The Army Of Urchins Occupying Hanoi

It is dawn, and Bui Van Ly is getting ready for work. He steps over a carpet of frail children sleeping shoulder-to-shoulder, brushes off his frayed Adidas track suit, grabs a stack of newspapers, and heads out to Hoan Kiem Lake in the center of Hanoi to sell enough tabloids to buy food for the day. "I used to be a beggar," says the 12-year-old proudly.

Ly, whose small build results from malnutrition and makes him appear half his age, has scrounged and begged for almost six years. "I still have both my parents, but they can't feed me," he says. Instead, home has been railway stations, prison camps, and Hanoi streets--anywhere but the tiny rural village where he was born.

Ly represents the flip side of the economic boom that has brought Vietnam $2 billion in foreign investment from Coca-Cola, Eastman Kodak, Samsung, and other companies big and small. There are at least 25,000 children living on the streets of the capital, according to international aid agencies. "This phenomenon is because of the transition to a market economy," says Bertil Lindblad, Save the Children Foundation's representative in Hanoi. "The social climate is much harsher than before."

When the government introduced the economic overhaul known as doi moi--renovation--eight years ago, it stripped away communism's social safety net. Two-thirds of Vietnam's 72 million residents live in poor rural areas, unable to profit from reforms that have pushed annual inflation down to less than 20% and stabilized the dong, Vietnam's currency. Rural children bear the brunt, according to a recent UNICEF report.

"My mother is too poor to feed me," says Tien Van Dong, 12. Explains 15-year-old Hoang Quan: "My mother told me to go out and earn money." As I write down each story, I hear the same refrain. At least 50% of Hanoi's street kids have been exiled by parents who can't support them, says Vu Tien, an activist who works with these children.

On Hanoi's main streets, swarms of street children race up to tourists to offer newspapers, maps, postcards, and sex. Ly, who has been selling newspapers for about a year, earns 55,000 dong (about $7) daily. The average rural family, such as Ly's, brings in little more than $200 a year.

Until recently, street children were invisible. Hanoi dealt with the problem by sweeping homeless kids off the streets and into prison camps. But the government appears to be changing tack. First, it dropped a ban on social workers. Then, it began to encourage international organizations and grassroots activists to set up outreach programs and drop-in centers that provide food, shelter, and the ABCs of capitalism.

RICE AND BED. After a 12-hour day, Ly usually stops by a dingy three-room apartment on Ngo Van So Street that doubles as a drop-in center. The only splash of color among the chipped walls and piles of dirty laundry is a recent propaganda poster: "Homeless Children! Earn a living yourselves. Then society will not abandon you." Ly contributes a good chunk of his day's take for an evening bowl of rice and a rough bed here. "Some people think I exploit the children, but they have a good life," says Vu Tien, who runs the center with his wife. "They learn how to start their life and earn a living." Tien Tran Van, 15, who is the top seller among these newsies and rakes in as much as 100,000 dong ($12.50) daily, agrees. Before coming to Hanoi, he spent more than two years in the prison camps, where he was beaten and starved. "If I didn't enter [here], I would have become a thief," he says.

The few privately run centers, such as this, don't begin to address the dislocations in Vietnam. Critics say almost all the new wealth is going into infrastructure, and little is available for social programs. "The problem will only get worse," says Nguyen Ngoc Dung, deputy director of the Child Welfare Foundation in Ho Chi Minh City. "The gap between have and have-not is big." In November, 10 European nations, along with Japan, South Korea, Australia, Canada, and Singapore, pledged $2 billion in grants and loans. But little of that will go to social services.

For now, Ly has made peace with his new life. "Even though my parents forced me to come, sometimes I go home and give them and my grandparents money," he says. Ly has new friends and independence, but he harbors a dream: to return home one day to stay.

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