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Story December 20, 2022

Heroin, Healing, and Hope in Hanoi


A wall in a forest

Drug addiction has long been stigmatized as a social vice in northern Vietnam. An unlikely group of...


Nam Quoc Trung sits on a folding chair in an open-air gymnasium. He watches former thieves, muggers and convicts play soccer on the pitch. He waves to students headed to the dining hall for lunch. A small sign on the wire gate at the entrance reads “Trung Tâm Giải Cứu Aquila,” and underneath, in English, “Aquila Rehabilitation Center.”

“My life is better now than a billionaire’s,” he says.

It’s hard to imagine that this man once tried to sell his infant daughter for heroin.

One building at Aquila serves as a learning center, a dining hall, and Nam's home. A new dormitory is being constructed for staff and their families. Image by Eliza Billingham. Vietnam, 2022.

Bordering the Golden Triangle and with a history of forced opium production, Vietnam has struggled for decades to eliminate opioid abuse from its population. Until 2009, the government relied on a strict criminal code to put addicts into detoxification centers that force abstinence and labor. These centers started attracting accusations from the Human Rights’ Watch for suspected abuse.

Hard-line law enforcement did not prove effective. The Vietnamese government now estimates that the number of drug users in the country is increasing by 10,000 every year. Vietnam currently has 113 licensed detox centers, but together they only serve 20-30% of addicts.

Nam is the founder and pastor of Aquila Drug Rehabilitation Center, a Protestant addiction recovery center in northern Vietnam. Aquila is a radical departure from traditional rehabilitation methods. Though Christians are held under suspicion by traditional Vietnamese, the small religious group is also known for providing much-needed welfare services to addicts, orphans, sex workers and other vulnerable populations. A new study by the Institute of Religious Studies in Ha Noi shows that Aquila is filling a gap in addiction treatment, but its religious ties keep it from being a legal rehabilitation center.

Nam first used heroin when he was 14 years old. He was a spoiled child, he says, the favored firstborn son of a wealthy family. What started as a fun party diversion ended up as an all-consuming addiction in dark alleys and back rooms.

Nam’s family went to extremes to help him end his dependence on drugs. On one occasion, his mother wrote to the police, begging them to put her son in a detox center. Over the next 16 years, Nam was admitted into government detention centers 14 times.

Though opioids have a long history of medicinal use in southeast Asia, French colonizers monopolized opium production and forcibly increased local consumption in Vietnam during the mid-19th century. In 2016, Vietnam had one of the highest opioid-related death rates in the world, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Vietnamese government officials weaponized fear to stigmatize drug use and deter people from using opioids. Drug use fell under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Labor, Invalids, and Social Affairs, entrenching it not as a public health issue but a social evil, a criminal vice that cast addicts out as pariahs.

“Society doesn’t care if a drug addict dies,” Nam says. What’s more, he says, the public doesn’t just turn a blind eye, but often considers an addict a “bad person who deserves death.”

When Nam was released from a detox center, he might stay clean for six months or a year. During one release, he married Nguyen Thi Hong Van. The new bride hoped her unconditional love could keep her husband sober.

Soon after the wedding, Nam relapsed. He sold off furniture, jewelry and other valuables until their home was empty. On a chill winter’s night, Nam stole their infant daughter from her room and left the house without properly dressing her, planning to sell her or blackmail his wife. Nguyen finally caved and gave him enough money to buy the next hit.

“My family’s life gradually became hell,” she wrote years later in a brief memoir. She often considered committing suicide, hoping that grief would guilt Nam into leading a better life.

Nam was spiraling out of control when he met an old friend, Tin. Tin and Nam used to shoot up together. But Tin was no longer using drugs. Tin told Nam that Jesus had changed his life, and he had become a Protestant Christian.

Individual prayer rooms are cut into the side of the mountain. They offer the brothers space to worship and fast. Image by Eliza Billingham. Vietnam, 2022.

Christianity has always been considered a foreign influence in Vietnam. Portuguese missionaries introduced Catholicism in the 17th century, and it was reinforced during French colonization. Protestantism was brought to Vietnam by the Christian Missionary Alliance in 1911.

Tuyen Le, a researcher with the Institute of Religious Studies in Vietnam, says that when Vietnam split into North and South in 1954, Protestantism grew rapidly in the South with support from Americans and other foreigners. But socialists in the North were not as hospitable to any religion.

“They tend to see religion as a threat, a threat in terms of ideology with the government,” Le says. Any religion might be an avenue of anti-government propaganda. When the country reunited under Communist rule in 1975, the new government worked to shut down organized religion, including Buddhism and Christianity.

A decade later, Vietnam began to open to the rest of the world. Chung Van Hoang, the Deputy Head for the Department for Research on Policy and Laws on Religion at the Institute of Religious Studies, wrote that after economic reforms in 1986, “Protestantism’s growth has been phenomenal.” In the thirty years since, Protestantism has increased seven times over and expanded to 62 of 64 Vietnamese provinces. Still, only one percent of the population claims to be Protestant.

Some Christian groups have been critical of the government, which puts them under strict surveillance. For example, a high percentage of Protestant Christians are Hmong, one of the 53 ethnic minorities in Vietnam. Some Hmong fought for the Americans during the Vietnam-American War. In recent years, some have staged protests for land rights and tribal autonomy, being persecuted as a result.

But at this point in his life, Nam was willing to try anything. He was impressed by his friend’s transformation and says he opened his heart to Jesus that day. It was November 25, 2006.

Nam’s family agreed to send him to Binh Long Christian Rehabilitation Center in central Vietnam. A few weeks into the program, one of Nam’s roommates called Nam’s wife.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with him,” he told her. “But I see him go sit by himself with the Bible all the time.” Nam wondered if something was wrong with him. But all he knew was that he felt like God forgave his past. He was freed from his addiction, he said, “only when Jesus’ love came to me.”

After graduating, Nam committed himself to offering the rehabilitation he experienced at Binh Long to addicts in northern Vietnam. In 2009, he built a Christian rehab center in Bac Giang, a province a few hours northeast of Ha Noi.

In the morning, men spend time reading the Bible or talking with mentors. Image by Eliza Billingham. Vietnam, 2022.

The center operated for three years. But in 2012, the entire center was burned down. Rooms were looted, Bibles were shredded, and windows were smashed in. Nam’s car was set on fire. He barely had enough time to rescue his children.

International organizations reached out to Nam, offering financial help and legal services. Many wanted Nam to find out who was responsible and demand retribution. But Nam refused. Instead, he says that he “intended to surrender everything” to God’s will.

In 2015, with funds from a new Singaporean friend, Nam bought land on the border of Ha Noi and Hoa Binh province to start building another Christian rehabilitation center. The foreign investor had one request: the center should be named “Aquila,” the name of an early follower of Jesus that means “eagle” in Latin.

Today, over 100 people live at Aquila, including participants, staff and their families. Aquila is technically illegal, but it has good relationship with local authorities who are allowing it to grow. The center is men-only, but a women’s center is being built next door. A new staff dormitory was completed in mid-November. Aquila also runs a K-12 school called Aquila Dream Academy, which teaches an English-language Christian curriculum to nearly 40 students. When an addict comes to Aquila for treatment, he must surrender his phone and cigarettes. Then, he waits out withdrawal symptoms. Heroin withdrawal is painful and exhausting, but not life-threatening. Aquila rarely allows even modest painkillers, but instead strongly encourages each new participant to rely on only scripture and prayer. All the men, called “the brothers,” have access to a library, a worship hall, sports games, workout equipment and individual prayer rooms cut into the side of the mountain.

In addition to evaluations by local police, researcher Tran Thi Phuong Anh from the Institute of Religious Studies studied Aquila’s effectiveness. She surveyed 85 men, including graduates as well as men currently in rehab.

In Tran’s surveys, over 80% of respondents said that the “affection and care from pastors and staff at Aquila Rescue Center” was the main factor in their recovery. Other important factors were “the specific principles and instructions of the Bible,” "the affection and care of the students at Aquila Rescue Center," and “the recovery example of the brothers who have successfully rehabilitated in Aquila.”

Tran writes that “at Aquila Rescue Center, students are not only treated with humanity…but they are also loved, cared for, guided by the pastor, staff, lecturers, and detox friends here. This is the opposite of what they get from previous rehab settings.” Instead of being stigmatized by the staff, she writes, pastors combat shame by teaching about forgiveness.

A man who now goes by the English name Daniel came to Aquila after four years in and out of detox centers. He said that men in other centers constantly fought and smuggled drugs into their cells. But at Aquila, everyone supported one another.

“My mind kept telling me, this isn’t real,” he said.

Transitioning to Aquila doesn’t always go well. One man ran away three times in two months.

There are no guards or fences around Aquila. No one is required to become a Christian. Aquila recommends that each participant stay for two years, but he can leave whenever he wants to. There is much higher chance of relapse if the participant leaves early. Tran only surveyed men who were still at Aquila or had graduated the two-year treatment.

It's difficult for Nam to keep up with demand. Participants’ main dissatisfaction with Aquila is that there aren’t enough spots available. One student told Tran that he wants the center to “expand further so that more drug addicts can have access to this detoxification model.”

But according to Tran, there are also other areas of need. Aquila does not have a team of qualified doctors serving its participants. Also, there is very little vocational training available for when participants leave the community. Employers are wary of hiring previous addicts. Most participants have limited formal education, which makes it difficult to find a stable salary.

This is a reason many graduates stay on staff at the center. As Aquila retains more graduates and grows in popularity, it's unclear if it can keep up with demand.

Sports provide an important physical, mental and bonding outlet for brothers, staff and boys at Aquila Dream Academy. Image by Eliza Billingham. Vietnam, 2022.

Law enforcement’s primary response is still incarceration. Drug use is no longer a criminal offense, but it is a punishable “administrative violation.” Beginning this year, the eligible age for compulsory detoxification dropped from 18 to 12 years old.

There are non-governmental organizations, like the Center for Supporting Community Development Initiatives, working to advance harm reduction methods in Vietnam, such as safe methadone injection. This work is slow, burdened by the heavy stigmas against drug users. Their approach isn’t compatible with governmental or religious work being done in the country, which require strict abstinence from all substances.

Le at the Institute of Religious Studies predicts that Aquila will continue operating in a grey area, working through the uncertainty of being illegal but allowed. But if Aquila missteps—a participant gets sick, injured, or dies, or the center is accused of spreading anti-government sentiment—it could be shut down very quickly.

Despite the stakes, Nam is optimistic. He’s confident that Aquila will continue to help curb the opioid epidemic in Vietnam, while also reducing the stigma against addicts and religious work. He often hosts evaluations from local police and works to be as transparent as possible. In his eyes, they “cannot deny the power of God.”


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