Hope Ettore from California, the U.S., smiles as she steps out of the car. The 51-year-old is holding up her phone to capture the joyous reunion after the two had been apart for 18 years.
"I love you," Nguyen Thi Lien, 37, sobs as she hugs Samuel.
Samuel Ian Ettore and his biological mother, Nguyen Thi Lien of Binh Phuoc Province, reunite for the first time on August 17, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Tam
She had been grieving her child's death for 18 years, but when she sees Samuel's eyes, nose and other facial features, which are just like her husband’s, she knows instantly this is her son.
Despite not understanding what she is saying, Samuel, whose Vietnamese name is Nguyen Le Hung, pats her on the shoulder.
Lien says she could not sleep the night before, worried about her child's willingness to let her hug her and angry at herself for not being able to raise him.
"But when I saw him, I ran up to hug him. It was indescribable happiness."
Hope walks over to comfort and hug Lien, who is crying inconsolably. She describes the reunion as a real-life dream and urges Lien not to hold herself responsible for the family's decision to leave Samuel in the hospital.
"I'm glad Samuel is finally reunited with his biological family, which is the best 18-year-old birthday gift I could ever give him," she says.
Samuel begins university this year.
In 2004 Lien was expecting twins when her membranes ruptured, causing her to give birth prematurely in the sixth month. Two boys were born with immune deficiency and hemangiomas. Doctors had to transfer the two children from Phu Rieng Hospital to Dong Xoai Hospital and then to Children's Hospital No. 1 in HCMC, where they were placed in incubators.
Lien remembers having no strength after giving birth and lying motionless on the hospital bed, tears streaming down her cheeks because she could not see her children's faces.
"People have predicted ever since that my two children will have unhappy lives as they were born when it was raining cats and dogs outside," she says.
Her husband, Le Xuan Hung, was in charge of child care in the days that followed. Because the twins needed to stay in incubators, Hung returned to Binh Phuoc and abandoned them at the hospital because the family was poor and could not afford the treatment.
He went back to the hospital more than a month later, but the children had already been taken away.
When he inquired about the whereabouts of his children, he was informed that the older one had been sent to an orphanage in HCMC's Go Vap District.
The hospital was unable to locate the younger child, leaving Hung unsure if he was alive or dead.
The family also paid several visits to the orphanage to take back their child, but the staff warned them his illness was severe and he would die without treatment abroad.
In 2005 Hope and her husband visited the orphanage and expresses a desire to adopt Samuel and take him back to the U.S. for treatment. He was 16 months old at the time.
She could only helplessly look at an old photo of her newborns whenever she missed them and hope that one day they would return.
She says: "I asked my brother in Saigon several times to help find information about my child, but it was futile. I was heartbroken and felt guilty for being a weak mother incapable of caring for her children."
Samuel's grandmother, Nguyen Thi Tuyen, went to a fortune teller in the hope of finding the children, but she was told both had died.
"Without hope, I returned home and burned clothing, books, toys, and other items made of votive paper for my grandsons," the 75-year-old recalled.
Vietnamese people have a tradition of burning votive paper in the form of money, houses, cars and iPhones, among others as offerings for their dead relatives.
Hope and her husband were getting treatment for Samuel on the other side of the world for his various ailments including tumors on his face.
He underwent five facial surgeries and two eye surgeries to regain normal vision and appearance.
They informed Samuel about his origins when he was old enough to understand.
He says: "My ancestors have always piqued my interest. My mother informed me that my biological parents wished for me to have a second chance at life, which made me desperate to find them. They must be missing me and excited to see me again."
Over the years Hope repeatedly asked a Vietnamese person in the U.S. affiliated to Kids Without Borders to find her child’s family. She knew little about Samuel's biological parents other than their names and hometown.
She says her one last wish was to find Samuel's biological parents because her breast cancer has spread and she does not have much time left.
She posted his information online in two languages at the end of May with help from a Vietnamese friend from college.
A woman named Giang in Binh Phuoc spotted the post, and Hope and Samuel were able to locate and contact Lien within 24 hours.
Giang discovered that a colleague, Nguyen Thi Tien (Samuel's biological aunt), had a nephew with whom she had lost contact for many years.
The aunt was initially skeptical, but when she saw a photo of him with a lump on his face, identical to when he was born, she was stunned and believed it was her nephew.
Lien contacted Hope on May 26 and claimed to be Samuel's mother.
Hope did not need a DNA test because she believed Lien was indeed Samuel's biological mother based on the exchange of information and photos from his childhood.
One day in June Samuel was sitting in front of his computer at home when he received a video call from halfway around the world. The woman at the other end of the line waved hello before starting to sob.
Lien says: "I was so happy. All I could do was look at my son and say, 'I'm sorry'."
Hope and Samuel agreed to travel to Vietnam for a reunion in August.
They arrived in Dong Phu District on the afternoon of August 17.
When he gets out of the car and runs up to his mother to hug her, Hope stands aside after greeting them in Vietnamese and allows them to cry and have a private moment.
His grandmother holds his hands and hugs and kisses him.
Hope Ettore and Samuel chat with his grandmother and other relatives in Binh Phuoc Province on August 17, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Tam
In the evening, his father took Samuel and his adoptive mother's family to the rubber garden. Hung shared and demonstrated to his son, using an interpreter, how he manually scrapes the rubber out of the bucket, not wasting a single drop.
"I feel truly at home and have the opportunity to listen to my father tell stories about our family.
"When I saw my father's thin face and my mother's tears, I told them I loved them and didn't blame them for leaving me," Samuel admitted.
Lien picked up a piece of chicken and handed it to her son during family dinner.
"Eat it, son," she said, wiping away her tears with her hand. "For the first time in 18 years, I was able to feed my children with my own hands," she said.
Hope used the opportunity to tell more about Samuel's life in the United States, the treatment process, and his upbringing.
Samuel, she claims, is a sensitive child. Every day, he said, he loved his mother. When she was sick, he was always there for her, encouraging her and cooking for the family.
Lien couldn't sleep at night because she was so happy.
"I don't anticipate Samuel returning to live with me. I only hope Hope lives a long time so that Samuel can repay filial piety for her upbringing," Lien said.
Samuel and his adoptive mother returned to the United States after two days to prepare for the upcoming university semester. He promised to see his biological parents as soon as possible.
"I intend to learn Vietnamese so that I can communicate more effectively with my biological parents.
"I plan to bake cakes and cook for my family on my next trip back," he said.
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