Her life changed forever without her knowing it. Sue Bylund seeks answers and wants to see her Vietnamese mother.
“As the plane ascends
The screeching chaos
I turn to take on last look.
What am I fleeing from?
I cannot yet comprehend.
Where am I going?
God only knows”
Sue Bylund’s poem asks a question with retrospective effect going back 44 years.
She was 36 days old then.
That day, when she and 17 other children were taken out of Vietnam, she was too young to know or understand anything. She now knows a lot more, but fundamental questions remain, and she has been looking for answers for many years.
Sue Bylund was born at the Maternity Hospital Saigon on April 18, 1974 (Vietnam war time), under the name Luu Thi Van, and was taken to an orphanage the same day. A month later, her name was put up for adoption by an Australian couple, Richard and Marlene.
“On May 24, 1974, I was taken to Australia and started a new life under the name Sue Bylund,” she told.
The little Asian girl with dark skin and black hair was nurtured with unconditional love by her pale skinned, blonde haired adopted parents and brothers. They didn’t hide the fact that Sue was adopted and talked openly about it.
“As a child, I could never fully comprehend the depth of tragedy and sorrow I would learn later to associate with losing my birth family and identity in the war.
“It wasn’t until my adoptive father passed away when I was nine years old that I began to understand what it meant to lose someone you loved.”
The suburb of Perth where Sue Bylund grew up was a diverse community with mix ethnicities. Her mother, an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, often invited newly arrived immigrants over, and supported other families who had adopted children overseas.
Living in a multicultural environment, Sue slowly became aware of her different origins, and realized that there were many questions about her journey to Australia that needed answers.
“I soon learnt that you can’t be expected to pour your heart out to every stranger and acquaintance you meet who asks my country of origin and how I came to live in Australia.
“In truth, I was afraid of my connection and history with Vietnam. Afraid of the unknown.”
What really ignited Sue Bylud’s motivation to search for her heritage and look for answers was the birth of her daughter in 1999.
In getting her daughter’s birth certificate, Sue was surprised to find many more documents concerning her adoption that had been kept by the local authorities.
They were Australian legal documents, some translated into English from the original Vietnamese papers, like the commission certificate from the orphanage, the certificate of assurance from Vietnamese lawyers. She thus found that she was born to a woman named Luu Thi Hanh who left her at the Sancta Maria Orphanage in Saigon. An unidentified man was with her then.
The second journey begins
In 2001, 27 years old, Sue Bylund returned to Vietnam to look for her mother and answers to many questions in her mind.
Before returning, she had a chance to talk with a Vietnam War veteran, Graham Edwards, who lost both his legs in the conflict. He had returned to Vietnam for the first time since the war just before Sue met with him. They talked and shared their stories and reflected on how their lives were intertwined.
With Graham’s contacts and all the documents she got from the Western Australian law courts, she embarked on her journey back to Vietnam. Her first destination was the main Maternity Hospital in Saigon’s District 1. Without the ability to speak Vietnamese, or any idea what she was looking for or what to expect, other than to put a place to the address on her documents, she experienced a small miracle.
When the staff understood that she’d once been a baby in the hospital, she was introduced to an elderly nurse, who worked in the maternity ward from 1972-1975.
“She had tears in her eyes…she had looked after hundreds of the babies who had left Vietnam after they had been given to the children’s home and orphanages,” Sue said.
“The elderly nurse had always wondered what had happened to all those children, we had been the first to return to find her. Through a teary smile, she said she happy to see I was healthy and strong, and with a hug and kiss, we parted.”
New clues led Sue Bylund to the People’s Committee of Saigon’s District 1, and here, to her astonishment, an officer produced her birth certificate. In blue biro pen, a line in the bottom right corner indicated that Luu Thi Hanh, her biological mother, resided at “Huong Lo 14, Phu Tho.”
However, what seemed to be valuable information turned out to be a dead end. After a lot of attempts to verify the address, she learnt that the above address was now in Luy Ban Bich Street, Tan Phu District. Unfortunately, visits to the street yielded no further information.
Sue Bylund has returned to Vietnam several times since, but her search has made no progress.
“The area on my paperwork, I understand, was an area during the war where Vietnamese people who had lost their homes or were in transit congregated. So addresses were very general and temporary.”
Her journey is still incomplete and there are many unanswered questions: Is Luu Thi Hanh really her mother and where is she now? Is she alive or dead? Who is her father? Why was she abandoned? What’s the meaning of her name?
“No name or place, date or time,
from which I came to be.
A mothers’ kiss upon my cheek,
did she ever place on me?”
As a child, she’d been filled with anger and hate towards Vietnam. She wished she could conceal her Asian appearance and Vietnamese ancestry from the crowd. But with time, and the unselfish love from her family, she found the strength to continue to fight for the right to be herself.
Although she hasn’t been able to find her birth mother, after her return to Vietnam in 2001, Sue Bylund began networking with adoptees around the world. She shared her knowledge with them, and discussed how they could find positive ways to reconnect with Vietnam and if they wanted to search for their biological families.
She understands the difficulties, both in the outside world and their inner world, adoptees face in their journey to trace back their heritage, as well as the obstacles that have stopped many mothers from finding their long lost children.
“Not every adoptee is confident or willing to search for their families. Adoptees were sent all around the world, to countries in Europe, so far away from Vietnam and so far from cultural influences from Asia.
“From what I understand, the gap is huge between the inner acceptances that they are Vietnamese by blood, but they struggle to find comprehension about how, or what that means to them personally.”
With two other adoptees, Sue Bylund has assisted 20 people in the search for their Vietnamese families.
On April 18, 2019, she and her associates organized the Celebrating Vietnamese Mother event in HCMC to create more opportunities for reconnections and reunions.
It will offer a safe and supportive environment where people can lodge their details and DNA to search for their children or family member, or simply meet up with adoptees to understand their experiences and share their stories.
Sue Bylund feels that she’s more fortunate than many adoptees, as she grew up in a multicultural environment, surrounded by Asian influences, had access to festivals like Tet (lunar New Year festival), saw Vietnamese food everywhere and saw Asian faces everyday.
She is a qualified interior architect, has been running her own design business for 18 years. She currently works with the Victorian School Building Authority. Even though she’s not living in Vietnam, her bond with the motherland is being preserved and continued.
Sue Bylund’s eldest daughter, her “first known blood relative”, is taking a gap year before going off to university in Vung Tau, about two hour car ride east of HCMC, teaching English and assisting at the My Huong Children’s Home.
“She has now lived in Vietnam longer than I have, which is very special. It reminds us that our connections to Vietnam remain strong across the generation, and throughout our entire lives.
“I believe that one day I will be able to know the answers to my questions and I will be in the presence of those who I have loved in absence.”