Long-lost woman reunites with family after 31 years

By Hai Hien   September 23, 2023 | 03:13 am PT
Fearing a scolding after spilling her grandmother’s banh xeo batter, eight-year-old Ngo Thi Bich Van ran outside her family’s home and got lost – she wouldn’t return until 31 years later.
Ngo Thi Bich Van (in yellow shirt), reunites with her family in July, 2023. Photo courtesy of Nhu Chua He Co Cuoc Chia Ly Facebook

Ngo Thi Bich Van (in yellow shirt), reunites with her family in July, 2023. Photo courtesy of Nhu Chua He Co Cuoc Chia Ly Facebook

Born in the southern An Giang province, Van, now 39, was sent to her grandmother’s home in the central city of Da Nang when she turned eight, so that her grandmother could raise her while her parents focused on working and making a living.

The little girl stayed at home and helped her grandmother with her banh xeo (Vietnamese-style pancake) stall instead of going to school. Seeing how her little brother was shouted at and beaten many times because of his mistakes and stubbornness, Van was so scared after she accidentally spilled her grandmother’s batter she ran out of the home.

Van had only lived with her grandmother for a few months at the time, so she did not remember her way home and got lost after a while. She then found herself at the Da Nang Railway Station and got so tired she hid in a corner to sleep.

A train’s horn woke the little girl up at 3 a.m. She asked people around and figured out that it was the train connecting Da Nang and the southern city of Quy Nhon.

"I remembered my grandmother mentioned that I had an aunt named Tuyet who was living in Quy Nhon," Van said.

"So, I decided to take the train to Quy Nhon and find Tuyet, in order to ask her to bring me home."

She went around Quy Nhon station after her arrival and asked everyone she came across about her aunt Tuyet, only to receive no answer in return. Knowing that she had gotten lost, vendors at the station gave her food and helped her take a shower.

Van took the train back to Da Nang the next morning and stayed inside the station hoping that her family would come. Her wish did not become reality, of course.

The little girl took the train back and forth between Da Nang and Quy Nhon every day for over 22 days after that. Each time, she hoped to catch sight of her family members when she got off the train, only to be disappointed.

Van practically lived in the railway stations in Da Nang and Quy Nhon at that point. She didn’t venture far off because she believed there was always a chance of having her parents coming to the station to pick her up.

On her 23rd day lost, Van met a woman who introduced her to a pho shop in Quy Nhon where she could work and have accommodation.

"The store was only six houses away from my aunt Tuyet’s house," Van said. "But I only knew it long after that."

Van worked at the shop for a few months before running away once again after being sexually harassed by the store owner’s son.

Knowing no other place to go, she went back to the Quy Nhon train station. She then met a local woman here and agreed to become the woman’ adopted sister. After half a year, Van finally had herself a family again, with an adoptive mother and an adoptive sister. She moved in with her adoptive family, who were living in a rural area in the southern province of Binh Dinh, of which the capital is Quy Nhon.

Despite that, memories of her old family still filled up the little girls’ head.

"I tried remembering the time when I was still living with my parents every night before going to bed," she said. "I believed doing so would help me not forget [my real origin]."

Van secretly took a bus to Da Nang to find her family a few years after moving in with her adoptive mother and sister. But things had changed so much after so much time that she found it even harder to find her grandmother’s address. She returned to Quy Nhon after four days.

She went to Da Nang on her second search for her family a year after that. No useful information came to her this time either.

The young woman then took a bus to the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong and worked at local eateries to cover her living expenses. She gave herself another trip to Da Nang to look for her family, but it did not work this time either.

Van and her husband currently sell banh xeo in the southern city of Quy Nhon. Photo courtesy of Nhu Chua He Co Cuoc Chia Ly Facebook

Van and her husband currently sell banh xeo in the southern city of Quy Nhon. Photo courtesy of Nhu Chua He Co Cuoc Chia Ly Facebook

Van then relocated to Quy Nhon to work in 2002. There she met Thao Minh Quy, a longtime customer of the cafe she worked at.

As the two got to know each other better, they grew feelings for each other. Quy confessed his love to Van, and the couple then got married.

Van’s new role as a wife, and then a mother, kept her occupied with many responsibilities and worries. As time passed by, memories of her old family faded, but not her desire to find them.

"She never dropped the idea of finding her family," Quy said.

Almost 10 years ago, Van got to know "Nhu Chua He Co Cuoc Chia Ly" (As If We Never Parted), a TV show produced by Vietnam Television broadcaster that aims to help long-lost family members find one another. She signed up for the program with a handwritten letter to the broadcasting network, but was not replied to because of the little information she provided.

It was not until the beginning of this year that Van remembered that her adoptive sister had taken a photo of her when she first moved in with her adoptive family. She sent the photo to the program after finding it. The show’s producers then invited her to participate.

"I could not wait anymore," she said. "My parents must have gotten really old. I was afraid that when I finally find them, they will have already passed away."

Fortunately, an old neighbor of Van’s grandmother, who lived next to her grandmother’s house, immediately recognized her after a broadcast of the show. Van’s parents, who had moved to the southern province Binh Phuoc, were informed after that.

"I was so surprised I almost dropped my phone when I was informed of the news," Van’s mother, the 64-year-old Phan Thi Vot, said.

Vot almost went insane when Van went missing 31 years ago, as it was also around the time she lost her fifth son. She and her husband had tried searching for Van, but got no leads in return. Both her financial and material stabilities were challenged.

The woman said she cried out of her worries for Van many times. Meanwhile, Van’s father Ngo Minh Hue was so touched when he heard Van had been located that he had a stroke.

"We have finally reached this day," Hue said while breathing difficultly. "All of my desires in life have been fulfilled."

Van was also anxious while waiting for the program to verify her and her parents’ identities. She was so moved on the day they officially reunited that she cried and hugged every member of the family.

"It’s all fine now," Vot comforted her. "We will never have to separate from each other again."

Van and her family in July, 2023, after their reunion. Photo courtesy of Van

Van and her family in July, 2023, after their reunion. Photo courtesy of Van

However, Van refused when Vot suggested that she could relocate to Binh Phuoc to stay closer to her parents as a compensation for their days apart, since she was worried for her old mother-in-law.

Vot understood her daughter’s reasons for wanting to stay with her new family, and they came to an agreement that Van would make sure to visit her parents frequently.

Van’s one unfulfilled desire is that her adoptive mother would have gotten to see her reunite with her family.

"But I’m sure she had a bright smile seeing me reuniting with my parents from somewhere," Van said.

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