It started as a working holiday in Vietnam but quickly turned into a life-changing and “deeply surreal” experience.
In 2010 Newcastle’s Ben Randall was living in Sapa, in the north of Vietnam teaching English and during his time there he became friends with numerous locals, including a group of girls who belonged to the Hmong ethnic group.
A year after he left Sapa to continue travelling, Ben received a message that shook his life forever.
Several of those young women had been kidnapped by a local human trafficking ring.
“While I was living there, I’d have a laugh every day with a group of girls who sold handicrafts on my street, so we got to know each other fairly well,” he said.
“Within the next two years, five of those girls were kidnapped in separate incidents, which was obviously very confronting.
“I’d never experienced anything like that so close to me.”
That’s when Ben started The Human, Earth Project and set out on what seemed like an impossible task – he was going to go back to Vietnam and China to find the girls.
The search, he says, was long and complicated.
“It was really only possible because I had a stroke of luck,” he said.
“When I was on my way back to Vietnam to find these girls, one of them was able to get hold of a phone and call home for the first time in two-and-a-half-years.
“That gave me a phone number to work with, so then it was a matter of trying to figure out where in China they were.
“Each of those five girls had her own story, but two in particular – May and Pang – were still in China and wanted help.
“They’d both been forced into marriage with older men, but they had no idea where they were.
“It took five months in total to contact, locate and meet up with these girls. It was a pretty frustrating process at times trying to narrow down their locations using any clues we could get from their phones or from what they could observe around them.”
He adds it was an “amazing but deeply surreal” experience to find May and Pang.
“Though I’d spent months and risked so much to find the girls, I never realistically expected it would happen,” Ben said.
“I was ecstatic to meet them both, though that feeling was somewhat overshadowed by the fact that the meetings themselves were quite risky for all of us.”
The entire journey was recorded for a documentary and the story is now being released as a series of books.
Sisters for Sale is a multi-award-winning documentary that has screened at various festivals around the world.
It took 12 months to film and almost another four years to finish.
“Filming in Vietnam and China was very challenging,” Ben said.
“We were working in areas where human traffickers are highly active and local authorities are often corrupt, so we had to remain hidden for the sake of our own safety.
“We operated as a two-person crew with a bare minimum of equipment posing as tourists, conducting interviews in secret.”
For the first time, Ben will screen the documentary in Newcastle later this month.
“I really enjoy presenting this documentary because it touches on so many issues and always sparks fascinating discussions,” Ben said.
“I’ve hosted screenings in various parts of Australia and the world, and they’ve all been wonderful, but this one will be special because it’s my first hometown screening.”
From 7.30pm on Sunday 18 April it will show at the Royal Exchange on Bolton Street, Newcastle.
The event will also feature a post-screening discussion and book signing with Ben.
Go to trybooking.com/events/landing?eid=738362 to purchase tickets.
Ben’s next book The Man’s Machine is also set to be released next month.
It’ll be the third book in a pretty remarkable and eye-opening series.
Go to sistersforsale.com for more.