44 years on, an orphan searches for his Vietnamese parents

By Khanh Lynh   January 20, 2019 | 10:53 pm PT
An orphan from the controversial Operation Babylift is back in Vietnam from the Netherlands, looking for his birth parents.

"I am almost certain that I was born in Vinh Long City (132 km south of HCMC). My Vietnamese mother may have had a love affair with a Korean soldier during the war," Arjen IJff told VnExpress.

Arjen speculated his parents had met in the spring of 1974 and that he was born almost a year later. He does not have a blue birthmark on his buttocks like other Vietnamese kids so he thinks he’s a mixed child. His father could also be an American, he thinks.

Arjen at three months old. Photo courtesy of Arjen IJff.

Arjen at three months old. Photo courtesy of Arjen IJff

Since April 2018, Arjen has been staying in Ho Chi Minh City, in the hope of finding his Vietnamese mother, who is probably about 60 to 68 years old now. His birth family could be living in a 10 - 20 km radius around Vinh Long Province.

The Good Shepherd orphanage in Vinh Long Province in an old photo. Photo courtesy of Arjen IJff.

An old photo of the Good Shepherd orphanage in Vinh Long Province, which no longer exists now. Photo courtesy of Arjen IJff

According to the documents Arjen has, he was left at a nunnery and orphanage called Good Shepherd when he was only a few weeks old. It was then the only facility in Vinh Long that received abandoned children.

More than a week later, he and some other children were taken to the Dutch Embassy in Saigon by a missionary called Peter Aarts and cared for by the then ambassador's wife, Caroline van Roijen.

Peter Aarts worked in southern Vietnam from 1960 to 1975. In mid-April 1975, when Arjen was three months old, he was one of 27 children enrolled in Operation Babylift. He was taken to the Netherlands for adoption.

Operation Babylift was a controversial initiative launched by the US to evacuate southern Vietnamese orphans to the U.S. and other countries.

At that time, his Dutch parents did not even get his birth certificate.

Back in Vietnam, Arjen found that the Good Shepherd nunnery had been demolished. The place was replaced with a large square on To Thi Huynh Street.

Comparing the place with an old photograph he has, Arjen believes that this was where he became an orphan, because the big tamarind tree in the old photo still stands by the river.

The tamarind tree where it was supposedly the former orphanage that shelted Arjen. Photo courtesy of Arjen IJff.

The tamarind tree that used to stand near the orphanage that sheltered Arjen. Photo courtesy of Arjen IJff

Arjen had no chance to meet Aarts, the missionary, because the latter passed away in 2007. He has met former ambassador's wife Caroline van Roijenet several times, but she could not remember anything specific about "Nguyen Khanh Hung," Arjen’s Vietnamese name, one among the 27 children listed by the Dutch Embassy in Saigon.

Arjen's childhood was spent uneventfully on a farm in Beemster, north of the Netherlands, a town famous for tulips and cheese. As the only child in the family, the Vietnamese boy did not notice that he was different, because people around him did not treat him as if he was.

Some friends at school sometimes teased Arjen by calling him "Chinese", because he looked like people working at a Chinese restaurant in town. Arjen was not bothered.

But when he was over 20 years old, the thought that "I'm not Dutch" took root in Arjen's mind. He became more curious about his origins and started thinking a lot about Vietnam, where he was born. This was something that had not happened before.

And then, even after he decided to go to Vietnam, Arjen hesitated for a year.

He was afraid.

"What if I see an extremely strange place, what if I can’t accept it?"

Overcoming his fears, Arjen set out on a pan-Vietnam trip from the north to the south in 2007. The scenery, people and customs in the places that he passed excited him. One day, sitting in a coffee shop in Hanoi, Arjen suddenly felt that he was at home.

"Everyone around me looked like me and I felt connected to this place," Arjen said.

He discovered that Hanoi has many types of noodle soups that he loved. Even in the Netherlands, he had a fondness for rice, the staple grain in most Asian cultures.

Arjen felt that his fondness for Vietnamese cuisine also proved to him that he had Vietnamese blood in his veins. At the end of the trip, Arjen headed back to the Netherlands happy and satisfied.

"The trip made me more confident about my desire to find my birth parents. For the first time in my life I felt like I was of Vietnamese origin," he said.

Arjen received the support of his adoptive parents in his quest. They even went with him to Vietnam once in 2012. Arjen's adoptive father is 73 years old now, and his adoptive mother died four years ago.

On his fifth visit to Vietnam early 2018, Ajen decided to stay on in Ho Chi Minh City for sometime and worked as a graphic designer for a friend's company.

He wants to continue his journey to find his birth parents and also find out for himself whether life in Vietnam fits him.

Recently, reading the news about a person in England, also a Operation Babylift child, finding his birth mother in Vietnam, Arjen became much more hopeful.

"Maybe it's time, maybe the opportunity to reunite with my family is waiting for me."

Arjen is staying in HCMC. Photo courtesy of of Arjen IJff.

Arjen is staying in HCMC. Photo courtesy of of Arjen IJff

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