BRINGING KATIE HOME: MY JOURNEY TO THE ORPHANAGE IN TRA VINH, VIETNAM
CONNECTICUT TO TRA VINH IN FIFTY HOURS
On January 31, 1999, at Bradley Airport in Connecticut, my father-in-law and I boarded a flight that some 45 hours later would land us Tan Son Nhat Airport in the Republic of Vietnam. Waiting for us in an orphanage in Tra Vinh (located five hours south Saigon) was the newest member of my family -- an eight month old little girl named Nguyen Thuy Huynh. She would soon be known as Kathryn "Katie" Huynh Butler.
The actual journey for Katie started several months earlier when my wife Sandy and I decided to adopt for the second time. We adopted our first child Matthew Quang from Can Tho, Vietnam, in 1994. Our second, and soon to be middle, child Michael was born a short six months after Matthew's arrival home. At the time we adopted Matthew, the Vietnam government did not require that the adoptive parents travel to Vietnam. A young Thai woman escorted Matthew to us. We simply drove to the airport one night and brought him home. Although Sandy and I had read as much as we could about Vietnam as part of the adoption process for Matthew, we did not develop a connection to the country. With Katie, it would be different. The Vietnam government now required that at least one parent travel to the county. I was quickly elected to be the parent who would travel, as my wife would need to stay home to care for Matthew and Michael. A heart condition would also have made it difficult for her to travel and, should something happen, good medical care might be hard to come by. Recognizing that it would be next to impossible for me to make the journey alone, my father-in-law "volunteered" (after some subtle hints from my wife and his wife) to accompany me.
As we readied ourselves for trip, we were aware that adopting parents usually spend about three weeks overseas processing the adoption. We were scheduled to travel to Vietnam, however, just two weeks before the start of Tet. Because all government agencies close down for at least one week during Tet, we were warned by our adoption agency (Thursday's Child Adoption Agency in Bloomfield, CT) that the process would be expedited as much as possible to get us in and out of Vietnam before Tet. If we could not get everything done by Tet, however, we would have to stay through Tet and probably an additional week thereafter for a total of four weeks. A stay of that length would have worked an incredible hardship on everyone concerned -- for us in Vietnam and for those minding the home front.
As a result of the time constraints, we did not have the usual "luxury" afforded others of a day or two in Saigon to recover (as much as possible) from the trip before traveling to the orphanage to receive Katie. Instead, as soon as we touched down at Tan San Nuht Airport (a staggering 45 hours after we left home), we met Thai and Dan, representatives from International Mission of Hope (IMH), the agency that facilitated the adoption process in Vietnam. International Mission of Hope (IMH) is an international child welfare agency headquartered in Vietnam and authorized for humanitarian aid and adoption placements by Vietnam. Dan and Thai promptly placed us in their van for the five-hour ride to Tra Vinh. Despite the incredible fatigue, I will never forget the trip. Each moment of the ride provided a travelogue-view of life in Vietnam.
From the airport, we passed through Saigon before heading south. A comfortable ride was out of the question. The road, mostly unpaved and filled with bumps and pot holes that seemed big enough to swallow the van, was tortuous. Thousands of people traveled along the roadway on foot, motorcycle, and bicycle. It seemed like the entire population of Vietnam was simultaneously traveling somewhere. Many people wore cloth masks covering their mouths and noses to protect themselves from the omnipresent clouds of dirt generated by the traffic. Young girls walked or bicycled home from school, many wearing their traditional ao dai outfits. Despite the dust and dirt, their all-white outfits appeared spotless. We saw entire families, including infants, precariously perched upon motorcycles winding their way through the maze of people and vehicles. Passing a spot were running water created a puddle, I witnessed a universal sight -- two young boys playing in the mud. As we lumbered across a bridge undergoing much need repair, workers labored using only crude hand tools. The only construction equipment visible sat idle nearby and appeared to be rusted relics from the war era.
Upon leaving Saigon and its outskirts, the scene rapidly changed from urban to bucolic. The sides of the road were lined with small huts, some on stilts. Consisting usually of only two rooms, the focus of the Vietnamese home was a large table situated in the center of the main room. To my surprise, many homes featured a color television prominently displayed in the main room. Rice fields stretched to both horizons. It seemed that rice grew in every spare section of land. Women, wearing straw hats, bent and over at the waist and ankle-deep in water, cultivated the rice crop. Others spread out the harvested rice on the streets to dry in the sun, forming a golden carpet. House boats lined both banks of a river. A market on the roadside provided a dramatic view of the differences between American and Vietnamese grocery shopping.
Whenever we slowed or stopped for traffic, our van attracted the attention of those on the streets. Street merchants approached us to hawk their wares; others approached out of simple curiosity. In an area of the world and country noticeably homogenous, the two Americans definitely stood out even while riding in a van behind tinted windows.
Crossing the Mekong River required paying a toll and waiting for the ferry. Our driver obviously had connections and was able to bypass a lengthy line and drive on to the next available ferry. The stop was a market place catering to those crossing the river. Merchants approached with a wide variety of foods and beverages (which we declined at the direction of our escorts).
As we continued on to Tra Vinh, the sun began to set, painting the sky with broad brush strokes of an ever changing spectrum of vivid colors as the sun slowly set over the rice paddies. This sunset, which I regretfully did not photograph, was truly remarkable.
Under cover of darkness, we arrived at the IMH Orphanage in Tra Vinh. As we pulled into the driveway, the headlights of the van attracted the attention of dozens of children who swarmed the front gates to greet us. Tiny fingers illuminated by the headlights of the van grasped the iron bars of the gate. The children undoubtedly knew the van's arrival meant someone would soon be leaving the orphanage with a new family. The children slowly moved back as the gates opened to allow us entry into the orphanage.
We were led across a long, rectangular-shaped courtyard into a small room. Several cribs lined the walls of the room. A woman leaned over one of the cribs, picked up a child, and displayed my daughter to me. I held her for only a few brief moments before bidding her goodbye. I would not have to leave her for long, as the Giving and Receiving Ceremony (the formal ceremony wherein the Vietnamese government would formally give custody of the child to me) would take place the following morning.
We stayed at the Tanh Tra Hotel in Tra Vinh. The hotel was memorable for two reasons -- a noisy dance hall located on one of the upper floors and above our room, and ice cold showers with virtually no water pressure. The following morning, we dined in the hotel's restaurant. The glass-less windows afforded a view of both the sights and sounds of early morning life in Tra Vinh. Taking an adventurous tack the first day, I sampled a breakfast soup that was very heavy on the greens and not very palatable. My father-in-law opted for a safer course and dined on baguettes -- a left over from the French occupation. We quickly became tea drinkers. The local coffee, served in a French press, was much too strong for our tastes. I had heard that the Vietnamese add hickory to their coffee, but I did not detect any in the coffee we sampled. I later picked up some "Saigon" brand coffee to take home from a market in Saigon. I found this coffee rich, full-bodied, and quite tasty.
Before leaving for the Giving and Receiving Ceremony, we took a short walk to take in a bit of Tra Vinh. Although not as congested as Saigon, the streets were bustling with morning motor and pedestrian traffic. A car decorated with red streamers carried a bride and groom. A much-reduced replica of the Eiffel tower stood across the street from the hotel. At a nearby construction site, a monkey sat in a wooden booth watching over the workers. A woman stopped her motorcycle in front of a store. As she ran inside, her young son remained seated on the motorcycle, apparently enjoying the opportunity to "drive." Two adorable young girls approached us selling lottery tickets. Despite the fact that we declined to buy any tickets form them, they willing posed for our cameras. And merchants went about their business as another busy day started.
It was time for the Giving and Receiving Ceremony. Dan and Thai drove us to the government agency in charge of adoptions. Katie was already there with one of the ladies from the orphanage. Katie slept through most of the ceremony. After meeting with a government officer and signing various documents, I received Katie as my daughter. After dressing Katie in a new outfit and posing for photographs with the government officials, we headed back to the hotel where we would spend the night before returning to Saigon to complete the adoption process.
Katie and I spent the day becoming acquainted with each other. Katie appeared to be on the schedule of a new born, taking a bottle and a nap every two hours. Although I was not a novice father, the prospects of caring for this child and, in particular, traveling halfway around the world to get her to her new home, appeared daunting, particularly without Sandy's assistance.
When it came time for dinner, we headed to the hotel restaurant. Upon entering the restaurant with Katie, one of the waitresses came and offered to take care of Katie while we ate. While this was certainly unnerving having just received Katie, Sandy had alerted me to this custom (one of the many things she learned via the Internet as we waited for a travel date) and to the fact that it would be an insult to refuse, so I was prepared for it. I must admit that I did keep a watchful eye out for Katie, but it was quickly apparent that the women enjoyed spending time with her and that allayed any subconscious concerns I may have had.
The next morning, we checked out of the hotel and prepared for the ride back to Saigon, this time with a child. Dan and Thai gave us an unexpected treat -- we stopped at the orphanage for another visit. I was elated because we had spent only a few minutes there the previous night and I did not have the chance to take any pictures. It was important to me to photograph the orphanage for Katie's sake. When she is older and begins to ask questions about her adoption, the photographs may help her fill in the gaps in her life that adopted children often experience.
We were again met with a swarm of children as we pulled into the orphanage's driveway. One little girl stood out. She ran ahead of us through the courtyard and toward the room where the infants stayed, kicking off her sandals as she ran full stride into the nursery. During my initial stop at the orphanage, I did not fully appreciate the surroundings due to the darkness and my fatigue. Upon entering the room I was struck by the closeness of the situation. The room was smaller than an average American bedroom and there were several cribs lined up along the walls. Although it was still morning, it was very humid. A few small, unscreened windows provided only minimal ventilation. A second room off to the side also housed additional cribs. As I looked into the cribs, I was stunned to see that some of the cribs had two children in them. Here, Katie is being held by a one of the workers in the Nursery.
We returned outside to the courtyard where we met several of the women who had cared for Katie. Despite the language barrier, it was readily apparent that the caregivers genuinely cared about Katie. One woman in particular paid a lot of attention to her. I sensed that this might have been Katie's primary caregiver. Katie reacted with squeals of laughter as the woman spoke to and played with her. I also sensed that this woman had become quite attached to Katie and that she would experience a sense of loss when Katie left. While photographing the women, I tried to coax the little girl who had ran ahead of us into the nursery into posing for a photograph. She quickly became camera shy and hid behind the others. I happened to catch her peeking out from behind the others and snapped her picture. The woman in the white blouse with arm bracelets is who I believe was Katie's Primary Caregiver. A number of older women approached Katie and appeared to be imparting words of wisdom to her. I took this opportunity to capture photographs of the older women who had been a part of Katie's life.
Seeing this little girl and the other children in the orphanage, particularly the older children, pulled on my heartstrings. The pull was particularly strong for me as we left the orphanage the night before. As we backed out of the driveway, the headlights of the van shone on a little boy standing off to the side of the gate, his eyes fixated on us as we departed. The boy could have been my son Matthew's twin. My eyes welled with tears for two reasons -- my great fortune of having Matthew as my son and that, but for the grace of God, that could have been Matthew standing there. I later learned that the older children, such as this boy, were not orphans waiting for adoption. The orphanage functioned also as a foster home for children who could not be cared for by their families. Family members would visit the children and the children would be able to return home visits and, hopefully, return to their homes if the family's situation improved, enabling them to care for the child.
We met briefly with the director of the orphanage. I took this opportunity to try and obtain copies of whatever medical records the orphanage may have had on Katie. Although I did not expect much, I was surprised to hear the director say that he could not provide me with any medical information because the woman in charge of such things was not in that day. We then departed for Saigon, leaving behind the Katie's place of birth and the place where she had spent the first eight months of her life. Katie was on her way to her new home and family.
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Copyright 2000 by Dan Butler,
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