Unwed pregnant women have a haven in Vietnam

Chitose Suzuki / Associated Press
“Sometimes we have 10 mothers living here . . . sleeping on the floor,” says Phuc.

In a country with one of the highest abortion rates, Tong Phuoc Phuc single-mindedly works to offer options.

From the Associated Press
May 24, 2008

NHA TRANG, VIETNAM — Sitting cross-legged on a straw mat in the middle of the living room, Tong Phuoc Phuc sings a soothing Vietnamese lullaby. For a moment, his deep voice works magic, and the tiny room crammed with 13 babies is still.

Phuc giggles like a proud papa. He’s not related to any of them, but without him, many of these children probably would have been aborted. And to Phuc, abortion is unimaginable.

The 41-year-old Roman Catholic from the coastal town of Nha Trang has opened his door to unwed expectant mothers in a country that logs one of the world’s highest abortion rates. In 2006, there were more than 114,000 abortions at state hospitals in Ho Chi Minh City — outnumbering births.

Most pregnant unmarried Vietnamese women have few options. Abortion is a welcome choice for many who simply cannot afford to care for a baby or are unwilling to risk being disowned by their families.

The Communist government calls premarital sex a “social evil.” Abortion, however, is legal and performed at nearly every hospital. And unlike in some Western countries where the issue is hotly contested, the practice stirs little debate here.

But shelters for women who want to keep their babies are rare. Phuc promises them food and a roof until they give birth, then cares for the children until the mothers can afford to take them. In the last four years, he’s taken in 60 kids, with about half still living in his two houses.

“Sometimes we have 10 mothers living here . . . sleeping on the floor,” says Phuc, a thin man with dark, weathered skin and teeth stained brown from years of smoking. “The problem is that a lot of young people live together and have sex, but they have no knowledge about getting pregnant. So they get abortions.”

Phuc says he made a deal with God seven years ago when his wife encountered complications while in labor with their son. He vowed that if they were spared, he would find a way to help others. As his wife lay recuperating after the difficult birth, he recalls seeing many pregnant women going into the delivery room but always leaving alone.

“I was wondering, where are the babies?’ ” he says, cradling an infant in each arm. “Then I realized they had abortions.”

Phuc, a building contractor, started saving money to buy a craggy plot of land outside town. He then began collecting unwanted fetuses from hospitals and clinics to bury in graves on the property. At first, doctors and neighbors thought he had gone mad. Even his wife questioned spending their savings to build a cemetery for aborted babies.

But he kept on, and now about 7,000 tiny plots dot the shady hillside, many marked with bright red, pink and yellow artificial roses.

“I believe these fetuses have souls,” says Phuc, who has two children of his own. “And I don’t want them to be wandering souls.”

Vietnam was ranked as having the world’s highest abortion rate in a 1999 report by the U.S.-based Guttmacher Institute, which tracks the statistics. More recent reliable data for both public and private clinics are unavailable. The U.S.-based aid agency Pathfinder International says abortions remain high in Vietnam but appear to be declining slightly.

Dr. Vo Thi Kim Loan has run her own clinic just outside Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, since 1991. She says the number of young unmarried women seeking quick, discreet abortions has increased with more teenage girls having sex before marriage. She also still sees a steady stream of married women coming in for repeat abortions because their husbands disapprove of contraceptives.

Preference for boys is another factor. Vietnamese women with access to ultrasound sometimes terminate pregnancies after discovering they’re carrying girls in a country where couples are encouraged to have just two children.

Phuc isn’t sure why so many Vietnamese choose abortion and says more women need to understand that safer forms of birth control are available.

He says word of his unusual graveyard eventually spread, and women who had undergone abortions started visiting to pray and burn incense. Phuc urged them to tell others considering the same option to talk with him first.

Phan Thi Hong Vu looks lovingly at her chubby 7 1/2 -month- old baby boy sucking on a pacifier surrounded by all the other babies on Phuc’s floor. She shivers at the thought of how close she came to losing him.

“I actually went to the hospital intending to get an abortion, but I was so scared,” says Vu, who was 3 1/2 months pregnant at the time. “I decided to go home and think about it. Two weeks later, I met with Phuc.”

She moved into the 900-square-foot house soon after and remains there with seven other new or expectant mothers. They spend their days washing, feeding, burping, changing and playing with the babies — all but one are under a year old.

It’s a full-time operation that involves Phuc’s family. His older sister manages the chaos, mixing vats of strained potatoes and carrots and preparing formula for bottles, while shushing crying babies and chasing crawlers. The entrance to the single-level cement house tells the story: rows of bibs, booties, jumpers and spit-rags hang drying in the sun.

It costs about $1,800 a month to care for all 33 babies and the women. Phuc gets donations from Catholic and Buddhist organizations and from people who have heard about his work. On a recent day, a local family dropped by with an envelope sent from their daughter in California who had read about Phuc on a Vietnamese website. Two years ago, he even got a letter from Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet praising him for caring for women and children scorned by society.

Health authorities say they support what he’s doing, but also keep an eye on him to ensure that everything is legitimate in a country where baby-selling and child-trafficking are a problem. Some people accuse Phuc of condoning premarital sex.

Phuc’s operation is not a registered orphanage, which means he cannot put the children up for adoption. But he shakes his head and says that even if he could, his goal is to reunite them with their mothers or raise them as his own. So far, 27 babies have gone home.

“I will continue this job until the last breath of my life,” he says. “I will encourage my children to take over to help other people who are underprivileged.”

Unwed pregnant women have a haven in Vietnam – Los Angeles Times


Vietnam to allow foreigners to buy property

Hanoi – Vietnam has passed a law allowing certain categories of foreigners to buy apartments beginning in 2009, the first time the Communist country has allowed non-citizens to own real estate, the government website announced Friday.

The country’s National Assembly approved the new law Thursday, with 88 per cent of deputies voting for it.

Foreigners eligible under the law can only buy apartments in developments approved for foreign residency, not houses or land. Ownership will be for a term of 50 years, by which time the foreign owners must sell or transfer the property.

Real estate developers said the law was likely to give a much needed boost to Vietnam’s property markets, which have softened recently after explosive growth in 2007.

‘It could have a 20 to 30 per cent impact in terms of rising prices,’ said William Badger, a manager at Leonidas Management, a subsidiary of the Hong Kong-based real estate company Tung Shing Group. ‘You’re talking about people with money in hand, so we would imagine that a lot of people will want to buy.’

‘Similar laws have been passed in China, Thailand and Malaysia,’ said Misha Chellam, assistant to the chairman of Hanoi-based developer Vietnam Land. ‘Each time in those countries when a law like this was passed, it significantly boosted demand.’

Those eligible to buy apartments include foreign firms purchasing housing for staff, and four categories of individuals. These include foreigners working at Vietnamese firms, foreigners married to Vietnamese, foreigners with special skills needed by Vietnam’s economy, and foreigners who have been awarded medals or other honors by the government.

It was not immediately clear how much the new law would differ from current law allowing foreigners to obtain 50-year leases on property in Vietnam. Normally in Vietnam, new laws are followed by decrees and circulars clarifying how the law will be implemented, and developers expect that the move from lease to ownership will grant foreigners additional security.


Vietnam warns of hand, foot and mouth disease spreading among children

HANOI, Vietnam: Vietnam has warned health officials nationwide to be on the lookout for an infectious disease that has killed 12 children in the country this year, a health official said Friday.

So far, Vietnam has reported about 2,800 cases of hand, foot and mouth disease, a common childhood illness that typically causes little more than a fever and rash, said Nguyen Huy Nga, director of the Preventive Medicine Department, under Vietnam’s Ministry of Health. Nga did not give the number of cases from previous years.

About 400 of those cases have been blamed on enterovirus 71, or EV-71, one of several viruses that cause the illness. EV-71 can result in a more serious form of hand, foot and mouth disease that can lead to paralysis, brain swelling or death.

Neighboring China has been particularly hard hit by the virus this year, with more than 25,000 cases among children and 43 deaths.

In Vietnam, state media quoted Trinh Quan Huan, vice minister of health, as saying the situation is becoming more complicated with the virus spreading in the north of the country.

The disease is usually characterized by ulcers in the mouth, rash and blisters on hands and feet. Since it mostly sickens children and is easily spread, the ministry has ordered that kindergartens should be closed for two weeks if at least two cases are reported.


Country’s Media Condemn Journalists’ Arrests

The arrests of two local reporters last week for “abusing their power” by allegedly misreporting a major corruption scandal have led to an unusual confrontation between Vietnam’s government and the country’s state-controlled newspapers, says the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA).

Nguyen Van Hai of the newspaper “Tuoi Tre” (“Youth”) and Nguyen Viet Chen of the rival newspaper “Thanh Nien” (“Young People”) broke a story in 2005 about senior government officials allegedly embezzling funds to wager on European football matches. The story led to the resignation of the transportation minister and other high officials in 2006. Nguyen Van Hai and Nguyen Viet Chen could be held for as long as four months while authorities investigate, says Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Vietnamese newspapers are generally deferential to the government, which controls most of the nation’s media. But last week’s arrests unleashed a deluge of protests from journalists and bloggers, who said the detentions would discourage aggressive reporting on corruption.

“Honest journalists must be freed,” read a bold headline in “Thanh Nien”, the flagship publication of the Vietnam National Youth Foundation, where Nguyen Viet Chen worked until he was jailed. The paper is demanding that he is allowed bail, reports SEAPA.

“Tuoi Tre” published a story on 14 May saying it was inundated by phone calls, emails and letters from angry citizens protesting the government’s move – the most it had received in 33 years of publication.

The English edition of Vietnam.net highlighted the story and solicited mostly supportive views from politicians, lawyers and fellow journalists. National Assembly Deputy Duong Trung Quoc was puzzled as to why the government was “shooting” the messenger while on an anti-corruption drive.

The arrests also point to a worrying trend of the authorities detaining, harassing and jailing journalists in Vietnam using criminal and national security laws, say the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and RSF.

On 13 May, Somsak Khunmi (Nguyen Quoc Hai), a long-time news assistant and contributor to Chan Troi Moi (Radio New Horizon) was sentenced to nine months in prison on terrorism charges. He was detained last November along with French-Vietnamese reporter Nguyen Thi Thanh Van and a group of political activists working for the pro-democracy Viet Tan (Vietnam Reform Party). Nguyen was released in December following international pressure.

Authorities say Somsak is being detained for attempting to distribute pro-democracy fliers, a violation of Vietnam’s penal code. But CPJ believes his detention has more to do with his and Nguyen’s reporting on an earlier protest held in Ho Chi Minh City by aggrieved farmers who had been pushed off their land by state authorities.

Bui Kim Thanh, a blogger, dissident and lawyer suffered a similar fate for defending women farmers made homeless by illegal land grabs, says International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC). Police stormed her house and detained her in a psychiatric hospital in March – for the second time.

Also in March, freelance journalist and a member of the banned Bloc 8406 pro-democracy movement Truong Minh Duc was given a five-year jail sentence on charges of “taking advantage of democratic rights to act against the state’s interests” and “receiving money from abroad to support complaints against the state”, reports RSF. He often wrote about corruption and abuse of authorities for newspapers and websites in Vietnam and abroad.

The Beijing Games has also been a flashpoint in Vietnam. According to RSF, a Vietnamese government website stated that Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung had called for “absolute security” during the Olympic torch relay in Ho Chi Minh City and warned against “hostile forces” that were ready to disturb the peace.

A leading blogger who posted entries on his blog about worldwide demonstrations against the Olympics was kept under close police surveillance and arrested just days before the Ho Chi Minh leg of the relay for taking part in protests against Chinese policy, reports RSF. Nguyen Hoang Hai, better known by his blogging pseudonym of Dieu Cay, was charged with tax fraud, “just a pretext to prevent one of Vietnam’s most influential bloggers from continuing to post comments critical of the government,” RSF says.

And U.S. journalist Le Hong Thien was seized by security police in Ho Chi Minh City while covering the torch relay itself, says RSF. Thien is the editor of the US-based magazine “Gia Dinh”, a reporter on the “Viet Times Weekly”, and contributor to Radio New Horizon. He is currently under house arrest at his brother’s home and his passport has been confiscated. He has not yet been charged.

According to RSF, at least nine journalists and cyber-dissidents are currently in prison in Vietnam.

Visit these links:
– SEAPA: http://www.seapabkk.org/
– RSF on Dieu Cay: http://tinyurl.com/48j34z
– RSF on Nguyen Van Hai, Nguyen Viet Chen and Le Hong Thien: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=27023
– RSF on Truong Minh Duc: http://tinyurl.com/4hezgj
– CPJ: http://tinyurl.com/4wyxxj
– WiPC: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/93095/
– IFEX Vietnam page: http://tinyurl.com/3swwm3
– Vietnam.net: http://tinyurl.com/3pbkq3
– AP via ABC News: http://tinyurl.com/3zyuy3

(20 May 2008)


Vietnam: church protests at government plans to demolish monastery

Tensions between the Catholic Church and government are growing after the local government announced plans to build a hotel on land seized shortly after the Vietnam Wqar.

Bishop Thomas Nguyen Van Tan of Vinh Long diocese, 135 km South West of Saigon, has sent a letter to priests, religious, and lay people of his diocese denouncing the decision to pull down the monastery of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul.

In the letter read in all Masses on the last weekend, Bishop Nguyen Van Tan says that September 7, 1977 was “a day of disaster” for the diocese of Vinh Long. On that day, “the local authorities mobilized its armed force to blockade and raid on Holy Cross College.., St. Paul Monastery, and the Major Seminary”, and arrested all those who were in charge of the premises. Bishop Thomas was among the detainees.

Since then, the government has kept the properties, using them for various purposes. Last month, local authorities announced a project to build a hotel on the land of 10,235 m2 of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul. The Sisters have staged protests at the site, and a group of priests has voiced their protest at the office of the Fatherland Front. Despite all this, the government has not changed its mind. Rather, it “has summoned residents in the town to meetings in which they vow to take strong actions against those who dare to prevent the construction”, the letter says.

Vinh Long is a province located in the Mekong River Delta of southern Vietnam. Its capital is Vinh Long. Its population is 1,023,400 living on the land of 1,475 km. Its unemployment rate in recent years stays persistently at more than 34%.

The text of the letter follows.

Vinh Long, 18 of May 2008

To priests, religious, and lay people of Vinh Long diocese,

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

I am writing this letter in response to your great concerns relating to the Major Seminary on Nguyen Hue street; and to the solicitude of Sisters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul for their monastery on To Thi Huynh street (previously known as Nguyen Truong To).

The September 7, 1977 can be seen as a day of disaster for the diocese of Vinh Long. On that day, the local authorities mobilized its armed force to blockade and raid on Holy Cross College on Pham Thai Buong street (formerly known as Khuu Van Ba), St. Paul monastery, and the Major Seminary. Then, they seized all these properties and arrested those who were in charge of the premises. I myself was among the detainees.

Representatives of the Provincial Superior of Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul and the Bishop office have repeatedly sent petitions to local and central governments. However, these petitions have gone unanswered. Recently, local government of Vinh Long province has issued a decree to build a hotel on the land of 10,235 m2 of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul. Despite the protest of priests at the office of the Fatherland Front, the government has summoned residents in the town to meetings in which they vow to take strong actions against those who dare to prevent the construction.

It is a great suffering of Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul who have been in Vinh Long since 1871 and have been serving peoples in the provinces of Ben Tre, Tra Vinh and Vinh Long. It is also a great suffering of the entire diocese. We cannot consent with the decision imposed unjustly by those who have power in their hand, neither we can stay silent in the face of this outrage. Being silent means complicity and a compromise with injustice.

I am convinced that you will be united with each other, and be persistent for justice. In the spirit of solidarity, I ask you to pray earnestly for the diocese and Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul so that we soon overcome these difficulties. Every day, please be united in prayer with us by singing three Hail Mary and the Peace Prayer of St Francis of Assisi.

In Christ,

+ Bishop Thomas Nguyen Van Tan

Bishop of Vinh Long


Story Flavours of Vietnam (+recipe)

Chef Tony Tan is a man of the world. Literally. Of Chinese descent, born in Malaysia, he moved to Australia 30 years ago as a student, and never left. Except to travel the world.

Now running his cook school, Tan is a respected expert in Asian cuisine, including Chinese, Nonya, Indonesian, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian and Malaysian. His school is ranked in the top 20 internationally by London’s Financial Times.

A self-confessed “food nut,” Tan also leads culinary tours of the world, including, this year, jaunts to China and Spain. Next year he will lead a tour to Vietnam, and it was on his radar at Savour New Zealand, where he was teaching a master class in Vietnamese cuisine.

It is a country he loves, and visits at least once a year.

“It is quite easy to fall in love with Vietnam,” says Tan, eager as a schoolboy. “It has a thousand-year-old culinary history.”

He whips out his cellphone to show images of the dishes he has been working on in the kitchens of the Langham Hotel.

There is the muc nhoi thit (stuffed squid or calamari) and ca ri ga (chicken curry). “The two dishes are distinctly different from each other,” says Tan.

The stuffed squid, from the north, is beautifully stuffed with pork, mushrooms and herbs, and cut into delicate slices and served with nuoc cham, a spicy dipping sauce.

The chicken curry, a southern dish, is more rustic and robust, with chunks of potato, chilli and coconut milk, served with a handful of coriander or Thai basil.

“Vietnamese is known for being really light and delicate,” says Tan. “But there is a big difference between the north and the south. The north is much more refined than the south. The north and central areas have an imperial influence, but further south, the food is much raunchier. It is big and tropical, and they go big on flavour.”

The people from north and south Vietnam have a friendly rivalry, not dissimilar to the two main islands of New Zealand. “My friend, who is from up north and very refined, said to me, ‘those people from the south are so vulgar! Their soups are so big!”‘ Flavours are a mix of sweet and sour, with lime, lemon grass, fish sauce, mint and Thai basil the key ingredients.

There are lots of vegetables, with an emphasis on freshness, and side dishes of fresh herbs and dipping sauces. “You get an explosion of flavour,” says Tan. The country is influenced by China to the north, and by its history of French colonisation, as well as neighbours Cambodia and Laos to the west.

The French influence is seen with Tan’s curry, served with a baguette as an alternative to rice and noodles. Like New Zealand, Australia has changed markedly in the last few decades, Tan says. “When I first came out to Australia 30 years ago, there was no coriander. It is amazing how it has changed. Now I can buy fresh pandan leaves at the Victoria Market.”

ca ri ga (chicken curry) Main course, serves four.

“Generally, Vietnamese curries are quite different in terms of their preparation compared to Thai, Malaysian and Indian curries,” says chef Tony Tan. “Although they share some similarities with their neighbours, the Thais and Khmers, these curries are relatively milder and more watery.

However, the following Cham-influenced recipe debunks all I’ve mentioned because it is thick, rich and heady, with the aroma of lemongrass. Serve it with a fresh crusty baguette, chopped coriander or Thai basil, chillies and a salt-pepper-lime dip and it will take you to the markets of Vietnam.”


50g lemongrass, finely sliced
2cm fresh ginger, about 20g peeled and crushed
2 cloves garlic, crushed
20g curry powder

750g free range boneless chicken, preferably thigh, cut into small pieces
Oil for deep-frying
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, finely chopped
1 stalk lemongrass, inner bruised
20g curry powder mixed with 1 Tbsp water
1 long red chilli, deseeded and minced
200 ml coconut milk
400ml Vietnamese chicken stock*
20g sugar
2 tsp or about 10g of sea salt, to taste
1 tsp white pepper
250g potato or sweet potato, peeled and cut into 2cm cubes

To serve:
Handful of coriander or Thai basil
Freshly sliced chilli
Fresh baguette


In a food processor, process lemongrass to a fine powder. Add the ginger, garlic and curry powder and process until the mixture forms a paste. Transfer mixture to a bowl and add the chicken. Mix well and marinate for two hours.
In a medium saucepan, deep-fry the potato pieces in hot oil until lightly browned and crisp. Drain on kitchen paper and keep warm.
Pour off all but two tablespoons of the oil. Over a medium heat, fry the garlic, onion and lemongrass until fragrant, about three minutes. Add curry powder and chill. Continue to sauté for another three minutes or until the spices are fragrant. Add the chicken and cook until it is opaque, about four or five minutes.
Add the coconut milk, chicken stock and season with salt, pepper and sugar. Lower the heat to simmer the chicken, uncovered, for about 15-20 minutes or until it is tender and the sauce is thick.
Check seasoning and add the potato before serving. Place curry in a serving bowl and offer baguette and garnishes on the side. Of course, it is also great with rice.

Muoi Tieu Chanh or Salt, Pepper and Lime Dip
2 tsp sea salt
2 tsp freshly ground white pepper
40ml fresh lime juice
Combine the salt, pepper and lime in a small dish. Stir well and use as required.

*Note: Vietnamese chicken stock is made with cloves of garlic, spring onions or onion and ginger. Vietnamese curry powders tend to be more aromatic with hints of star anise and one of the most popular is Vianc Indian Chef curry powder. Madras or Malaysian curry powders are acceptable substitutes.

Tony Tan’s chicken curry was served with a glass of Montana Terroir Series Riverpoint Gisborne Gewürztraminer 2007.


5,000 workers go on strike at shoe factory in northern Vietnam for higher wages

HANOI, Vietnam: More than 5,000 workers have walked off the job at a privately owned footwear company in northern Vietnam and demanded a pay increase to cushion the impact of rising inflation, a company official said Tuesday.

The company recently increased its workers’ salaries 100,000 Vietnamese dong (US$6.30) to an average monthly pay of 800,000 dong (US$50). The new salary is about 38 percent higher than the minimum wage for workers at Vietnamese owned firms, said an official with Sao Vang Ltd. Co., who only identified himself as Hieu, citing policy.

But the workers stopped working Monday to ask for more, he said.

“It is hard to say that they are demanding, given the fact that inflation is skyrocketing,” Hieu said. “This is putting more and more pressure on businesses here.”

Consumer prices in Vietnam are 21.3 percent higher than they were a year ago, according to government figures. A wave of strikes has hit companies across the country as the inflation rate has grown this year.

Sao Vang has been operating in Hai Phong City, about 100 kilometers (63 miles) east of Hanoi, since 1994. It currently employs about 6,000 workers. The company produces shoes for export to Europe and elsewhere in Asia.