Woman still pines for child she sent to US 43 years ago

By Phan Than   November 9, 2018 | 08:58 pm PT
Thought her baby would be better off in America, but has been remorseful, and single, ever since

Nguyen Thi Dep, 70, saw a mother and daughter reunite after decades on the TV show Helping Vietnamese Adoptees Trace Their Roots.

She immediately rushed to the show organizers in HCMC hoping she can find her own daughter, whom she had sent to the U.S. as a child.

Dep only wants to see and hug her daughter before she dies. Photo by Thao Nguyen.

Dep only wants to see and hug her daughter before she dies. Photo by VnExpress/Thao Nguyen.

As the lanky woman, a cleaner at a high school in Thu Duc District, watches a clip showing the mother and daughter, there are tears running down cheeks: "I only wish someday I will get to hold my daughter in flesh like that."

She shows a picture of a baby girl, her daughter, and says, eyes glued to the picture: "She was the result of the love between me and an American officer, Joe. I don’t know where she is now, what she is doing and if she is well."

At the age of 19, Dep left Kien Giang Province for Saigon to work as a cleaner at the US military base in Long Binh, southern Dong Nai Province. Her attractiveness and fluent English got her a promotion as a switchboard operator.

At a talent show at the base, he met Joe, who at that time had a disabled leg. They were both members of a performance troupe and fell in love. After dating him for three years she became pregnant, and this coincided with his service ending in Vietnam.

"He kept in contact with me for a year and then I didn’t hear from him after that. I sent him my regards and told him about his daughter, but received no reply."

On January 5, 1972, Dep gave birth to a daughter she named Nguyen Thi Phuong Mai. Mai had curly brown hair, a high bridge and brown eyes like her father.

When the Vietnam War ended, the U.S. launched the controversial Operation Babylift to evacuate Southern Vietnamese orphans to America.

"All my friends advised me to give her away saying she would return to me when she grows up. I was immature and applied to enroll her in the program. When she was taken away, she screamed and was in tears but I had made my decision."

A few days before their departure, the children were gathered at a nursery. On the afternoon of April 26, 1975, the flight departed from Tan Son Nhat Airport.

"My heart was breaking, I cried all the way home. Since then I have never heard anything from my daughter.

"My father scolded me for sending away my daughter, saying ‘when you have children, you stick with them no matter what’. I was disconsolate when I heard that and all I did was wait for news about her."

She sobs when she says all this.

All pictures of her daughter are carefully kept. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Thi Dep.

All pictures of her daughter are carefully preserved. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Thi Dep.

A month, a year, two years, three years went by and there was nothing. Dep started to look for her. She kept reading news and books about Operation Babylift, and searched for children who had become adults and returned to Vietnam to ask for information. She also sought help from the U.S. consulate in Vietnam and U.S. diplomats. She even wrote to the U.S. President to ask for assistance.

She reached out to friends she knew in the U.S. to ask for information, and sent her DNA to international organizations so they could use it to find her daughter, but all to no avail.

No one knows the destination of the flight that carried away Mai and the other children.

The only person she could come to with hope of success was Joe, but he died in 2013.

Mai when she was still with her mother. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Thi Dep.

Mai when she was still with her mother. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Thi Dep.

She laments: "I have been crying for a few years now, I have not slept well for how long, I don’t remember. I have always been waiting for news. In my mind, she's still three years old. If only I had thought clearer that day."

For the next 40 years she did not marry or have more children. She hopes Mai is cherished by a loving family and has a healthy, happy life

"When I gave her away, I also gave her birth certificate and a photo of me and her hoping she could find her biological mother using those."

Duong Ngoc Duong, standing member of the Women's Union of Linh Chieu Ward, Thu Duc District, says for the last few decades Dep has closed up to everyone and limited her contacts with neighbors fearing condemnation for abandoning her child.

"I was born in the same year as Mai. Whenever she misses Mai, she comes to me and talks.

"In the last few years she has asked many people, many organizations for help. It has all been a dead end. So hopefully the Helping Vietnamese Adoptees Trace Their Roots program will help this time.

"I promise her that if she cannot find Mai, she can treat me as her daughter and I will definitely love her like my own mother."

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