Buying sex with a 12-year-old girl in Cambodia takes less time and effort than paying for a telephone bill. For $1 USD, a shady motorbike will take you on a 20 minute ride up the haphazard highway north of Phnom Penh to the dark and grim village of Svay Pak. Also known as Kilometre 11 or K11 (11 kilometers from Phnom Penh), Svay Pak is internationally famous for its tainted collection of shanties, brothels, and karaoke bars that exploit young Vietnamese and Cambodian women, and children as young as five.
An imaginary black cloud hovered over my head as I gathered the sights and sounds of suffering and despair of the past few days. However, where there is bad, there must be good. Amidst all this anguish and misfortune, there are angels who shine a rays of hope for all of us. I can't forget about Father Tuan of Can Tho who dedicates his life and medical skills to those whom society has casted aside as not worthy.
We visited a rural village further inland from the docks. If the church is this small and unkempt, then you know that the people are poor
Cambodia is deceiving. Hidden in the shadows of its vibrant city streets, modern architecture, eclectic culture, and majestic mosques is the discrimination and enslavement of Vietnamese people. Worse, the diseased tradition of trafficking Vietnamese women and children. Pitted from generations of hate and antagonism towards the Vietnamese government for exerting control and influence as early as the 13th century, the Cambodian government and its people directly disfavors the Vietnamese.
Father Martino and volunteers with OBV children
After a couple days in Can Tho connecting with the local church community, we head back to Saigon for a BBQ with the girls. It would be the last time we would see them. I carried mixed emotions on the bus ride back to Saigon. On one side I was super excited to see the girls again, on the other side I dreaded the inevitable bittersweet goodbyes at the end of the night. We all know I'm an emotional person!
Rows upon rows of bicycles - only the best way to get around!
We parted with the girls (but not for the last time!) to venture south of Saigon to Can Tho. Can Tho is the fifth largest city in Vietnam, and the largest city in the Mekong Delta. It is noted for its floating market, rice-paper-making-village, and picturesque rural canals (yes, I quoted Wikipedia). Of course, Wikipedia failed to mention mucky, desolate, down-and-out rural villages of Can Tho. Our shuttle bus barely traversed the bridges in fear of their collapse!
D. and C.L. approaching the beach for the first time
Well, life isn't always so. But today, the girls experienced a life so beautiful and grand. Generously sponsored by one of OBV's partners, we took the girls to a private beach resort from January 11-12. Many of them have never seen an ocean before! Others have never been in a hotel. None have experienced such fun and luxury. It was a joy for us to see the girls so happy and carefree. They were able to be and act like real children. The sparkle in their eyes shone so bright that I had forgotten their past.
The purpose of this mission trip was to SEE, HEAR, LEARN about our surroundings, from rural villages to urban hotspots, in order for us to understand the situation in Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam and Cambodia. Not only did we dig deeper into the human sex trafficking issue, but through conversations with local were we able to understand other important problems like extreme poverty, human rights violations, and social marginalization and discrimination of Vietnamese people.
I met the girls for the first time yesterday. But before I get into that, I have to share with you a heartfelt story. I woke up in the hotel yesterday morning and logged into Facebook as part of my addictive daily routine. I see a post by Father Martino announcing that he just rescued a young girl who was trafficked to Singapore. I thought to myself, "Wow, what an incredible story to kick start my mission with OBV". I went downstairs to have breakfast with the group and sitting across from me was the same girl that Father Martino mentioned in his post. My heart dropped into my gut. She's beautiful. Her hair is long but tattered. Her skin is soft. Her face is gentle. She's quiet.
Father Tuan - taking care of the mental illness - with OBV volunteers
This was the second time I stayed in Can Tho after the first time here for work related reason five years ago. Can Tho city is flourishing with the famous Ninh Kieu port because it is the commercial center for all Mekong Delta areas. However, under the flowery cover, this city carries with it many sad secrets which threaten human capacity of toleration.
21h30 Jan 12th, 2013. Led by Father Martino Nguyen Ba Thong, a group including OBV staff and volunteers from USA started the trip to Can Tho. After 3 hours of travelling, the mission group arrived at Can Tho at 1:00 am Jan 13th 2013.
Not sure if the air in Lao Cai was getting warmer or is it that I have in some sense gotten used to this place. Today, I no longer felt the coldness as much as the previous days. It is the last day, therefore everything is much lighter and more relaxed. We are allowed to sleep in until 8 a.m. at latest because we have an appointment at half past 8 a.m.
Before this trip, Hanoi was the farthest North destination that I’ve been to. Many people said: “A trip to Lao Cai – Sa pa this season? Are you crazy? Want to die?” I’d never known how frost of the North really was so I wanted to have experience there - a place where my father was born.