On Christmas Eve, just as many of you were beginning your holidays, I was going back to work in the mountains of northern Vietnam.
Although Vietnam lies within the tropics, winter here in the mountains can be bitterly cold, as I experienced during my initial investigations in January and February this year. I’ve never been a cold-weather person, and was glad to leave here last month before the winter took hold again.
Before my departure, however, I was contacted by a British film studio producing a 50-minute television documentary on the trafficking of young women from northern Vietnam.
As I’d spent six months working on a similar project in the region, the director expressed an interest in my knowledge and contacts, as well as a desire to feature P and myself as part of her story.
The timing couldn’t have been worse – not only was the five-day shoot scheduled for the middle of winter and the middle of the Christmas-New Year holidays, but it fell in the middle of the first real break I’d taken from The Human, Earth Project in 15 months.
Nevertheless I agreed to participate, and rendezvoused with the international crew in Hanoi on Christmas Eve. We travelled together into the mountains to meet my young Hmong friend P, a recent survivor of human trafficking.
P’s family is among those who have converted from traditional shamanistic practices to Christianity, and P invited us all to join their family dinner on Christmas Day.
It was an unusual Christmas spent huddled around a fire in the earthern-floored home of P’s mother, high on the hillside above the village. Our evening ended with a half-hour spent slipping down the long muddy slope in the darkness, and a late ride back to town through the biting cold.
Although her life has certainly not been without drama during my three-week absence, P is putting her experiences as a trafficked bride behind her, and is now comfortable and happy in her new life.
On the second day, courtesy of a drunk and abusive village policeman attempting to prove his worth to society, we found ourselves in the sixth circle of bureaucratic hell which threatened to shut down the production entirely.
Faced with the possibility of criminal charges and the likelihood that we were under surveillance by government agents, we lost an entire day in extricating ourselves from the mess.
‘It could be worse,’ our cameraman quipped. ‘We could be working in an office.’
The third day began with a call to a young Hmong friend of mine who had agreed to act as our interpreter that morning. Her husband answered the phone to tell me his wife would be unable to work, as she wasn’t feeling well.
Within the hour, on a bed of straw on the concrete floor of her rented room, in the company of her mother and husband, my friend gave birth to a healthy baby girl – a full month earlier than expected.
Will that little girl also be raised under the threat of abduction and sale to foreign men, or will our work here succeed in drawing the necessary attention to the issue of human trafficking in this region?
Each year, renowned traveller/blogger Niall Doherty compiles his list of 100 people doing extraordinary things around the world. It was excellent to see my work included on Niall’s 2014 list.
I couldn’t agree more with Niall’s closing remarks: “The only thing stopping any of us from doing something extraordinary is ourselves. Let’s set those excuses aside and go do something amazing.”
I hope you’ve all had a happy Hanukkah, a merry Christmas and a fantastic Festivus, and I’ll see you in 2015!