The story of Denise Sandquist and the search for her birth mother in Vietnam

On first meeting her, Denise Sandquist looks every part the Swedish Millennial. Tall, with platinum blonde hair, immaculate make-up and stylish nails, she greets me with a confident handshake and invites me into a meeting room. She is a business development intern at Top Mot, a Swedish-owned fashion brand in Saigon, a position she boldly secured by pitching herself to Eric, the founder and CEO, in a 150 word LinkedIn connection request. Like most Scandinavians her age, she speaks fluent English, is confident and friendly, and is already widely traveled. However, what sets Denise apart from most of her peers is not knowing who her birth parents are.

“I was adopted from northern Vietnam when I was three weeks old, by a family in Stockholm, Sweden,” Denise explains. “And I’ve decided to come back to Vietnam to see if I can find my biological mother.” Armed with her mother’s full name (Nguyen Thi Diep), age (22) and hometown in Ha Son Binh Province outside of Hanoi, as well as her own birth name (Tran Thanh Huong), she is quietly confident that the process will be straightforward.

“Since talking about my search, I realize that I have a lot more information about my parents than most people in my position. As well as having my mother’s full name, I know that she was a college graduate from either the University of Finance & Economics or the University of Foreign Trade, graduating in 1990 or 1991. My father worked for a private bank dealing with credit in Hanoi, which went bankrupt in 1990/1991. I don’t have any information about him, except that his surname must be Tran, as my birth name was Tran Thanh Huong. And thanks to the information from the Swedish Adoptions Centrum, I even know that the adoption decision was signed by the Deputy Director of the Maternity Hospital, Nguyen Thu Hien, and Nguyen Cong Tuong from the People’s Committee in Hanoi. That’s a comparatively huge amount of information, but it’s still been really tough.”

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Talking about her childhood in Stockholm, Denise admits there wasn’t a big Vietnamese influence. “My parents adopted my sister Louise, who is two years younger than me, when she was two months old, also from northern Vietnam. We have two sets of family friends elsewhere in Sweden who had also adopted Vietnamese children, but before I came here backpacking in 2013 I had probably only met three Vietnamese people in my life!”

At 25, Denise already has a CV that looks more like a top diplomat’s than a second year Bachelor’s student at the Stockholm School of Economics. She graduated from the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy, an institute which fast tracks bright young minds into the Swedish intelligence and diplomatic services, and is now fluent in five languages. Straight after graduation she spent two years in military service, then slotted straight into a job at the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow. After completing her posting in 2013, she decided to go backpacking.

Doing the usual Southeast Asia tour, Denise had quite a shock when she landed in Vietnam. “I already had in my mind that I might try to find my birth mother while I was here. Suddenly I realized that I was looking at everyone like they might be my siblings. It was so weird!”

Later that year she decided to move to Nanning, just three hours from the China-Vietnam border. “I realized I have a knack for learning languages, so I decided to try Chinese. And because it’s so close to Vietnam, I thought I could continue my search from there. I didn’t see much of China though, Nanning is one of the ‘green cities,’ where they have e-bikes, but the air was still so dirty.”

Returning home to Sweden in 2015, she discussed the idea of finding her birth parents with her adopted-Vietnamese friends, but they weren’t at keen as she was. She realized that, although she has a wonderful family and felt 100 perfect Swedish, there were parts of Vietnamese culture that she identified with: the family-style meals, the warm welcomes and the sense of community. So her motivation was simple. “I live an incredibly happy, stable life, with an amazing family, friends and opportunities. It would just make my life more complete to finally be able to meet my birth mother.”

In one of her earlier breakthroughs, the Swedish Adoptions Centrum gave Denise the name and address of Mrs. Chau, the woman who arranged the adoption from the hospital. Luckily, and not usually common, Mrs. Chau stayed in touch with Denise’s mother after the adoption, so could provide a key piece of the puzzle. But, as with the rest of this story, it wasn’t that simple. “I wrote to her a couple of times, because I had an address but no phone number. When she didn’t write back I decided to go and visit her, but when I got there she wasn’t in. So I just stood outside her house and waited for her. I had to, she’s such a crucial part of this story, and she could be the key to unlocking the whole thing.”

“My biggest hope is that my Vietnamese mother is happy and has a good life. I want to tell her that I’m not anything but proud of her, that she was strong enough to keep me and then decided to give me away, to have a better life,” says Denise.

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Epilogue

Since our first interview in early December 2016, and just 18 days after her search went public (www.facebook.com/giupdenise, shared almost 2,000 times), Denise has been reunited with her biological mother. “I’m so grateful to everyone who shared the page, the media who wrote about my search, and everyone who has been so supportive. It was actually through one of the articles in the Vietnamese newspaper Thanh Nien that my mother realized that it was her who I was searching for.”

But even then it wasn’t easy for Denise. As the story spread across the internet, Denise was focused on replying to all of the messages on Facebook and missed the email that her mother had sent her… and the three subsequent messages. When she didn’t receive a reply, Denise’s mother booked a plane ticket to Saigon to visit the Thanh Nien office to get Denise’s contact information, assuming it had been misprinted in the paper. Before the flight, she was able to get Denise’s number through the Facebook page and called Denise that evening.

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“It was very unreal when she called me. No one had called me before and told me that they were my mother… the only calls were from the media. Other people sent Facebook or email messages, and no one had claimed before that they were my mother. I was thrilled, but I also did not want to celebrate too early. Even though it was convincing that she already bought flight tickets, later that evening I found her e-mails, which persuaded me even more, but I did not feel 100 percent sure yet.”

During the emotional call, although the telephone conversation was difficult, their communication felt totally natural. “My mother told me that she loved me a lot and that she was very moved. Since I speak quite limited Vietnamese and she was crying a lot during the conversation, it was mostly I who spoke,” says Denise. Refusing her mother’s apologies, Denise tried to explain that she has a wonderful life and that her mother had made the right decision to give her daughter away

The first time they met in person was around Christmas, and with the help of two of Denise’s friends, they spent hours catching up. “My mother really wanted to answer all my questions and to explain everything for me. I got to know a lot about the situation when I was born, that she really wanted to keep me, but that she didn’t have the opportunity to do it. She decided to give me away for adoption when I was two days old, and even though she was not allowed to, she was sneaking into the hospital to breastfeed me after I was born. She could choose to give me to Vietnamese parents, and in that case they would give her some money. She knew that if she gave me to Vietnamese parents, they would want to cut all the contact with her and not want me to meet her. She could also choose to give me to foreigners, but then she had to sign an agreement that she would never contact me. She could only give information and details about herself, and then I could contact her in the future if I wanted to.”

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When I ask about her father, Denise’s reply is casually neutral. “Apparently my father was very ambitious. He wanted to run his own company; he went abroad to work. My mother describes him as ‘smart, handsome, charming and talented.’ But he advised my mother to have an abortion, and didn’t bother to stay in touch. He doesn’t know if he had a boy or a girl. My father is definitely another small chapter in my life, even though it’s not a very important one. In the future, I will try to find him. I feel satisfied to know that he was/is smart, talented, well-educated and highly ambitious—not satisfied to know about how he ran away from responsibility, but not surprised to know this.

So is this “happily ever after” for Denise and her mother? “My mother has a new family who doesn’t know about me yet. She intends to tell them when the children are more grown up and can understand the situation better. She says she wants me to be a part of the family in the future, and offered to take care of my children if I ever live in Vietnam. She simply wants to be my mother.”

Promising to return to Vietnam regularly, Denise is confident that when the time is ready, she will be introduced to her extended family, and that she will also be able to speak fluently with them. “My life is very busy, always, and I have my career to think about, and also a very fulfilling life in Sweden with amazing parents. I’m not pushing anything to go faster with my mother and I’m feeling very happy that I have found her.”

IMAGE BY NGOC TRAN