HCMC Dining Guide

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Problem With Flowers

Anyone who has spent time in Pham Ngu Lao (or eaten on the street elsewhere in the city) has been approached by children selling flowers, packs of gum, tissues, cigarette lighters, etc. You'll be sitting at a table outside, drinking a beer, and a scrawny kid will tap you on the shoulder and offer whatever product they are carrying. Most of these kids speak great English thanks to how much time they spend around foreigners, and they can be pretty funny (and vulgar) as well.

I've always avoided buying anything from these kids. It is common knowledge that they are controlled by unseen adults, and the money the children make through sales simply goes to these overseers. I had never heard much about this shadow industry, but last week a disturbing story was reported in Tuoi Tre - a man named Ho Dinh Chau was arrested for abusing the four children he was in charge of. This article hit home for many expats, as the boy in the accompanying picture, whose name is Tran Van Nam, is instantly recognizable to anyone who has hung out on Bui Vien. He has tried to get me to buy flowers countless times, but I never have. Apparently Chau would beat any child who failed to make enough money in a night, and sometimes even burnt the tips of their fingers with a lit cigarette.For those of you who are too lazy to click on the link, here is the boy I'm talking about:
photo courtesy of Tuoi Tre
I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking that the exposure of this story has presented a moral dilemma: when a kid such as Nam tries to sell you something, should you buy it so he makes money and doesn't get beaten, even though he won't actually see any of that money? Or do you not buy anything in the hope that the bottom-feeding lowlife shits that handle these kids get out of the business once they stop making money? I don't know how these kids end up with such people, but I'm assuming their parents are either gone or simply can't afford to care for them, so they pass them on to someone else. Hopefully the four children who Chau controlled will be able to live a better life, but the article makes no mention of where they were taken after his arrest. I'll certainly think twice the next time a kid approaches me with a sales pitch and I'm tempted to wave them away.


  1. Most sobering indeed, Michael - thanks for bringing this to folks' attention. One excellent source for such is an .org I learned of when I visited Cambodia last year:


    Especially relevant to this tragic tale is ChildSafe's tip #2 "THINK! Before buying or giving to begging children."

    A tough moral dilemma to be sure. But it seems to me that it's little different than terrorist kidnappings, etc. Though it's terribly painful, we simply can't give in to terrorists/the slimy lowlifes in your story, else there will never, ever be an end to the abuse and blackmail.

    Perhaps... when you see that waif selling trinkets in the street - buy him/her a bowl of pho to fill his (likely empty) tummy. Small solace, but at least he'll have one hot meal before he heads back to what may be a very bleak evening.

    That and... volunteer/support orgs that are legitimately reaching out to get babes like dear Nam off the streets and into a safe place.

    1. Thanks for the links and suggestions - I have considered buying food for them before, though believe it or not I've seen people offering to buy food get turned down. A tricky situation indeed.

  2. Wow, this is one tough dilema. I will actually be on my first trip to VN in a few days and this article will weigh in the back of my mind when I see these children.