One night in 1977, strong winds blew the roof off a house during a thunderstorm. Five children cowered underneath a bed in fear. Mother was off taking their sick father to the local clinic. All they had for company was a grapefruit given by a neighbour.
Not long after, the mother, Pham Thi Lien, lost the house in Hai Duong Province’s Kim Thanh District. It had to be sold to meet her husband Tran Van Trang’s medical expenses. He had been suffering from a stomach ailment for years, needing frequent treatment.
After they sold the house, the poor family left their hometown and moved to northern Lang Son Province, where they were told they could find a stable livelihood.
Trang and Lien (front) and their sons behind, from left to right: Truong, Thanh, Canh, Ty. Photo by VnExpress/Phan Duong.
The seven-member family begged for food on the way to the promised land. As they passed Bac Ninh Province, Trang suffered another attack of acute pain.
Moved by the family’s plight, many people advised Lien to give up some of her children for adoption. Desperate to save her children from starvation and have enough food to eat, Lien decided to give her twin sons Thanh and Canh to two families. She was also desperate to get some money for her husband’s treatment.
Thanh was given to a family in Bac Giang and Canh to one in Bac Ninh. Lien carefully noted down her sons’ new addresses, wanting to reunite with them later.
Later, her second and fifth children also separated from the family, sent to work as house help with other families.
Reduced to three, the family went on to Lang Son, trying to make a living in different places.
Where am I?
One of Tran Van Canh’s enduring childhood memories is of waking up one winter morning and bursting into tears on seeing a strange woman instead of his mother and siblings. He was five then.
But he had food to eat, hot water to bathe in and new clothes to wear. He got used to living with his adoptive parents in Bac Ninh Province’s Tien Du District. His name was changed to Duc. When they adopted him, his adoptive parents had not had any child after 11 years of marriage. The father, a military man, had a decent income to bring up his new son in reasonable comfort.
Surprisingly, the couple was able to give birth after Canh started living with them. In three years, the mother gave birth to three babies, and Canh got busy caring for his new siblings.
When Canh was in grade 11, a woman told him she was his blood mother. His adoptive parents, actively looking for Canh’s family, believed what the woman said and let their son follow her to Kim Mon Commune in Kim Thanh District, northern Hai Duong Province.
“All I could remember was that I had older brothers, the house had a coconut tree and a pond. The family had all of these, too, incidentally,” Canh, now 48, recalled.
But he soon realized that was not his real family, since their real son had been lost in a different situation. He continued to live with them and got married with a local woman.
He was 30 when he left the family and headed south, after getting divorced.
“When I arrived (in the south), I had VND20,000 ($0.87) – ten notes of VND1,000 and two notes of VND5,000. I felt alone and wept in the middle of the night.”
Thanh (L) and Canh. Photo by VnExpress/Phan Duong.
So near, yet so far
Canh did not know that his blood parents and siblings were living just eight kilometers away, in the same district as his “mistaken parents” in Hai Duong Province.
He went on to work as a carpenter and painter worker for eight years before getting married to a woman from the northern province of Thai Binh when he was 37.
“There was melancholy on his face. Often he was physically present, but his mind was lost,” said Nguyen Thi Luyen, Canh’s wife, who felt her husband’s loss every day.
She encouraged Canh to find his roost, but after accepting the wrong parents once, he was wary.
However, in 2007, Canh wrote a letter to a television program that helped people find their lost family members, “Nhu Chua He Co Cuoc Chia Ly” (As If There Was No Separation).
Trang and Lien had returned to their hometown in Hai Duong after spending a decade in Lang Son Province. During that period, the couple had kept in touch with their sons’ adoptive families, hoping their children would find them when they were grown up.
“About Canh, I had not been worried much when sending him because I had his new parents’ commitment paper and full address. But later, when I returned, I realized they’d given me the wrong address,” said Lien, 74, remembered.
Once a year, she visited Bac Ninh and went to surrounding areas to look for Canh. Her grownup children joined their mother in searching for him.
“I began searching for him since I was 17. I kept looking till I was 30. It hurt a lot thinking about my brother, not knowing where he was, how he was… even if he was still alive,” said Tran Van Truong, 52.
Tran Van Thanh, Canh’s twin brother, returned to his biological parents when he was 25 and also joined the search.
“When I was sick, I thought perhaps my twin brother was sick, too. I could return to my family, why couldn’t he?”
In the summer of 2019, Truong called all of his brothers and embarked on another search for Canh, starting at the Bac Ninh Station and searched for Canh in places.
Truong later received a phone call from his younger brother, saying he “had found a man who looks nearly like Canh.”
The four brothers immediately set out to meet the man, but he looked different from Thanh.
They continued their search, but did not have any luck.
The family had also sent a letter to “Nhu Chua He Co Cuoc Chia Ly” program in August 2007. Several months ago, they called Lien’s family several times to verify some information.
Canh who’d lost his phone and relocated to Thai Binh Province, could not be reached by the TV program until a couple of months ago.
When he heard that is family has been found, Canh was thrilled, but still wary. He said he wanted DNA test done to confirm the truth.
The “Nhu Chua He Co Cuoc Chia Ly” would not carry out such tests when all information and data matched and was verified to be accurate, but they broke their tradition and gave Canh the test he wanted. Test results all doubt from his mind.
Canh and Lien visit Canh’s brothers in Sapa Town in June, 2020. Photo courtesy of Tran Van Canh.
In June, their reunion occurred in Ho Chi Minh City. Canh and his wife went there from Thai Binh and Lien’s family from Hai Duong.
After 43 years, there were a lot of smiles, tears, hugs and stories to share.
“I was shocked. I was happy and my heart was pounding. If I had known I had a twin brother, I would not have asked for the DNA test,” Canh said after seeing that Thanh looks exactly like him.
In just one month, Canh’s life has been filled with more happiness than he has experienced in his 48 years. He has spent most of his time with his parents in Hai Duong and his brothers in the northern provinces of Bac Giang and Sapa Town in Lao Cai Province.
He feels more connected with his twin brother. They share the same sense of humor, eating preferences, habits, and even headaches and runny noses.
“On the first day, your father-in-law thought I was his son-in-law,” Canh jibed.
Thanh responded: “And your wife thought I was her husband.”