Soc Trang Province - Adoption Journey
My wife Hanne (pronounced almost like Hannah--she's Danish) and I decided to adopt from Vietnam in September 1996. Our son, Peter was born in January 1996 and was raised by the orphanage in Soc Trang Province, south of Ho Chi Minh City in the Mekong Delta. His Vietnamese name is Nguyen Hien Dat. He was referred to us by the International Assistance and Adoption Project (IAAP) in January 1997. Here is an account of our trip to Vietnam to bring Peter home to Brasstown in the mountains of North Carolina.
We left Atlanta on May 21, 1997, flew to Los Angeles, to Seoul, to Bangkok for a quick overnight and then to Ho Chi Minh City arriving Friday afternoon May 23 about 2:30 p.m. local time along with six other adopting families from St. Louis, Cincinnati, Cheyenne, Poughkeepsie, Southern California and Colorado Springs. Our agency had supposedly made arrangements for us to be picked up at the airport, so we were quite befuddled when no one showed up looking for us as we departed customs. Thus began our education about the realities of international adoption - you can't depend on anything happening on schedule. After an hour of waiting in the blistering heat and humidity, a van thankfully arrived to whisk us into the city.
We stayed at the Rose Hotel on Pasteur Street along with seven families from Quebec who were adopting through the Canadian agency Terre des Hommes. Both agencies are fortunate to share the services of trilingual Montreal attorney My Tram Duong whose family immigrated to Canada in the 1970s. We had been expecting to go immediately to the orphanage in Soc Trang to pick up our children on Saturday. But to our disappointment we were told that due to a surprise audit by authorities from Hanoi, the babies could not be released until early the following week. So we set off to enjoy the sights, the food and the nightlife as best we could while we were still without the responsibilities of our kids. One of our best tours was a day long excursion to My Tho in the Mekong Delta which included a visit to a resort farm to sample fresh exotic fruits, a concert of traditional music, a ride through the canals in a small native canoe and a regional five-course meal.
It appeared depressingly likely that we would not be able to pick up the kids before the following weekend. Apparently the orphanage would not release them until their Vietnamese passports were ready. But late Monday afternoon we got a break - the orphanage suddenly changed its mind and decided to allow both the Canadian and American groups to come the following day (Tuesday, May 27)! Our time at the orphanage was set for 11a.m. - 1 p.m. At 4 a.m. Tuesday morning we boarded a large charter bus to make the expected six-hour trip to Soc Trang Province. By mid morning it was apparent that the trip would be two hours longer than expected (each way) due to road construction and waits at the two ferry crossings. We arrived 90 minutes late for our "Giving and Receiving Ceremony" and after a speech by the orphanage director, the children were brought in and handed to us. We were barely given time to change them and dress them in clothes we had brought when we were hustled back to the bus. Although we spent very little time at the orphanage, we came away with a clear impression that the children received much loving care in spite of extremely limited resources. The trip home was long but the babies were very well behaved and we arrived back at our hotel at 10 p.m. exhausted.
Our little Peter with his dark eyes and swarthy good looks charmed us immediately. He was quick to laugh and could both walk and crawl with ease. He began to explore every nook and cranny of our hotel room and made an instant toy out of almost anything. His favorites included our shoes, empty plastic bottles (we could drink only bottled water), and our room's plastic laundry hamper. Orphanage life seems to give kids great powers of observation and Peter was very quick to pick up on our moods and wishes. Peter soon got to see a lot of central Saigon by stroller and accompanied us to some very nice restaurants. At one Chinese restaurant he managed to flip my full teacup in the air with a chopstick! Another baby in our group, who (unlike Peter) took an immediate liking to table food of all kinds, threw up a large portion of tomato bisque soup on our table at a fancy French restaurant. Fortunately for us, most of the restaurant and hotel workers in Saigon love kids.
It would be difficult to quickly summarize our feelings about all that we saw and did in Vietnam. The country was rapidly modernizing and Saigon in particular was full of western goods and advertising. But many of the old ways, including dire poverty, were ever present. You were likely to see attractive, well dressed young men and women riding down the street on mopeds or in cars, talking on cellular phones, while huge numbers of people lived, slept, ate, begged and relieved themselves in the streets.
Once we had Peter with us we hoped that the rest would be easy. Little did we know that it would be a miracle if we actually arrived home on schedule. We left for Vietnam with one piece of unfinished business with US Immigration (INS). INS requires a two-stage application process for approval of international adoptions. The first stage (I-600A) requires approval of the prospective parents. This includes a home study by a licensed social worker, copies of birth certificates, marriage licenses, divorce decrees, fingerprinting and an FBI and police record clearance, etc. The second stage (I-600) requires approval of the child and here we ran into problems. You can't apply for the I-600 until you have certain papers that can only be supplied by the Vietnamese province where the orphanage is located. We received those papers about a month before our intended departure. Ordinarily this is plenty of time - many INS state offices can process them in a few days. But the North Carolina INS office announced that it took 60-90 days. I drove our papers to Charlotte (5 hour drive each way) 30 days before our departure date and waited 2 hours in the INS office just to hand them in (you have to take a number!).
They obviously processed them in under 30 days because we got a letter from them in the mail a week before our departure for Vietnam, saying that we still needed a cover letter from the State Dept. of Human Resources, stating that we met all North Carolina's state requirements. This baffled us since we had been given to understand that the state and INS had agreed in February 1997 that this step wasn't necessary. It seemed we were caught in a bureaucratic black hole between the State of NC and the Charlotte INS office. The one person from North Carolina Dept. of Human Resources who could write such a cover letter for us was out of town and couldn't be reached until the day we left for Vietnam. Friends in Brasstown agreed to check our mail each day and fax us the final approval if it came. Our senator's office also went to bat for us trying to cut through some of the red tape.
Part of the reason this advance approval is so important is because internationally adopting parents must get a US Visa for their child. The US embassy in Hanoi didn't yet issue these visas. They had to be obtained from the US embassy in Bangkok, Thailand and to travel there to get them, you had to get a Thai visa for your child. Thailand doesn't require visas for citizens of most Western countries (including the US and Denmark) but it does require them for Vietnamese. To get the Thai visa we had to apply to the Thai embassy in Saigon and one of the required documents was a Letter of Confirmation (LOC) from the US State Department that our child would qualify for a US Visa. That in turn required the INS approval we didn't have. Yikes! What to do? Well, the director of IAAP, Dick Graham, had a very clever work-around for us. Forget the Charlotte INS office. Reapply for INS approval directly to the Bangkok INS office. Now that the adoption was a done deal, advance approval by North Carolina Human Services wasn't necessary. We faxed copies of all the documents to Bangkok from the central post office in Saigon. Since they were all in good order, INS agreed to give us provisional approval and have the State Dept issue its Letter of Confirmation with the proviso that we come to the INS office in Bangkok with the original documents to have them verified.
So now we were ready to apply for the Thai visa for Peter, right? Wrong. We needed his Vietnamese passport. We picked up the kids on a Tuesday and were told that the passports would be ready by Friday. Plenty of time for us to get the Thai visas on Saturday (the Thai Embassy would be open) and be at the airport for our flight to Bangkok on Sunday. But now we were told there was a change in the passport procedure. While the passports were prepared in Saigon, they now had to go to Soc Trang to be stamped by the local Ministry of Justice and then returned to us in Saigon. We all changed our Sunday flights to Monday wondering if we could really even make that. Sure enough the passports were ready in Saigon on Friday, went to Soc Trang on Saturday and on Sunday the assistant director of the orphanage (bless her heart!) brought them to us, arriving at about 10:30 p.m. Ordinarily the Thai embassy can issue a visa in one day. But our flight was at 1:50 p.m. Monday meaning we had to leave for the airport no later than 11:00 a.m. Three of us dads went to the Thai embassy at 8:00 a.m. Monday morning with the applications and documents for our seven families. We gave our hard luck story to the lady on duty and submitted our stuff with double the usual fees for "express processing." We returned to the hotel and at 9:30 we loaded everybody in a van for the airport, stopping at the Thai embassy on the way. Lo and behold our visas were ready at 10:00 a.m. and we were at the airport by 10:40 a.m. with nearly an hour to wait before we could even check in. We made it!
We were exhausted. When I arrived in Bangkok (just an hour flight) I was running a fever and had stomach pains. I spent the rest of the day in bed resting up for the next morning when four of our families (including us) were scheduled for visa interviews at the US Embassy at 8:30 a.m. One small problem - before that interview our children had to have medical exams at the Bangkok Nursing Home, which, unlike it's name implies, is actually an ultra-modern, full-service hospital. And unlike the other families, we still had to get our final approval from INS. Should we attempt the near impossible or change our flight home to one day later? We decided to go for it.
On Tuesday morning we had breakfast at 5:30 a.m., then got in a taxi and asked the driver to take us to the Bangkok Nursing Home (we had the name and address written in Thai by our hotel desk). The driver didn't have a clue where it was! Fortunately I had my Bangkok guide book handy and had marked the spot on the map inside. He found it and we arrived at 6:30 a.m. to be first in line when they opened at 7:00. The physical took about 30 minutes. The very nice Thai lady doctor told us that Peter was a little underweight and had an ear infection for which she prescribed eardrops and an antibiotic. At 7:40 the hospital reception lady sent one of her orderlies out on the street to find us a cab. We handed the driver the address of the US Embassy written in English and Thai. He shrugged his shoulders and out came the guidebook again. We got to the Embassy by 8:00 a.m. but we still had to visit the INS office just down the street. This was the one hurdle I was most concerned about. Could they actually process us in time for our interview at the Embassy? Or would we have to reschedule for the next day (Wed.) and postpone our Wednesday flight home to Thursday?
We arrived at the INS office and an American woman with a Vietnamese baby was ahead of us at the window. She jabbered on and on about a lot of obviously irrelevant things to an annoyed but still polite officer at the window. Finally she left and I approached, determined to be more respectful and taciturn ("yes, sir-no, sir"). The officer went through my documents very quickly, made some notes, asked a few questions and then much to my amazement, said "It will take us about 45 minutes to process this, but you should go over to the Embassy and get in line for your interview right now." Yippeeeee!
We got to the consular section of the Embassy by 8:40 a.m., only 10 minutes after our originally appointed time. We were called to the window for our "interview" pleased to find that the interviewing State Dept. officer was an acquaintance of our agency's director. In fact we had met him in Saigon the week before! We asked him if our INS approval had come over yet - it had been about 45 minutes. "No" he says, "but I'll go over and get it for you now." He disappeared for about 5 minutes (while other folks are waiting in line behind us) and returned with our final approval. We were actually back at the hotel by 9:45 a.m. with everything done except to pick up Peter's US Visa that afternoon. Hanne and I were both relieved and overjoyed that we could get home on schedule. I wasn't even too disappointed that my stomach wouldn't let me sample the delicious Thai food I'd been anticipating.
On Wednesday morning we got up at 3:00 a.m. to go to the airport with four of our other families for the long (36-hour) trip home. Peter was a trooper; he slept and played for most of the trip with only a few relatively short periods of crankiness. Thai Airlines was great. The food, service and legroom were superior to any airline I had ever flown. They accommodated the kids - even gave us a little sleeping basket for Peter that hung from the bulkhead. He could sit in it and raise his hands to make shadows on the movie screen! By contrast our four-hour flight from LA to Atlanta on Delta was extremely uncomfortable. Legroom was minimal. Seating was three abreast and the flight was completely full - we were jammed in with a stranger in the window seat. There were no changing tables in the rest rooms. And when our flight was called, passengers with small children were not even given boarding priority (yes, we were starting to really notice stuff like that!). It was a long flight - in some ways it seemed longer then the ten-hour flight from Seoul to LA. When our friends Phil and Virginia met us at the gate in Atlanta we were more than ready to be whisked away in our mini-van (best legroom yet!) for the two and a half-hour-drive to Brasstown. We arrived home at 2:00 a.m. Thursday morning, June 4.
On Saturday morning, guess what came in the mail? Our final approval from the North Carolina INS office arrived in the prepaid express mail envelope I had given them. Thanks a bunch, guys.
Peter officially became a U.S. citizen on February 23, 1999. We all went to the INS office in Charlotte to sign the papers and get his naturalization certificate. We celebrated with a trip to the mall where Peter got a balloon, a tape of Barney songs and a big slice of pizza (all his favorites!). He also moved into the 3-4 year old group at day care.
Published on 3/1/99