After a perfect wedding day, we stayed 2 nights at the Pier hotel Holfast Shores Glenelg.
We flew to Ho Chi Minh city (HCMC) city via Melbourne and checked into Rex Hotel at 4pm. We then walked around District 1 and had dinner at Rex including lots of drinks on rooftop watching traffic below as well as lights of the city.
The next morning we hired a 4wd with driver for 1/2 day. First we went to the place of birth on my birth certificate – 65 Dinh Cong Trung, Saigon.
65 Dinh Cong Trung is a little side street off Phan Dinh Phung on the edge of District 1, the other side of Phan Dinh Phung is District 3 and Ky Dong St which has the Tan Dinh Church on it.
According to the people that live there, 65 Dinh Con Trung was a hospital during the war. I went to 63 Dinh Con Trung (next door) in April 2000 and was told the same thing. Both are part of the same building which is deep, wide and goes up 3 levels.
After recording on our video camera, our next move was to find the address of my mother according to birth certificate, 15 Truong Minh Giang. We were told that the road had been renamed to Le Van Sy.
After going up and down Le Van Sy for an hour and a half, asking for directions and looking for the street number, we thought that our time with the car was better served going to the Sancta Maria Orphanage.
Sancta Maria was my last point of departure from Vietnam in January 1975 but it did not seem I was there long, so there was a gap of about 4 years from being born, 9th November 1970.
Sancta Maria is on 377/ 18 Le Quang Dinh P.S.Q Binh Thanh which is a side street off Le Quang Dinh. When we arrived we were greeted by Caroline Venczel who, with her husband Bela and family that ran the orphanage, sent a lot of us to Australia. Caroline has family living at Sancta Maria as well as a variety of others including orphans from my time. At the end of the visit we were invited to come back for dinner the following night to meet Peter, an Australian who is married to Caroline’s niece Trinh. Peter & Trinh are staying there for an extended time. Our time with the car was running out so we headed back to the hotel, on the way the driver suggested that we place an ad on TV.
We went to the HCMC Television 14 Dinh Tien Hoang. We saw a nice lady who spoke English well and explained my situation to her. We placed an ad over 3 days giving details of my birth name, date of birth, birth mothers name & address- leaving contact details at Sancta Maria. So far our honeymoon had involved my pursuits of my past, so I wanted to make sure my wife Nandini enjoyed her time in my hometown (even though she has been before). We went to the Ben Thanh market for great snacks and shopping, followed by dinner on the roof of the Rex. After dinner we stayed for drinks late into the evening and I noticed a group of American tourist sitting next to us with a young Vietnamese woman. I assumed the young woman was an adopted daughter of one of the tour group, so I went and approached them and asked. The woman was in fact the tour leader and was very articulate, she came over to our table.
We explained how I was born in Vietnam and we spent the day looking for my birth mother. Both ladies seemed very interested and asked lots of probing questions. Rachel, the American lady, told us that her husband was adopted and never knew his parents, he traced his birth mother but she did not want to meet him although she wanted to meet their grown up children and did. Thuy told us that even though she lives & runs her own travel company from Hanoi, she is in fact from Ho Chi Minh city and her family is Catholic. Thuy took copies of papers I had with the aim of getting people to look into my details. It was a very pleasant and surreal night. After Thuy and Rachel left us I approached an elderly Vietnamese with their grown up daughter. I asked if they minded telling me what some papers I had that were written in Vietnamese were. The man laughed and told me that they were old legal adoption papers.
The following night we returned and met Peter at Sancta Maria. Peter and Trinh showed us the record books of many of the children that passed thru Sancta Maria, these books were well documented with most entries having names, photo and information of age as well as some parental details. To my, Peter and Trinh’s horror – these records are kept in a sack which has been chewed by mice so the books are deteriorating. Whilst I am not in the records, like Peter & Trinh – I can see the value in preserving them for others looking for clues of their past. The family guardians do not want the records to leave the building for fear that they might not return. If something is not done soon there will be nothing for anyone to look at, not to forget that these aren’t only historical records but some people’s only link to their past.
The next day we went shopping for mobile phones as they are so much cheaper than in Oz. Nan (Nandini) also bought a new handbag. In the evening we went to a very good Spanish restaurant for dinner where Nan drank too much sangria.
The following day (Saturday) we moved to a new hotel in District 1 just off the Saigon river then went to Sancta Maria for a trip to the farm. The farm had a nice old building complete with various statues of Caroline & Trinh’s family relatives, dating back hundreds of years for one who came from China and was a teacher to the king. Other statues were more recent of Andre who started the orphanage and immortalized with his parents. The farm has quite a bit of land mainly consisting of rice fields, there used to be more land but over the years vast parts of the family property has been taken over by the government for war vets, schools and others who just decided to build. Once it was home to boy orphans – there are still a few left and we met one working in the fields. When the other children were being evacuated, he was sick in hospital and now he works a hard life on the farm.
Mark & his sister Martine were also adopted to Adelaide. Their parents, Tony & Barbra, were heavily involved with getting children out of Vietnam and Mark & Martine were on my flight. When Tony took Mark’s ashes to the farm, there weren’t any others there. The trend seems to have taken off, now there are about 20.
After the farm we spent a few more days in HCMC and we went to see lawyer to look in to where my birth mother is. Then we took a flight to Nha Trang, did the Mama Hahn boat trip where my wife was embarrassed with the amount of beer I drank. On the trip there was a couple from the US – Scott & Wendy, Wendy was born in Saigon to a Canadian father & Vietnamese mother and the whole family went to Canada & this was her first trip back. Wendy’s grandmother decided that she wanted to live her remaining days in Vietnam with old friends, so Scott, Wendy and her mother brought her back which must have been very emotional.
On the way to dinner on our last night, we went to check our email and there was one from Peter at Sancta Maria. He had a reply from the TV ad. A man believes my mother is his sister. We had a very quick dinner, went to our hotel and phoned Peter who was very quick to point out that the man came to Sancta Maria and after some discussion believed I was not the child he was looking for. The boy he was seeking was about 2 years older also with lighter skin. This news only made me more interested because I had not mentioned to anyone else that when my parents first adopted me, they took me to many doctors and a dentist who all thought that because of my bone & teeth growth, I was a boy a couple of years older than thought. Also, I was lighter in complexion now than when I was younger. I asked Peter to get her address as we were catching a 12 hour bus to Hoi Ann and would fly back if need be.
The bus trip was scary as these drivers were crazy, they played chicken with each other whilst overtaking (I thought we would die). We made it to Hoi Ann alive and checked into a nice hotel for US $15 a night, checked our emails and to our delight, the lady we wanted to see was in Danang just up the road. In the morning we got the nice young staff at the hotel to phone her but she was not home and wouldn’t be until late. Whilst waiting, we did what other tourist do in Hoi Ann and that is have plenty of clothes made. When the boys from the hotel phoned and spoke to the lady they organized a time to see her the next day and said they would come to interpret. They also said I might be in for a good day as they think she is my mother. We were excited so I emailed the good news to the lawyer & Thuy the travel guide from the Rex. Very soon after finishing the email I had a phone call – it was Thuy sounding concerned. She wanted to get the lady’s phone number.
So Nandini, two boys from the hotel, and I went to see this lady in Denang – about an hours drive by taxi. When we arrived, we were given tea as the custom and sat down by the son who had to be in his 40’s. Mrs Bay finally came out, she was in her 70’s with white hair and very reserved. After Mrs Bay sat, I handed her my papers. She read them and was clearly upset and emotional. The boys started talking to her, she was answering and after about 15 minutes of conversation that my wife and I could not understand, one of the boys explained that she is Tran Thai Nhung – the lady on the birth certificate .. but she was not my birth mother.
After an hour of asking questions and hearing replies from Mrs Bay this is what we worked out. After the war Tran Thi Nhung changed her name to Bay as was common practice post war. She was a friend of Ngugen Thi Thanh Thuy (my mother), a bar dancer who left me and my younger half sister in her care while she worked (sometimes for days). Mrs Bay does not know how her name came to be on my birth certificate, as she only nominated to do so for my sister. Our mother made a few trips to the US, even had surgery, got a new husband and on one trip did not return. Mrs Bay was poor and could not afford to keep us both as well as her own, so put me in the care of some other people.
Mrs Bay looked after my sister for 19 years. She now lives in the US and is married with a 10 year old boy and 12 year old girl. We saw a full photo album of the family and they seem to be going well including a trip to Vietnam 6 years ago to visit Mrs Bay.
My fathers first name is Bill, he’s from Texas and looks similar to me but taller. He did something involving jumping out of planes. When I was young I was a bit naughty, the same thing that Sancta Maria said as well as every teacher I ever had.
After leaving Mrs Bay we went back to our hotel to try to take in the events that had just taken place. The following day we caught a plane from Denang to Hanoi.