A woman hungers for her starving family, 75 years on

By Pham Nga   May 13, 2020 | 05:54 am PT
'Go with them, and you will have food to eat,' Hoe's father told her. She was four or five then.

Struck by the famine of the forties that claimed more than two million lives in Vietnam, the parents, desperate for their daughter to survive, gave her away to a stranger.

That was 75 years ago, and she has not seen her family since and has never stopped pining for them.

Sitting in her house in Hanoi's Bac Tu Liem District, Nguyen Thi Hoe looks into the distance. Memories of the 1945 famine continue to haunt her. In her eighties, the woman is surrounded by her children and grandchildren, but the pain of 75 years ago has never faded. 

From late 1944 to May 1945, as the famine raged in many northern provinces, eventually claiming more than two million lives, Hoe lived in a northern province with her family. She was called Hai then. The family had no rice and had to eat pork mash. 

"I could not eat it, even though my father told my sisters to choose good mash for me. I would go out and pick some vegetables to cook." 

Debt collectors came by every day. One day, her father, a carpenter, and her mother, a street vendor, knew they could not stay in the village anymore and decided to flee. 

In the middle of the night, Hai's father picked up all of his tools; her sisters, Phu and Phi, carried clothes and pots; the mother carried the youngest son, Tam, and held Hai's hand. Walking along the railway tracks, they saw a lot of people dead and dying on the street of starvation. 

At the Nhon market (in Hanoi's Nam Tu Liem District now), a rich woman offered to buy Hai.

Hai clung tightly to her father. "Father, I will not go," she cried.

The destitute father, trying to hide his tears and remove his clinging daughter from him, told her: "Go with them, and you will have food to eat."

The woman gave Hai's father some coins and took her hand. She became Nguyen Thi Hoe.

In the last 75 years, the thing she regrets the most is that she did not remember her villages name. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Nga.

For 75 years, Nguyen Thi Hoe has carried a huge regret with her – that she cannot remember her village's name. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Nga.

Working as a housemaid for the woman's family, Hoe was in charge of cleaning the garden and the yard. She cried every day.

After two months, she got dysentery. The homeowners were afraid she would die like their former helpers, giving Hoe to another family. That was where she lived and worked as a housemaid until getting married in her twenties.

She gave birth to five children, including one daughter and four sons. 

"I often saw villagers carry water chestnuts, squid and sandworm. Whenever my mom returned from the market, I asked her which market she had been to, sometimes she said Cau Market, sometimes Don (or Con) Market," Hoe recalled, adding she used to have a neighbor whose name was Tuan, and his daughter was Xe.

Vuong Duy Sang, Hoe's youngest son, said that her mother's stories about her childhood have never been changed in the last 75 years, no matter how many times she told it. 

"Seeing her sad eyes, I know she has been looking forward to finding them," Sang said.

In the last two decades, Sang has been to Thai Binh, Nam Dinh Province, and Hai Phong City in the north many dozens of times to look for his mother's family. Going to places having Cau Market, Don Market, Con Market, and water chestnuts or sandworms, he thinks his mother's hometown is in Thai Binh.

Based on their mother's memories, Sang and his brothers made a note with more than 100 words, printed it, and gave to many people in Thai Thuy District, Thai Binh Province. Initially, he went to local authorities' offices and asked for their help. Later, he met seniors who were at the same age as his mother and asked them.

When they asked his grandparents' names and addresses, he had no answer.

Sang wishes to fulfill her mothers dream. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Nga.

Sang wishes to fullfil his mother's dream of meeting with her family, a dream she has nursed for 75 years. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Nga.

Hoping against hope

Sang has received hundreds of phone calls from strangers. Someone even told him about a person looking for a lost family with three daughters and a son, just like his mother's. It turned out to be a different family. 

"Someone called me and said the uncle was only 60 years old. But my uncle would be at least 75-76 years old. Another said the uncle was older then my mom.... not correct," he said.

In the last few years, Sang has been using the support of radio and television stations in Thai Binh Province. The family has also been to the districts of Hai Hau, Tien Hai and Kien Xuong in Thai Binh Province and Vinh Bao District in Hai Phong City. They have connected with many people on the internet.

After so many trips, they still haven’t found a clue. 

"Mother has said maybe we should stop searching. I know she is afraid we will be troubled. At this age, she is longing for her roots. Perhaps our grandparents have passed away, but my uncle and aunts and their children could still be alive." 

Sad that his mother has never been truly happy in her life, Sang has contacted a TV program that focuses on looking for lost people. 

Hoping against hope, he says: "My grandparents sold my mother because of hunger and poverty. Perhaps my mother's family is also looking for her now, just as we are looking for them."

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