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How I Escaped the Brothel in Cambodia: One Young Vietnamese Woman's Story

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Note: In 2010 I traveled to the Mekong Delta with a crew from Jim Lehrer's News Hour to document the lives of Vietnamese Americans who returned to Vietnam to live and work. One of the was Diep Vuong, founder of Pacific Links. Vuong's program called ADAPT leads the counter-trafficking efforts at the frontiers of Vietnam by increasing access to education, providing shelter and reintegration services, and enabling new economic opportunities for girls and young women. They provide shelter for victims of human trafficking and education to at risks young women in Vietnam. Human trafficking has become a scourge in Vietnam, a country where the rural-urban gap is widening. Each year several thousands of women and children are trafficked from Vietnam to other countries, mainly through Cambodia and China, for commercial sexual exploitation. Some 50 percent of them come from An Giang province in the Mekong Delta.

Below is an interview I conducted with one of those victims who managed to return from a brothel in Cambodia and is now under the care of Pacific Links. It is told through her voice.

AN GIANG PROVINCE, Vietnam - My name is Bong Nguyen. I am 21 years old. My parents work in the rice fields. We have enough to eat and enough to wear. I have two brothers, one older, one younger.

In 2008, I went to Cambodia and ended being stuck there for over one year.

I was in school, and after I finished exams, I was browsing on the Internet, and this guy kept trying to chat with me. I didn't know him, but he kept asking to chat, and so we talked. There's a coffee shop in Cambodia, he said. I could make money over there.

At that time, I kept fighting with my mother, and she kicked me out of the house. I was very sad. In the neighborhood, there's a person who wanted to marry me, but I didn't want to get married. My mother said, "You better marry him," and I was so sad. So another girl and I, we decided to go to Ha Tien province just for a few days but we planned to come back. But the guy that I met on the Internet called again and said that we should go to Cambodia to work and make money. There was another friend I knew from school, and he just failed his school exams so the three of us we said, "Why don't we go?"

We went by motorcycle taxi, and we went to this man's house and two men and a woman showed up and they ended up taking us via country roads through rice fields [to avoid the police] and soon we were in Cambodia -- without papers.

When we got to this house where this man was supposed to be, he wasn't there. He was in Malaysia. But his sister was there, running the place, and she kept me and my friends there. They were also Vietnamese. They asked where we were from and we told them. The woman said she'd buy me new clothes, and we were there for a month. I didn't know anything about getting paid. I wasn't thinking about money at that point.

I soon realized the place was a way station for trafficking. It was a place that sold girls overseas. It was also selling lots of drugs. The white powder kind and the kind that you inject. I saw several girls who came and went. The woman was providing them drugs as well. She was waiting for more girls to show up to ship us to Malaysia.

She collected money from the girls who were working, and she sold white drugs to them to smoke. She called me her "girl." She told me she also owned brothels in Thailand and Malaysia. The boy I came to Cambodia with ended up smoking the white powder. I don't know what happened to him. The drugs were to keep the girls in line.

It was a big operation, and there were quite a few people running the operation, but I met only four to five of them. At first I wanted to escape but couldn't. I didn't want to know what happened if I were caught, so I didn't really try. But I begged: "Let us go home. We still have to go to school." And the woman there said, "You won't do well in school. And you have no money." She said she was preparing a fake passport for me to go to Malaysia.

But I was really lucky. One of the drug buyers was a boyfriend of the woman's adopted daughter -- she was selling herself at 13 but somehow was adopted by this woman -- and that guy was kicked out of the place for smoking drugs on the balcony. There was a big argument, and he said, "After I leave, in three days this place will be raided."

The next day the police came and they took everybody. I ended up in a shelter in Phnom Penh for over a year. They wouldn't let me go home because I didn't have any papers. Someone who knew about my situation back in Vietnam contacted my family, and eventually I was sent home. I was told that the woman who ran the brothel paid $100,000 to get out of jail.

When I was in the shelter in Cambodia I met a lot of girls who suffered really horribly. I met 33 girls there, and many were Vietnamese, but the majority was born in Cambodia.
This one girl, she was pretty, she sold herself into prostitution to help save her grandmother when she was 13. She told me how she had to serve dozens of men a day and then how she was taken out to be gang raped by 20 men. She begged them to stop, but they kept raping her. She was saved when her brothel was raided

This other girl, she was a big girl, but she suffers seizures because of the beatings she's gotten. She said she resisted her customers and was beaten so badly. Now, she can't do anything without shaking horribly. She was raped and beaten so regularly that she became half crazed.
There were a few women suffering mental illness. There were several girls in the shelter dying of AIDS.

Who were their customers? All kind of foreigners. Americans. Thai. Vietnamese. Cambodian.
I listened to their stories, and that's when I realized I needed to find a profession and education in order to survive. Now, I look back and I realize how stupid I was to listen to my friends when I went to Cambodia. I am extremely lucky. I feel so sorry for those who suffered in those terrible conditions.

Most of my friends in Vietnam don't know what's going on. They don't experience it so they don't believe the news about human trafficking. Sometimes they said, "Well, who told them to do that?" But they don't understand how that could happen to them.

I would like to tell them to not listen to strangers, and to not just decide to do whatever you want on your own. To be careful. But I know my friends. They want freedom. I don't think I can convince them.

In the future, I want to become a lawyer. I want to be able to help those who suffered in those situations or if they want to go to trial to demand justice, I would volunteer and help them.
Going back to school will be difficult, but I know with discipline and will power and faith I can do it. I will let everyone see how determined I am. I have high grades right now, but I am two years behind in school.


New America Media editor, Andrew Lam, is the author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora" and "East Eats West: Writing in two Hemispheres." His book of short stories, Birds of Paradise Lost, is due out in 2013.

Those who want to help can send donation to ADAPT please go here. The organization is dedicated to fighting trafficking in Vietnam, with focus on the Mekong Delta. For further reading: Human Trafficking a Growing Global Scourge