A local newspaper has closely followed the exodus of Mekong Delta women who opted out of rural poverty by marrying abroad.
The first wave of this coverage focused on stories of women who suffered abuse from families in Taiwan and South Korea that expected them to renounce their economic independence and commit full-time to caring for aging in-laws and children as Confucian wives.
More recently, Tuoi Tre reported on the sad return of Mekong Delta divorcees who struggle with the poverty they fled and laws that treat their children as foreigners.
A tourist in the motherland
To Thi My Xuan grew up in Vi Thang, a small town South-West of Can Tho in the Mekong Delta Province of Hau Giang.
Around 10 years ago, Xuan moved to South Korea to marry. She gave birth to her daughter, Hye In three years later.
Xuan's marriage to her Korean husband failed, prompting her to take her daughter back to Vietnam.
Seven years have passed and Xuan has yet to receive documentary confirmation of her divorce. She claimed her South Korean husband is totally unreachable by telephone.
On paper, she remains a married woman with a foreigner who must routinely apply for a tourist visa to stay.
Nguyen Van Kinh, deputy chairman of Vi Thang Commune People’s Committee, said Hye In will not be exempt from school tuition fees like other children in the commune when she attends the 1st grade class.
Primary students in Vietnam do not have to pay school tuition fees if their families are deemed "poor households."
But, though poor, Xuan is also unable to obtain subsidized health insurance or vaccinations for her child, he added.
Hye In is not alone.
Vi Thang Commune, where the mother and daughter reside, is home to 11 children who were brought home from South Korea, China and Taiwan by their Vietnamese mothers.
The children aren't considered Vietnamese citizens and aren't protected by Vietnamese law.
As such, they do not enjoy educational and healthcare subsidies like their peers.
Approximately 200 such children reside in Can Tho, a centrally-governed city in the Mekong Delta.
The municipal authorities say they've issued regulations to facilitate conditions for the children to go to school and receive healthcare.
However, the regulations stipulate that the children will have to wait until they turn 18 to obtain citizenship.
“It's too long for them to wait, given the fact they are children without fathers and their mothers are poor,” said Nguyen Thi Phuong Thu, an official of the Can Tho City Department of Justice.
Their mothers face financial and romantic difficulties.
In addition to all the added costs of raising their children, many remain married on paper. Faced with a desperate situation, some have opted to leave their children with relatives and head to big cities in search of work.
Tran Thi Hong Viet, a former spokesman for the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Court, said Vietnamese women usually return home without papers.
Some can't even recall their foreign husbands’ addresses.
“How can we [the court] ask other countries to help obtain a divorce if they don’t have their husbands' addresses?” she asked.
As an increasing number of Vietnamese women marrying Chinese men, Viet anticipates yet another wave of returning mothers and their kids, which could create educational, health care and social welfare problems.
According to the Vinh Long Province People’s Court, since early this year, three local women have sought divorces from Chinese nationals and all three failed to produce marriage certificates or any other supporting documents.
Tuoi Tre reporters tracked down a number of Vietnamese women who said they married Chinese husbands in remote villages; nearly all claimed they'd had their passports, marriage certificates and children's birth certificates seized to prevent them from fleeing their abusive spouses.
Many more remain in China, they claimed, because they believe their husbands' control of their legal documents precludes them from having any legal recourse.
Others fled their husbands’ houses, but were forced to return after they failed to find their way out of China. Those women were humiliated and tortured by the husbands even more than before.
Those who managed to escape back to Vietnam are still considered married women.
'Doomed to be miserable'
Lawyer Ha Hai of the Ho Chi Minh City Bar Association said that any reasonable person would pity these women.
But when they return to Vietnam, they find no mercy from stringent procedural rules that prevent them from divorcing or remarrying or raising their children as anything other than tourists.
“It's as if these women are doomed to be miserable whether at home or abroad,” Hai said.
Local law enforcement authorities are partly to blame, Hai said, for failing to control mixed marriages, leading to an exodus of brides bound for foreign countries without adequate papers, preparation or legal protections.
Son Nu Pha Ca, a judge with Vinh Long Province People’s Court, said some newly-issued regulations aimed to tighten the control on mixed marriages are very necessary, but they won't ensure that these virtual mail order brides won't wind up miserable.
“We need regulations to help the women and their mixed-blood children find a safe haven here in Vietnam,” she said.