A Brief Account of My First Meeting with Ho Chi Minh City – or Saigon as I would prefer to call it – It sounds much more poetic!!!


By: Frits Raunstrup, NGO Fontana


The first thoughts that comes to mind are: chaotic, noisy, hot and what an anachronism.


There are millions of scooters all around you. They may or they may not stop at red light. Also, you see more and more cars - and big cars - primarily Japanese and German. Vietnam, or at least this part of Vietnam, is becoming more and more affluent.


Everybody is using their horn for no obvious reason, but it most certainly makes a lot of noise.


In Copenhagen the temperature was 6 degrees, and when I landed in Saigon the temperature was 28 degrees.


The first couple of days I felt more jet-lagged, than I had anticipated.


Ragnar and I flew together. That was nice, and Per picked us up in the airport – what a service.


After a couple of hours sleep, we went straight to business.


The Binh Minh Tretment Center is a really nice place, and when I remember the first pictures from the site, it is very obvious that a lot has happened, while we have been there.


Next step is getting the Half-Way House in shape. I am not a building engineer, however it seems to me, that there is a lot to be done to the physical premises, before we get it up to the standard, we would like to see.


The following day we had a meeting with Management of Binh Minh to agree upon division of tasks and responsibilities. They are very kind people, and fairly quickly we came to an accommodation.


And now we have started cleaning up the place in order to get an overwiew of what needs to be done.


The next couple of days I used to complete various office work.


I spent the weekend doing some sightseeing primarily in the city center – and this is where the anachronism becomes evident.


I started walking Dong Khoi from Le Duan to the Saigon River. This street clearly mirrors Saigon’s changing fortune. Its electric mélange of buildings – from grand French colonial facades and slender shops, catering all the international well-known brand names – to very unlovely concrete-slab buildings.


The Notre Dame Cathedral on the northern reach of Dong Khoi is a pleasing redbrick bulk of the late 19th century. Aside from the few stained-glass windows above and behind it’s alter, and its marble relief Stations of the Cross, the interior is rather uninteresting. Towards dusk, the neon-lit halo and blue neon wordsAve Maria, that shines above the figure of Christ makes the entrance look like a night club entrance.


Standing grandly on the eastern side of Lam Song Square, going down Dong Khoi, is the century old Municipal Theatre. It is beautifully restored and embraces programmes that includes fashion shows, drama and dance.


From the square, I took a short detour to see Hotel de Ville which turned out to be a disappointing reminder of colonial Europe’s stubborn apparent resolve to stamp its imprint on the city.


This yellow and white striped hatbox of a building today houses the People’s Committee behind a jumble of Corinthian columns and classical figures.


Not beautiful.


A statue of Uncle Ho cradling a small child in his lap watches over a tiny park.


Close to Hotel de Ville is the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, which makes use of photographs, documents and artifacts to trace the struggle of the Vietnamese people against France and America. I have to admit that I was not desperate to learn more about the country’s war-torn past.


Despite that, I also visited The war Remnants Museum, which seems to be “a must”.


It is a distressing compendium of the horrors of modern warfare. Some of the instruments of destruction are on display in the courtyard outside, including a 28-tonne howitzer and a ghoulish collection of bomb parts. There is also a guillotine that harvested heads at the central Prison.


Inside, a series of halls present a grisly portfolio of photographs of mutilation, napalm burns and torture. Most shocking is the gallery detailing the effects of the 75 million litres of defoliant sprays dumped across the country. Beside the expected images of bald terrain, hideously malformed fetuses are preserved in pickling jars.


I got so depressed that – subsequently - I walked down to the Saigon River, found a nice spot in the shadow, bought a Cola and smoked too many cigarettes.


I hope that next weekend I will have time to see The Botanical Garden and the Jade Emperor Pagoda.


I believe that this will become a more pleasant experience. 



The following article were published by SCANDASIA:

NGO Fontana – Finding Solutions to the Impossible

Danish businessman Preben Hansen runs treatment for drug and alcohol addicts in Vietnam

By Signe Damkjaer

“People have always asked me to find solutions to the impossible,” said Preben Hansen, the General Secretary of NGO Fontana which runs a treatment program for drug and alcohol addicts in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.

    With support from Danida, the Danish NGO and their local partners are looking for a new location to set up a new centre for people who have completed the first part of their treatment. Most of them still need help to finish the last part which is a combination of treatment and education in order to get back into the society.

Binh Minh Centre


NGO Fontana is the only organisation in Vietnam as well as in Asia, which offers drug and alcohol addicts something more than medical treatment. At the Binh Minh Centre in Ho Chi Minth City, the NGO is treating people by the “evidenced based 12 step program”.

 “If you follow this program, you can stay clean for the rest of your life. If you don’t you will end up in a drug or alcohol abuse again”, says Preben Hansen.

Being an alcoholic himself, he knows what he is talking about. “I will be in recovery for the rest of my life, as long as I don’t drink. Isn’t it wonderful?

    Together with his practitioner Ragnar Larusson he took the initiative to start treatment for drug and alcohol addicts in Vietnam in 2003. “I had been doing business in Vietnam for a while and I had seen how treatment for drug and alcohol addicts worked here. Which it basically doesn’t,” said Preben Hansen.

He initially came to Vietnam in 1998 as a businessman on request of Danida, who were looking for Danish partners for their private sector program.

    “When I came I thought - what a nice country, but I just can’t be bothered to stay”. But during a taxi trip from the airport he changed his mind.

“It was harvest time and we were driving through a rice field. Suddenly I saw about 100 young Vietnamese girls and boys impeccably dressed in white and blue passing by us on black bicycles. I saw that there was such dignity to these people. That was the moment I decided to stay”.

    Preben Hansen is today the manager of the companies Euro Care and Domus Medica Vietnam, which delivers laboratory and hospital equipment to UN projects in Africa and develops malaria medicine in Hanoi. He stays in Denmark and Vietnam on and off, and whenever he is in Ho Chi Minh City, he is helping out on the Binh Minh Centre.

The centre currently has 68 patients. 21 of them have chosen to follow the treatment program offered by NGO Fontana. 4 of these are former patients who receive special training in order to become the first Vietnamese 12 step assistant counsellor. The treatment is free, but patients have to pay for their own food and medication. In some cases NGO Fontana is able to help out economically via “The C24 Foundation”.


    “The patients come from all parts of society. They are students, businessmen, fathers, mothers and prostitutes”, says Per Larsen, who is in charge of the daily treatment and training.

The patients live in rooms of four to eight people. “You would think they would prefer to have their own room to get some peace in their life. But Vietnamese are used to stay a lot of people together. To isolate them is actually the worst punishment for a Vietnamese drug addicts,” said Preben Hansen.


When someone arrives at the centre he or she is send directly into detoxification. “This can last from a few days to several weeks,” said Per Larsen. “After this period we conduct a screening to figure out what this person has been through and what kind of treatment the person need,” explained Per Larsen.

    Per Larsen started working at the Binh Minh Centre ten months ago. The first period was a part of his internship in his education as a counsellor. As well as with all other counsellors in NGO Fontana, he is a drug addict in recovery himself. “It’s our policy here, that our counsellors must be drug or alcohol addicts in recovery themselves but they must have been clean for a minimum of 2 years ”, says Preben Hansen. “Counsellors are worthless if they have not been addicted to drug or alcohol themselves. Only then they can understand the devil and madness inside our heads”.

Vietnamese Culture

The next project for Preben Hansen is to find a location for new centre where people who have completed all of the treatments can find support for the next few years.

    “There are no centres like that in Vietnam today, and this is such a crucial time in the treatment process,” said Preben Hansen. There is a huge risk that people will go back to using drugs once they have left the Binh Minh Centre. “It is part of the Vietnamese culture that they solve their problems over a glass of rice wine. For a former drug addict this is the direct way back to the drugs”, he continues.

 “We have tried to set up support groups, but in Vietnam you cannot just start an organisation like you can in Denmark. If it involves more than four people you need special permit otherwise it is illegal,” said Preben Hansen.

However, Per Larsen points out, that Vietnam has one huge advantage which is not so common in Denmark: “A very positive thing about the Vietnamese way of thinking is Buddhism,” explained Per Larsen. “One of the elements in the treatment is about leaving your faith in drugs and find faith in something bigger. You must start believing that there is something more to life. Something bigger than drugs. Something bigger than yourselves. Thinking like that is not as hard for a Vietnamese Buddhist as it is too for the rest of us”.

Preben Hansen agreed. “In this way Vietnam has another dimension to life, which we don’t have in the western world”.

Original news source: ScandAsia

SCANDASIA MAGAZINE is a Scandinavian News Portal for South East Asia bringing Scandinavian news or Scandinavian activities for Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish people and companies in Southeast Asia.

Created 2007-10-09


The following article were published by SCANDASIA:

Fighting Alcohol And Drug Abuse In Vietnam

In Ho Chi Minh City Danish help is given to people suffering from chemical dependencies – alcohol and drug abuse - NGO Fontana has since 2004 cooperated with a treatment centre in the city and during the last year activities have been stepped up.

by: Jacob Holm

NGO Fontana is a Danish organisation committed to prevent and treat harm caused by chemical dependencies - alcohol and drug abuse - in Denmark and Vietnam.

The NGO is concerned with the impact of chemical dependency on individuals, their relatives and society. In order to counter harm the organisation co-operates and form alliances with like-minded voluntary and non-governmental organisations. That is also the reason why Fontana is currently cooperating with a treatment centre in Ho Chi Minh City.

“Most people suffering from chemical dependency underestimate the harm done by alcohol, medicine and drugs. They also underestimate the addictiveness of these substances and the harm that they cause to others.”

“Alcohol and medicine are not ordinary commodities!” the NGO warns on their web-site.

The harm done by these substances can be avoided and avoiding the harm is one of the things Fontana tries to help people do. In Denmark the NGO runs the treatment centre “Taarup” on Moen (Møn) and in Vietnam they recently started to cooperate with the Binh Minh treatment centre.


Projects in Vietnam

The Binh Minh treatment centre of chemical dependency is located in Ho Chi Minh City and Fontana has cooperated with them since the spring of 2004.

In the late summer of 2005 NGO Fontana initiated a project with the aim of modernizing the Binh Minh centre by the introduction of the 12-step model and by improving the physical conditions to higher standards. By the end of 2005 a range of activities had already started.

The staff at Binh Minh is receiving training by Ragnar Larusson from NGO Fontana/Treatment Centre Taarup, and at the same time the Binh Minh centre is now being refurbished and renovated. New equipment for sports and education activities as well as equipment for Health Care is also being installed.

The project is partially funded by NGO Fontana’s own funds and partially by the Danish Mini-Project Fund. Also some of the equipment being installed has been sponsored by a variety of private donors.


Welcome to Fontana

The organization NGO Fontana was formed in Denmark in 1998 as a non-profit organisation. It is a member organisation consisting of a membership group representing a diversity of views and cultural attitudes.

One of the members of the NGO’s committee is Danish actor, Allan Olsen, who himself has had an almost life long fight with alcohol - a fight he eventually won, and today he among other things travels around Denmark in order to explain how he won his fight against alcoholism.


Ragnar Larusson is the Chief Councillor of NGO Fontana. He is in charge of training the staff at the dependency treatment centre Binh Minh in Ho Chi Minh City.

Created 2006-07-27

Original news source: ScandAsia

SCANDASIA MAGAZINE is a Scandinavian News Portal for South East Asia bringing Scandinavian news or Scandinavian activities for Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish people and companies in Southeast Asia.


When Anders and I won Club24’s study trip to NGO Fontana in Vietnam
.................a little bit about our experiences

By Per Larsen

One evening  - sitting at Taarup TreatmentCenter - Anders and I were talking about ”this and that”.

At some point in time we were talking about Club24, and I told Anders about the lottery where Club24 would allocate study trips to Vietnam to visit the NGO Fontana Project which they were in the process of implementing together with the Binh Minh Treatment Center in Ho Chi Minh City.

picture1After I had told Anders a lot more about Club24 and its purpose, he became convinced that he should become a member of  the organization.

Immediately, we took contact to Sten at Club24, and Anders became a member.

Anders and I went to the Board Meeting, where the first 2 trips were to be allocated.

The first winner is drawn: Anders Themsen – and I think: ” How lucky he is, and then it was me, who persuaded him to become a member of Club24”.

The second winner is drawn by Stine, and I think, she is taking a long time announcing, who the winner is.

I can barely believe my own ears, when I hear the name: Per Larsen.

It is almost too good to be true.

It must be ”The Higher Power”, that has willed it.

Subsequently, we had some hectic weeks to make the necessary preparations for the big tour, but then we are at Kastrup Airport ready to leave.

Following a 15 hour trip, we are met with Danish flags in Ho Chi Minh City Airport by Niels Jørgen Lambertsen, who – at the time – is the Danish counsellor with The Ngo Fontana Project at Binh Minh Treatment Center.

We drive to our hotel, the Sunny Hotel – which is about 5 minutes walk from Binh Minh.

After a good nights sleep, however still a bit ”jet-lagged”, we meet Binh Minh for the first time.

This is going to be the start of an extraordinary experience.

At the time there are 65 addicts in treatment. The physical conditions are far from the standard, I experienced, when I was in treatment at Taarup TreatmentCenter, and I cannot help but feeling somewhat guilty, when I recall all the complaints , I had during my treatment.

However, the disease is the same. And the Program seems to work, in Vietnam as well as in Denmark.

We have a tight schedule. First we plan a tour to the Mekong Delta in order to enjoy a boat trip on the river.

It is a 3 day tour with many highlights and a lot of cultural  adventures.

Back again with a lot of impressions, we spend the following days exploring Ho Chi Minh City.

We even find both a AA and a NA meeting.

It is a very special feeling to sit at the saigon River under the palms in 35 degrees celsius and get ”goose-bumbs”.

It is grand!!!

Club24 also introduced us to the Vietnamese kitchen, which is very delicious.

p8200006After 14 wonderful days in Vietnam – our bags filed with tailor-made clothes and souvenirs – we are ready to go back to Denmark – filled with so many experiences.

We feel convinced that the NGO Fontana Project is much needed and very well thought through, and that the staff, who have started the Project, have done a brilliant work.

We send many thanks to Club24 and NGO Fontana for this fantastic experience!!

Impressions from Visiting the NGO Fontana & Club24 Project at the Binh Minh Treatment Center in Vietnam

By John and Alice Eirup
Freely translated by Frits Raunstrup, NGO Fontana
varmtIn May 2007, I had the opportunity to visit NGO Fontana & Club24 and experience the Project, which they are in the process of implemnting at the Binh Minh Treatment Center in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.
The visit happened at the end of a fabulous 15 day tour, filled with fantastic experiences in Vietnam.
Our travelling had started in the northern part of Vietnam - around Hanoi - after which we had taken some days off to relax with bathing and snorkling at Nah Trag, before we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City in the afternoon of May 17th.

In advance I had had a mail correspondence with Ragnar, in which we had organized the visit to the Binh Minh Treatment Center.

I telephoned Ragnar, and we agreed that he would come to our hotel the same evening, where – drinking a lot of coffee of course – we had a preliminary talk about the Project.
It was good meeting Ragnar again and to experience his entusiasm about the Project which is still in its infancy.
We agreed to meet with Ragnar the following day at the Project Office at 1:00 PM.
I came to realize that implementing the Project requires a lot of patience and a belief that things will happen, if you seriously work to succeed. Also, that it requires an intimate knowledge about the Vietnames culture and way of thinking and doing things.
At the moment, the primary target group is drug addicts. Ragnar told me that ”officially” there are no alcoholics in Vietnam. If someone should have a problem with alcohol, it is a problem which usually the family takes care of. The family structure in Vietnam is traditionally very ”tight-knitted”. Alcoholism is a ”no issue” in the ”official” Vietnam.
Drug addiction, however, is a serious problem, and it is dealt with by the official institutions.
Possessing and/or using drugs is a criminal offence punishable – at the first offence - by a forced one to two year stay at one of the official drug rehabilitaion centers in Vietnam. If the offence is repeated, it will be punished by a doubling of the period of the forced stay in one of the centers.
However, ”the treatment” at these centers consists of detox., a short stabilization followed by forced labouring.
When NGO Fontana & Club24 arrived in Vietnam is was emminently clear that we could not establish our own treatment center independent of the ofiicial, authorized system.
Thus, we made a co-operation arrangement with a private and authorized treatment center, Binh Minh, which takes care of detoxing and stabilization.
Hence, NGO Fontana & Club24 offer the patients the opportunity of going through a 12-step treatment, after-care and family program.
It requires that the family and the patient accept the opportunity, and accept to pay for the treatment program.
It is not always easy. Typically, our assessment is that patients require a fairly long period of treatment in order to enhance their possibility of living a drug free life, while the family expects that the stay will last only one to two months.
Again, we have to respect local tradition and act on a case by case situation.
Currently, about 10 drug addicts follow the 12-step model, and as a start Ragnar finds that this is satisfactory. I asked Ragnar how motivated the patients were, as they are forced into treatment at the center. Ragnar replied that it clearly is his impression that the motivation is ok
Besides Ragnar, the staffing consists of counselors from Taarup & Fontana in Denmark.
At the moment, it is a prioriry task to translate relevant treatment material to Vietnamese and to train the local counselors in the 12-step approach to treatment.
There are a number of major issues and tasks facing the Project.
What happens when the patients leave treatment?
overblikNeither NA nor AA exist in Vietnam.
To establish NA and AA groups, the Vietnamese authorities require an official registration, purpose, number of members and their names, chairman etc.
At first, I had to shake my head in wonderment. But those are the realities in Vietnam which we have to accept and respect.
Thinking further, I can understand that a nation - which for centuries have been told by foreign occupants what to believe and do – is hesitant accept suggestions which are not in line with local traditions. And on top of that, suggestions which originate from USA.
There are, however, English speaking AA and NA groups in Vietnam. As Ragnar explains ”what the crazy foreigners do is not our responsibility”.
Ragnar hopes that – in the future – it might be possible to establish smaller self-help groups like ”Coffee-Clubs” with 10 to 12 participants per group.
trinVNRagnar also hope and believe that the future counselors will originate from the group of patients currently undergoing the 12-step program.
Future plans also include thoughts of establishing a Fontana/Club24 owned treatment center. BUT: patience, patience, patience.
On a practical and organizational level, we have to accept that the Vietnamese system has traditions and a culture which we of course cannot and should not ignore – even change.
Following a very enlightning orientation and talk at the office, we were picked up by Tao, a young, very sweet and very efficient girl – working at the office – who took us down to inspect the car which NGO Fontana had found and restored. Ragnar told us that taxi driving had become too expensive for him and Tao, thus they had invested in the car.
I do not know the prices of cars in Vietnam, but during the first week, I realized that for an average Vietnames, earning an average salary, the investment in a car is almost unrealistic. Therefore, the totally overwhelming number of scooters in Vietnam.
Looking at the car with Danish eyes, it seemed to me that it could not cost a fortune – unless there were some very particular features, that I had missed, or it was a collectors item.
RagnarTaoBilIt did start, and then I realized the special features: the sound was unmistakebly a 2 CV sound, and when I took a closer look at the gear shift, my suspicion was confirmed. I became very nostalgic.
I will not go into details about the traffic in Ho Chi Minh City. But, it is unbelievably!
Before we left Denmark, we had been told that the traffic was ”crazy”. That must be the understatement of the century.
My own conclusion is that no traffic rules exist. It must be said, though, that some do stop when the traffic light is red. But nobody seems to take any offence. When nobody follows any rules, there is nothing to get mad about.
Ragnar told me that the number of scooters in Ho Chi Minh City was very close to the number of the inhabitants in the city.
However, we made a grand exit from Binh Minh. It is a strange feeling to be received by armed guards with keys in their belts and to be locked in and out.
However the place itself and the atmosphere had no ”prison-like” feeling.
Everything and everybody were very relaxed. The place has a swimming-pool and a café like kiosk with small tables and green palms.
Ragnar told me that ”the inmates” had named the place ”Palm Beach”.
I was permitted to take photos – as far as possible focussing on the NGO Fontana area – although I had to have a snap shot of the relaxed guards.
It was a special experience to see the written material at the office. I was especially happy to see Step 1 in Vietname. It made me glad and gave me hope for the many patients in treatment.
The very exiting experience for me was to visit the group of addicts going through the 12-step treatment. I had the opportunity to tell my story which Tao translated to the group.
It was special to share in English and hear the translation into a language, which I don’t understand at all. But looking at the group, I sensed that my story was understood despite differences in culture, age, background etc. An understanding that exists when one addict pass it on to another addict.
What a gift!
After a break, they told me their stories, and how they had come to Binh Minh.
They were all stories about an increasing use of drugs, prison, release from prison and back to ”the old life” – and relapse.
Here they were, those young people between 20 and 30 years. They would spend much of their precious life locked up. I noticed a young guy and a young girl sitting next to each other – clearly atracted to each other. Here and now they could sit and ”steal” a little time touching each others feet.
It gave me a much better understanding of their hopes of a better life after treatment.
”The same person will drink or use again!” How difficult it must be to bcome a different person, given the outside circumstances.
Ragnar told me that an important task for the Project, was to find jobs to our patients before the finalized treatment.
Even though it was a short visit in time, it is a visit for which I am very grateful to have experienced.
I was taken by the atmosphere of hope and entusiasm, I met with Ragnar and the patients.
There was a general attitude of focusing on treatment and solutions, rather than on problems.
And I had a notition of gratitude, that I had had the opportunity to meet a well established and well functionig treatment system and AA i Denmark - when I ”hit bottom”.
But, it also means a commitment to serve whenever and whereever, I can.
I hope that I will never forget that obligation.
Finally: many thanks to Ragnar, to Tao, and - not least – to all you wonderful people in treatment at Binh Minh.
I wish you all the best.
P.S. If you are left with a feeling that my entusiasm about my visit is overdone, then all I can say is: Try it – you will be convinced!