"Why did you leave me when I was young?"

After 30 years, some aging veterans seek to renew ties with the babies they left behind in Vietnam.


Jonathan Watts
May 2, 2005 8:04PM (UTC)

"I remember the last night I was with you. I put my hand on your stomach and felt our son kicking and moving. I did not write you as I should have done. I was young and immature in 1968 and I am sorry I was not there to take care of you both." Nguyen Thi Hien, a middle-aged woman who lives in one of Ho Chi Minh City's poorest neighborhoods, had been waiting more than 30 years for the letter that contained these words. The last time she saw or heard from the writer, he was a handsome young GI and she was a beautiful but heavily pregnant bar girl who went by the name Linda.

In America and Europe it was the summer of love, but in Vietnam this was the year of the Tet offensive and some of the fiercest fighting of one of the 20th century's messiest wars. Hien's 19-year-old boyfriend, Bill, had just finished a tour of duty in Binh Duong province and was on his way back home to the United States. He planned to go to college and make a new start. Seven days after Bill left she gave birth to a son and had to find another man who would put his name on the birth certificate.

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It was an all too common story. During the 10-year war U.S. troops are estimated to have conceived and abandoned -- albeit sometimes unknowingly -- an estimated 50,000 babies. Although half have subsequently emigrated to the United States, these so-called Amerasians have become a symbol of Washington's failure to live up to its commitment to South Vietnam.

This was particularly true on April 30, 1975, when the last few American troops evacuated Saigon, since renamed Ho Chi Minh City, leaving behind desperate crowds of South Vietnamese who feared retribution from the victorious troops of the Communist North.

To hide their affiliations to the United States South Vietnamese soldiers stripped off their uniforms and many mothers abandoned their Amerasian children. Many were forced to live on the street, one reason why they became known locally as "children of dust."

But 30 years on, their plight -- often neglected, ill-educated and vulnerable to drug abuse -- is increasingly pricking the consciences of American war veterans, who are returning in growing numbers to search for and support the girlfriends and children they left behind.

Now around retirement age, many of these former GIs and Marines have the affluence, leisure and inclination to revisit the past. Their task has been made easier by the recent improvement in relations between Washington and Hanoi, the Internet and DNA paternity tests. Hien's letter from Bill is one of the positive results.

At the center of the campaign is the Amerasian Child Find Network, a Web-based organization that claims to have reunited 300 U.S. fathers and their Amerasian children since it was established in November 2001. It was set up by Clint Haines, a veteran and former private investigator, who found his girlfriend after a 10-year search and is now looking for his child. He says he was forced to leave them in 1971 by the military, which made it impossible for noncommissioned soldiers to take back wives.

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He was reunited with his former girlfriend after paying almost $1,000 for newspaper ads and a TV commercial in the Quang Nan area where they had last met. In the next few days he expects to get the results of DNA tests that will tell him whether he has also located his son, who was given to an orphanage.

"I hope it's him. He's so destitute, I want to help him," said Haines, 53, who has a family in the United States. "But I won't get emotionally involved yet. There have been so many ups and downs. One woman tricked me and her own daughter into believing we were related. I need to see the tests."

His caution is understandable. After a spate of claims by fake Amerasians the U.S. Consulate has tightened its visa application policy for people claiming American parentage. Even Hien's son turned out not to have been Bill's child, according to two recent DNA tests.

"More and more American men and Amerasian children are trying to find each other," said Phan, a Vietnamese man who works as a liaison between the two groups. "But it's very difficult. In most cases the mothers remember nothing. "Many were cleaners at U.S. bases or prostitutes, who were not well educated and had several boyfriends at the same time. After the Communists took control in 1975 many mothers were afraid of being associated with the enemy, so they burned all evidence of their old lovers."

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That has not stopped some veterans from launching what appear to be hopeless searches. Last month Rafael Pagan, a former Army quartermaster, returned to Long Binh Army Base to look for a girlfriend he had last seen in 1969. "I loved her and she was pregnant when I left, so I still feel responsible to help my child," said the 60-year-old, who is now a store clerk in a New York hospital. "The problem is, I don't remember her name."

Despite the lack of information several Amerasians have replied to an ad he put in the newspaper with his picture and details. Two have sent off DNA samples, each of which will cost several hundred dollars to be processed. Pagan says he is not daunted by the cost or the long odds. "I went to Saigon in the hope that I'd see some results. Whatever it takes, I will do it."

A further complication is drugs, which are as widely used now in Vietnam as they were in the psychedelic '60s.

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Phan Anh Nhung was born in a prison, where her mother was interned for selling drugs. She says she was conceived while her father, a U.S. soldier, was on the run from military police after he stole and sold an Army Jeep to finance his cocaine and opium habit. He was sent home before she was born. But a few years ago a friend helped her track down her father, who now sends a few hundreds dollars every month. They exchange letters and plan to meet for the first time later this year. "If he really comes, I'll be so happy to meet him I'll faint," she said.

Others are not so fortunate. Dothi Thu Qiyen was abandoned soon after she was born and has no idea who her parents are. Her appearance, however, has marked her out for maltreatment. To make ends meet and feed her three children, she started selling opium at $3 a pipe and last week left prison after serving a six-year term. "I would love to look for my father," she said. "But I don't know where to start."

Some stories, however, end happily. Vietnam's most famous Amerasian is Phuong Thao, a pop singer who was conceived the night before her father was sent back to America in 1967. "Mom never talked about my father. I never asked. She thought it was impossible to find him. She just wanted to forget," said Thao. "But I thought about him. At school I was taught that Americans killed many Vietnamese. So I wondered whether my daddy was a good guy or a bad guy."

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When she was 28 years old she got the chance to ask the question in person after an American writer helped her to track down her father, James Yoder, who had been unaware of her existence. "The first time I met him I cried like a baby," recalled Thao. "I looked exactly like him." They meet from time to time, and the singer has been to visit his family in the United States. She now guesses that her voice comes from her Irish grandmother. Whatever the origins, it has proved a huge hit with the mainstream Vietnamese audience.

But Thao's heart-rending lyrics are still filled with the sadness of the past. "In my dreams, I hear my mother's voice. In the night, I'm waiting for someone to call" is the chorus of a famous song about an abandoned daughter's wish to live with her missing parents. "Why did you leave me when I was young?"


Jonathan Watts

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