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Returned family of boat people struggles for identity in Vietnam

May 12, 1997

EDITOR’S NOTE _ In March, Nguyen Thi Hien and her family were flown back to Vietnam after nine years in a Hong Kong refugee camp. An Associated Press reporter traveled back to Vietnam with the family. Six weeks later, he offers a follow-up on their re-entry to their homeland.



Associated Press Writer

HAIPHONG, Vietnam (AP) _ Nine years ago, Nguyen Thi Hien and her family were boat people lost in the South China Sea. Now they’re adrift in a sea of paperwork.

They’re back in Vietnam with less than the little they fled with _ not even their names. A bureaucrat’s misspelling of a name when they returned has obliterated them from the communist government’s all-important registry.

Hien, her husband Hoang Duc Hung and their three children came back to Vietnam six weeks ago, their dream of asylum in the West having died in a Hong Kong refugee detention camp.

Their latest troubles began minutes after Vietnam Airlines Flight 7911 brought them and more than 100 other boat people to Hanoi on March 21.

The spelling of Hung’s name was botched when the Interior Ministry registered him, and the family became lost in Vietnam’s Byzantine bureaucracy. Because of the mistake, Hung cannot get back the identity papers that all Vietnamese must carry.

Without the papers, Hung and Hien can’t get a job, can’t rent a house, can’t put their children in school. Camped in Hien’s mother’s two-room home in the industrial port city of Haiphong, they’re as idle today as they were for nine years in the Hong Kong camp.

``All we want is to integrate into normal life, but it isn’t that easy,″ Hien said. ``In my head, all I can think of is a home.″

Hung spends his days pleading with local officials to sort out the red tape for getting his name corrected so he can begin rebuilding his life.

``There are limits to what we can do,″ said Tran Tuan, a local Haiphong People’s Committee official who works with returning boat people. ``We have no regulations to deal with this problem.″

The family’s return was part of a huge U.N.-led effort to resolve the boat people saga, and was based on Vietnam’s promise to help the returnees adjust to their new lives without persecution.

Hien hasn’t been persecuted. But life as a non-person, cooped up with 14 relatives in a storefront home, isn’t easy.

``I have this sadness about failing to reach my dreams,″ she said. ``But the day-to-day worries of life here push the sadness down.″

Her 2-year-old son perched on her lap, Hien fumbled nervously for a cup of tea and sank back on a rotting wood plank that serves as bed by night, couch by day. She wore an oversized red-and-black jacket. Her brown, downturned eyes gave her a melancholy air.

``I’m still very confused,″ said Hien, 34. ``I’m not sure how things are going to go. It looks like it’s going to be very difficult.″

Hien’s ordeal began in February 1988, during the time when hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese were fleeing their country by boat to escape a looming economic collapse.

Her husband, an out-of-work ship welder, sold their home for the equivalent of $450, and they packed a few belongings and their children onto a weather-beaten fishing boat and headed for Hong Kong.

They gambled everything to escape Vietnam. Hung became estranged from his parents and friends. For many who stayed behind and lived through the hyperinflation and mass unemployment of the 1980s, those who fled were little better than rats jumping ship.

``Our neighbors were kind for the first few days,″ Hien said of their return. ``But they don’t want to get too involved.″

Tuan, who has worked with returning boat people for years, said the government officially welcomes returnees and tries to discourage discrimination. But it can’t enforce social norms, he added.

Given a choice, employers aren’t going to hire people who fled, he said.

In a spartan reception room overseen by a bust of the late communist leader Ho Chi Minh, Hien visited Tuan to seek his guidance through the bureaucratic maze. She was clearly wasting her time. Tuan gave a sympathetic chuckle and shrugged off Hien’s request for help without a word.

For 42-year-old Hung, homeless and penniless, the one consolation is his mother’s forgiveness.

``I was angry when they left,″ said Dang Thi Than, 66. ``But you can’t stay mad at your own children. They need help now.″

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