Seventeen years after leaving a Vietnamese orphanage for a new life in France with her adoptive parents, Hien Munier – now a French national of 25 – has returned to her birthplace on an emotional journey to find her roots.
Hien has been living in Ho Chi Minh City for the past few months, teaching French and English at local language centers to foster her ultimate dream of finding her biological parents and helping orphaned children in Vietnam get a second chance at life.
Whenever she is not teaching, Hien occupies herself with volunteering at the Child Protection Center of Go Vap District, where some seasoned social workers still remember her as an eight-year-old girl who used to call this place home.
“You have been away for all those years but all you want to do now that you’re in Vietnam is just hang around here?” Ha Van Hiep, who has worked at the orphanage for 36 years, would ask Hien each time he saw her playing with the kids.
Hien always responds with a broad smile, as she tends to do when she opens up about her life story to those who are patient enough to listen.
|Hien Munier plays with an orphan at the Child Protection Center of Go Vap District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tuoi Tre|
Twist of fate
“I was abandoned on a bridge as an infant and was taken in by this orphanage after a passer-by found me and reported to local authorities,” Hien said.
She was raised there until the age of eight when a French couple filed for her adoption, an event Hien says has changed her fate forever.
“Saying goodbye is never easy, but we were all happy knowing she would have a brighter future,” Le Ngoc Anh, deputy director of the orphanage, recalled the day the papers were signed to officially sever Hien’s legal ties with her country of birth.
“It’s been so many years. She’s now a mature and beautiful girl who still remembers her origin and volunteers her time taking care of the kids. There’s nothing that can make me happier,” Anh said.
Hien does not speak any Vietnamese now. Seventeen years was long enough for Hien to forget her mother tongue, but it could never erase a child’s memories of her fateful adoption.
Eyes simmering with tears, Hien recalled how one of her caretakers came up to her one day and told her that she was going to be adopted by a couple of foreigners who would give her a new life in another country.
Adoption was a vague term to understand for an eight-year-old, and Hien could not explain her nervousness as she imagined a life outside of the orphanage.
“One day, the caretaker dressed me up in my most beautiful clothes. Then came my adoptive mother,” Hien recalled.
“It was the first time I had ever seen a foreigner in my life. There was so many questions flashing through my mind, but before I knew it I was already her child,” she said.
|Hien Munier plays with orphaned children at the Child Protection Center of Go Vap District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tuoi Tre|
During the one month that Hien’s adoptive mother spent in Vietnam finalizing her papers, the French woman asked for permission to take her around the city, which she had never got round to explore as a kid.
Everything was new and out of this world to the eight-year-old girl. She was still afraid, but this time there was something different. There was a feeling of being protected and cared for. A feeling of having a mother.
Hien boarded a plane to France in November 2001, marking her new life in the European country.
She remembers feeling lonely at first, as if she did not belong to the new place. Her loneliness soon grew into anger at her birth parents, whom she blamed for leaving her on her own in this overwhelming world.
When Hien eventually felt better thanks to the emotional support from her new parents, she started to feel sad thinking about her friends at the Ho Chi Minh City orphanage.
“I remember asking myself why I was the only one fortunate enough to be granted a new life while all the others had to stay behind,” Hien said.
But to move on with her new life, Hien said she had no choice but to forget about her past, a job she considers herself to have excelled at.
“Within six months I was able to communicate in French fluently, from which point I started to forget how to speak Vietnamese,” she said.
Hien is not the only adopted child in her new family. Her French parents also adopted two other kids from the same orphanage, albeit at different times.
She describes her father as a kind-hearted “teddy bear” and her mother as a powerful “superwoman” who were always there to support and protect her from harm’s way.
“Their love made up for everything and made me the French girl that I am today,” Hien said.
|Hien Munier smiles as she shares her life story with Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper. Photo: Tuoi Tre|
After years of suppressing her emotions to focus on founding a new life, questions of her origin started to resurface when Hien entered her teenage years.
Looking at her own reflection in the mirror, Hien could not help but wonder, “Who am I? Why am I here?”
When Hien spoke to her mother about the aching questions, the loving mother wasted no time in showing her all the adoption papers she had kept safe all those years, as if it was what she had been waiting for all along.
Her mother also founded a foundation named ‘Un Projet pour Tous’ (A Project for All) to support unfortunate children at the orphanage where Hien and her Vietnamese siblings were raised.
“I have traveled to Vietnam with my mother on multiple occasions, but this place is where I always feel most attached to,” Hien said of her first home.
With the only clue being the address of the woman who found her on the side of a bridge more than 20 years ago, Hien said she is still determined to embark on a journey to find her birth parents.
“I urge myself every day: Hurry up! There’s not much time left. Come on!” she said.
Hien added that volunteer work at the orphanage has also helped her understand the financial hardship that has led many Vietnamese parents to give up their children out of fear that they cannot provide them with a comfortable life.
“My birth parents’ lives must have been full of difficulties,” Hien said, adding that her anger had been replaced by sympathy for what her biological parents must have gone through.
Hien always imagines the day when she finally meets her mother. When that time comes, Hien says she will tell her mother that her daughter has finally grown up and had a good life filled with joy and love.
“I will say, ‘Thank you for having brought me into this life. I love you’,” she said.
Hien is learning Vietnamese anew to prepare for that meeting.