The tangled strands of Vietnamese society

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By Samantha Coomber

As the Vietnamese Lunar New Year (Tet) approached – Vietnam’s most important and largest festival – an unlikely ensemble of Hanoi residents gather together on a sluggishly dreary January afternoon for a heart-warming good cause. Namely, Vu Trieu, a young, flamboyant Hanoi hair stylist (plus salon staff), donating free haircuts to four very excited disadvantaged local children. This under the watchful gaze of their Australian mentor and founder of children’s charity, Blue Dragon, plus several members of the Press, all in the confines of a hair salon that resembles a tasteful boudoir. And you thought Vietnam’s capital was dull…..

The kids in question are from the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, based in Hanoi. Its founder, Australian Michael Brosowski, set up Blue Dragon in 2002 with the prime aim and focus of working with disadvantaged young people from northern Vietnam – be it street and displaced kids, those from broken or impoverished homes, with disabilities or orphans – and improving their future. Passionately committed to his cause, Michael bases his work at the charity’s office and drop-in centre, near Hanoi’s Red River. Blue Dragon – now a registered Australian NGO – believes the most effective way to break the cycle of poverty in Vietnam is through education. Where it differs from other charitable organisations is that, in Michael’s own words, “We wanted to go it alone, as no one else was doing what we were doing in Vietnam. We oversee the whole programme ourselves”. Blue Dragon concentrates on individual needs and cases: youngsters that may otherwise fall through the cracks. Funded by grants and sponsors, they work directly with the children, families and communities. Each child gets intensive, individual care through an education-based approach, looking at the long term picture and aiming to put them on the road to more sustaining wealth. “Blue Dragon perceives what needs to be done and what’s best for them,” Michael sums up. “We set out to change lives, set up opportunities and help them get their first job. But the helping process carries on well beyond that, helping them make lasting changes in their lives.” There are two strands to their work: the Rural “Stay in School” Programme sponsors around 180 children (mostly girls) from the countryside, at high risk of quitting school due to poverty, while the Urban “Step Ahead,” programme involves social work for predominantly male street kids in Hanoi – the only one of its kind in Vietnam. The self-effacing Australian, who has long made Hanoi his home, proudly recounts (with some prodding) underprivileged and woefully under-confident kids when they first arrived at the shelter, gradually gaining in confidence and independence, then ending up with bank accounts and jobs in a range of work places; or of some rural runaways, finally reunited with their anxious families.

Free hair cuts may sound like a simple gesture, but is an important part of a huge confidence boosting factor that this small, hands-on organisation aims to provide for kids under its wing. This includes teaching them English, personal grooming and well-being, IT skills – even football, after founding a football team which still plays regularly on Sunday mornings. Life can be harsh on the streets – inexplicably, some of Vietnam’s most vulnerable are robbed, attacked and abused – so a couple of hours of pampering at a salon is not surprisingly, a luxury.

I first met executive stylist Vu years ago, when I was traveling through Vietnam.
He was one of the first breed of hair stylists catering for Western women, who like me, had experienced close encounters of the nightmare kind at some Vietnamese salons: hair colours that defied Mother Nature, or hair lopped off too short. Speaking with faultless colloquial English, thoroughly westernised, and understanding the complexities of Caucasian hair (and their owners), Vu quickly tapped into this business opportunity, resulting in the cleverly named Déjà Vu, then the subsequent Vu Doo salon, in Hanoi.

My first appointment with the twenty-something Vu, I was greeted by a slender figure wearing three-inch Japanese platform shoes and a cropped tank top; his boyishly handsome face framed with rock hard gelled hair, the spiky ends tinged with day-glo pink. Half his time seemed to be spent constantly scolding his pet Chihuahua, Lulu, who languished in relative sumptuousness in the corner. The passage of time however has toned down this former good-time boy (and his hair colour). Today, his hair – and clothes – is respectably normal and the partying has died down. In a sort of “tart with a heart” twist, Vu is doing his bit this Tet for a good cause – giving free haircuts to disadvantaged kids. And the timing is no coincidence: the Vietnamese view Tet as a time of renewal, with great emphasis placed on starting the New Year with things clean and new – and that includes clothes and haircuts.

Twenty-four youngsters from Blue Dragon excitedly threw their tiny hands up in the air when Michael’s haircut idea was announced at the centre. Appointments were duly organised with four kids at a time, twice a week, for the three weeks leading up to Tet. So today, boys Nam (aged 14) and Cuong (aged 13) and girls Hanh (18) and Khang (12) tore up the stairs like whippets off their leashes, bursting into Vu Doo. Once inside, they found themselves in completely new, unchartered territory: an international-style salon of leopard print covered basin seats, silk drapes and large art works adorning the walls – even a drinks bar serving up beverages to clientele. Usually, the kid’s haircuts – that’s when they get them – are hastily undertaken by a relative or a street barber; today it was from a team of six in one of the best salons in town – who treated their little guests like any other customers.

But would Vu’s creative streak get the better of him? Would the boys end up with a punk-style Mohawk, or pink tinted spikes, developing a new generation of Vu mini-me’s? It actually wouldn’t come to that, as Nam, Cuong, Hanh and Khang had pretty definite ideas of what they wanted. After a shampoo, their tiny frames sat perfectly still- practically drowning under the styling gown – as staff got to work. Following their cut, styling, a dash of mousse and blow dry, they ended up with respectable, clean and well-cut locks. All looked pleased with the results – especially Hanh and Khang with their fabulously glossy tresses (and their painted pink fingernails thrown in for good measure), although, the impossibly cute Cuong, staring for a while at his reflection in the mirror, looked like he was still getting used to his impish new cut. Most of these 24 kids will return, like so many Vietnamese, to the countryside for Tet, celebrating with what families they have, if any, for the family-orientated festival. But for those with nowhere to go, the drop-in centre will be open throughout the holiday with welcoming arms.

Clinging on to him for dear life, Nam and the kids seem to genuinely adore the quietly spoken Michael, who at first seems in complete contrast to the still larger than life Vu – although they both share a common denominator of “living over the shop”. But appearances can be deceptive. Vu, like the kids in his salon, was another Vietnamese kid forced to grow up quick, having to support his large family – and those early years were tough. He admits, “When I see these kids, it reminds me of my past, and I want to help them in any way I can”. Perhaps, now at 30, Vu has now graduated to the role of responsible big brother, a successful role model for the Blue Dragon kids to look up to. But maybe not so much dressed in the pink PVC suit.

(For more information on Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation in Hanoi, contact
Michael Brosowski, e-mail:; website: