A Visit to Pax's Orphanage

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One of the first things you notice when you walk into the Tam Binh orphanage's reception area is a shrine on the back wall with a large, gold-colored bust of Ho Chi Minh, communist Vietnam's founding father, with a golden hammer-and-sickle hung on the wall behind him. But in a corner across from Uncle Ho's bust, there is a more discreet homage: a photo-copy of a Vietnamese magazine spread featuring Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt taped to the wall next to one of the office's three wooden desks. The article features photos from the couple's November visit to Vietnam, showing them cruising the streets of Ho Chi Minh City on a motorbike. There is a display of other adoptive parents with their children from the orphanage on another wall, but it's clear that Jolie, Tam Binh's most famous adoptive parent, has made a special impression.

The Tam Binh orphanage is next to national highway 1A, a busy thoroughfare on the northern outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). But it is fairly quiet once you are within the grounds. The reception area has faded light-blue walls that look like they are about five years overdue for repainting. A pleasant tree-shaded garden is filled with primary-colored playground equipment of the kind you'd see pretty much anywhere in the West — slides, a plastic jungle gym, spring-loaded hobby-horses shaped like ducks and rabbits. The children's dormitories are further to the left of the garden. Further back are classrooms where the younger children are taught. Kids who reach school age ride bicycles to local schools.

Founded 32 years ago (around the time the Vietnam War ended with the communist victory), Tam Binh orphanage has 326 children: 189 boys and 137 girls. Nearly half (47%) are toddlers of the age of Jolie's new son (the orphanage has 153 kids from 19 months to 5 years, of which there are 99 boys and 54 girls).

A typical day at the orphanage for a child Pax's age goes like this: For toddlers, the schedule is wake up at 6 a.m., they then brush their teeth and wash face and hands, have breakfast and then the caretakers take them out to play outside for an hour. The children spend days with caretakers in group activities like singing and drawing. They go to bed at 8:30 p.m.

Children over 6 years old (school age) have a stricter regimen: They usually rise at 6 a.m and go outside for morning exercises — calisthenics in the yard — then have breakfast, usually sticky rice or noodles with vegetables or bread. They then prepare to bicycle to a school about a mile away. At 11:30 they return for lunch and a nap. At 2:30, some may go back to school and others stay at home and work on homework. In late afternoon, they have dinner and then, about 6 p.m., free time. "They may play football or read in the library or work on computers," says Nguyen Van Trung, director of orphanage. The orphanage has 10 computers, most donated by foreign charities and children play games and do their homework on them. At 7 p.m. they resume doing homework — with tutors for those whose grades are suffering. At 9 p.m. they prepare to go to bed.

For the children ineligible for foreign adoption and who must live the rest of their childhood in the orphanage life can be hard. They must also deal with stigma, says Trung. "Yes, of course there's always conflict and inferiority complexes — conflicts sometimes happen at school. Their classmates often taunt them by calling them 'orphans' and they get into fights and we have to come to the school. But we try to take care and support them and see they get a good education."

Most of the children who grow up in Tam Binh orphanage go straight into the workforce after leaving school, a fact of life the orphanage recognizes. Tam Binh has 10 sewing machines to train teenagers in job skills (garment and shoe factories abound in Vietnam and garments are the country's second-largest-earning export behind crude oil). "Some of them go to work in factories. But some of them have even become teachers." And then Trung says, "Those who are not as clever, they can be street vendors — it's like all others in a society."

Kay Johnson, TIME's Hanoi-based reporter, also contributed to our sister publication People magazine's coverage of the Jolie adoption. For People's story and exclusive photos, go to People.com.