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During the American War, as it is called here, this cluster of yellow stucco buildings 70 miles northwest of Hanoi was run by the army and housed young criminals and draft dodgers. They are all convicted prostitutes and have been sent here by the police, with court approval, for three to 12 months. Prostitution and drug use are increasing today, as is the trafficking across the Cambodian and Chinese borders in Vietnamese women who are sold into prostitution. The government of this conservative society is trying to tackle the problem through decree and education.
In , the national government set up the Social Evils Prevention Department. Since then, Hanoi has executed drug dealers and censored the Internet so computer users do not have access to pornography. Vietnam has also stationed more guards on the borders to intercept traffickers in prostitutes--most of the estimated 18, prostitutes in Cambodia are Vietnamese--and arrested 3, people linked to prostitution.
We were disciplined and entirely focused on the job at hand. Nguyen My Hanh, a husky-voiced year-old who is spending time at the re-education camp here, moved to Hanoi five years ago after her father died. Unable to find a job, she turned to prostitution to support her heroin habit. But the heroin was easy to find, and before my husband went away to drug rehabilitation, we were using a lot of it. I am treated well here, so I am not unhappy to be in Yen Bai.
Some remained incarcerated for 17 years, being released only in But the Yen Bai re-education camp represents the gentler face of Vietnam. The camp has no barbed wire and no locked gates. The residents do not wear uniforms or march in formation.
They are here for rehabilitation, not punishment. They receive medical treatment--all 93 women have venereal disease; three are HIV-positive--in addition to counseling, moral education and job training as milliners, seamstresses and farmers. Most provinces have similar centers for prostitutes. This camp was set up in , the same year Vietnam moved away from its state-run economy and adopted a program known as doi moi, leading to a free-market system. The resultant changes have widened the gap between rich and poor, urban dweller and rural peasant.