “I guess they decided to go together, or maybe one first made that decision and then worked on the other until she agreed as well. And then they just disappeared.”
Outside on the veranda, Gilbert smoked a cigarette as I asked how the kidnappings worked. He stressed that he couldn’t be sure — no one I talked to is sure — but he ventured that it was usually someone the girl knows: a boy she meets, maybe one who has a nice motorbike, nice clothes, who takes her shopping, tells her nice things. The girl falls in love, comes to trust the boy.
“Then one day, maybe she gets on that motorbike, just for a little ride around the lake,” Gilbert said. “But suddenly he drives her miles away, and it’s not long before she’s lost, and she can’t get off the bike because she’ll hurt herself. The girl gets threatened, the boy takes her phone; maybe he takes her somewhere where it’s not just one boy but a group of them. And all of a sudden she’s helpless, trapped, captured.
“Then it seems to be they end up in a brothel, or married, forced marriage. I’ve heard a story that the girls prefer the brothel because it’s probably closer to the border, so it’s easier for them to get away; whereas, if they were married it’s probably thousands of miles away and they could disappear into the interior of China.”
China — that’s where they go, anyone in Sapa will tell you. The country is desperately bereft of women, the result of a cultural preference for boys amid the one-child policy. China shares a long, porous border with Vietnam across which traffickers can easily spirit girls like Ly’s cousin. They pluck them from all over the region, luring or simply seizing them with a range of methods, from pretend romances to promises of employment to forcing them in a car and driving off.
If trafficking happens in pockets, though, Sapa is unique, for in few places is the world changing so quickly as at this outpost of development in the Himalayas’ eastern extremities, the gateway to northern Vietnam’s hill tribe communities. While striking in variety and interest, not least for their famously vibrant traditional forms of dress, these groups are by and large impoverished, uneducated and disconnected from the protections of the state, heightening their vulnerability to predators. The Black Hmong and Red Dzao people who predominate here are no exception; Sapa’s tourism explosion has engendered a new normal of interacting with outsiders, leaving minorities perhaps even more exposed.
I caught wind of what was happening in Sapa in late 2012. There was a buzz about girls who “go to China” or “get stolen” that if you were paying attention was impossible to miss. One only needed to chat with the minority women hawking textiles in the street, shoot pool with the proprietor of a hotel or hang around Sapa O’Chau to begin to grasp the extent of the phenomenon.
It was hardly monolithic. Some girls were taken outright, but others went of their own volition, spurred by a bad home life, an abusive husband or some dreaded, inescapable fate. Phil Hoolihan, manager of the H’mong Sapa Hotel, told me how one of his staffers, a 16-year-old Black Hmong girl, tried to kill herself after her parents ordered her to marry someone she didn’t love. She already had a boyfriend, but he couldn’t afford the dowry — about $1,500, the price of a water buffalo — and the father said she had no choice. “So she ate the poison leaf,” Hoolihan said, and he meant it literally. She was still in the hospital. “It was her escape method.”
During the period in which Sapa O’Chau lost its three students, Gilbert had been running a tour guide class; the first two girls, the ones who set off together, were enrolled. One day they just stopped coming. “We still care about those kids a lot,” he said. “But it just seems like almost a part of life here that it’s not that shocking, not something people are still talking about today.”
Those two never returned. But the third girl, Thi, actually made it back to Sapa. No one could say exactly how. But everyone knew she had resumed her job as a tour guide, the one she had held before she left town about a year earlier.
Gilbert said he knew Thi — knew her well, in fact. Thi had attended his class, but she dropped out because she couldn’t deal with the rules or keep from fighting with the other kids. Gilbert hadn’t talked to her about China, though. He hadn’t talked to any of the ones who had returned about China. “I don’t want to talk to them, really,” he said. “I don’t want to stress them out.”
I met someone who offered to introduce me to Thi, and she and I sat down one afternoon in the town square. (The names of some of the girls have been changed.) It was a cool, clear October day, free of the dense flash fog that can sweep in so suddenly and obscure this place. Thi, who was 17 when we first spoke in late 2012, wore traditional Black Hmong clothes, colored indigo with patches of intricate, psychedelic patterns. Her fine black hair hung in a long ponytail over the back of her handmade outfit. On the concrete expanse before us, women sat on tapestries laden with handicrafts and tried to flag down tourists, some of whom bit — the stuff was cheap — some of whom just observed, often surreptitiously through their camera lenses.
Thi’s tale began one day at her room in town, when one of her girlfriends dropped by with a boy she’d just met. The boy, shy, hung around the door, then left for a few minutes and returned with another boy. The newcomer seemed nice enough, and after they departed Thi didn’t think much of it. Later that day, though, she noticed her phone had been used to call an unrecognized number. When she dialed to see who it was, the second boy picked up. “Now we know each other,” he said.
The next week, he called her, and they met again. He bought a shuttlecock, and they kicked it around the square with her friends. Then they went off on their own for a walk around the lake. When they settled on a bench, Thi texted with a girlfriend who teased her darkly. “Uh oh, first time, I don’t know if you go to China or not,” the friend said. Thi wrote back: “This time I go for sure!”
It was only a joke. But then the boy suggested they take a quick trip to Lào Cai, the lowland border town both an hour and a world away from Sapa. Just to walk around, check it out. Thi claims he slipped her a “medicine,” a special drug that made her like him. The next thing she knew, she was on the back of his bike, headed down, down, down the mountain…
Another Black Hmong girl who had reappeared recently, Zu, had also been whisked away on the back of someone’s motorbike, and she too had resumed guide work at one of the Kinh-operated hotels in town. Virtually every lucrative enterprise in Sapa belongs to a member of Vietnam’s ethnic majority, the Kinh. Even the Red Dao House, named after the minority, is managed and staffed by Kinh. Its servers dress as Red Dzao people and bequeath Vietnamese and Western fare to large tour groups.
Zu and I also sat down together in the town square, but she had to cut our conversation short because her parents didn’t like her staying out so late. It was already dark; the fog was rolling in. I asked if we could talk again. She said she would try.
A few days later I sent her a text. Could she meet? Her reply made me uneasy: sorry i don’t want to talking about my life much.
Usually there is some authority the journalist can consult with to add context to what’s on the ground. But no one at the international organizations in Hanoi, the capital, could tell me much about whether Vietnam’s ethnic minorities were being trafficked any more, any less or any differently from the rest. The picture is clearer in neighboring Thailand and Cambodia, where civil society is more developed and there are more anti-trafficking organizations. Here, state records almost never differentiate between minorities and Kinh. It seems a reflection of the uncertain esteem in which the government holds these people, isolated as they are at the fringes of a society that regards them as little more than cultural curios.
It isn’t just minorities: Little can be said definitively about any human trafficking in Vietnam. The data basically don’t exist; meager official statistics portray only the fraction of cases that surfaced in government shelters and courts. Some ministries kept figures like officially received victims, charges pressed and convictions, but trafficking usually goes undetected. Survivors, if they return at all, usually come back on their own. For fear of stigma and discrimination, many keep their stories to themselves.
Despite all this, there were some indications minorities might be unduly affected by the trade. Beginning in 2007, the International Organization for Migration, IOM, partnered with Vietnam to set up an assessment center for trafficking survivors in Lào Cai province, where Sapa is located. In a review of the project, the IOM stated that more than 90 percent of Lào Cai women entering the center hailed from minority groups, which comprise only 65 percent of the province’s population. Other women who passed through were also “largely from ethnic groups,” estimated at around 60 percent, the report said. “The evidence is anecdotal, but it does seem to be an emerging issue,” Florian Forster, the IOM’s then-local chief of mission, told me at his office in Hanoi. “We’ve been hearing a lot of stories.”
Diep Vuong’s nonprofit, Pacific Links Foundation, runs one of the only two survivors’ shelters in Lào Cai (the government operates the other). She said all 13 or 14 girls under her care were ethnic minorities and that she believed they were trafficked “disproportionately” overall. David Feingold, an anthropologist and filmmaker who has coordinated trafficking research for UNESCO, said that in Thailand and Myanmar, where he had experience, minorities were “disproportionately represented among trafficked people.”
I heard a similar appraisal from Michael Brosowski, an Australian whose Hanoi-based NGO, Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, has directly rescued more than 400 trafficking victims. Their work pulling victims from the clutches of traffickers started in 2005 when Brosowski was sitting at a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City. A 13-year-old boy named Ngoc tried to sell him a flower. Brosowski spoke just enough Vietnamese to chat with him — and hear that his accent was from distant Thừa Thiên-Huế province in central Vietnam. Two ladies at the end of the street were taking money every time he bagged a customer. “His hair was scruffy and his eyes were distant, like he simply had not had enough sleep,” Brosowski said.
Van Ta, a Vietnamese law student who was volunteering with Blue Dragon, called the women and demanded Ngoc’s release, saying he represented a big and powerful organization and would be going to the police if they didn’t send the boy home. That wasn’t exactly true — Brosowski had recently quit his job teaching English to start a foundation for street kids. But the ruse worked. In the process of bringing Ngoc back to his family, Blue Dragon learned there were other children trapped in the trafficking ring, so they rescued those, too. Soon they graduated to garment factories. It snowballed from there.
In late 2012, Brosowski wrote me that he had noticed a “massive shift” to remote ethnic communities. A year later at his office in the capital, I asked if that was still the case. “Even more so,” he said. “But it’s hard to be sure. Is that a trend, or is it just what we’re seeing?”
* * *
Over coffee in Hanoi, Van Ta, now Blue Dragon’s chief lawyer and a recipient of the U.S. State Department’s “Trafficking in Persons Hero” award, told me about the last girl he’d retrieved from China. “She didn’t know where she was,” he said. “How could we find her? So we just gave her instructions, over the phone. We said, ‘Now you have to be brave, find the right time to get out of the house, and run.’”
At the time, Ta, another Blue Dragon staffer and a Chinese-speaking companion had already spent a day scouring the rural outskirts of Nanjing, the densely populated capital of China’s Jiangsu province, looking for places that matched the girl’s descriptions: a house next to a river, a big stone bridge, a certain kind of tree. They knew she was somewhere in or around the city. The problem was language. She had only learned a bit of Chinese since her would-be husband purchased her a year earlier, and reading signs was still beyond her. Neither was she fluent in Vietnamese, making it difficult for Ta to understand what she was saying.
“She was from a minority,” Ta said. He found a picture on his phone and handed it to me. The image made my eyes widen.
The girl — it was Thi.
Somehow, this part of her account had been lost in translation.
“How did you learn she was there in the first place?” I asked.
“It’s a long and complicated story.”
From China, Thi had been able to contact Malcolm Duckett, an English teacher from Australia who was living in Hanoi. They’d met a year or so earlier when Duckett traveled to Sapa and signed up for a tour with her company. Thi had wanted to improve her English, so she asked Duckett for his email, and they struck up a correspondence. When Thi told him she was in China, he spread the news, and eventually it reached Blue Dragon. Ta got Thi’s phone number from relatives in Sapa she’d called from abroad.
“Did the husband know she was talking to her family?” I asked.
“Personally, I think he knew,” Ta said. “Because no one thought anyone could bring her back. The ethnic minority family has no money and doesn’t know where she is in China. Even if they know, it’s very far away, and they don’t speak Chinese. So that’s why the husband is confident to give her the phone.”
Ta talked and texted with Thi for five days, trying to learn more about her location. Blue Dragon and Duckett had each managed to trace the internet protocol, or IP, address of a computer she was using to Nanjing, but only to some unspecified location in the city’s vicinity. Finally, Blue Dragon decided just to go. Ta and the other staffer — a driver who had only been on the job a week — flew 1,800 kilometers, checked into a hotel and got on the phone with Thi. They rented a taxi to search for her place, but it was no use. Plan B would have to do.
“You have to take a deep breath,” Ta told Thi. “Don’t take anything, just go.” Her husband was sleeping; her mother-in-law had gone out. “Run!” Ta implored. “Run, run, run!”
So she did. For two hours she ran, looking for some crowded, plausible place — a hotel, a supermarket — where she could hand someone the phone for Ta’s Chinese-speaking friend to explain that he and his daughter had gotten separated on their trip from another province and could the person please tell him where she was? Finally she found a taxi and put the friend on with the driver. The driver brought her to Ta. He tried to act normal, paid for the taxi and didn’t say anything. Neither did she.
* * *
Earlier, when Malcolm Duckett, the English teacher, found Thi’s name in his inbox, it had come as a pleasant surprise. He hadn’t heard from her in about a year. She was writing in response to some group email he’d sent, saying she didn’t understand.
“Don’t worry, it’s fine,” he replied. “How are you?”
“Not so good,” came the next message. “I’ve been sold to a husband in China.”
What? Really? Duckett was floored. He knew he had to act — but something also troubled him. If the typical kidnapping victim might have pleaded for help or demanded to be saved, Thi issued no such entreaties. “She was using language like, ‘I don’t like it so much here, I’d like to come home’,” Duckett said. “She didn’t say ‘Please rescue me’. So it makes me think that perhaps this happens so often they don’t consider it their right to complain, or such a terrible fate. And I guess she didn’t know what she could do to get back.”
Duckett wasn’t so sure about her options himself, but whatever unease he felt he put aside and began spreading the word about her plight. Soon he identified some people in Sapa who knew of her abduction, though none were aware she had an email address; so Duckett took the lead, initiating an intense correspondence with Thi. If he could get her to perform a simple computing operation, he could pinpoint her location for someone to bring her home.
That proved extremely difficult. Thi was no computer whiz, nor was she the clearest writer. Her limited English and Duckett’s inability to speak Hmong made Vietnamese their best shot, but he wasn’t completely fluent in Vietnamese, she even less so. Although he eventually engineered a way to obtain her IP address, and with it her approximate location, he ached to get her to do something more specific with the computer. If he could just have her type in some commands, Duckett could have known exactly where she was. He sent her screenshots of how to do it, explained in multiple languages, even put her on chat with a Vietnamese person. In the end, the chasm was too wide. “We tried and we tried and we tried and we tried, but I couldn’t communicate it to her,” Duckett said. “It was really frustrating. Because it was so close; all you have to do is press these buttons and we can have a solution.”
The buttons weren’t Duckett’s only problem. Even if Thi had pulled off the IP traceback, none of the international organizations he reached out to could actually go to China and rescue her. They could only provide support upon repatriation. Bringing her home was supposed to be the police’s job, but Duckett learned the cost and effort usually meant they would not. Only Blue Dragon was willing and able to make the trip.
Brosowski, the Blue Dragon founder, is aware his organization navigates a gray area. On one hand, China is sovereign territory, and even in Vietnam the authorities hold sway. “On the other hand, we’re just going on behalf of a private citizen, just to look for someone’s daughter who’s missing,” he reasoned. “It’s not against the law to look for a missing person.”
Ta and Thi traveled three days overland from Nanjing to Hekou in China’s southernmost Yunnan province, just across the Red and Nanxi Rivers from Lào Cai. In a formal ceremony at the border, Chinese officers escorted Thi halfway down the short bridge linking the two cities, saluted their Vietnamese counterparts and handed her off. Then they walked her through the border gate and into Vietnam.
“Wow!” Thi exclaimed of the moment. “Vietnamese policemen from this side coming, and China coming, they say ‘Nice to meet you,’ very scary. After that the Chinese policeman gave me to them. Then the Vietnamese policeman take me in, and he say, ‘How old are you?’ I say, ‘17!’ ‘Which year you born?’ ‘I born 1995!’”
Thi could be a difficult person to read, and if the experience had shaken her, it didn’t show. Duckett felt the same way, and he struggled with it. “I wonder how it’s affected her,” he said. “She was happy to be brought back, but it seemed like a situation like, ‘I prefer it, I prefer it — I prefer it here it Vietnam. I didn’t like it in China.’”
Maybe, Duckett conceded, he needed to understand the Hmong better to understand Thi’s mindset. Or maybe Thi was just very good at accepting her situation.
“It just really struck me,” he said finally, “how it seemed like she wasn’t — like she wasn’t trying as hard as she could have to, to get back.
“Did you get the feeling when you talked to Thi that she had a strong desire to come back?”
* * *
One girl I interviewed had plunged from a fourth-floor window to evade her captors. Another had walked out on her new husband while pregnant with his child. Zu, with whom I eventually reconvened, had convinced her Chinese mother-in-law to let her work in a factory to earn money for the family. When she had pilfered enough, she made a break for it with two other brides, both of them Hmong.
Brosowski told a story about a trio of Kinh girls from southern Vietnam whose traffickers lured them across the border, locked them in a room, went out to find buyers for their virginity and came back to an empty house. The girls had kicked down the door and escaped. They ran until they were out of breath, and by some miracle the residence they approached for help was inhabited by a couple who had lived in Vietnam and remembered the language. The couple offered to hide the girls in their attic until someone could get them. One of the girls called mom, mom called the police and the police called Blue Dragon, which quickly picked them up.
When the trio was safely back in Hanoi, they stayed at a government shelter. One day Blue Dragon asked if they were ready to go home. The girls said they were scared because other residents of the shelter had been rejected by their families, or their neighbors had criticized them. Some had actually returned to the shelter.
Blue Dragon’s response was to organize a big party in the girls’ village to welcome home “the heroes who beat the traffickers.” “Because they did,” Brosowski said. “The traffickers spent all that money to drive them to China, and I can just imagine the look on their faces when they came back and their house was empty. These girls won. So let’s tell everyone in the village, these girls are heroes, not victims. And it worked. They never had a problem. One of them is working as an accountant or a bookkeeper in a big company now. She got her tertiary degree. I think she’s actually married.”
He added, “I guess they were lucky in some ways, because they did escape.”
In Hmong tradition, if a boy wants to marry, he kidnaps his bride. The practice fascinates the Vietnamese, and it has been stereotyped and romanticized in the national media. In 2009, the Hanoi-based rock band Ngũ Cung scored a hit with the song “Wife-Stealing: A Hmong Practice.” The custom almost always comes up in conversations about trafficking in Sapa. Some argue the normalization of kidnapping puts young women at a higher risk of falling victim to the trade, and videos posted to YouTube make clear it can be a harrowing experience.
Others think it’s largely overblown. Tam Ngo, an anthropologist who has studied the Hmong, said the “abductions” are usually symbolic, consensual affairs. “I think it’s a very sweet, beautiful little custom,” she said.
When I met Thi on that clear October day, she lingered on the memory of her wedding in China. She recalled the compliments, how everyone told her mother-in-law how lucky her son was to marry such a beautiful young girl. She remembered watching the DVD of the ceremony and where in the house the pictures had been placed: four or five on the table, a small one downstairs, a big one hanging on the wall. She said she had dreamed of getting married, and that when the moment finally arrived, it struck her that it would never come again.
More than a year later, I returned to Sapa and sat down in the square with Thi a second time. She wore a bright pink jacket and pants over her Black Hmong clothes and appeared taller than before, and her English seemed better. The previous week it had snowed, an extreme event here, and Thi showed pictures of the frost on her phone. As we chatted I told her about the other survivors I had interviewed, and it took us a while to ascertain that one of them was Thi’s aunt.
Duckett had told me Thi had married again. I asked her about it, and she said she had already divorced him. I asked about China, if she had ever tried to escape before making contact with Duckett. “No,” she said, “because I never going outside, only close to the house. I never go far away. So it’s very difficult for me to go out. But right now he calling me every day.”
“No. The husband in China. He calling me, try to make me going back.”
I asked how she responded.
“I speak with him say, ‘If he want to love me and marry me for sure he have to coming here.’ He have to coming here and we can make the paper for marry each other and then I can go back with him. If he not then I not going back.”
But did she want to go?
“If of course when he coming here he make the paper for marry in the policeman, and after that we can go and coming back, of course I going back with him. But if he just coming here and asking I go back with him, I never going back.”
That was interesting, I said, because none of the other girls said they would ever go back.
“If he want to love and marry me for sure, he just coming here. If he say I just coming back by myself, I say no.”
I asked if she thought he would come and fetch her. She said she didn’t hope so.
Would she really go back to China?
“I’m not sure.”