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US veteran reunited with long-lost girlfriend in Vietnam after 45 years

'I just would like to talk with the wonderful lady I knew in 1969 and 1970'

Annie Gowen
Friday 15 January 2016 14:45 GMT
Jim Reischl and Nguyen Thi Hanh, who dated during the Vietnam War while Reischl was stationed in Saigon, meet again after 45 years in Hanh’s hometown in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region
Jim Reischl and Nguyen Thi Hanh, who dated during the Vietnam War while Reischl was stationed in Saigon, meet again after 45 years in Hanh’s hometown in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region (Quinn Ryan Mattingly/For The Washington Post)

Alone in a hotel room in a small Vietnamese town, Jim Reischl waited restlessly. Recounting the story later, the Vietnam veteran said he had traveled 8,500 miles, with an arthritic knee, for this long-sought reunion.

“I am getting a bit excited,” he said. “Geez, I haven’t seen her in 45 years!”

Then came a knock on the door.

On the other side stood the woman he’d left behind when he shipped out of Saigon in July 1970. The young bar hostess who’d told him she was pregnant. He hadn’t believed her, but he’d also never stopped thinking about her. Now she was about to walk back into his life.

Reischl, 68, came to Vietnam as a 21-year-old Air Force sergeant and was stationed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base outside Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City.

After his year-long tour, he went back to Minnesota, became a government cartographer, married twice, had a son and suffered Agent Orange-related health problems. But he never forgot his “first lady.”

Around 2005, after his second marriage ended, Reischl set out to search for the woman he remembered only as “Linh Hoa” — not her actual name.

He began by scouring the Internet, eventually contacting Father Founded, a group that helps link soldiers and their Amerasian children through DNA testing and other means.

An estimated 100,000 children were born to U.S. servicemen and Vietnamese women during the Vietnam War, most of whom eventually immigrated to the United States. Many were adopted by American families.

Since 2012, with the help of Father Founded volunteers, Reischl has traveled to Vietnam five times, speaking to journalists and placing ads in local newspapers.

The most recent read: “I am in search of you. It has been many years. I am not looking for a relationship. I want you to know that. I just would like to talk with the wonderful lady I knew in 1969 and 1970.”

Last spring, in a trip chronicled by The Washington Post as part of a project about Amerasian children left in Vietnam, Reischl went back to visit the $5-a-month apartment where the couple had spent lazy days making love, watching a black-and-white TV and listening to Beatles and Blind Faith records. He still remembers the day she told him she was pregnant.

These photos of Reischl and Hanh were taken in the fall of 1969. Reischl was sent home the next summer, and although he told Hanh of his departure, apparently she did not understand and thought he had simply disappeared. He has kept the photos for 45 years (Quinn Ryan Mattingly/For The Washington Post)

“She wanted me to stay with her and live in Vietnam. At the time I said, ‘I’m not going to live here, stay here.’ It was totally foreign to me,” Reischl said. “I was young and stupid, I guess.”

Reischl showed neighbors a photo of the young woman he had snapped from a taxi the last day he saw her. She was standing on the balcony watching him ride away. Nobody remembered her, but Reischl said he vowed, “I will never officially stop looking.”

In September, a 64-year-old woman sitting by her bedridden husband in the village of My Luong in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta picked up her iPad and clicked on a news site. She idly opened a locally written article about kids abandoned during the war. Scrolling down, she was shocked to see a photo of her younger self, in the arms of a khaki-clad soldier — Reischl.

“The moment I saw it, I knew,” the woman, Nguyen Thi Hanh, recalled. “Suddenly the memories of the first love re-emerged.”

Also flooding back were thoughts of their daughter. For there had been a child after all.

The reunion between Hanh and Reischl after 45 years was emotional, but the pair quickly settled into an amicable and cheerful rhythm. (Quinn Ryan Mattingly/For The Washington Post)

After Reischl shipped out, a devastated Hanh left Saigon to take refuge in the countryside. On Dec. 18, 1970, she gave to birth to a baby girl with large eyes and pale skin whom she called Nguyen Thanh Nguyen Thuy. Her given name meant “First Tear,” Hanh said, “because I was alone and didn’t have any family with me at the time.”

Hanh, then just 19, let a friend take the child to an orphanage, thinking she would still be able to visit her. But the friend disappeared, and when Hanh went to the orphanage, the nuns told her they had no record of her case.

Hanh joined the South Vietnamese Army and, after the fall of Saigon in April 1975, spent two years in a Communist reeducation camp. There, she met her husband, now 74 and incapacitated from a stroke. The couple has two grown children.

Over the years, she said, she never stopped looking for her child — and never forgave Reischl for deserting her.

“I was still angry with him,” she said.

After she saw the news article, Hanh emailed the reporter, who helped her link up with Reischl back in St. Cloud, Minn. Texting, phone calls and Skype chats followed. Their improbable reunion happened this past weekend in Hanh’s home town.

“Nice to meet you . . . again,” Reischl said when he opened the door and saw the petite Hanh, her hair still parted on the same side as he remembered it. He held out his arms. Hanh burst into tears.

She became emotional again when the two sat down for an interview. The white-haired Air Force veteran put his arm on her chair as if to comfort her — close, but not too close.

The two are now determined to find the child they lost. Reischl brought a DNA kit so they could submit a sample from Hanh to a database for Amerasians seeking relatives on a family heritage website. Without this effort, they say, their reunion will not be complete.

“It's a lie to say I'm completely calm and carefree about this event,” Hanh said later. “I have mixed feelings about it. I’m quite happy with my current life otherwise. My only unfulfilled dream is to be able to find my first daughter.”

Nga Ly Hien Nguyen in My Luong, Vietnam, contributed to this report.

Copyright: Washington Post

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