A Search for the Past - Vietnamese-American Adoptee Visits Vietnam
By Joshua Woerthwein
An adoptee from the Babylift visits Vietnam, the land of his birth.
From what I know, I was born as Chiem Ngoc Minh (it means "brilliant jade") at the Tu Du Maternity Hospital in Sai Gon, Viet Nam, at 04:40 on 30 July 1974. My mother, Chiem Ngoc Diep, decided to put me up for adoption. I resided at the maternity hospital for a few days, and then was moved to the Holt Reception Center/Nursery for a short period of time (Holt International Children's Services was the agency that handled my adoption). Then I lived in foster care (with Ba Hong) for a few months before being picked up by U.S. Military Police and put on a Pan Am 747 out of Viet Nam. I left Viet Nam from the Ton Son Nhut Airport when I was just 8 months old, and landed at the JFK International Airport on 06 April 1975. My new parents, Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth F. Woerthwein, were waiting there with open arms. My adoptive parents named me "Joshua" because it's the biblical name that means, "God's deliverance." They told me they picked it because they went through so much to "get me," and that it was a miracle that I made it here.
On 31 July 1997, I (now Joshua Joseph Woerthwein) watched a TV show called "48 Hours" about a group of Vietnamese adoptees who returned to Viet Nam to revisit the orphanages, hospitals, and child-care facilities where they were as children. The most touching part of the story was when a young woman visited the site of the U.S. Air Force C5A that crashed a short distance from the Ton Son Nhut Airport -- a crash that she had survived 21 years ago.
After watching the episode, I cried for hours. It never occurred to me how close I was to that incident (and to that young woman). I was on the second plane out of Viet Nam in "Operation Babylift" in 1975, the plane on which the young woman who had survived the C5A crash was put. I grew up feeling guilty about that, and still feel a little guilty about that...like, why was I spared? Why did so much information accompany me, when so little came with other people? Why, why, why ...When you start to ask questions like that about your life, not only do you start feeling sorry for yourself, but you start hating yourself for being alive, and that's no good, since I should be honoring my birth mother, who had enough sense and love in her to want me to live somewhere where I could have a better life...
A few days before that, I had gotten a flyer in the mail from Global Spectrum ("Viet Nam Travel Specialists") concerning the "Revisit Viet Nam Tour '97." After some discussion with my parents, who agreed to lend me the money, I called up Global Spectrum and spoke with Ms. Thuy Do. I had to get my passport application expedited and scrambled to get the necessary information I needed for my revisit to Viet Nam, but by the time the scheduled departure came, I was more than ready to go.
I arrived at the JFK International Airport from the BWI Airport around on Saturday, 06 September 1997. The first person I met from the "Re-Visit Viet Nam Tour '97" was Jen. I saw her talking with Sister Mary Nelle Gage. Evelyn and Tia rounded-out the last of the group. After we all got acquainted, we talked with Erik Nelson, a freelance journalist who contributes to Newsday, The Long Island Voice, The Washington Post, and the Baltimore City Paper. He asked us some questions, and the photographer with him took a few shots of us, individually and group
At least 23 hours later, we finally touched down at the Tan Son Nhut Airport in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Viet Nam, on Monday morning, 08 September, 1997. Seeing the country from the air for the first time and landing at the airport from which I had departed brought tears to my eyes. Weary from the flight, we all stumbled off the plane into an airport bus that took us to the terminal, we collected our bags and met our tour guide, Tran Dinh Song (Song), outside.
Song and the driver loaded our baggage into the minibus and drove us to our hotel, the Bong Sen Hotel (117-119-121-123 Dong Khoi Street, District 1), in what seemed like the heart of HCMC. After a refreshing shower (there's nothing like sitting in your own funk for 23 hours on a plane...pretty picture, eh?) and a brief rest, we all met in the lobby for lunch. One memorable thing about the food in Viet Nam is that it was all fantastic.
After lunch, we visited the Presidential Palace (Dinh Thong Nhat Palace, also known as Unification Palace), the Old Post Office (Buu Dien Trung Tam), and the Notre Dame Cathedral (Nha tho Duc Ba, The Saint-Marie Cathedral). We went back to the hotel for a little bit before dinner. We were driven to a restaurant that was also a private residence on an island on the Sai Gon River. There were 3 or 4 private dining areas, all with their own walkways, bars, even billiard tables, right along the river. After dinner, we drove back to the hotel and got some much-needed sleep.
Tuesday morning, we went to the Phu My Orphanage (which is still active), where Evelyn had resided; New Haven (which is now a private home, owned by a doctor), where Jen had resided; Thu Duc (which is now an apartment complex), where Tia had resided; and the Holt Reception Center (it was a nursery, but now it's a restaurant), where I had resided.
Near the Holt Reception Center, Song said he knew of a woman who may or may not know some information about the old Reception Center. She directed us to see her mother, a much older woman. The elderly mother allowed us to come into her home. The house she and her family resided in was far below the poverty line standards for America, but Song said her home was about average for the Vietnamese. I pulled out a picture for the elderly woman to look at, and before I could say a word, she pointed to the woman in the picture holding me and blurted out, "Ba Hong." "Ba Hong" is the name of my foster mother, and the only evidence I have that she exists is a picture of her holding me as a baby. Through Song's translation, she said the last time she saw my foster mother was in 1976, after the government had "changed."
Next, Song took us to Holt's old office building (431A Hoang Van Thu Street, Tan Binh District). After Holt left in 1975, the building was used as a police station; the military used it as a post until 1989. The Travel/Tourist Service took control of the building after that, and still does business out of there to this day.
We also visited To Am, Allambie, and Hy Vong (other orphanages from which more Vietnamese adoptees had come) on Tuesday. In all honesty, visiting the orphanages was depressing, seeing so many babies and young adults (and some adults) -- some physically or mentally handicapped (or both), some in perfect health--and not being able to do anything about the conditions in which they're living. We had lunch with some Vietnamese caretakers who worked for Friends For All Children (FFAC). One of the women from FFAC is the widow of an attorney who did the paperwork for most of us Vietnamese adoptees. After seeing the orphanages, we stopped by the old U.S. Embassy.
Wednesday morning, we met the FFAC women for breakfast, and went to the maternity hospital where I was born (Benh Vien Phu San Tu Du--the Tu Du Maternity Hospital, 284 Cong Quynh Street, District 1). Sister Mary Vincent (she signed a few birth records of mine) was still there, doing the same job in the same office. She took me to the ward where I was born in way back on 30 July 1974. We couldn't go back to see the actual rooms because of sanitary reasons, but I got to see the halls of my birth. It is still hard to describe what I was feeling, mainly because I was never expecting to find anything, even more so because nothing like my meeting with someone so close to my past has ever happened to me before. I can say without a doubt that it was the most spiritually moving moment in my life. I hugged Sister Mary Vincent and cried for what seemed to be an eternity. It felt so good to be held in her arms (even though I'm a good 25cm taller than she is); I felt like never leaving her embrace.
After the emotional goodbye and small donation (as it turns out, childbirth at the Tu Du Maternity Hospital costs about US$50, which covers the cost of labor and a room for 3 days; meals and linen service are provided by the family), we visited the An Dong market in the Chinese district of Cholon. After lunch, Song took us to the Cong Ty Lamson, a lacquerware company in HCMC. The work that was done there--the time and effort that was put into each piece--was mind-blowing. Actually, the rest of that day was a blur for me; my mind was (and still is) spinning from meeting Sister Mary Vincent.
Thursday morning, we awoke early to take a 3-4 hour drive to the Mekong Delta. We got onto the tour boat at the Cai Be Floating Market in the Vinh Long province. We cruised along the river and through some tributaries before stopping at Nguyen Thanh Giao's bonsai farm for lunch. The food that was served to us was exquisite: spring rolls, deep-fried elephant ear fish, and numerous other delicacies. The owner gave the adventurous ones in our group a taste of some of his homemade sake. Before I knew where I was drinking from, I had already swallowed half a glass of the most potent sake I've ever tasted. Nguyen Thanh Giao showed me a jar from which the sake had come from; a dead anaconda was coiled around the inside of the jar, helping out the fermentation process. Nguyen Thanh Giao also let us "play" with his two pet anacondas (one 6m long, the other 4m long ... magnificent creatures).
After lunch, our Mekong tour guide (from the Cuulong Tourist Agency in Vinh Long) pointed the boat in the direction of a brick-making factory. We then cruised back to a plantation, and after a brief snack provided by the owner, Mr. Tam Ho, we took the boat to Muoi Day's House-on-Stilts. There, Sister Mary, Jen, and I took a dip in the Mekong River (that was an experience) and then we all had a pleasant dinner.
We awoke early Friday morning and left for Vinh Long (the "capitol" of the Mekong region), Jen's native province. After checking into the Ninh Kieu Hotel in Can Tho, we visited Jen's orphanage. It was depressing, because all that was left of her orphanage was an empty lot filled with rubble. The government was erecting some new buildings in the general area. We visited the Providence Orphanage after that, Evelyn's orphanage. We met Sister Eugeny, who had cared for her. The Providence Orphanage is still active and serves as a day care center and school, too. It's run by the order of nuns who cared for Evelyn as an infant, under the watchful eye of the government.
Saturday morning we drove back to HCMC and had the day to ourselves. I had some time to think about what had happened so far on the trip, and I felt nothing but guilt. I came back with much more information than most Vietnamese adoptees could ever hope to have, allowing me to find out more about my roots than the other trip-members (and last year's trip-members). And I had actually found someone (Sister Mary Vincent) and something (the maternity hospital) that were close to me. I got to see where I was born. And so far, no one else found anything, except empty shells of buildings, or nothing at all. A few nights before, during dinner, Sister Mary Nelle had said that Jen may have something that I didn't (we were discussing the types and amounts of information that had come over with us during Operation Babylift). She said that Jen had medical records of the first few months of her life in Viet Nam. I said, without thinking, "But I do, too. I have all that stuff. Records, x-rays, immunization charts, everything." Evelyn said, "Sheeze, don't rub it in." I didn't mean to be hurtful when I said that. But after mulling over what she said, and seeing Jen's reaction, I can see how they thought I was trying to be.
But then I thought, "I had nothing to do with any of this...it was all out of my control, so why should I feel guilty?" And why do I still feel guilty? Rationality and logic say that I shouldn't feel guilty, just for that reason alone. But I still feel guilty. Sister Mary Nelle wanted us to share what we felt and what the meeting with our "roots" meant to us. I don't know if I'll ever be able to articulate what was going through my head, when I saw my birthplace, when I saw Sister Mary Vincent, when I cried and cried. It felt good inside for the first time in a long, long time, but a cloud of guilt and self-hate surfaced to hang over my head...
Jen, Tia, Ev, and I ate dinner at the Lemon Grass (04 Nguyen Thiep Street, District 1) Saturday night; when I say that the Lemon Grass was one of the best restaurants we ate at (Thank You, Song!), I think I can speak for the rest of us. We went back to Cong Ty Lamson to get some more lacquerware, and then turned in for the night.
Sunday morning, we caught an early flight to Danang, Song's hometown. After checking into Khach San Thanh Lich (Elegant Hotel, 22A Bach Dang Street), we drove to the Sacred Heart Orphanage, where Tia had spent some time before going to the Thu Duc orphanage in Sai Gon. We met the Sister who had cared for her; one of the other Sisters had copied, by hand, the names, birthdates, and departure dates of over 1600 children who were at Sacred Heart before handing the original records over to the Vietnamese government in 1975/1976. Even more amazing was that Song found Tia's Vietnamese name in the book (Song told me that seeing Tia's name in the book was the happiest moment of the trip for him, that his heart skipped a beat). After lunch, we went to Marble Mountain and then took a swim at China Beach (which was absolutely gorgeous).
Monday morning, we took a 45 minute car ride to Hoi An. We checked into Hoi An Hotel (06 Tran Hung Dao Street) and met for lunch at a floating restaurant. After lunch, I visited the Japanese covered bridge and the Old House of Phung Hung, a 200+ year-old private house, which is now lived in by the family's 8th generation.
We left the tranquil town of Hoi An Tuesday morning for Hue -- the old capital of Viet Nam -- via the Hai Van Pass. After lunch and checking-in at the Thanh Lich Hotel (another Elegant Hotel), we took a Dragon-boat cruise up the Perfume River to the Thien Mu Pagoda. Jen, Sister Mary, Lee, and Song visited the Citadel, a former royal compound of the Nguyen Dynasty. The next day, we toured Tu Duc's Tomb. We had the rest of the afternoon to ourselves, so Evelyn and I took a cyclo to the market in Hue. Our flight to Hanoi was delayed on Thursday, so Thursday morning/afternoon we hung out around the hotel (the highlight there was when some local men challenged me to an arm wrestling contest after seeing my karate shirt).
We didn't arrive in Hanoi until around 18:30 Thursday. We checked into the Saigon Hotel (80 Ly Thuong Kiet Street), grabbed a quick bite to eat at Cha Ca La Vong (107 Nguyen Truong To Street), a restaurant that is famous "home and abroad" (all they served was fish, veggies, and vermicelli noodles), and went to the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre (57 Dinh Tien Hoang Street). Friday we toured the outside of Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum (the inside was closed for renovations), his House on Stilts, and his Museum. After that, we visited the One Pillar Pagoda and the Temple of Literature, where Viet Nam's oldest university is. Song told us that when people think of Viet Nam, they break the country down into 3 parts: Northern, Central, and Southern; they equate the One Pillar Pagoda with Northern Viet Nam, Hue with Central Viet Nam, and the Mekong Delta with Southern Viet Nam. Then we met with Pete Peterson, the U.S. Ambassador in Hanoi. Unfortunately, Song could not get in because he had not gotten permission from his government in time (gotta love bureaucracy). That night, we dined at the Indochine (16 Nam Ngu Street, Hoan Kiem District), one of Hanoi's finest restaurants.
Saturday morning, we awoke and left the hotel for the airport. We said goodbye to Song at the airport, and flew out of Viet Nam at 10:00, departing from Hanoi for Hong Kong, and eventually, America. I said goodbye to Lee in Vancouver, British Columbia, to Tia and Sister Mary in NYC, and to Evelyn and Jen in Washington, D.C.
It was hard, going back to the place of my birth, and being seen as an outsider. Not only did I not know the language, my language, or the culture, my culture, my physical attributes told everyone that I didn't even "look" like I was born in Viet Nam. It has always been assumed that my biological father was an American soldier, and that may be why my skin is a little lighter, my size is a little taller (I'm about average height by American standards). And when I told people in Viet Nam that I was born in Sai Gon, I got looks of doubt and bewilderment. Jen, who was told she looks Korean or Chinese, and Tia, whose biological father was black, had even harder times convincing people they were born in Viet Nam, because their physical attributes said otherwise.
Aside from the emotional strain and heart-strings being pulled on, every other aspect of the trip was fantastic. For me, this was the end of the beginning of a new chapter in my life...I am not going to say that this trip changed me, for better or for worse. The trip back did diminish my feelings of inadequacy and self-hate, in that I got to see, I got to experience, what it must have been like--even though it's displaced 23 years--to have to make the decision of putting your own child, your own flesh and blood, up for adoption.
Thanks to the trip, I appreciate more what I have; to know how fortunate I am; to know how lucky and loved I am, by my biological mother, by my adoptive parents, and by all the people in between, who have never even met me, but did what they could anyway, in order to save the life of another human being. This trip has also made me think about what I could have been if I had not been adopted (not that I haven't thought about that before; now, the feelings are just intensified). A lot of my internal conflicts have been resolved, many questions I had, now answered. But the feelings of guilt remain, lingering, leaving a bad taste in my mouth.