The forgotten foreign children of Dien Bien Province

By Thach Lam Son - Mai Thanh Hai, Thanh Nien News

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Tran Van Hung thinks his father was called "Gffacle."
The man was an Italian soldier deployed by the French to Dien Bien Phu, the site of the historic battle Vietnam won on May 7, 1954.
After surrendering to Vietnamse revoluntary forces, Gffacle took a job as a railway worker.
While repairing track in the Nghe An Province, he met and fell for Hung’s mother Tran Thi Lan who had joined a youth volunteer unit providing support in the area.
Lan agreed to marry the man at her organization's urging.
Gffacle’s Vietnamese was bad, but the couple managed to have four children and a nice life.
In 1970, he returned home through a program organized for deserters of the French Foreign Legion and their families.
As he had a wife and two children in Italy and Italian law did not permit polygamy, Gffacle left without his Vietnamese family.
The family was then moved to a camp, which is now the social welfare center of Phu Tho Province, more than 120 kilometers outside Hanoi.
Without his father, Hung's mother gave her children her surname.
Social prejudice at the time didn’t give afford them many chances and Hung dropped out of school in the second grade to help his mother and sister take care of his younger brothers.
Despite his efforts, the hardness of their lives overtook a sister and a brother.
Hung said his father often sent letters and pictures of his family in Italy.
His mother didn’t speak Italian, so she had to walk some ten kilometers to ask a company director for translations.
“I don’t know what my father said in the letters, but she came back crying more and more each time,” Hung said.
He said he wants to look for his father, but the letters carrying his name and address were all lost to in a massive flood in 1986.
No agency has agreed to help him. All he's left with is the name “Gffacle.”
The lost Moroccans
There are three children of Moroccan deserters left in the area, and locals still preface their names with the word “tay,” meaning western.
Officials from Phu Tho social welfare center said it used to assist around 300 wives of French legionnaires, but many rejoined their husbands during the 1970s or moved elsewhere in Vietnam.
Le Van Binh, one of the children, still burns with the idea of visiting his father’s home and getting to know that side of his family, though the man died in Vietnam.
Recalling family stories, Binh said his father Mzid Ben Ali was abducted at a festival in Morocco and flown to Vietnam to fight for France in late 1953.
Ali, the story goes, arrived blindfolded and stepped off into a remote mountain area which erupted in gunfire.
He and several French soldiers escaped soon afterward and Vietnamese forces agreed to take them in.
They were brought to Hanoi and put to work on a tea plantation, where Ali fell for Binh’s mother Le Thi Mui, another youth volunteer.
She also married with him with the encouragement of her unit.
Binh was named Mohamet Ben Larit when he was born, followed by his brothers Mohamet Ben Barama and Mohamet Ben Aptala.
“My family was happy, though my father was reserved and knew little Vietnamese,” he said.
The family was moved out of Hanoi during US bombings in 1968, and his father fell ill and died in a hospital, soon afterward.
“A part of the Red River stood between my house and the hospital. The water was big and rough, so my mother could only scream helplessly on this side while people organized a funeral for him on the other side,” Binh said.
They only had a chance to pay tribute at his tomb when the waters receded several months later.
The family moved to Phu Tho in 1971 and lost track of the tomb as they didn’t have a chance to visit it often.
After his father died, his mother gave them all Vietnamese names.
“Every person is born with an instinct to return to his or her fatherland,” the sobbing Binh said.
He said the Vietnamese government in 1972 launched a program to send foreign soldiers who deserted or surrendered and their children back home.
His family was on the list. 
His father had let his family in Morocco know of their existence before he died, and his grandfather had contacted the Moroccan embassy in Vietnam for support.
Mui insisted on staying in Vietnam and only agreed to allow Binh and a sibling leave for Morocco.
But they could not leave at the last minutes as the authorities said they didn’t have a “guaranteeing person.”
Binh dropped out of school in the third grade and was drafted in 1984.
He married a Vietnamese woman three years later and they had a daughter and son.
Ali's line has spread to two other families, Binh said, and now there are nearly 30 Vietnamese-Morrocan children and grandchildren.
Binh said he has been filing applications to go again for nine years.
“Over the past nine years, all of Ali's children and grandchildren carrying Maroccan blood have been waiting for the day when we can unite with our fathers’ family.
“My brother, Duong, just died of illness. Before he closed his eyes, he asked when we would get to go to our father’s home.”
Where to?
Ta Phu Binh, another child of war, never knew his father’s name or where he came from.
Binh said he was told that he was the product of a forbidden love between his mother Ta Thi Thai and a foreign soldier based in Hanoi between 1948 and 1949.
Locals refered to his father as “Doi,” a Vietnamese name.
Binh was born in late 1949. His mother later told him his father had moved to Hoa Binh Province outside Hanoi in early 1950.
A black comrade of his father's returned in late 1951 to deliver news of his death. The soldier asked to take Binh along, but his mother refused to let him go.
Binh said his dark skin, thick lips and curly hair made him different from other children in Vietnam and he was discriminated against as a result.
He didn’t receive a proper education either. At 17, Binh joined the Vietnamese forces to fight the US-led war. He served in the army until 1990 when he resigned as a captain.
Saved from the street
Luong Thi Lao, now lives in Thai ethnic village along the Vietnam – Lao border in Dien Bien Province.
She has no idea where she came from, only that she was always much bigger than others her age.

People have told her since she was little that she exhibits western traits and may be the daughter of a French soldier who passed through the area during the war.
Her adoptive mother Luong Thi Khon told her she scooped her up as a baby during a Vietnamese attack on the city of Dien Bien Phu in April 1954.
No one ever came looking for her and her mother had to endure rumors that she'd had Lao out of wedlock, married late and had no children of her own.
Lao grew up lonely.
At the age of 32, a Vietnamese man asked for her hand in marriage only to run off when she was two months pregnant with a boy.
Her son is now 28 years old and married with a child.
They all live together in the most tattered house in the village.
Lao said they’ve been working hard, but feeding more mouths with the same small field hasn't been easy.
“It’s so sad,” she said of the fact that poverty and anonymity seem to pass from generation to generation.
Let’s call it home
Luong Van Dam is not much bothered by the need to know his father.
He grew up the village next to Lao’s. His name means "black" in Thai.
His father did not surrender to the Viet Minh and his mother was not a youth volunteer on the front.
She was an 18 year old girl living near an important French base in Dien Bien Phu in 1953.
His father liked her and visited her family every evening, helping with anything he could, until they agreed to let him join them.
Legionnaires stood in for his father's family during a small wedding ceremony at her house.
She never learned his name of where he came from, as neither one could spoke a common language.
While pregnant with Dam, her husband rushed home one afternoon, and made hurried signals that he had to go.
Vietnamese forces launched an attack; he left a note and cried before running away.
Dam did not got to school. He’s spent his life farming and caring for his six children.
An old army uniform and a bronze sticky rice pot him that his father gave his mother are all he has left of the man. A few other trinkets and the note he never understood were buried by the mother.
“Knowing my origins is no longer a big concern to me," he said. "I’ve taken Dien Bien as my homeland.”

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