A woman from northern Bac Giang Province who was trafficked to China 28 years ago has finally been able to burn incense at her husband’s alter after being reunited with her family.
Human trafficking victim Tran Thi Chieu’s favorite foods are still local dishes from her home country. Although she’s been away for 28 years, she said that the scenery in her hometown of Nghia Hoa Commune in Lang Giang District is still exactly as it was when she left.
Even though a lot has changed, the 58-year-old woman still remembers every road around her neighborhood. “Now that I’m back in Vietnam, I’ll try to make up [for lost time] with my two children,” she said when returning Vietnam recently.
Pham Xuan Mai, Chieu’s 37-year-old youngest son, remembers vividly the moment he received a call from his mother in China more than a year ago.
When Chieu first saw Mai and his brother Pham Xuan Dinh’s faces on the screen, she immediately burst into tears.
“I didn’t leave you guys on purpose,” she said. “I was tricked and sold in China, and there was no way to reach you.”
It was Mai’s birthday that day and everyone was choked up with emotion.
Chieu worked as a hired laborer in the field to raise her two children so they could go to school. Even though she worked hard, they still lived in a sagging hut and never had enough food to eat. Her husband had died shortly before Mai was born.
In November 1994, several days before her husband’s death anniversary, a nephew named Thang from Lang Son Province’s Yen The District called Chieu to harvest sugarcane for hire.
She accepted the job and went to Lang Son because she wanted to have money to feed her hungry kids.
“My mother left my brother and I a pig, seven sacks of rice and around VND20,000 ($0.85),” said Mai. “She told me that she would be back three days before the anniversary of my father’s death. She told use to wash and eat the rice while she was gone.”
But their mother hadn’t returned by the time the anniversary of their father’s death came around.
Villagers and Chieu’s family thought she was too sad and decided to leave her children behind.
The two kids still thought their mother hadn’t lied to them, so they waited for her for another month until their uncle convinced the boys to move in with him.
“Though months and years have passed, we never hated her,” Mai said.
However, they didn’t know that their mother had been tricked and smuggled into China.
Chieu said that when she went to Lang Son that year, her nephew told her to give him her national ID and money to keep before arriving at the fields to harvest sugarcane. She followed without any doubts.
“That afternoon, I found out I was in a different country when I saw street signs with Chinese characters,” she said.
She was later brought to a brothel with many Vietnamese women. Two men put her and six other women in a car and drove them deep into the forest. This went on for 10 days. The Vietnamese woman was sold to several traffickers before being forced to marry a man six years older than her in China’s Guangdong Province.
TTran Thi Chieu, holding a flower bouquet, poses for a photo with her daughter-in-law and grandchildren at the Mong Cai International Border Gate, Quang Ninh Province, December 22, 2022. Photo courtesy of Chieu
She always yearned to return home. However, every move she made was being watched by her Chinese husband and his family.
She lived in a house surrounded by forests and mountains. Meanwhile, all she could do was work in the fields and stay at home as she was stuck in a foreign land with no money, no ID, and no Chinese-speaking ability.
“I missed my family so dearly. I was angry because I was gullible and got tricked into being trafficked to China. But all I could do was cry,” the mother said.
She was lucky that her Chinese husband was not an abusive person. But when Chieu said she wanted to go back to Vietnam, the man asked her to have the baby and take care of it until the girl goes to college.
In 2004, after being forced to be a wife for 10 years, she had a daughter.
After 28 years, Mai’s daughter went to college in 2021, and her husband’s family kept their promise and called the Vietnamese Embassy to find a way to get her back home.
She didn’t have any proof of who she was, but she knew her former address and all her children’s birthdays. She was also able to name everyone on both sides of her family.
Through social media, she was able to get in touch with a taxi driver in Hanoi whose sister had also been tricked into being sold to China.
The driver went to Mai’s relatives’ house in Nghia Hoa Commune to help her family reconnect through social media and obtain the needed information for her to reapply for a passport in China.
After their mom left, Mai and his brother lived with their biological uncle. The uncle was poor, so he took care of his two grandchildren until they finished eighth and ninth grades. Then both got jobs to support themselves.
Mai and Dinh worked as hired helpers in both the northern and southern regions to make a living. At almost 40 now, they both have families with wives and kids. They make up for the bad things that happened to them as kids by loving their small families.
“We’re proud that we manage to live a good life,” Mai said.
When Mai heard that his mother could go back to Vietnam at the end of 2022, he took a day off to bring his sister-in-law, his daughter and his nephew and nieces to pick Chieu up at the Mong Cai International Border Gate in Quang Ninh Province.
“My brother couldn’t ask for a day off, and my wife couldn’t go because she was pregnant,” Mai said.
The day they picked up Chieu was a day after her husband’s death anniversary.
The brothers’ families made some simple dishes so that Chieu could burn incense and “talk” to their father when she got back.
On the morning of December 22, Mai drove the packed car to the border gate and the family was reunited. He took a picture of his the family reunion and posted it on social media with the caption: “After 28 years apart, I was able to see my mother again.”
Mai (L) with his mother and brother on December 27, 2022. Photo courtesy of Mai
Since that day, the brothers are still regularly congratulated by friends, neighbors and family. Theirs is a well-known story around town. And it’s brought them closer together. They live in two different houses but now they visit each other much more regularly that they used to.
Though they are living in two different houses, they have been visiting each other more often.
Dong Van Thuan, Chairman of Nghia Hoa Commune People’s Committee, said that Mai used to have a local household registration, but because she had been gone for so long, the government and everyone else who knew her thought she had d run away from home.
“When receiving the news that she was trafficked to China and is now reunited with her family, the government sent village officials and police to visit, encourage and congratulate her on her reunion,” he said.
Her two children and relatives filed a complaint with authorities accusing Chieu’s nephew of trafficking his aunt. They are demanding justice for their mother.
“We don’t want any more families to suffer the pain of separation like what our family had experienced,” Mai said.
“My father died, mother was not around, but my brother and I lived properly and did not harm anyone. So why should we let such a cruel and evil person [Chieu’s trafficker] live comfortably and happily?” he continued.
Hundreds of thousands of women from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar have been smuggled or taken to China to wed local men, activists say. Some end up happily married, but many others suffer violence and forced labor.
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