A Vietnamese-American woman’s quest for identity of more than 50 years

By Phan Duong   March 10, 2024 | 06:00 am PT
Ngoc Tran, a female office worker, was abandoned since birth and knew nothing of her origins.

However, in March 2023, her life took an unexpected turn when she received DNA test results from across the ocean that revealed the identity of her biological father – an American Air Force veteran who had served in the Vietnam War.

Early this year, Ngoc will leave Vietnam for the U.S – her other homeland. The impending departure floods her with mixed emotions. She’s spending her remaining days in Vietnam visiting acquaintances, friends, and familiar street corners. Reflecting on her journey, Ngoc shared, "After 57 years of what would be worth a lifetime, I’m only beginning to uncover the other half of my origin."

Ngoc Tran on a trip in July 2023. Photo courtesy of Tran

Ngoc Tran on a trip in July 2023. Photo courtesy of Tran

In the summer of 1967, little Ngoc was sent to live with a middle-aged woman on Vo Di Nguy Street (now Phan Dinh Phung Street) by her biological mother. Initially, her mother visited her regularly, providing financial support to the caretaker who would later become Ngoc’s adoptive grandmother.

However, from the third month, her mother stopped coming . No contact information was left behind, and Ngoc’s grandmother couldn’t recall who the mother was.

Raising a mixed-race child during this time was no small task. Despite the challenges, Ngoc’s grandmother and her three daughters (Ngoc's three adoptive mothers) did their utmost to protect her and create a peaceful home. Nevertheless, the stigma of being an orphan persisted throughout Ngoc’s adulthood, leading her to remain single throughout her life.

After her grandmother’s passing in 2007, Ngoc was left stricken with grief and an intense desire to uncover her true identity. The weight of not knowing who she was for the remainder of her life weighed heavily on her mind. She realized how fragile life was, and that time was precious.

After getting back on her feet, Ngoc began searching for information on the Internet with the keyword "mixed child". She spent a lot of time reading numerous search results related to Operation Babylift (1975), and visiting any relevant websites, in hope of finding her parents.

One day, Ngoc came across information about Phan Nhat Tung, also known as Jimmy A. Miller, founder of Amerasians Without Borders – an organization dedicated to assisting mixed-raced individuals in locating their birth families and reuniting with them in the U.S.

Without any hesitation, she contacted Jimmy to ask for help with a DNA test. Ngoc happened to be one of the last people to participate in the organization’s DNA testing batch for April 2022, as Jimmy confirmed.

However, it was not an easy journey for them. The initial four DNA samples got damaged, leaving her disheartened. "I just need to know if I'm truly of mixed race. Is that too much to ask?", Ngoc recalled herself almost giving up.

Yet, Jimmy and his organization did not give up on her. On the fifth try, Ngoc noticed the saliva sample looked different from the previous times which got her hopeful.

Finally, after months of anticipation, her prayers were answered. One morning, Ngoc woke up to a series of missed calls from an unknown number at 4:30 AM (Vietnam time) on March 23rd, 2023. As she fumbled to return the call, her instincts told her this was it. The voice on the other end confirmed, "We have your results." Ngoc was left in tears and speechless.

"It felt like a dream," Ngoc recalled. Even hours after the call, she struggled to believe that it was truly happening.

The DNA results revealed that Ngoc’s biological father was Ronald Neal Hodnett, an Air Force veteran from New Bern, North Carolina. Although he had passed away, members of his extended family were still alive.

On April 1st 2023, Ngoc finally got connected to her biological aunt, Linda. Through Linda, she learned that her father was born into a family of 9 brothers, 5 of whom had passed away. The elder siblings were both over 90 years old, while the younger ones were in their 70s. During their first conversation, Linda cried a lot; she couldn’t believe she actually had a lost niece.

"You’re Ronny's only child," Linda said.

Ronald served for 27 years in the US Air Force. His return from Vietnam left him deeply traumatized, and years later he eventually found solace living with his aunt and her adopted child. Ronald never knew he had a daughter, and he never shared the story of his relationship with a Vietnamese woman with anyone. Despite this, he was a true family man, who cared deeply for his family members.

Ronald Neal Hodnett, an American Air Force veteran from New Bern, North Carolina. Photo courtesy of Ngoc Tran

Ronald Neal Hodnett, an American Air Force veteran from New Bern, North Carolina. Photo courtesy of Ngoc Tran

In 1997, Ronald passed away, yet his memory remains etched in the hearts of his family. "My aunt still preserves his uniform, like a treasure, and his Air Force hat is still kept by my uncle", Ngoc mentioned of the keepsakes, revealing that they would be passed down to her. "I never got to meet him, but I still love and respect him with all my heart".

After more than half a century, Ngoc felt like she was born again. Her close friend, Van, attested: "Ever since she learned about her father, Ngoc hasn’t stopped talking about him. It’s like she keeps showing off his dad".

As for her mother, the memories remain shrouded in fog. Before relocating to District 7, Ngoc spent nearly 50 years residing in the same childhood home, not far from Tan Son Nhat airport. "If my mom wants to find me," she reflected, "she will undoubtedly be able to."

Now that she knows of her father, Ngoc is determined to spend the rest of her life discovering her bloodline. Later this month, she will depart for Spokane, Washington State, where she plans to live for a while. The city is also home to many families of mixed-race Vietnamese people who were residing in Vietnam, facilitated by the support of Jimmy’s organization.

Ngoc’s American family will also fly from North Carolina to reunite with her. Linda, her biological aunt, eagerly anticipates Ngoc’s return to North Carolina, yet she respects Ngoc’s decision to remain in Spokane. For Linda, knowing about Ngoc's existence is already a great gift to her family; it feels to her like her deceased brother has been guiding the way.

"You've been away for far too long. It’s time to come home," Linda said.

In Vietnam, Ngoc spends her remaining days with her three adoptive mothers, now in their 70s and 80s. In her luggage, she carries a cherished photo and an old blouse of her grandmother. Overflowing with gratitude and love, Ngoc bows before her grandmother’s altar, whispering, "I’m finally coming home."

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