It was 8pm on a scorching summer night when Tien, a quiet, timid teenager, left her home in a coastal province of central Vietnam, supposedly to spend the night at her cousin’s. Or at least, that is what the 16-year-old had told her family. In fact, she planned to leave the village to escape the pressure on her to get married. Hoping her cousin would help her find a job, she slipped out the door.
It was nearly two years before she would return, by then having endured horrors beyond the imagination of most teenagers. The cousin she had trusted, rather than finding her a job, had sold her to a human trafficking broker in China who resold her as a bride. Tien became part of a depressing new statistic: the growing number of impoverished Vietnamese children being sold into forced marriages in China.
Tien had realised early on that something was amiss. “I gave her all of my money and my ID card,” Tien recalls. “She told me, ‘we’re going to find work. You said you wanted to leave that village so I’m taking you’.”
Her cousin had promised to take her to the big cities in the south, but instead they headed north, to the capital Hanoi. They switched vehicles in the capital and Tien fell asleep. When she woke, she was in China, where her cousin abandoned her after selling her to a trafficking broker.
Tien soon learned the broker had already matched her with a husband. She put up a fight, refusing to leave the broker’s house for four months, but eventually gave in, having met a fellow Vietnamese who told her the only way to escape the country would be to learn Chinese – and that the best way to do so would be to marry. So she let her broker find her a new match.
A FAMILIAR TALE
Tien’s ordeal is far from unique. Disappearances like hers have become so frequent in some rural areas of Vietnam many villagers assume that if a girl has been missing for more than a couple of days she must already be on the other side of the border.
Official statistics from Vietnam’s Department of General Police show that between 2011 and 2017, there were 2,700 reported cases of human trafficking, involving nearly 6,000 victims mainly from poor families in rural areas, with little access to education or economic opportunities. The official figures are widely thought to be dwarfed by the number of unreported cases. Police say selling children as brides is rife in provinces near the border with China and is on the rise.
In China, where men outnumber women by 34 million – more than the entire population of Malaysia – websites offer foreign brides to fill the gap. The service comes at a price, usually somewhere around the 10,000 yuan (US$1,500) mark.
The stories of the women who end up becoming these brides are nuanced. Some are lured into China with false promises of jobs and better lives, but end up forced into marriage or even brothels to become sex slaves. Some are tricked by someone they trust – a relative, a friend, even sometimes a boyfriend who promises to marry them, but instead sells them. Some girls are drugged, then taken across the border.
Other girls are given up voluntarily by families who are made to believe they will receive a dowry (often “less than the price of a buffalo”, villagers would say, usually between US$600-US$2,200), but instead find their daughters have been kidnapped and sold on.
Once the women have been married off, various forces conspire to keep them in China. Some are effectively imprisoned by their new husbands, others are too afraid to return as the stigma they bear means they will be unable to marry again in Vietnam.
Ma Thi Mai, a Hmong woman in her 30s from Sa Pa, an impoverished rural town in northern Vietnam, was sold by her boyfriend. “After my first husband died, a man got my number from an acquaintance and tried to reach out to me,” she recalls.
They soon became infatuated with each other – or so she thought. Within just two weeks he had asked her to leave her home in the terraced hills of Lao Chai village to visit his family in Lao Cai, a border city separated from China by a confluence of two rivers. It is notorious as a crossing point for human traffickers.
As they crossed the river in the dead of night on a raft, Mai was unaware they were entering another country. She had never travelled that far from her hometown.
“I did not know it was China until I saw the signboards in different letters and the people were speaking in a different language,” Mai says. “He sold me to a Chinese woman, who then sold me to other men.”
Mai became a modern-day slave. She was sold and auctioned at least five times, and was kept constantly on the road. Angry men would threaten and beat her if she protested or even wept. “They sold me like an animal,” she says.
Dang Thi Thanh Thuy, a case manager at Hagar International in Vietnam, an NGO that provides help for women and children who have escaped sexual slavery and human trafficking, says victims suffer psychological traumas that can scar them for life.
“The initial responses of women who have been rescued can be either panic or disassociation, depending on their ways of coping with trauma,” she says. “If they are frightened or agitated, they might even try to commit suicide, break down or scream. But if they experience emotional numbness, they feel depressed and have no motivation to do anything.
“All of these reactions are rooted in their insecurity. They no longer feel safe and protected.”
Lao Cai is infamous for trafficking. Ethnic minorities and children in Lao Cai are often the traffickers’ main targets, according to a report by Unicef in 2016.
Domestic violence is common in Lao Cai, even though in many cases the women there are the main providers for their family. The area is popular with backpackers and many Hmong women make a living as trekking guides or by selling souvenirs. Those who can’t speak English and have nothing to sell often survive by working on farms. Others look north to escape the poor living conditions.
Mai married her first husband when she was 14. By the time she was sold into her second marriage – sometime in her mid-20s, she is not sure of exactly when – she had already had two children.
Since she returned home – she escaped China by flagging down a police car – she has received neither psychological nor physical support, despite having reached out to local authorities.
She now spends most of her time toiling in the fields to support her sons.
Meanwhile, the “boyfriend” who kidnapped her walks around freely, despite having been reported for the crime. She saw him recently at the local church, wearing her Hmong xauv necklace.
“His father works for the local government,” she says. “I’m sure if he could sell me, he must have sold other women too. He was very experienced and knew what to do.”
“I wish he was in prison, because what he did was like killing me. He sold me, he stole my stuff. It still hurts so much when you think about it.”
At a nearby village in Ta Van, clay houses with thatched roofs are clustered together in the mountains, overlooking beautiful vast swathes of green terraced fields in the sunny May weather.
There, in their nearly empty, unequipped houses, two mothers, Sung Thi Ku, 54, and Giang Thi Su, 40, count their days waiting for news of their missing daughters.
Both of Ku’s daughters are in China – though neither has ever told Ku what they are doing there. Ku believes they were both sold to traffickers after leaving for China voluntarily, and blames their husbands’ families. “My first daughter’s husband told her he did not want her any more. His family mistreated her, and she wanted to leave for China, so she did with her friend,” Ku says.
In the five years since her eldest daughter left, Ku has heard nothing from her. Ku’s younger daughter left home at 21, about two and a half years ago. Soon after the 2018 Vietnamese Lunar New Year, Ku received a call from a Chinese number. It was her younger daughter.
“She told me to work hard and stay healthy, she was staying in China and she had a family and a child already,” Ku said.
“She told me she cannot come back to Vietnam.”
The other mother, Su, is still in contact with the daughter she lost. One day, her daughter had come home with a group of Chinese people who asked Su for her daughter’s hand to marry. Su did not know they were human traffickers at the time, even though things did not feel right.
“They kept touching my daughter’s hair, body, hands,” she recalls.
“They told us to trust them, that we could come with them to China for one or two days if we wanted.”
Su warned her daughter not to go with the people, but her daughter left anyway, accompanying the group with a friend and the friend’s father. They stayed at an inn near the border, and when the friend’s father woke up the next day the Chinese group had vanished along with the girls and without paying the dowry. The girls were just 17 years old.
Su’s daughter, now 20, was married to a man whose first wife had died. He does not allow her to return to Vietnam because he fears she would run away. She is not even allowed to call.
“I was angry and I cried a lot,” Su says, breaking into tears. “I thought those people did some magic to my daughter, that is why she did not listen to me any more.”
Out of the six thousand victims identified by Vietnam’s Department of General Police, only around 600 have returned to Vietnam.
Among them is Cau, a Hmong student who was kidnapped by the aunt of one of her friends and taken to China when she was 17. The aunt then sold both Cau and her own niece to traffickers.
The traffickers took Cau across the country, to Zhejiang where Cau met many young Vietnamese women, from Son La, Lai Chau, and even her own hometown Mu Cang Chai, who were eager to meet her.
“I met a 14-year-old girl who had been kidnapped and was married to a 36-year-old man,” Cau recalls. “I asked her how she knew I was in town, she said her Chinese husband had told her there was a Vietnamese girl who had just arrived. She also came from Mu Cang Chai, and she told me she missed her hometown, so she wanted to see me and talk to me.”
After three months, Cau managed to escape the house where she was being kept and ran to the nearest police station. Her description helped the police to locate the house where she had been held.
The Chinese traffickers were arrested, but the Vietnamese ones had already escaped. Her friend is still missing.
Vietnam lacks a comprehensive repatriation mechanism to reintegrate human trafficking victims into ordinary life. Women who voluntarily went to China – even those lured under false pretences like the daughters of Ku and Su – are considered “off record” and do not qualify for any of the state initiatives offering financial or psychological support. The same is true of those women who, like Mai, escape their traffickers and return to Vietnam under their own steam.
Yet these women are in some ways the most vulnerable. Their wounds never completely heal because of the social stigma and discrimination they may experience. “In our society, there is still a common response towards human trafficking: victim-blaming,” says Thuy, the case manager at Hagar. “Many people still label the victims as ‘bad girls who deserve to be trafficked’, or ‘lazy, greedy people who want to earn money easily’.
“Such reactions exacerbate their past traumas, and can easily traumatise them again. They come to perceive themselves the way the society does, and start blaming themselves.”
Back in Hanoi, Tien, now 21, has gone back to school and is starting a new life. When she first returned to the country, neighbours made her feel unwelcome.
“When I got back, I felt like there was a wall in front of me, especially when I talked to other people,” Tien says. “I was very afraid. I didn’t want to talk. Many people would make jokes out of my pain and thought it was funny.”
Her past came back to haunt her. The family in China she had escaped from recently contacted her to try to persuade her to return. She changed her sim card, fearing they might one day track her down.
Now she doesn’t tell people she meets about her past; none of her schoolmates are aware of what happened to her. She has regained her self-confidence, something she attributes to being encouraged to continue her studies by the staff at Hagar.
“It feels like a dream I’ve had for so long,” Tien says. “I’ve learned to forget about my past and feel more integrated into society.”
Tien’s ambition now is to become a social worker, just like the ones who brought her back to life.
With additional reporting by Trang Bui. Names have been changed to protect identities