A woman’s reappearance has shaken her family to the core as she was believed to have been killed in the war 50 years ago.
For the last 50 years, her brother Pham Sung has consistently commemorated his sister’s alleged death anniversary and sent prayers to her, following the Vietnamese tradition of honoring a deceased loved one.
He could not have dreamt of this day when his sister, Pham Thi Sau, would re-emerge in flesh and bones and be reunited with the rest of the family.
The unlikely reunion was made possible by the work of a police officer from Da Nang, a beach city in central Vietnam, who asked to remain anonymous.
Fifty years in mourning after a living person
Though the news has been out for several weeks, Sung and Sau, aged 80 and 78 respectively, are still the names on everybody’s lips in Thi Lai Village of Duy Xuyen District, Quang Nam Province, which borders Da Nang.
People are still dropping by Sung’s house to clear up the details after he returned from Soc Trang, a province in the Mekong Delta of southern Vietnam, to meet his sister for the first time in five decades.
Nguyen Thi Cuc, Sung’s daughter-in-law, said that Pham Thi Sau had been mentioned in the family as Sung’s sister. She went missing in the 1970s and was never heard of again.
The last update from Sau that Sung received was when she moved to the central province of Thua Thien-Hue, carrying the child of a man named Dung. The man vanished after their locale of Quang Dien District was under attack in wartime, leaving Sau and the little child to depart southbound.
As she spoke, Cuc pointed to the shrubbery in front of the house, where Sung had been preserving the tradition of 'collective death anniversary' — where he lights incense sticks and sends prayers to the spirits of all dead family members every May 11 at noon — for the last 50 years.
Among the incense sticks, there is always one designated to the person that Sung called 'sister Sau.'
“My father-in-law was always reduced to tears whenever Sau was mentioned,” Cuc recounted.
“He claimed Sau was only around 18-20 when she died, and she would have come home had she been alive.”
Sau’s homecoming journey
Sung’s claims seem to have been spoken into reality as Sau found her way home, well and alive, exactly 50 years from the day she was gone.
Tran Thi Hong Gam, Sau’s grandchild, said that her grandmother spent her past years building her family in Soc Trang Province.
However, the yearning for her hometown never waned in Sau. As her health gradually deteriorated, the imagery of the old village popped up more and more in her conversations with family members.
Gam gathered the scattered bits of information and strung them together: from her childhood home at the Han Market in Da Nang to her father Pham Sung to the street named Hoang Dieu where she lived — yet they were still having trouble locating her family.
The turning point of Gam’s quest to find her grandmother’s roots came from a piece of paper with Sau’s old home address together with her parent’s name on it, which she found lying among Sau’s belongings.
In April 2020, she posted the information on Facebook in the hope of finding new leads, only to be disappointed.
Gam then used Facebook to seek help from Da Nang police, after which one police officer decided to start an investigation. He even spent time scanning through the police archive which unfortunately yielded little advancement.
Finally in May 2020, a police missing person notice was seen by a relative of Sung’s in Duy Xuyen District on social media.
Once they found the two siblings, the relationship between Sung and Sau was not up to question for long since every timeline and detail between the two matched.
|Pham Thi Sau (left) and her brother Pham Sung sit in a meal after being separated for 50 years in this photo supplied by the family.|
The monumental reunion
In late May, Pham Sung greeted a seemingly married couple from Da Nang to visit his home. He was shocked to hear the two strangers alluding to his long-lost sister after 50 years of separation, even implying that Sau is alive and will return home soon.
Little did he know the couple were actually undercover police officers from Da Nang, who responded to Gam’s request on Facebook and had pursued the case for months.
After visiting Sung, the officers planned to bring Sau to Quang Nam for a heartfelt family reunion. But as Sau’s health changed for the worse, it was decided that Sung would visit his sister in Soc Trang instead.
According to Quy, the sixth child of Sung, one of the police officers planned to participate in the reunion in Soc Trang, but he had to pull out at the last minute to do a major criminal crackdown.
Using the address provided, Sung navigated his way to Sau’s house.
He saw his sister, once a little girl, now as a 78-year-old lady. As they hugged, both burst into tears.
This reunion had also been Sau’s dream for years, yet she had pushed it to the back of her mind to deal with the hustle of daily life. Thankfully, her grandchild went to great lengths to make her dream come true in the last days of her life.
More reunion to come?
Both Sau and Sung’s family claimed they wanted to meet the benevolent police officer from Da Nang to thank him for the dedication that led to the reunion, but they had trouble reaching him.
On phone calls, the officer declined the meeting, claiming he was “already fulfilled to see the reunion between the two siblings.”
“Though we only had the chance to talk to [the officer] via phone call, we are eternally grateful for the favor he has done to us,” Gam said.
Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper has also attempted to get in touch with the officer in Da Nang. In response, he said what he did was simply his responsibility as an officer.
“I don’t want to talk too much about myself, but besides the story of Sung and Sau, I also linked and discovered another [missing] person from Sau’s family.”
When Dung — the first husband of Sau — was mentioned by your correspondent as the missing person in question, he said he could not be sure but “the anecdotes are 99% matched.”