A man’s journey of self-discovery while searching for his lost birth parents
The old orphanage in Vung Tau has now been closed down; the man who kept it running for so many years has long since passed away. Back where he began life as Cao Hung Phi, an abandoned Vietnamese war baby, Brian Hester can see that his journey home hasn’t answered any questions – but somehow, the circle seems complete. In a sense, Vietnam has already given him the sense of identity he’s been looking for.
He carries a photograph down to the nearby beach. It’s an old black and white image of himself taken right there back in the day – January 1973, before the end of the war. A glance at his face even then would have been enough to show beyond any doubt that he was the son of a local woman and an American soldier.
He says a prayer and buries the picture beneath the sand that must have borne his mother’s footsteps a thousand times. He may never know whether or not she still remains in this area, or why she didn’t have the courage to take him home after the birth. The nurses who filled out his adoption report weren’t exactly sympathetic to her sacrifice, simply noting that she’d had a false death certificate made out for her baby, and that she took his original birth registration away with her, which had to be replaced.
Whatever suffering brought her to that decision was not recorded. It’s unlikely, however, that it ended when she walked out of the hospital doors without her son.
Brian’s now close to 41, and he’s ended up settling here in the country where, if his mother had made a different decision, he would have been raised. He’s a strapping, gregarious, easily likable man, and he’s actually crazy enough to be running a Vietnamese restaurant for Vietnamese people – despite having essentially grown up as a corn-fed boy from the Midwest who’d never laid eyes on a Vietnamese person until he was 19-years-old.
“When I was young, my mother never told me much,” he says, leaning back at one of his dining room tables where curious locals come to eat pho at an American-run restaurant. There’s very little about his face that’s obviously Vietnamese, although his tattoo, which reads “Cao Hung Phi,” is in plain sight. “I just knew I was different. I was darker; I had black, straight hair. My siblings were whiter and our parents were Caucasian, blue eyes and green eyes. In my family pictures, I’m the one who looks different.”
“I remember one time, I was almost 28 years old, and my mom comes over with a box. It was the clothes that she’d mailed to me in Vietnam, so that when I came over on the plane, I’d be wearing them. My baby shoes, my little jacket. And then all the letters that were written back and forth. My mother in America wrote to the nurses in Vietnam, ‘how is he doing, what’re the updates.’ ‘He had his first shots here,’ they’d answer, ‘he had his first haircut.’ And they described my personality exactly the way I am today. It’s amazing. To write that down and have that was priceless. You’re not going to find too many adoptees who still have that today in this kind of condition. I’m looking at the letters with the nurses writing back and forth, and it’s bringing tears to my eyes, it’s like, what the hell? And there were more than a dozen letters that I never knew about for half of my life.”
Growing up with only a vague sense of his heritage left Brian with a jarring disconnect. “I’d ride around with friends in the car back home,” he recalled. “It was like, ‘yeah, that’s where my grandparents live,’ and ‘that’s the hospital where I was born’ and ‘my parents are buried over there’ and I could never do that. I could never relate.”
“The stigmatism in America back then,” he adds, “it was not good about Vietnam because of the war. Though a lot of it wasn’t discussed. I didn’t even tell my friends, probably the better half, until I was in my senior year in high school. A lot of my friend’s fathers were Vietnam vets, hated Vietnam, or loved Vietnam, and what could I do? When I was in fifth grade, I skipped school one day. They were studying different parts of the world. Vietnam came up, and I was like, ‘I’m not going to that class.’ I went to my mom, and I said, ‘I can’t do this. I don’t feel right.’ There was a part of me that I didn’t understand, in fifth grade. I’ll never forget that.”
It was Facebook that started Brian on the hunt for his roots. Not long after making a cursory search for “Vietnamese adoptees,” he found himself at a reunion seated across from people who’d been through exactly the same experiences as he had. “It was like we were all related,” he says. “But then on the flip side of that was, I didn’t look Vietnamese. Everyone thought I was someone’s boyfriend.”
Some time later, Brian ran into a Viet Kieu through his landscaping business who invited him to visit Vietnam. “Six months later I was on a plane and we were going back,” he says. “And in my mind, I always pictured we’d fly into Saigon, and I’d see it all right there. It was all in my head, in pictures. But unfortunately we flew in at 11 o’clock at night, and I had a window seat ready to go, but it was dark! Then we got shipped out to the countryside, it was at night, and I stayed at his brother’s house. The next morning I woke up – couldn’t sleep much – opened the gates, and the whole world came alive.”
“I felt like I was watching a movie. A guy walks past with a cow, and there were kids riding their bicycles to school, and everybody going to work on their motorbikes, and I was like: This is what it’s like, huh? Let’s go to Ho Chi Minh, I want to see what it’s like down there.”
“So we got in the car, we drove down here, and I literally had a headache for two days from looking at all the bikes, at this mayhem. The chaos. The controlled chaos. Now it doesn’t affect me. But back then it was amazing.”
Brian stayed three weeks, and immediately booked a return flight after arriving back home. It wasn’t long before he found himself standing on a beach in Vung Tau, his questions buried beneath his feet in the sand, reflecting on a lifetime of “wondering what it was like to be on the other side of the ocean.”
“I just started exploring every town,” he says. “Started going to every place. I wanted to know and learn about everywhere. I traveled about 80 percent of Vietnam. I came back again two years ago, figured I’d start a life here and try to get back… focus the second half of my life here. If I ever write a book, the title would be Coming Full Circle.”
Beyond the business, Brian has devoted a good number of volunteer hours to working with orphans. “You know, I’m a firm believer in paying it forward,” he says. “Whatever you do in life, you have to continue it. There’s a certain part of your life where it’s, OK, I’m done learning, or I’m not done learning but it’s time to start teaching. I first worked in an orphanage here in Vietnam. It was up in Danang. It brought tears to my eyes, I just couldn’t believe it. I was walking around, there were so many adoptees who were looking at us, through a window, and that could’ve been us. That really… that was hard.”
“It wasn’t complete until I came back,” he adds. “I think going back to Vung Tau, that was it. I was only a block and a half off the beach. Back to where the kids were taken after the hospital. No memory. I was a year old when I left. I was able to walk and speak a little Vietnamese.”
“A lot of my life when I was over there in America, I thought about what it would be like in Vietnam. Now that I’m here, I think about my past and what it was like back home. That’s almost like a myth, a memory. It’s two years ago. I’ve been so involved here – I mean, I love it here, I wouldn’t change anything. I just have to keep moving forward, that’s all I would wish for anybody. Success, life and learning. Those are important.”
Lost & Unfound
Brian seems to think we’re done, so he ducks out of the restaurant doors to check on the measurements for a new sign that’s being delivered, cheerfully tending to his reclaimed slice of Vietnam with obvious enthusiasm. As much as he seems to fit in here, there’s still a sense in which he hasn’t come full circle at all. Since deciding to make his move to Vietnam permanent, he has never made any serious attempt to search for his birth family.
“My story about finding my actual parents is, there’s nothing there,” he says when he gets back. “My story’s about me coming back and learning about me and moving forward. Getting back to the real me, trying to be successful.”
There’s something unconvincing about his tone, however, and he concedes there’s more to it than merely not having gotten around to knocking on his birth mother’s door. “It’s not that I don’t want them,” he admits. “It’s just that the pursuit of that isn’t something I’ve really focused on. Right now I’m distracting myself. With the restaurant and the business, yeah.”
In any case, one thing Brian won’t be doing is participating in the popular TV show that reunites families torn apart by the war. “I don’t want to get involved with that,” he says. “I had a friend of mine go do that show, she went in for the interview. No clue that her parents were sitting in the
audience behind her. Talk about dropping the bomb. There’s not really a finesse way to do things in Vietnam. She’s sitting there in the interview, and they’re talking, and the camera’s on, and they’re saying, ‘oh by the way, we found your parents. They’re sitting right here in the audience.’ No, I don’t ever want to go through that. It turned her upside down for about ten years.”
The real barrier is probably something far more straightforward. Given that Brian hasn’t inherited a Vietnamese face, the chances are high that he strongly resembles his father. How his mother might react to seeing the face of the one American soldier she most wanted to forget is anyone’s guess. That possibility of reopening old wounds is something that Brian is reluctant to force upon his birth mother, even though a reunion could ultimately bring her a sense of peace she has never since known. His mother may yet walk that Vung Tau beach to this day, not knowing that the picture of her baby boy lies buried beneath her feet, nor that her son has come home.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about what it could be like,” Brian says. “But I’m reminded even more when I’m around other adoptees who found their mother, their siblings. I think the number one reason why I haven’t pursued it is my look. Even back home, I don’t look like my family. I don’t want to come here and have the same thing with my own blood.”
Brian may not yet have made the decision to “open Pandora’s box” and make his circle complete by finding his family – but his answers could still be within reach. His mother may have taken away his real birth certificate, but intentionally or otherwise, she’s left him a clue. In falsely registering her child’s death, there’s bound to be a record listed in the musty old archives of a hospital somewhere in Vung Tau that details the unfortunate stillborn delivery of a certain Cao Hung Phi, along with the name of the woman who gave birth to him.
Images by Adam Robert Young