Ngo Thi Thanh Van, 33, isn’t shy, or at least you wouldn’t know it by watching her. She has been hopping Ho Chi Minh City’s bars professionally for more than two years now – for all the right reasons.
Van is an outreach worker, promoting wise choices by beer-drinking men potentially looking for a good time. But they often lack enough information to act prudently to avoid risky behavior leading to HIV infection.
Outreach worker Ngo Thi Thanh Van gets most men to talk to her about HIV awareness – messages that could save their lives.
Photo: Richard Nyberg, USAID
She worked on staff of one of the city’s children’s hospital – at the reception. In the three years she was there, she saw many people come in, not always knowing where to go for HIV testing. One woman with HIV delivered her baby in a taxi.
“Eventually I asked myself: how can I best help people through HIV prevention? I saw the job advertisement for an interpersonal communicator, and I thought that was a good opportunity.”
Van works for a USAID-funded HIV prevention project targeting men who visit sex workers in Vietnam. The project is implemented by PSI, which works in partnership with the government of Vietnam to promote safer sexual behaviors across seven priority provinces across the country.
Van described how she works the tables each evening out. “I introduce myself to a group of men as someone working for the Provincial AIDS Committee (PAC, the local government AIDS control body). Then I ask, ‘Have you seen this slogan?’ pointing to the poster or flyer that says, ‘Have fun within limits, stop at the right moment’. “We work for a project that promotes HIV prevention.’”
She is able to strike up a successful conversation 70 percent of the time, being accepted as she takes out simple games that get men thinking about avoiding HIV by looking over pictures of three girls with different stories. The message: appearances can mislead – a healthy-looking (sex worker) could be anything but.
“I’m often surprised how people in the community misunderstand the facts about HIV,” Van noted. “A lot of clients express sincere thanks to us.”
Her secret to success: “Be responsible, enthusiastic, patient and hone your communications skills,” she said confidently.
In HCMC, three teams of nine outreach workers fan out across the city, with each team responsible for covering a single district at a time, where there are about 200 restaurants or entertainment establishments. The Provincial AIDS Committee chose three districts where there are large “nhau,” where men drink in the early evening hours.
At the Oc Nga restaurant on a bustling roadside in District 10, Thursdays to Saturdays are the busiest, and particularly, the end of the month when people have time and money to spend.
Van’s colleague, Tran Thi Anh Chi, a former kindergarten teacher has been approaching tables with games and life-saving messages for more than two years. “This job makes me feel new every day. It helps me to be creative and improve myself, all the time sharing positive information to avoid HIV and all that comes with it.”
The private sector is playing along, seeing the benefit of health and entertainment. Oc Nha owner Phan Thanh Kiet has operated his nhau for the past three years. The USAID-supported outreach work seems to be good for business. “Their presentation is helpful and meaningful to men. When people get together to drink, they also receive more knowledge about how to protect themselves,” he said, noting that there had “never been a problem with people complaining about the presentation.”
“The men look happy – they never object.”
The Male Client project is part of PSI’s comprehensive response to HIV in Vietnam, which includes promotion of HIV-related products (male and female condoms, water-based lubricants) and services (voluntary counseling and HIV testing, prevention of mother to child transmission) and targeted behavior change communication messages among most at-risk population groups, including sex workers and their male clients, injecting drug users and men who have sex with men.