(Updates with winning of award in paragraph 4)
By Belinda Goldsmith
LONDON, Nov 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Trained as a lawyer, Van Ngoc Ta never imagined that he would spend his evenings posing as a gang lord in brothels.
Over the past 10 years, Van Ta has played an active role in anti-trafficking charity, Blue Dragon Children's Foundation, that rescues Vietnamese women and girls trafficked to China for the sex trade as well as victims of forced labour.
Undercover operations in red light districts, car chases, and brushes with organised gangsters are all part of the job for Van Ta, 34, whose mild manner belies his adventurous life.
"When I started training as a lawyer I thought I'd be in a black suit presenting clients at court," said Van Ta, who was awarded on Wednesday the anti-slavery award at Trust Women, a women's rights and trafficking conference organised by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Now I do everything I can to conceal my identity so I can get close to girls enslaved in brothels and prepare plans to help them escape. I always prepare well because my life and the victim's life would be in danger if anything went wrong."
His work undercover to rescue victims of human traffickers is a far cry from Van Ta's upbringing on a farm in rural Vietnam where as a child he'd cycled 28 km (17 miles) to work in a pottery workshop to help fund his and his brother's education.
But he said his attention to detail was always his strength, and led him to study law in Hanoi and take his masters at Brandeis University near Boston in the United States.
His career path took an unexpected turn after he started volunteering in 2003 at Blue Dragon, a charity founded by Australian teacher Michael Brosowski to help children in crisis.
At first Blue Dragon focused on trying to give street children an education but quickly expanded into operations to rescue youngsters trafficked for forced labour within Vietnam or girls and women sold into the sex trade in China.
For while Vietnam is well known as a tourist destination, it is also identified as a major source country for men, women and children subjected to both sex trafficking and forced labour.
The number of victims of trafficking and forced labour in Vietnam is unknown although human rights organisation Hagar International cites a figure of 400,000 missing since 1990.
The U.S. State Department ranked Vietnam as a Tier 2 nation in its 2015 Trafficking in Persons report, meaning it does not fully comply with the minimum legal standards to identify and protect trafficking victims but is making efforts to so.
This is where Blue Dragon comes in.
The Vietnam-based organisation works closely with Chinese and Vietnamese police, conducting undercover operations to identify and rescue victims of trafficking who they will then represent in court against traffickers and train for the future.
Van Ta estimates in the past decade he has rescued more than 480 women and girls sold into prostitution or sexually abused as well as victims of forced labour working in Vietnam.
He says every case is different and is cautious with how much detail he divulges so as not to jeopardise future operations.
Some Vietnamese women go abroad for brokered marriages, mostly to China and Malaysia, but find themselves in domestic servitude or prostitution. Others are duped in online relationships and end up in the sex trade. Others are sold to traffickers by friends or neighbours for $9,000 to $15,000.
But some of Van Ta's rescues read like Hollywood scripts.
There was the time he went to Liuzhou in Guangxi province to rescue a 16-year-old girl from Vietnam's Hai Duong province, who disappeared one day after going to a market to buy some clothes and then called her family from China.
With that phone number, Van Ta tracked her down to a brothel in Liuzhou where he pretended to be a Chinese ringleader visiting as a client, picking her out from a line-up.
Once alone, he showed the teenager a photo of her that her parents had given him to prove that he had come to rescue her.
She told him that she and a Vietnamese friend were often allowed to visit a nearby hairdresser's salon in the morning to prepare for their clients under the guard of pimps.
The next day Van Ta was parked outside the salon, waiting for a moment when the pimps were distracted and the two girls rushed out and jumped into his car and sped off.
"It was a very scary time. They tried to chase us but we just kept looking forward and did not look back," Van Ta told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Sometimes you just can't think about the risks. We put the safety and interests of the victims first. What you want to do more than anything else is to bring them home."
SOLD BY A SUITOR
Or there was Qui - not her real name - who was 16 when she met a man in an Internet cafe in Hanoi and fell in love.
After dating for six months the man, who was six years her senior, persuaded her visit his parents but instead took her to a house where a gang of men stuffed her into a van and drove her to a brothel in Guangdong province in China.
She endured six months of being raped and beaten before managing to escape, with a sympathetic policewoman calling Van who went to collect her and bring her home.
His most recent operation involved rescuing a 15-year-old girl from an ethnic group living in northwestern Vietnam that still practices the tradition of "dragging a wife" - where a potential husband seizes a girl and runs away with her for a few days. If they like each other they come back and get married.
A man from her village grabbed her but instead of eloping he sold her for $9,000 to traffickers who took her to China.
Her family contacted Van Ta for help and he located her in China, negotiating with her captors to free her.
"I have to be careful as there is a lot of money involved," said Van Ta, adding that girls can earn as much as $250 a day for their pimps and traffickers in Chinese brothels.
"If you think of the number of girls I have rescued, this probably means I have taken about $2-3 million of earnings from the traffickers and brothels."
Van Ta, who is married to a fellow lawyer, said the rewards of the job outweighed the risks.
"When you bring a victim home, there are tears of happiness and you would accept any price to bring them home," said Van Ta, chief lawyer for Blue Dragon that now has 72 staff and cares for more than 1,500 children in Vietnam as well as its rescue work.
"When we get the victims home, I do become a lawyer again as I represent them in court," he said. "My wife worries about me when I am on operations and is glad to see me home. Like the victims, I want to go home every day too."
(Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith, Editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)
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