THE leader is a bald, wiry youth with a round face who insists he is 17 years old, but he looks 14. His shorts and once-white shirt are grimy and worn thin. Nguyen Hoang Anh Tuan says he left his family two years ago after he had trouble getting along with the grandmother he was sent to live with when his parents divorced.
Tuan and his friends, members of a protective group of eight boys, live in the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, the business capital of Vietnam, which is still informally called Saigon. The city is the epicenter of the economic transformation that began in Vietnam in the late 1980s, when the country's Communist rulers decided to embrace free-market economics.
Although the change has brought prosperity to many in Vietnam, the free market is one reason that Tuan is not with his family.
Schools have begun to charge parents small fees for building maintenance and even tuition, creating a burden for poor families. Fees have also been introduced in the health-care system. And Vietnamese who used to receive food from Communist cooperatives are now in greater need of cash, so parents often pull their children from school and put them to work.
Nghiem Xuan Tue, director of the Vietnamese government's Programs of Protection for Displaced Children, calls his charges one of the ``negative phenomena arising from the revival of state-sanctioned capitalism. Other officials deny the connection, and social workers caution that it may be too soon to draw any definitive conclusions.
Talking to the youths themselves leaves less room for ambiguity. A 13-year-old named Tran Nhan Dung, one of Tuan's friends, says he left home because his mother wanted him to stay out of school and sell lottery tickets and newspapers. This wasn't the only reason he left the coastal city of Vung Tao for Saigon -- he says his father had taken a mistress -- but he ``didn't like'' being forced to work.
Tuan says he never got much education, ``because my family did not want to pay for my school.''
Social workers have plenty of labels for Tuan and Dung and the millions like them who populate the thoroughfares of many cities throughout the world. One Vietnamese term is ``unlucky children.'' UNICEF, the United Nations organization concerned with the world's youths, uses the appropriately bureaucratic ``children in especially difficult circumstances.'' Mostly they are called ``street kids,'' children who live hand-to-mouth in public places, scrounging for food, security, and affection.
Numbers still small here
Compared with the growing populations of street kids in some cities in South Asia and Latin America, the numbers in Vietnam are small. Estimates are shaky, but officials and nongovernmental social workers say that 2,000 Vietnamese children, mostly boys, are full-fledged street kids -- completely independent youths who have no connection to their families. There are vastly more children who maintain some connections with parents or relatives but do not go to school; their number may be anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000.
Like many governments around the world, the official Vietnamese response to street children has been to round them up occasionally and confine them in institutions.
Experts have warned against this strategy, arguing that children who have sacrificed much for independence cannot be helped by depriving them of their freedom.
The government now is showing more interest in helping the children on their own terms, working with them on the street and trying to return them to their families, according to Timothy Bond, the Saigon representative of Terre des Hommes, a Swiss organization that runs programs for street children here. But, he adds: ``It is still a fact that the government continues to pick them off the street and put them in a closed institution.''
One problem, he says, is that the liberalization that has freed many parts of the economy has not reached the social-service sector. The government has yet to pass a law legalizing nongovernmental organizations that could help street kids, and many officials remain suspicious of sanctioning such groups.
One Western social worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity, attributed the suspicion to the Communist government's reluctance to allow organizations that could become political. ``When you're talking about empowering the poor to stand up for their rights,'' the worker says, ``this notion is rather threatening.''
Meanwhile, on the streets of Saigon, the children are trying to stay alive.
Tuan says the boys beg for money, sometimes in the tourist areas of the city. When that doesn't work, they scavenge food from restaurants. They also get some help from a few charitable organizations, both Vietnamese and foreign, that operate in Saigon.
Taking care of each other
One of the boys in the group, named only Ti, is small with pointy hair and bright eyes. He left the hill town of Dalat a year ago, he explains, because his parents died and his aunt didn't stop bigger boys from bullying him. He guesses he is 10 years old.
Is it any better here in Saigon, on the street? ``We protect him,'' answers Dung, as Tuan and the other boys nod. They sit close together, almost on top of each other. During the course of an hour-long interview, the boys communicate as much by wanting to be touched as with their words.
The boys are asked what they want to do when they grow up. A few of them talk about owning a small business.
``I want some privacy,'' says 10-year-old Nguyen Tuan Tai.