Mother and Child Reunion - in Vietnam

Tn the final days of the Vietnam War, Tran Ngoc An risked her life to get her two sons safely to Saigon's airport. Returning for her parents, she was trapped as Saigon fell in April 1975. They grew up orphans in America. But she never gave up hope of finding them

By Ron Gluckman /in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

TRAVEL AROUND VIETNAM THESE DAYS  and the idea of "celebrating" the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon quickly seems rather absurd. People speak of sacrifice, lost loved ones and tremendous suffering. Few families escaped the carnage. 

For Tony Nong, orphaned in the last days of the war and brought up in California, the anniversary is no time for celebration. But Nong is here nonetheless, and unlike many hard-luck tales you hear in Vietnam, his has a happy ending. 

Nong, now 32, was a scared seven-year-old when he esacaped Vietnam in the mad, dying days. It was a dark time for many in South Vietnam, including his widowed mother, who packed Tony his brother Tim, one year younger, off to Saigon's airport as she and her infant daughter went off to attempt a rescue of Tony's grandparents. She never returned. 

Blame the curfew and the chaos. Like the entire country once known as South Vietnam and millions of other residents, she simply vanished as the book was closed on a people and a nation April 30, 1975. 

So, Tony and Tim started life anew as orphans in the United States, where aid workers located an aunt in California. There they grew up in San Luis Obispo and Salinas, in the small-town style of America: school, scouts and sports. The honors piled up. They grew and prospered. But there was a void in their lives. 

Then, in January 1991, in the middle of the night, a call came from Canada. The trembling voice on the line was their mother. She was alive.

 "At first, I didn't believe it," says Tony. "You have to understand, there were so many scams going on. I wanted to believe it, but I couldn't be sure. After all those years, we thought she was dead."

But "Ann" Tran Ngoc An was very much alive. For 16 years, she had devoted herself to finding her sons. After a stint in the communist regime's re-education camps, Ann went into the tourist business, where she was an instant success. Profit, though, was not the point of this mother's business plan. She wanted to meet foreigners. Ann told them all about her boys, and pleaded for help locating them. 

The launch of doi moi reforms at the end of the 1980s made it easier for former residents to return. One Vietnamese-American took pity on his tour guide. Back in the USA, he browsed some phone books and quickly located the Nongs, who had kept the family name, which is unusual in Vietnam. A phone call was arranged through Canada, since the old enemy states still had no phone links. Simply taking the call was a risky proposition in communist Vietnam, but Ann didn't care. "All I wanted was my boys back," she says. 

Nowadays, she has them. Both visited Vietnam in 1992. Tim later returned to America to continue his education, but Tony stayed on. 

Now, he's the driving force behind Ann's Tourist Company, one of Vietnam's largest independent tour operators. With 35 full-time employees and offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the company has been growing by double-digits each year.

 "Coming back was the greatest decision that I ever made," says Nong, who embodies the spirit of reconciliation. "It's amazing to be back watching, and participating, in the transformation of a nation."

Tony has also steered the firm into new directions, such as the production of ceramic tiles which he exports in limited quantities to California. High tariffs hold back the business, but he expects it to boom once the much-delayed U.S.-Vietnam trade agreement is finally formalized. 

"The outlook is great," he says. Likewise for Tony himself. "It's been a learning process," he admits, "but the experience has been very positive. Back in the U.S., I always dreamed about running my own business. Here, I can meet with company presidents and government officials. I have a feel like I'm having impact. It's fulfilling." 

Not that there haven't been enormous challenges. Returnees, called Viet Kieu, have been a major source of revenue for Vietnam, which still ranks among the world's poorest nations. Last year, $1.2 billion was sent back just through official bank channels about equal to total development aid from 45 international donors. But returnees have also been subject to intense scrutiny and suspicion. 

Many claim to have been victimized by deceitful partners and changing rules. "It can be frustrating," Nong admits. "There are bottlenecks and hassles. Sometimes it feels like you're talking to the walls. This is definitely not for everyone."

Like other American businessmen, Nong awaits a bilateral trade agreement between the U.S. and Vietnam. It would give U.S. firms greater access to Vietnam markets, and duties would drop for most Vietnamese products shipped to the U.S.. After years of negotiation, the deal remains on hold. Vietnam is the only country that America has normal relations with, but no trade agreement. 

American officials see encouraging signs in renewed discussion that followed the March 2000 visit of Defense Secretary William Cohen, the first in his post to tour Vietnam since the end of the war. Immediately after the visit, the Vietnamese side sent a letter requesting clarification of some points in the pending pact to US Ambassador Douglas "Pete" Peterson. "It's the first we've heard from them since the talks stalled," says the ambassador. "Its something weve been waiting for for six months. We consider it an excellent signal."

Peterson is much more downbeat up war celebrations, which have been staged in numerous cities that fell as the northern forces marched on Saigon, where massive celebrations were planned for April 30. The world's media has also been drawn back to Vietnam, which was so much in the news a quarter of a century ago, and shaped so many lives. "Nobody who hasn't been in war can understand," says Tim Page, a famous photographer touring the country with "Requiem," an exhibit of gripping photographs by colleagues who died covering the conflicts in Indochina going back nearly half a century. "It stays with you forever."

Peterson, who served in and was a prisoner of war during that same conflict - called "The American War" here - is more diplomatic as he tries to put his nation's best foot forward. "There will be no celebrations by us," he says. "Honestly, I dont know what we would commemorate. Instead, well mark the fifth anniversary of relations this July." The US restored diplomatic ties with Vietnam in 1995, ending a lengthy embargo on American businessmen in the country. The trade deal would be real reason to cheer.

 "The impact would be enormous," says Nong, who pays over 50 percent duties on tiles shipped to the U.S.. That compares to 6 percent charged on Mexican tiles under the old Most Favored Nation trade status that Vietnam could also obtain.

 "This would be a big business," he says. "And it's not the only one." 

Vietnam has an enormous, well-educated population, that is among the world's youngest another legacy of the war. A third of the population is under 15 years of age, and 60 percent are 30 or under. It's the kind of consumer base that brand managers dream about, but there isn't enough work to go around, and over one million job seekers enter the labor pool each year. 

With wages $150-$200 per month, Vietnam desperately needs diversification. The launch of doi moi reforms at the end of the 1980s, prompted many analysts to predict that Vietnam would become Asia's next tiger. Yet the economy has failed to bloom. Many blame the slow pace of reform by the entrenched communist regime. 

Recent moves to encourage investment by Viet Kieu are seen as promising signs. The government has liberalized laws on purchase of property by returnees. Former residents also now pay the same low prices for transportation as locals. This may seem a token measure, as returnees can well afford to pay the higher prices that help subsidize local travel. Still, it's part of the healing process. 

It also helps ease the carpetbagger image. So does the commitment of returnees like Nong, who spends half the year abroad, promoting tourism. It's one growth industry. Vietnam expects to welcome two million visitors this year. 

"I travel around and tell people about Vietnam. It's important to get your image out there, which is one thing I can do," says Nong. "Vietnam is really a hand-held kind of tourism. It needs to build up and be promoted." 

Nong aims to do just that, building up the family business. It's already come a long way. When he arrived in Vietnam, his mother still had to run down the block to send off faxes. When they bought their first van, he remembers carting sacks of cash to the local agent and spending hours counting the huge piles of Vietnamese dong. 

Nowadays, the company claims air-conditioned offices and a fleet of modern vehicles. But much of the work remains the same. 

"It's building trust and maintaining your commitment," says Nong, who adds: "The key is patience. That, and believing in yourself." 

It's something he inherited from his mother, who never gave up hope..

Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who is based in Hong Kong, but who roams around Asia for a number of media outlets including MSNBC, which ran a number of his stories from Vietnam in the run-up to the 25th anniversary of the end of the war in April 2000.

Photo by Ira Chaplain, who is also based in Hong Kong

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