Baby taken from wartime orphanage returns home for first Vietnamese New Year

By Linh Ngoc   February 12, 2018 | 08:01 pm PT
Baby taken from wartime orphanage returns home for first Vietnamese New Year
Nguyen Thanh Chau, or Vance McElhinney as he is known in Northern Ireland, is with his Vietnamese mother Le Thi Anh in Quy Nhon on February 10, 2018. Photo by VnExpress
After decades of confusion and anger, the UK citizen is ready to spend some quality time with his Vietnamese mother.

A woman in her late 60s walked slowly towards the door as a guest arrived.

“Hello mom,” he said in the simple English that she could understand.

It was the first “mom” that Le Thi Anh, 67, had heard from her son in nearly half a century, and it was enough to make her burst into tears.

Her son was among 100 babies rescued from an orphanage in Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 during Operation Mercy Airlift, organized by the Daily Mail.

"I didn't want to abandon you," Anh told her son via an interpreter.

Anh, who lives in Quy Nhon in central Vietnam, said she had an accident in 1975 and was hospitalized for more than two months. Her family brought her baby to the hospital to be breastfed every day, until her parents died and her husband left.

With the general chaos that ensued at the end of the war, other relatives put the baby into an orphanage and the nuns later moved him to Saigon without telling Anh.

When Anh finally arrived in the southern city to look for her son, he was already in the U.K.

The Vietnamese baby, whom she named Nguyen Thanh Chau, was renamed Vance McElhinney by the family that adopted him in Northern Ireland.

He had a loving family, but Chau said he did not feel that he fitted in.

At the age of 10, he started to realize he was different from other children in the family. His hair was black and his skin was darker, and he was bullied at school.

When he reached his twenties, he decided to go looking for his biological family, with a small photo carrying a relative’s name on the back.

He reached out to the BBC’s A Place To Call Home program, and received a lot of responses, including one from a woman who turned out to be his Vietnamese cousin.

She sent him an old photo of his parents in Quy Nhon, and for the first time in his life, Chau said he felt he belonged to someone.

The cousin also informed Anh in Vietnam that her son was looking for her.

Their first meeting half a year ago was more about pain than joy, she said.

“His eyes were full of hatred and self-pity,” Anh said.

She said her son angrily questioned her for “abandoning” him.

“And all I could do was cry,” she said.

She called him hundreds of times after that to arrange another meeting to make up for the separation. She set up a Facebook account to stay in touch with him, and studied English so that their conversations would not have to depend entirely on a third person.

They met most recently last Saturday, after DNA tests confirmed their relationship.

That meeting went a lot more smoothly, and she was able to show him photos and tell stories of her son as a baby, providing memories of a childhood that he thought he had lost.

“I’m happy,” he said.

The long lost son is ready to celebrate his first Vietnamese New Year with his mother this week.

He has prepared a traditional ao dai costume for the big holiday, and has learned how to make banh chung, the sticky rice cake that's an integral part of Tet in Vietnam.

“I think I'll cook some traditional Vietnamese food,” said Chau, who is a chef.

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