Separated by war, family reunited after 50 years

By Hai Hien   November 5, 2023 | 04:33 am PT
Separated by war, family reunited after 50 years
Doi (middle) hugged by her sisters after 50 years of separation, July 2023. Photo courtesy of reality show "As If We Were Never Apart"
Doi will never forget that fateful day in 1973 when she was 12 years old and her family dropped her off at her father’s boss’s house.

"Before leaving, my dad said he’ll come back for me. But after a week without seeing him, I noticed something was off," said Le Thi Doi, a 62-year-old woman living in Cu Chi District in the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City.

It would be half a century before she would see her family again.

Doi is the second eldest in a family of four daughters, born in Gio Linh Town, Quang Tri Province. At the beginning of 1973, they lived near Da Nang Airport.

When she was left by her father with his superior, Tin, Doi cried every night, but she did not have the courage to run away because she was afraid of not being able to find her way back home. Tin constantly promised to help her find her family once the situation became stable, so she decided to stay and became their adopted child. She did not go to school, and instead stayed home to take care of her adopted siblings.

In March of 1975, Doi followed her adopted family to Saigon. That year, Doi turned 16 and joined the city’s youth union.

During her years in the union, the young woman traveled all over the country to help build the new economy. Doi said that in the day she would laugh and smile while working with her comrades, but once night rolled around, she would cry into her pillows, constantly plagued by questions about her parents and sisters.

Three years after leaving the union, she fell in love with a fellow comrade. As she did not have a birth certificate or other personal documents, they could not register their marriage. Fortunately, they were able to obtain a permit from the youth union that allowed them to "live together."

Two years later, Doi became pregnant, but her partner told her to abort the baby because he did not want a child. She vehemently disagreed and decided to end the relationship and become a single mother instead.

In 1981, her daughter Khanh was born. The two of them were aided by Doi’s comrades.

Due to their impoverished lifestyle, Khanh was often ill. Her sicknesses were at times so severe that Doi wasn’t sure if her child would survive or not. Sympathizing with their situation, one of her comrades named Lam Thi Hiep offered to help Doi raise the child.

Doi (second on the left) and Hiep (third on the left) while working with the youth union, 1982. Photo courtesy of Doi

Doi (2nd, L) and Hiep (3rd, L) while working with the youth union, 1982. Photo courtesy of Doi

In 1990, the farm where Doi worked closed. With nowhere else to go, Hiep and her mother once again extended a hand for support. Hiep’s mother adopted Doi and helped move her to Cu Chi District. Later on, Hiep remained unmarried and raised Khanh along with Doi.

To support herself and her child, Doi worked several odd jobs, from selling water and gas to working in a cafeteria and selling banh mi. Even so, her earnings were not enough to fund her daughter’s higher education, so she turned to Hiep and her old comrades.

"Even though I didn’t have a family, there were still so many kind people around me that helped whenever I was in need," she said.

Visions of family

The struggle to earn money for a living became the single mother’s only concern, and her memories of her family gradually faded in her mind. Nevertheless, she never fully gave up on the idea of finding them.

She recalled that many times in her dreams, she would see her parents and sisters, but no matter how much she tried to run, she could never catch up to them. She cried and screamed, but they still faded away. Every time she woke up, her pillows would be wet with her tears.

In 1996, Doi obtained Tin’s address in Saigon, but he had immigrated to the United States. In 2011, she went to Da Nang with the money she saved up, and she wandered her family’s old neighborhood asking about them. After 10 days, she left empty-handed and cast her dreams of finding her family aside to focus on her new life.

One time, Doi’s adopted mother accidentally came across the reality show "As If We Were Never Apart" on TV, a show focused on finding lost relatives for the people who submitted their requests, and decided that the show could help her daughter.

"I wanted to find her birth family for her. It pains me to see her like that," the mother said.

But Doi’s dream of reuniting with her family would only come to fruition 10 years later.

Doi (left) and her adopted sister Lam Thi Hiep in their house in Cu Chi District, HCMC, October 2023. Photo courtesy of Doi

Doi (L) and her adopted sister Lam Thi Hiep in their house in Cu Chi District, HCMC, October 2023. Photo courtesy of Doi

It was a regular June day in Son My Town, Ham Tan District, Binh Thuan Province when Le Thi Phu, 60, came across a post written by "As If We Were Never Apart" about a woman named Doi who wanted to find her family. When she looked at the photo, she thought the woman looked familiar, and saw her parents’ features in the woman’s face.

"I felt a shiver run down my spine. I thought this could be my sister Doi, who my parents thought had died in 1973," Phu said.

She dialed the number at the end of the post. After exchanging information with the person on the phone, her suspicions were confirmed.

"It is my sister!" She exclaimed.

Phu recalled that after her father took her sister away, he also ceased all contact with his family. After losing both her husband and child, her mother became bedridden for four years, even once contemplating drinking rat poison to end her life.

Though her health never truly recovered, she persistently went out looking for her daughter whenever she heard there was a lost child, even as every effort left her disappointed and returning in tears.

A few years later, the family moved to the province of Binh Thuan.

When they arrived at their new home, every time they prayed for Doi, the mother would tell her children to pray for her safety, not for her spirit. In 2019, before passing away at the age of 90, she insisted on reminding them to never pray for her lost daughter’s spirit.

"My mom always held the belief that Doi was alive," Phu said.

The mother’s belief would eventually prove true when the TV program contacted Doi.

On a July summer day this year?, Doi finally made her way back to her family after half a century. When they reunited on the show, the sisters cried as they held each other.

"To have this hug, we had to wait for 50 years. I couldn’t sleep the night before because I was so happy," Doi said.

She was filled with joy when she came to Binh Thuan province with her sisters to visit her mother’s grave and tell her that her lost daughter had finally come home.

Her sisters asked her to move to Binh Thuan province with them, but she refused because she did not want to disturb anyone’s life.

The four sisters talk on the phone every day and have plans to go back to Quang Tri province to find the place where they were born, as well as to connect with their other relatives.

Doi said she wanted her story to bring hope to those who are also looking for their relatives. No matter how hard the journey may be, she encouraged people to never lose sight of the destination.

"I once thought this was all a dream and I was scared I would wake up. I’ve spent 50 lonely years by myself, but now I’m so happy that I found my way home," the 62-year-old woman said.

go to top