Shes not your mother: how one text unravelled 48 years of lies
My Huong Le always knew she'd return to Vietnam to find her mother.
She'd made the promise as enemy forces descended on the South in the last days of the Vietnam War and she was bundled on to a plane to Australia.
Almost 30 years later, in March 2004, she took a bus from Ho Chi Minh City to her home province of Can Tho.
"My childhood friend recognised me the minute they saw me and called my mother. She was there within 10 minutes."
Reunited with her mother, My Huong began a new life with her family. But with one text message, 14 years later, she would discover it was all a lie.
Out the back window of the white car, My Huong and her brother watched their sobbing mother fade into the distance. She'd told them they were going on a holiday. But they would not see her again for 30 years.
It was April and North Vietnamese forces were closing in on Saigon. My Huong and her brother were some of the almost 3000 children evacuated from Vietnam in a rescue effort known as Operation Babylift. The supposed "orphans" were adopted out to families in Canada, Europe and Australia.
My Huong was five and her brother was three when they were airlifted to Sydney with the Australian man who was adopting them.
ABC reporters captured footage of the kids as they boarded the plane.
"I couldn't speak any English," My Huong remembers.
"Everything was so foreign to us."
"When I got to Sydney, all I wanted was to be back in Vietnam with my mother. When you're five, of course that's all you want."
"I used to cry myself to sleep every night until I was eight or nine years old."
Her adopted family was dysfunctional and home life was hard. They told her that her birth mother was dead so she'd stop asking after her.
When she was 15, her adoptive mother died.
"After that, I was going through my adoptive father's filing cabinet and I found some letters from my Vietnamese mother to him," she says.
"So I decided to write her a letter and I got a simple fax back, saying 'Mother still alive very happy to hear from you'."
They began to exchange letters but the correspondence became overwhelming for My Huong who was just a teenager.
It wasn't until many years later that she felt ready to use the address again.
In her home village in Can Tho, My Huong waited nervously for her mother to arrive, wondering if she'd recognise her three decades later.
"I knew it was her when I saw her," My Huong says.
"Bawling her eyes out, she looked just like she did when I left."
Her mother took her to see the rest of her relatives and the entire village came out to see her.
As they shared memories, she could remember fragments from her childhood — the alleyway outside her old home, people's faces — and everything seemed to have come full circle. She had come home.
That day, My Huong began a new life with her Vietnamese family. She moved to Can Tho, bought a home, began supporting many of her relatives and spent her time getting to know the people she had lost for so long.
"I never questioned that this was my family," says My Huong. "I had no reason to ever doubt it."
Fourteen years later, My Huong's phone began to ring midway through her workout in a gym in Vung Tau, Vietnam. Her mother called her three times, she didn't answer. Then four calls came through from unknown numbers.
"Then I get a text message, it's a simple message — 'Ho Thi Ich is your mother'."
It made no sense. She put her phone on silent and continued her workout.
But the minute she got home it rang again.
"I knew something wasn't right. I just handed the phone to my cousin and got in the shower."
When her cousin put down the phone, she was in shock.
"She didn't know what to say to me. Then she just says 'you're not my cousin anymore', and then … 'she is not your mother'.
"I cried for three days — not because she wasn't my mother, but because of the lies and deception for 14 years. I was in shock, but I felt a sense of relief."
'My daughter was stolen'
A few months earlier, Ho Thi Ich's granddaughter had come across a documentary about My Huong finding her supposed mother.
There on her screen, was Ich's long missing daughter.
"I didn't give My Huong away, she was stolen," Ich says softly.
After she almost died giving birth, Ich asked her friend to take care of My Huong until she recovered. A widower with two other children to support, Ich had no choice.
But when My Huong was three months old, the friend took her to a new neighbourhood and cut ties with Ich.
"Once I woke up I started to ask around where was my child but nobody would tell me", Ich says.
My Huong grew up believing that the friend was her birth mother, while Ich was kept in the dark about the location of her daughter, until a relative brought her the news that My Huong had been taken to Australia.
"The only thing I could do was just accept it," she says.
"Life during the war was incredibly hard. It was just a matter of enduring and hoping that my daughter has a good life."
When she saw the documentary, Ich was enraged.
"I felt many things. Betrayal, disbelief, confusion, a lot of pain."
"I went to confront [my former friend] and she said to me, 'we are not friends' and 'you gave that child to me, that child does not belong to you anymore'."
Eventually, Ich got hold of My Huong's phone number. A day later, My Huong was in Ich's home in Vung Tau.
"I sat next to her, this little frail woman, like 'Oh my god, she's so tiny and she looks so sick'", says My Huong.
"I was still in shock — this was day two!"
Ich feared My Huong wouldn't accept her after everything that had happened.
"I was so overwhelmed at that time, my relatives were asking me to keep calm but I felt like I might faint," says Ich.
But even before a DNA test, My Huong could feel that Ich was her real mother.
How to find your family after a war
While deception on this scale is not common for Vietnam War adoptees, the process of reconnecting with their past is always complex.
In her experience, the main barrier is the lack of solid information available.
Many records were lost during the war. Others were fabricated in the rush of evacuation.
Some babies were thrown onto rescue planes as gunshot rang through the air.
Paperwork was not a priority as mothers rushed to save their children's lives.
On top of the sketchy paperwork, time is running out.
"The window of opportunity is getting smaller everyday, because the mothers are getting older," says My Huong.
When fellow adoptee, Mike Frailey, was brought to his new family in America, the information about his past was scarce.
"I am told that I was taken by an American nurse, Cherie Clark, who came to Vietnam in 1974 to help war orphans," he says.
"Cherie said she picked me up from an orphanage in Danang. I remember my first name as being Tho, but I can't trust that my paperwork has my actual identity as there was a lot of confusion at the time."
Most searches begin with an assessment of the adoptee's paperwork. Another option is DNA testing. Many adoptees have joined an American DNA network called Family Tree but the issue has been getting Vietnamese parents to contribute DNA.
"I'm trying to get Vietnamese birth mothers involved," says My Huong.
"I'm planning an adoptee reunion in April 2020, 45 years since the end of the Vietnam War. I plan to invite birth mothers who can be DNA tested … I would love to create a database of mothers who have given up children."
My Huong's team reaches out to the Vietnamese community using grassroots tactics from handing out flyers to investing in documentaries for Vietnamese television. She says it's simply a matter of trying everything possible.
Some don't want to find family
Over the years, Mike has watched many of his friends find birth parents. In his experience, finding family usually only leads to more unanswered questions or cultural friction.
"One of the greatest barriers is lack of understanding of the adoptee's new culture," he says.
"More often than not, the birth families will start pressuring the adoptees to give them money as they see Americans as being rich."
My Huong says this lack of understanding can go both ways.
"People don't understand Vietnamese culture and you can't blame them because they've never lived here," she explains.
"For many adoptees, it's about finding your roots, but no matter what, you're going to have to support them because they're your family."
Discouraged by friends' experiences, Mike has put off looking for family but hopes he will one day find out what happened to them.
"It's a lonely feeling to look in the mirror and know there are people in the world who have the same DNA as you …
"But you don't know anything about them or what their lives are like," he says.
Still no answers
Since My Huong's real mother came forward, her false family has cut ties with her.
"They are not interested in me anymore knowing that the financial assistance has dried up," she says.
"I was always willing to reconcile things and if they had apologised and given some concrete answers as to why they lied for so long, they would still be in my life today."
My Huong and her two adopted sons now live with Ich — she says Ich fell in love with the boys the minute she saw them.
"I now have a loving grandmother for my two adopted sons," she says. "These three people are the most important things in my life."
My Huong is focussing on her new family and the two centres for destitute children she works at in Vung Tau — "caring for children is my life's mission", she says.
"I'm so grateful that I have my mother in my life. That is such a precious, miraculous gift, after all that's happened to get to this point."
At 75, Ich is happy to be reunited with her daughter at all.
"This has been a constant pain for all of my life, but now I can die happy," she says.
Words: Zoe Osborne
Photographs: Zoe Osborne and Quinn Ryan Mattingly
Editors: Annika Blau and Leigh Tonkin
Video: ABC archive, edited by Jack Fisher
Any adoptee interested in starting their search or joining the 45-year reunion can contact My Huong through Vietnam Family Search. If you have any information that could assist Mike with his search, email him at email@example.com.