Over the past three years, Ky Son District in the central province of Nghe An, one of the most underprivileged mountainous districts in Vietnam, has seen a boom in the business of selling newborns, mainly in Huu Kiem Commune.
An initial estimate by local authorities is that 22 pregnant women, mainly belonging to the Kho Mu ethnic minority residents of the commune, have gone to China in order to sell their newborn babies to strangers for VND40 million to VND80 million ($1,720 to $3,450).
Sitting in a three-story stilt house, Moong Thi Tho, 26, recalled a journey she went on more than a year ago, returning home with VND40 million, the largest sum of money she’d ever had in her life.
In 2017, Tho was pregnant with her third child. When she came to a local clinic for a prenatal check-up, she knew that she was carrying a baby boy.
"A few days later, I received a call from an unknown woman, offering me to go to China and give birth for VND40 million if the child was truly a boy."
With her family burdened by mounting debt, Tho didn’t ask for permission from her husband and decided to go across the border into China, one of the world's most well-trodden bride trafficking circuits, now being deployed for newborns.
In September 2017, around eight months pregnant, Tho took a bus from Nghe An to Mong Cai in the northern province of Quang Ninh, home to the world famous Ha Long Bay, before crossing the border into China.
There, a stranger picked up her and took her to a remote house where Tho was given food and drink until the due date, but she was not allowed to go out.
A month later, she gave birth to a son. Minutes later, an unknown Chinese man came to take the baby away and left her Chinese yuan equivalent to VND40 million.
Tho was not allowed to stay too long to rest after birth. Four days later, she was asked to catch a bus to return home, wrapping up a baby sale that lasted 40 days.
After reaching home, she confessed what she’d done to her husband. He sympathized with her.
"I was deeply repentant and I promised never to do this again," Tho said.
Yet Tho is not the only woman who has risked her life to go to China and sell her newborn.
Abject poverty also spurred Mac Thi Hoa, Tho’s neighbor, to look for ways to help her family.
More than a year ago, pregnant with her fifth child, the 38-year-old woman was tipped off by a stranger that she could cross the border and sell her baby for up to VND80 million.
With the agreement of her drunk husband, Hoa started the journey to the border. Like other Vietnamese women, she was brought to an isolated house in total darkness and cared for until the due date.
"I only heard a few cries of my baby girl and didn’t see her face clearly. I didn’t even know whether she looked like me," Hoa said.
After giving birth, she was paid VND80 million, the largest sum of money she’d ever seen in her life, which she used to pay off debts and cover daily expenses.
"I didn’t know whether my action was illegal or not. If it is banned, I will not do it again," she said.
Tears, separation and death
But not all of the Vietnamese women have been successful in this business. Some have paid with their lives and others have been tricked and trapped, not able to return because they have no money.
Residents of Chieu Luu Commune, around 20 kilometers from Huu Kiem, are still in shock after the sudden death of Moong Thi Lam, who died in a bus crash in China’s Hebei Province last September.
After receiving the news that his pregnant wife had died in an accident, Lam's husband Luong Van Hong managed to borrow more than VND50 million from neighbors and went with a relative to China to bring the ashes of his wife home.
"I didn’t know that my wife had gone to China to sell our baby. If I had known, I would have prevented her," a red-eyed Hong said.
Standing behind the house’s door, Luong Thi Dau, 13, the eldest of his four children, seemed to be the only to feel the pain of losing her mother.
One day before leaving for China, her mother instructed her to take care of her siblings and help her father with household chores, promising to bring money and new clothes home.
"Earlier, when my mother was still alive, we sometimes had a meal with pork; now we only have rice with eggplant," Dau said.
In the fateful bus accident in Hebei, another pregnant Vietnamese woman, Moong Thi Mui of Huu Kiem Commune, was seriously injured and taken to a local hospital for treatment.
She gave birth to a child at the hospital, but failed to cover the medical expense of 2,000 yuan ($295), so she could not return to Vietnam.
Last month, Nghe An Police and Blue Dragon, a Hanoi-based non-profit organization working with street children and trafficking victims, organized a rescue operation to bring the woman and her three-month-old baby home.
"Many of the victims are forced into becoming pregnant and giving up their babies; they are deceived by traffickers and taken to China believing they are on the way to a job," said Australian Michael Brosowski, founder of Blue Dragon, told VnExpress International.
"These women had no choice at all. Some were in desperate situations and felt they had no option; they were in debt and had huge bills to pay, and thought that selling a baby was the only way out," he said.
Many young women did change their mind and give up the idea of selling their babies before giving birth, realizing they were making a terrible mistake. However, the traffickers would not let them escape, forcing the women to call for help, he added.
Over the past several years, Blue Dragon has worked to help survivors of this crime to return home, and assist them with reporting their ordeal to the police.
No sign of stopping
The central province of Nghe An, around 300km (190 miles) south of Hanoi, has been put on high alert for human trafficking in recent years.
So far, the province has uncovered nearly 30 cases of babies trafficked, in which the mothers, mostly uneducated ethnic women, have fallen into the trap of different brokers who promise handsome payments for giving birth in China. A baby boy would sell for VND40 million to VND50 million, while a little girl fetches VND70 million to VND80 million.
China, the world’s most populous country, suffers from one of the worst gender imbalance rates in the world due to the one-child policy and illegal abortion of female fetuses. This has been a major factor behind the trafficking of Vietnamese women and girls across the border, and now, newborns.
Vi Thi Quyen, vice chairwoman of Ky Son District, said most local residents mainly live on farming and earn very little. When they are deep in debt and unable to meet daily expenses, they consider extreme options for survival.
It has been stated often that besides financial difficulties, negligence, poor education and weak law enforcement, gender imbalance in destination countries is a major factor driving human trafficking.
This has led to an increase in kidnappings, tricking and trafficking of Vietnamese women and baby girls, and now, even newborn babies, said Nguyen Huu Cau, chief of Nghe An Police.
Furthermore, many families have failed to abide by family planning policies, and many people have five to six children instead of two, plunging them deeper into financial crisis, Cau said.
48-year-old Luong Thi Mui of Huu Lap Commune sits in despair on the stairs of her house. She bursts into tears whenever someone mentions her trip to China, and keeps calling out the name of the woman who tricked her.
Early in 2017, when she was pregnant with her sixth child, Mui was tricked by a neighbor to go to China and sell the newborn for VND30 million.
She took a bus to get to the border and a group of traffickers took her to a house in a village to rest before the due date.
After giving birth, she nurtured the child for 21 days before the traffickers came to pick the baby up. But they did not pay her. Several days later, they told her the baby had died and threatened to kill her if she didn’t return to Vietnam, Mui said, adding that her newborn baby was completely healthy and normal.
After returning home, the female broker gave Mui VND19 million and told her not to ask for anything more. Mui and her husband have gone to the neighbor’s house several times to ask for the remaining money. They also complained to local authorities.
Crying, she said: "I don’t want to be pregnant anymore and will never cross into the border to sell my child. I miss my child."
Story by Nguyen Hai, Quy Nguyen