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Cleaning Up the Beach
Nha Trang, Vietnam

J ust a few paces away from its beautiful beach resorts, Nha Trang is a rough town. By night the main street is taken over by a loosely organized society of thieves, prostitutes and pimps. At sunrise the strip of sand in front of the fairground is littered with used hypodermic syringes and condoms. Close to the bottom of the pecking order are the homeless children, some as young as seven years old, who sleep on the beach and try to feed themselves by selling chewing gum, doughnuts or T shirts. Without families to protect them, they get shaken down by thugs.

The kids also fall victim to Western pedophiles. "The government doesn't know how to handle the problem, so they're just ignoring it," says Kim Le, 40, a Vietnamese-Canadian who returned to Vietnam in 1996 and now manages a small bar in Nha Trang. After she caught a German tourist molesting a 10-year-old boy in a hotel, Le wrote a letter to the government and local authorities, to no effect. "To get the police to do something is impossible. They say, 'There's no proof, so we can't do anything.'" (Nha Trang police and immigration officials declined to be interviewed, saying only that they are investigating.) "It's a social problem—everyone must be concerned about it," says provincial Tourist Service director Huynh Quang Chau. Despite a nationwide regulation that only registered guests may enter hotel rooms, Chau says no establishment in Nha Trang has ever been shut down for allowing tourists to take in local children.

A few blocks away at the Rose Hotel, owner Nguyen Dinh Tu admits that his guests sometimes bring young boys. "But I don't know what they do in the room," he says. "If you come with a boy and I say 'No,' then maybe tomorrow you check out." Sexual abuse of children by foreigners is not as widespread in Vietnam as in nearby Cambodia, Thailand or the Philippines. But as authorities crack down elsewhere, pedophiles are choosing Vietnam as a safer option. Ho Chi Minh City is at the center of the trade, while Hoi An in central Vietnam and the northern hill resort of Sapa are also favored. "Foreign pedophiles are coming to Vietnam in increasing numbers," says a foreign police liaison officer in Hanoi, "because they know they can get away with it here."

Faced with official inertia, Le began printing T shirts with messages, including child sex is a crime, and handing them out on the beach. Over the past three years Le says she has distributed thousands of T shirts and printed flyers, to raise awareness. The children believe it helps deter the pedophiles. "When they see the T shirts, they get scared," says a boy who was sexually abused last March. But Le is growing weary of Nha Trang's sordid ways and official suspicion of her work. "I don't want to be here forever," she says, "but I don't feel I can leave while the authorities aren't taking this problem seriously. Hundreds of kids are living in fear and shame. Who's going to take care of them?"

—By David Liebhold/Nha Trang with reporting by Huw Watkin/Hanoi

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