Lost Souls: The Search for Vietnam’s 300,000 or More MIAs
As corpses rot and the search for family members’ remains becomes more urgent, there is a special Vietnamese Office for Seeking Missing Persons—but it helps find Americans.
This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.
VIETNAM—Mai Huy Du was 17 when he volunteered for the People’s Army of Vietnam in 1970. He came from a small village in Thanh Hoa province, a rural area north of Hanoi, where his parents owned land. To enlist, Du had to travel in secret to a neighboring village where nobody knew his background since landowners were considered untrustworthy by the Communist government and were usually barred from joining the army. But Du had always had a scrappy, independent streak, and with the war against America and its Southern Vietnamese allies at its peak, he was eager to “do something for the country,” as his niece Mai Thanh Ha put it recently. Plus, he felt left out when all his friends had enlisted and he couldn’t.
About a year after he’d left Thanh Hoa for the southern front, Du returned to Hanoi to receive a certificate for distinguished service on the battlefield. There was a brief ceremony and a few days spent catching up with his family before he left again for the south.
“Then he was just gone,” Ha told me.
In 1973, the family received a cryptic official death notice from the military saying that Du had died almost a year earlier, in 1972. “In the death notice we only know that he died in the south,” Ha said, “in the battle in the south.” The name of Du’s unit and the specific location where he was stationed were recorded in esoteric military code, impossible for the family to decipher.
For years Du’s family had no idea what had actually happened to him, or where his body might be. In the early 2000s, Ha and her mother visited a psychic who specialized in what is sometimes referred to in English as “astral projection,” a séance-like ritual where the spirit of the dead inhabits the body of a living person. Ha recalls that while the spirit of her uncle was apparently inside the psychic, his voice sounded very weak, “like he could not talk properly.” The psychic, speaking as Du, told them Du’s body had been destroyed in combat and there was no point in searching for him.
Du is one of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese soldiers still missing from the war with America. The Vietnamese government puts the number at 300,000, but the actual number of those whose bodies were buried in anonymous graves or never found and buried at all is widely believed to be closer to 500,000. Without a body to pray over and honor on certain days of the year, most Vietnamese believe that the soul of the dead wanders lost in the afterlife, stuck in a kind of purgatory.
“In the east, especially in Vietnam, people believe that the dead who are missing carry a heavy spiritual burden” says Hoang Anh Suong, a Hanoi-based journalist who has written several books on the search for the missing. “It’s only when the family finds the grave that this torment ends, that they finally feel happy because they have fulfilled their responsibility to the dead. Otherwise the family will continue suffering this torment.”
“I have to tell you,” Suong added, “the mothers, the wives, whose child or husband is still missing—when they die they cannot close their eyes.”
Ha, Du’s niece, is 44 years old and works for an international NGO in Hanoi. We met late one weekday morning at The Coffee House, a chain café specializing in latte art.
In many ways, The Coffee House, with its English name and sleek Ikea-esque furniture is reflective of the larger economic transformation Vietnam has experienced since the early 2000s—the transformation from a poor, agricultural nation to one the World Bank now calls “lower middle income” and “one of the most dynamic emerging countries” in Asia. It’s this economic renaissance that has enabled people like Ha to start searching for their missing relatives in earnest.
While we talked, Ha sat perched energetically on the edge of her chair. She has spent years looking for her uncle, devoting hours and hours to chatting on online forums dedicated to finding the remains of missing soldiers where veterans, amateur historians, and relatives of the missing gather to share information and troubleshoot the various logistical hurdles—the serpentine trail of paperwork, the esoteric war-time military code, the details of specific NVA battles and combat strategy—involved in tracking down a body.
Since the doi moi market reforms and lifting of harsh American economic sanctions in the early 1990s, thousands of Vietnamese families have organized private, self-financed search missions, renting cars or buying plane tickets to travel mostly to the middle of the country—provinces like Quang Tri, Quan Nam and Quang Ngai—where fighting during the war was heaviest.
It’s hard to say exactly how many sets of remains have been found and positively identified this way. Reliable records on remains recovery aren’t available, and the DNA testing in Vietnam—facilitated by the government at several state-run labs in Hanoi—has historically been limited and the results unreliable.
“It just seems normal to us,” remarked my translator, a young Vietnamese woman who goes by her English name, Sam. She thought people might think it was strange that I was interested in the topic at all since it was simply such a common part of life here.
If the soldier has been in the ground for 20 years, then he will have aged 20 years with the land. If he’s been in the ground 40 years, then he will have turned into the land himself
But as more time goes by since the fighting ended in 1975, the chances of finding intact remains grows ever more slim.
One North Vietnamese Army veteran I spoke with, Nguyen Suyet Minh, summed up the challenge of searching for remains so many years after the war this way:
“A lot of times when you search for fallen soldiers, you only find a small piece of bone or a tooth. If the soldier has been in the ground for 20 years, then he will have aged 20 years with the land. If he’s been in the ground 40 years, then he will have turned into the land himself—there will be nothing left but black dirt. Then the only thing I can do is collect that black dirt. This is because of his spirit. I put the ball of black dirt in a bag and bring it back to the family. But we don’t let anyone open it, because if they open the bag and see only a clump of dirt, there will be even more pain. So nobody opens the bag, we just bury it in the local military cemetery. This happened in the case of my friend Do Tien Thuy—we couldn’t confirm whether what we found was actually him or not, because to confirm this, to do a DNA test, you need at least a piece of bone. So we have to resolve this case by following a sense of spirituality, and consider this clump of dirt as him.”
Minh paused for a second and looked out the window of the coffee shop where we were sitting. “Even if it’s not him, it’s still a fellow soldier who died in the war,” Minh said, turning back to the table. “Now he can rest in the cemetery, people can come bring offerings and light incense, make sure he doesn’t get cold. That’s how we think about it. This happens a lot in this country.”
On a Thursday morning a few days after I met Ha Thanh Mai at The Coffee House, I took a motorbike taxi to the outskirts of Hanoi to visit the office of Marin, a local organization devoted to helping the families of the missing soldiers find any information about what might have happened to their relatives. Marin’s “office” is actually just a two-bedroom apartment in a grey, leaky building in an area often referred to as Hanoi II, a product of the city’s sometimes reckless recent expansion; the streets here are full of new shopping centers and apartment complexes that look as if they were put up overnight and might come crumbling down just as fast.
In the grey apartment building, I rode the elevator to the fourth floor where a small sign on the wall outside of apartment #402 indicated that I was in the right place. Inside the apartment, Ngo Thuy Hang, the 43-year-old who runs Marin, sat at a cluttered desk typing on her laptop. At her back was the apartment’s small kitchen. A color photograph of Ho Chi Minh casually reading a newspaper hung on the wall to her left.
“Come in!” Hang said enthusiastically, waving me over to a sofa across from her desk. She wore a simple black dress and no makeup. Her shoulder length jet-black hair was tucked loosely behind her ears. Hang stepped out from behind the desk and sat on a small stool next to the sofa.
“Okay, listen,” she said, not wasting time on small talk. “If you’re going to work on this topic, the most important thing is to remember the soldiers themselves. Otherwise whatever you write will just be superficial.” She warned that, in general, it might difficult for me to go really “deep”—sau sac—with this subject because I was an outsider.
Then she invited me on a trip the next day. It would be very special, Hang promised. She and two other volunteers from Marin planned to travel to the rural northern province of Yen Bai to visit a 96-year-old woman who had lost two sons in the war with America. Both of her sons had been listed as missing. One of the bodies had eventually been located, but the other never made it back to Yen Bai, which meant that the family couldn’t properly mourn. Hang had some updates she wanted to deliver in person about the status of the missing son’s case. “These are real people, a real family,” Hang said, her tone not melodramatic but very no-nonsense, very practical. “This is who you need to meet.”
A line of people had started to form in the entryway of the apartment while we were talking. The line snaked out into the hallway. These were relatives of the missing who had come to ask Hang for help.
Hang excused herself and went back to her desk. First in line was a middle-aged woman who was looking for her brother. They chatted for a few minutes about all the available information—her brother’s name (Nguyen Van Phuc), where he died (Tay Nguyen), the date of his death (May 6, 1971), and his NVA army unit, (recorded simply with the letters KT).
Then the woman handed Hang some papers. “A family friend brought this back for me,” she said.
“This is just the Enlisted Military Personnel Profile,” Hang said, giving the papers a quick once over. “All soldiers were issued this form. To find the remains now you need either a document called the Record of Military Sacrifice or the Record of Missing in Action.”
I’d arrived at the apartment that morning alone, ahead of Sam, and did my best to follow what Hang was saying. She grew up north of Hanoi, in the port city of Haiphong and speaks in a typical northern accent, with its staccato syllables and sharp, slashing “z” sounds. A southerner might have found her accent harsh or overbearing—or too reflective, as one common southern complaint has it, of communist severity. In the south, the accent is more playful, more sing-songy. But because the overwhelming majority of the missing Vietnamese soldiers are from the north, Hang interacts almost exclusively with families who share her regional accent.
The woman sitting across from Hang seemed a little overwhelmed. But Hang wasn’t slowing down. “Okay,” she said, typing on her laptop as she spoke, “first I will guide your family through the procedure to look for all the documents which will say exactly where your brother died, how he died. Once we have the documents, I can guide you through the process of travelling to the region where he died to see if they ever found his body. If they didn’t, then where have they already looked? That’s how the process will work.”
There’s a specific vocabulary in Vietnamese for talking about soldiers who have died in war. Nobody, for example, uses the general word for soldier—linh—when talking about NVA troops who died in battle. Instead, people use the word liet si, a word that is sometimes translated in English as “martyr” or “revolutionary martyr,” though this translation isn’t exactly accurate since it removes the cultural and political baggage. The term liet si is basically a bureaucratic classification that has migrated into colloquial speech. The word has existed for years in the Vietnamese language—a derivation of an old Chinese term meaning “women of strength” that the communist government repurposed in the 1950s, defining it, according to a 1957 official document, as “a person who died gloriously on the field of honor in the struggle against imperialism and feudalism since 1925.” Only Vietnamese soldiers who have died fighting on behalf of an independent Vietnam would ever be referred to as liet si. South Vietnamese and American dead are simply “soldiers”—linh.
Chet, the verb meaning “to die,” is also never used for NVA soldiers, not on official paperwork or in casual conversation. Instead, liet si are referred to as having hy sinh, or “been sacrificed.” So Hang’s question—one of the most common she asks on a daily basis—of “Where did he die?” would be more literally translated as “Where was he sacrificed?”
Hang is herself the relative of a missing soldier. Her uncle died fighting against the French and his remains were never found. In 2004 she contacted the precursor organization to Marin, which was being run part time back then by a group of university students. When the students started graduating and moving on with their lives, Hang took over, updating the organization’s website and compiling a database of information.
“At the beginning, I just wanted to find information about my uncle,” Hang told me, “but then I realized that these issues impact many families. Back then so much information was secret. And a lot is still secret today!”
Hang quit her 9-to-5 job doing communications and PR for a ceramic tile manufacturer and started working on Marin full time. Her first big project involved travelling by herself to military cemeteries all over the country with her laptop and digital camera in order to build a searchable database of headstones. Over the past decade, Hang has completed several big data projects, including one a few years ago commissioned by the Vietnamese government. In the process, she’s become an expert on the minutiae of government paperwork and esoteric military code. There is, arguably, nobody in Vietnam who is as knowledgeable about the process of searching for the remains of Vietnamese missing soldiers as Ngo Thuy Hang, and no other organization like Marin currently operating in Vietnam.
“Hang and the volunteers at Marin are the only ones doing what they do, at least at such a scale and with such expertise,” says Dr. Paul Sorrentino, a French anthropologist who has done field work with Marin for over a decade and is currently conducting a book-length ethnographic study on Vietnamese remains-gathering.
For thousands of families in Vietnam, Hang is the only hope. Relatives of the missing travel from all over the north of the country seeking her advice; others who can’t make the trip to Hanoi reach out over Facebook or her cell phone. On Youtube, you can find clips of Hang’s appearances over the years on the national broadcasting network, VTV—the Vietnamese equivalent of the BBC—talking about her work with Marin and giving general advice to families of the missing on the process for tracking down a body.
This work has, essentially, become Hang’s life. The Marin office currently doubles as her home. She doesn’t have children and has never married. The stories about Hang in the Vietnamese media tend to emphasize that, as one 2017 profile put it, Hang “really had spent all her youth on Marin, forsaking marriage and wealth.”
Hang declined to discuss her private life with me, though she acknowledges that her situation is unique. “Nobody eats and sleeps with the missing soldiers like I do,” she said at one point. She operates Marin on small, private donations which account for most of the group’s $10,000 annual operating budget. (Hang supplements the budget through the occasional sale of bundles of incense. She also made sure to mention several times during our time together that she only planned on doing this for another two years.
Hang sees so many relatives of the missing that she has to maintain a certain amount of emotional distance. In practice, this means that her attitude can be cold and officious. “Of course I care about this issue,” she told me, referring to the suffering and psychological trauma of the families of the missing—“the pain of the wives, the mothers, and the children,” as she put it—“but I just don’t have time.”
She reiterated that the most important thing, the first step to actually solving this issue, was for the government to release all available information to the families of the missing whose cases were actually tractable.
And for the others, Hang said, “the government needs to tell the people, ‘we’re sorry, but it’s impossible to find anything.’ This searching for remains has to eventually stop.”
The most comprehensive official effort to find the Vietnamese missing took place in the period right after the end of the war. In 1976, the Vietnamese government organized groups of veterans into Doi Quy Tap—Gathering Teams—and sent them to places like Kon Tum, Quang Ngai, and Quang Tri, areas in the middle of the country where the fighting had been heaviest. The thinking was that the veterans who had fought in these areas might remember where the bodies of their fellow soldiers had ended up.
As a guide, they relied on maps drawn by the Logistics Teams, the North Vietnamese Army soldiers who had been tasked with cataloguing the dead. During the war, these soldiers had tried to follow a meticulous procedure for keeping track of their side’s heavy losses—nightly meetings to assess who had been killed, which bodies had been identified and the specific location of bodies. They noted all this down in military record books.
But mistakes were inevitable. A lot of times, the Logistics Teams belonged to a rear unit that wasn’t familiar with the battle that had just taken place, or the fighting would still be going on which meant more bodies piling up. Sometimes the bombing and artillery was so incessant, so intense—the total force of the munitions America used in Southeast Asia has been estimated to equal “the equivalent of 640 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs,” according to historian Nick Turse—that the Logistics Teams would have to wait days before they could begin the work of sorting through the dead.
By the time they arrived at the scene the land would be completely devastated, a barren bomb-cratered moonscape cleared of all vegetation. The bodies of soldiers from different units—even from different sides—would be mixed together, sometimes in a gruesome jumbled mess of limbs and flesh. The soldiers had no choice but to pile anonymous bodies one on top of the other in makeshift graves, recording the locations with whatever nearby landmarks they could identify.
“Today, the cemeteries are very well organized in straight lines,” said Nguyen Trong Luan, an NVA veteran who has searched for the missing. “But back then [during the war] they buried the bodies in a very messy way, using only the trees or a stream or maybe a hillside,” to indicate the location of a grave. When the Gathering Teams showed up after the war, the land had often changed. They would have trouble recognizing the area, Luan said, not to mention the fact that many of the old record books from the Logistics Teams had by that point been lost.
Sam and I met Luan and another NVA veteran, Nguyen Suyet Minh, at a café called Avatar in a neighborhood far south of the Hanoi city center.
“There are several challenges,” Minh had said, recalling his time searching for bodies with a Gathering Team. “The first is the toxic smell from the gas [of a decayed corpse], it starts to rise up. Second is the courage—it takes courage to grab the meat, the tendon still attached to the bone.”
“You see,” Minh said, smiling. “War brings out miserable things like this.”
In the period right after the end of the war, the Gathering Teams dug up hundreds of thousands of bodies and reburied them in local military cemeteries, even if the body couldn’t be identified. The Truong Son cemetery, for example, one of the largest in Vietnam, houses over 7,000 anonymous graves.
At the time, this must have seemed like the best solution to the impossible task of identifying the anonymous war dead. Unlike their American and South Vietnamese counterparts, North Vietnamese soldiers weren’t issued dog tags. (“If we had the steel ID cards,” Luan said, “the search for the missing would be easy.”) Instead, NVA soldiers had resorted to etching their names into the leather of their belts or the flimsy metal of their water canteens. Others scribbled personal information on pieces of paper that they then slipped into small glass penicillin vials. “They would tuck the penicillin vial into their pocket,” Luan told us, “and when they died it would still be there, people would find it and get the information.” Other soldiers had relied simply on personal promises, pledges to contact each other’s family if they didn’t survive; though that method didn’t do much good, of course, if most of the unit ended up dead. (“So many died,” Minh said. “So, so many.”) Given all this, plus the fact that the Gathering Teams were encouraged to prioritize finding the bodies of high-ranking military officers, it’s not surprising that the initial post-war push to exhume bodies was full of pitfalls. “It was in ’76,” Ha told me that day at The Coffee House, “when the war was over and people started going back that the chaos and confusion started.”
Then in 1979 the Vietnamese military was occupied with fighting another conflict, a border war with China, a military effort that diverted resources and attention from the post-war efforts of the Remains-Gathering Teams. And after that, the country was staggeringly poor—a result mostly of harsh American economic sanctions that kept Vietnam economically isolated from the most of the world. There was no spare money for searching for remains. The efforts to find the missing basically stalled for the next two decades.
For Vietnam, the hunt for missing soldiers has become a national obsession. A quick search on Vietnamese Google brings up a dozen news articles in the past few weeks alone—a story about 14 sets of remains recently found in a garden in Quang Tri, for example, or an update on the ongoing search for remains buried near the summit of a mountain in Kon Tum. For the past decade and a half, shows about the search for the missing have been a constant on Vietnamese television, from documentaries detailing specific search missions to specials on the psychics who have become national celebrities for their apparent accuracy in tracking down the bodies of the dead. Vietnamese-language Youtube is full of clips culled from this programming.
“The war ended forty years ago,” begins one 2016 segment about Team K91, a remains-gathering military unit from Dong Thap province, “but across the country families are still suffering because the bodies of the fallen soldiers are lost somewhere on the battlefield.”
The clips feature a pattern of similar images—search groups trudging through the dense jungles of Quang Tri or the billowy tall grass of Kon Tom, shovels and garden-hoes hacking at fresh mounds of dirt, family members lighting incense and sobbing as they pray over a search site, neglected pots of tea sitting on a living room coffee table while a surviving veteran addresses the camera.
A segment called “Nhan Tim Dong Doi,”—“Searching for Fallen Soldiers”— airs after the nightly news on QPVN, one of the national television channels. The segment features an announcer wearing a crisp green military uniform reading off the names of missing soldiers. The name is usually accompanied by a grainy photograph, some basic information, the phone number of a family member, and a plea to call if anyone knows where the soldier is.
Today, much of the searching has moved online, with Facebook groups and online forums devoted to tracking down the remains of missing soldiers. (One of the most popular Facebook groups has around 10,000 members and averages 40 new posts a day).
The Vietnamese government doesn’t publicly release figures on how much it spends each year finding and identifying the remains of the missing war dead. There is, oddly, no centralized office in the sprawling Vietnamese public sector apparatus devoted solely to the mission. Instead, the task falls broadly under the direction of The Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs—usually referred to in English by its acronym, MOLISA—the byzantine government office that oversees everything from employment and work safety to social security. But even this designation of responsibility is complicated by the fact that the military handles the actual searches.
“I don’t understand why there has never been a more centralized and systematic effort,” Sorrentino told me in a Skype interview, speaking from his office at the School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris where he’s an associate professor.
For years the Vietnamese government considered detailed information “military secrets.” This policy has loosened somewhat over the past decade; families can now fill out an official request for information about their missing love one that goes beyond that included on the war-time death notice. Still, as Hang emphasized, the government’s handling of this information remains less than totally forthcoming.
“MOLISA keeps a database [on missing soldiers] and the Ministry of Defense keeps another database, but they don’t coordinate with one another,” Hang told me. In general, she seemed extremely frustrated with the government’s inability to execute a more organized, thorough accounting of the missing, but she was also careful not to directly criticize any specific government officials. “Because they don’t know how,” was usually Hang’s answer to questions about why the government wasn’t doing a better job.
“If you ask the government, they will show you lots of efforts that they do,” said Mai Thanh Ha, who searched for uncle Du. Ha believes most of these efforts are ineffective.
The Vietnamese military does sometimes organize official search teams, but these missions focus almost exclusively on mass graves. Though reliable statistics are hard to come by, MOLISA claims to have recovered over 10,000 sets of remains since 2010, mostly from Laos and Cambodia. For individual families organizing their own search, MOLISA offers travel stipends so small that no one I spoke with had ever bothered applying for one.
In 2013, the government announced plans for a DNA identification initiative called De An 150, or Project 150. The initiative got some attention in the western media, including a short 2016 article in the journal Nature that described how Project 150 promised to be “the world’s largest DNA identification project.” (Nature put the number of Vietnamese missing from the war at 500,000 or more.) The project called for using the most cutting edge forensics technology to extract usable samples from remains that had been buried for decades and cross-checking the DNA with a massive “reference data bank” of saliva donated by relatives of the missing.
But the forensics world was overwhelmingly skeptical of the “unrealistic predictions,” as one American anthropologist who specializes in remains-recovery told me over email. Some forensics experts were concerned that the project “misrepresented forensic genetics’ capacity and might raise unrealistic expectations among surviving relatives.”
In 2015, the Vietnamese government promised to invest $25 million USD in Project 150 and signed a contract with German bio-tech company BioGlobe to provide the training and equipment to update three DNA-testing centers in Hanoi. But so far the progress has been slow. An article late last year in a Vietnamese online newspaper, VOH Online, claimed that the project had positively matched only 24 sets of remains with DNA samples from surviving family members. (There is no mention, strangely, of the $25 million budget figure in the Vietnamese press. In fact, considering the supposed magnitude of the project, there are strangely few mentions of Project 150 at all on Vietnamese Google. Sam, for example, had never heard of it before.)
The more time goes by, of course, the more remains degrade and the harder it becomes to find direct relatives of the missing who are still alive.
“They say they’re building something, but we never know,” Mai Thanh Ha told me.
Early on the morning of July 27th, the official Vietnamese Day of Remembrance for Wounded and Fallen Soldiers, I met Hang outside the Marin office. We gathered on the empty street in front of the grey apartment building—me, Sam, Hang, and another Marin volunteer, Ho Mau Duong. Hang introduced Duong, who is 53 and works as a meditation instructor, as her anh, or “older brother.” Duong was dressed in jeans and a loose t-shirt and drove the 2008 Toyota SUV we’d be traveling in.
Most of the restaurants and stores in the area were still closed, but we found a pho place that was just gearing up for the morning rush—the young wait staff busily setting the tables with canisters of long black chopsticks, metal spoons and the requisite pho condiments: fish sauce, garlic vinegar, chili peppers and lime—and sat down for a quick breakfast.
While we ate, Duong talked about the piece of land he’d recently bought on Cat Ba, a sleepy island in Ha Long Bay covered in jungle and mountains and famous for a rare and endangered species of white-haired monkey, the Cat Ba Langur. The plan, Duong said, running a hand over the back of his shaved head, was to open a meditation center up in the mountains. There would be an area for meditation practice and a small garden for growing vegetables. It would be a simple, quiet life away from the city.
“And eventually I will join him there,” Hang said, finishing her bowl of pho. She was again wearing a simple black dress and no make-up. “Once I stop doing this work.”
The sky had darkened by the time we got back to the car.
“Mua,” Duong said, looking up at the clouds through the windshield. Rain.
We made one more stop. Duong pulled up in front of a small café where 67-year-old Nguyen Quoc Hung stood waiting underneath the awning, the cuffs of his pants rolled up at the ankles to avoid the rainwater that had started to run down the sidewalk.
"Mua,” Mr. Hung said by way of greeting as he stepped into the car and settled into the passenger seat up front.
Technically, Mr. Hung is the director of Marin. He is a veteran himself, a former NVA medic who wears a hearing aid and has a habit in conversation of angling his good ear in the direction of whoever’s speaking. He was originally recruited by Hang in order to fulfil a government requirement that, in order to operate an official office, Marin needed someone with a law degree serving as director.
The rain let up as we drove north out of the city. Construction cranes and the cement carcasses of new high-rise buildings were everywhere. Then we crossed the Red River and the landscape became much more flat, more spare, more industrial, the buildings smaller and more spread out. And then suddenly, after only another ten minutes or so, the buildings disappeared altogether, replaced now with lush green fields of rice paddies and clusters of jungle-covered hills.
At almost the same time we were driving to Yen Bai, 55 boxes containing what was believed to be the remains of American soldiers killed in the Korean War were arriving at an air force base in South Korea. The event had prompted mentions in the Western media about the ongoing search for American MIA remains in Vietnam. Last November, shortly after landing in Vietnam for the APEC summit, President Trump had delivered a statement to a gathering of reporters that included the line, “Our decades-long humanitarian efforts with the Vietnamese people to account for and recover personnel still missing—so important to us—from the war honors the horrors of this horrendous war.” The line, delivered early in the president’s prepared remarks, suggests how the issue of missing American soldiers is still—rhetorically, at least—at the forefront of the American government’s relationship with its former enemy.
For years, the Vietnamese government has helped the U.S. in the search for missing Americans. There is even a special office in the Vietnamese government devoted solely to the task of finding the remains of missing American personnel; the Vietnamese Office for Seeking Missing Persons (VNOSMP) handles the logistics of the American search missions—they organize the transportation and lodging, track the status of search sites, interview witnesses, and deal with any unexploded ordinance the mission might accidentally unearth. The VNOSMP also manages the teams of local day laborers hired for the manual labor of the actual searching—the clearing of vegetation, the digging and sorting through dirt. The task of recovering American remains rests, quite literally, in Vietnamese hands.
“Cooperating with the U.S. to search for American MIA remains in Vietnam is a way to mobilize U.S. support to find Vietnamese martyrs,” the director of the VNOSMP, Le Thanh Tung, told Agence France-Presse earlier this year.
“We need support from the international community,” Tung added, “including the American side.”
With Vietnamese help, the U.S. has repatriated the remains of about 1,000 Americans since the end of the war. The U.S. continues to spend around $100 million a year searching for their remaining 1,597 missing. The Hanoi detachment of the Defense Department’s POW/MIA Accounting Agency (the DPAA) currently operates out of a large white villa complex on Tran Phu, a leafy boulevard across town from the Marin office, near the city center.
Hang, Duong and Mr. Hung seemed uncomfortable when asked about the obvious inequity in resources devoted to finding the thousands of missing Vietnamese soldiers versus the comparatively small number of missing Americans. “I don’t have much information about that office,” Hang said of the VNOSMP, turning to look out the window of the Toyota at the rolling green of the Yen Bai rice fields outside.
Everyone was silent for a moment.
“We can just smile,” Duong said finally, glancing up at the rearview mirror.
I turned to Sam. “They think it’s ridiculous,” she whispered, “obviously ridiculous.”
The Vietnamese government has explicitly asked several times for DPAA help finding Vietnamese missing, but each time the DPAA has deflected the request, insisting this kind of “government-to-government coordination” needs to go through the State Department. There is no record of the U.S. government offering any financial aid or support for finding missing soldiers from the Vietnamese side.
While working on this story, I emailed the DPAA spokesperson to ask if the detachment had ever helped in any way with the search for the thousands of Vietnamese missing.
The answer was brief: “No.”
96-year-old Nguyen Thi Sinh lives in Hoa Cuong, a small village of dirt roads and rolling green rice paddies tucked into the western corner of the rural northern province of Yen Bai. The path to Ms. Sinh’s house was too narrow for the Toyota to navigate, so Ms. Sinh’s relatives came to pick us up in Hoa Cuong on motorbikes. I rode with one of Ms. Sinh’s children, a middle-aged man dressed in a white tank top, loose work slacks and flip flops. As we weaved down the path, over a homemade dam and a set of overgrown train tracks, he asked me about my flight from America and the salary at my teaching job back home.
In 2014, the Vietnamese government named Ms. Sinh one of 40,000 Heroic Mothers of Vietnam, an official title given to “mothers who have made numerous contributions and sacrifices for the cause of liberation,” the sacrifices being, more specifically, losing more than one son, losing an only son, or losing one son and having another return wounded. (One of the most famous Heroic Mothers of Vietnam is Nguyen Thi Thu, who lost her husband, nine sons, one son in law, and two nephews to war—a litany repeated in all mentions of her story in the Vietnamese media.)
Two of Ms. Sinh’s sons died in the war with America. Binh, the younger of the two, died in 1973, near the city of Hue; his body was eventually recovered and buried in the family cemetery in Hoa Cuong. But Ms. Sinh’s older son, Ky, who reportedly died in 1968 somewhere in the southern-central province of Binh Dinh, is still missing.
Ms. Sinh keeps framed pictures of Binh and Ky on the wall above the large wooden prayer altar that occupies one side of the main room in the cement house where she lives. (The wall also includes a picture of Ms. Sinh’s late husband and a portrait of Ho Chi Minh.) In the pictures, the sons are wearing the dark green uniforms and pith helmets of North Vietnamese Army regulars.
The day we visited Ms. Sinh, the altar was covered in offerings for her sons—a neatly tied bundle of lychee, boxes of cookies, a box of tea, a pack of cigarettes, a can of condensed milk. Along the back of the altar were three decorative vases holding the ashy remnants of old incense sticks.
Ms. Sinh, who wore a simple pair of silk pajamas, seemed a little overwhelmed as we all gathered around the coffee table where someone had prepared a pot of tea and set out half a dozen porcelain cups. Duong took out his phone and started broadcasting this live on Facebook.
Mr. Hung held Ms. Sinh’s hand. “Try not to worry too much, ba,” he said, using the pronoun that means “grandmother.”
Ms. Sinh said she didn’t worry because worrying didn’t help. Her voice was a touch shaky, but still firm, still undoubtedly clear. “We didn’t have any real last words, or any goodbyes,” she said, remembering when Ky had left for the war. “‘Mom, dad, brothers at home, please be strong. I’m leaving but I’ll never do anything to make you disappointed.’ He just said some words like this and then he was gone. We couldn’t go see him. The army called him, and that was all we knew. I just had to let him go.”
Once Ms. Sinh had finished, Hang started to talk. Duong trained his cellphone on Hang as she spoke, broadcasting the scene live on Facebook. Hang addressed both Ms. Sinh and the audience watching online. Ms. Sinh listened patiently, occasionally nodding—“Yes… Yes… Yes…”—as Hang went over the details of Ky’s case. A headstone in a military cemetery in Binh Dinh, where Ky had reportedly died, was engraved with the name Dao Xuan Ke. But paperwork indicated that the body of a soldier named Dao Xuan Ke had already been identified and returned to his hometown. Ms. Sinh’s family believed there had been a mistake on the headstone, and that the grave in Binh Dinh actually held Dao Xuan Ky’s body.
Hang could now report to Ms. Sinh and her family that Marin had collected enough evidence and official paperwork to convince the government to allow the body to be transferred to the family cemetery in Hoa Cuong. It was just a matter of time now before the government gave the final approval for the exhumation. This particular case was shaping up to be a success.
“What do families of the fallen soldiers need?” Hang asked rhetorically, now addressing the audience watching on Facebook as Ms. Sinh sat quietly in the background. “They need information about their fallen heroes. They need The Party and the government to take responsibility in sharing this information with them.” For the next 15 minutes Hang outlined the Ministry of Defense and MOLISA’s mishandling of information. “The Ministry of Defense must immediately release the information about where each missing soldier died, the exact location,” Hang concluded in her usual clipped, no-nonsense tone. “That is the first thing they must do, and the most important.”
The Facebook live video from Ms. Sinh’s home racked up a total of 1,100 views, 11 shares, and 36 comments. “Nothing compares to the gratification of easing the pain of a family who can’t find the remains of their loved one,” wrote one viewer.
In December, Paul Sorrentino, the French anthropologist, returned to Vietnam to continue the research for his book. Early in the trip, he sent me a message: “It seems like the Project 150 is not really happening,” he wrote. The massive DNA identification initiative had apparently stalled completely. For one, according to Sorrentino, the bone samples collected so far were too old and degraded for DNA analysis. The other reason was “an organizational mess” among the three government labs charged with doing the testing. “Instead of collaborating, it seems like they’ve been competing with each other,” Sorrentino said. An engineer at the Institute of Biotechnology in Hanoi—one of the three labs—had told Sorrentino that he’d recently quit Project 150 and was now working at a private hospital. The engineer had complained about “the usual narrative: there was a lot of money but it just went into some big guys’ pockets.”
“Might be true,” Sorrentino added. “And would be sadly banal.”
Instead of doing field work related to Project 150, Sorrentino had been spending most of his time with Hang. He had tagged along with Hang and Duong on a trip to Quang Tri to visit the local offices of the Department of Labor, Invalids, and Social Affairs where the government employees showed him a new software they were using to centralize information from the military cemeteries. It was basically the work that Hang had been doing for years on her laptop. But these local civil servants seemed like good people, Sorrentino said, and genuinely cared about the work.
And Hang seemed happy. “She sees the end of this thing,” Sorrentino told me in a phone conversation. “Soon it will be done. All the bodies that can be found will be found.”
Hang’s job now wasn’t just about finding remains, it was “to also help the families understand that it’s not all about the bones. They can find a way to do something right, even without finding the bones.”
“The book I write on all this,” Sorrentino added, suggesting this new angle had come to him only recently, “it’s going to be about renouncement—letting go. How for many families it’s about finding a way to do without the bones, because many of them are never going to find them.”
Hang too, of course, would also have to let go, to move on with her life while thousands and thousands of soldiers were still missing. But it seemed as if she had come to terms with that, Sorrentino said, and was excited for her future life with Duong at the meditation retreat on Cat Ba island.
After dinner on my last night in Vietnam, I asked Hang a question about the parents she and Duong shared back in Haiphong. Hang smiled. “You still think he’s my real brother,” she’d said. Anh, the pronoun Hang used with Duong—the pronoun which means literally “older brother,”—is also the pronoun a woman uses to address her lover.
Mai Thanh Ha is still looking for her uncle Du. Earlier this year, she travelled to Kon Tum, where the government was building a memorial on the hill where Du had apparently died. In the government paperwork, Du died on March 3rd and the veterans Ha talked to at the memorial in Kon Tum told her that this had been a day of particularly heavy fighting, that the Americans had bombed and then stormed the hill that day and “everyone had died.” The chances that she might find a surviving veteran who had seen what happened to Du were slim.
Ha also visited the local military cemetery in Kon Tum. She chatted with the security guard and spent hours walking up and down the seemingly endless rows of simple cement headstones. Thousands of graves were marked with the words “Chua biet ten,”—name unknown. The cemetery was quiet, peaceful. The sun was bright. In the clear sky above, birds glided on the fresh Central Highland’s breeze.
“It’s a beautiful place, a nice place,” Ha remembered thinking, as she recounted the trip to me. She assumed this was where her uncle must have been buried.
Then she drove in her rental car to the nearby city of Gia Lai, where Du’s unit had been stationed and where the military had erected a memorial wall etched with the names of every missing soldier who had fought in Kon Tum—over 13,000 North Vietnamese Army soldiers whose bodies had never been found. But her uncle’s name wasn’t there, which didn’t make any sense.
Her flight back to Hanoi was in a few hours, so she started driving to the airport when a call came through on her cell phone from a local official in charge of handling old military records for the area. When Ha had met with this official earlier, he’d checked his files and said that he couldn’t find Du’s name anywhere. Now he told Ha over the phone that he’d just found the name Mai Huy Du on an old list of missing soldiers.
Ha turned around and drove to the man’s office. She noticed right away that these were the original records—the book containing the soft, faded pages was old and worn around the edges. Du was listed along with 82 other soldiers as missing. But this didn’t exactly resolve anything. “’Missing’ during the war time,” Ha explained, “means they don’t find the body, they can’t confirm that you are dead.”
The trip to Kon Tum seemed to only confuse things further. The death certificate the family received in 1973 said that Du died on March 3rd, the day of heavy casualties on the hill. But in the old military records book Du was listed as missing on February 29th.
When she got back to Hanoi, Ha sent the official from Kon Tum all the information she’d collected over the years about her uncle, but she never heard back from him.
“I think I’ll call him someday, but I don’t think he can really do anything.”
Her eyes started to fill with tears as she talked about all this.
“I just want to see his name written somewhere, you know? When I do this, searching for my uncle, I think about his parents, my grandparents. How could they die and never know what happened to their son?”