Mandy's Story - A Vietnam Adoption Story

By Laurie O'Neill

Vietnam Adoption Referral

"The babies are here!" Tam from the Claudia hotel burst through the door to the dining area. Mom grabbed the camcorder and we leapt up and raced towards the lobby. My head was spinning and my heart was pounding. Could this really be happening? After 2 years of dreaming, saving, plodding through paperwork, and seemingly endless waiting, could it really be possible that I was here in Hanoi, Vietnam, only seconds away from holding my daughter in my arms at last? To many people what I was doing might seem odd - a single 29 yr old traveling halfway around the world to bring home an almost 2 yr old who I knew only from a small photo and a few pages of information, but to me nothing in the world could have felt more right. I had dreamed of adopting a child for a long time - in fact, I even discovered an entry written in my diary when I was 12 yrs old which began "When I grow up and adopt my daughter..." For a long time, that's all it was, a dream.

In the summer of 1996 I started researching adoption on the internet, devouring every adoption story I could find and looking longingly at the pictures of the adorable children who had recently come home. I started feeling more and more desperate to have my child with me NOW, and the thought of having to wait another 7 years seemed unbearable. Then one day I accidentally stumbled across Wendy Barron's home page describing their story of adopting Sahara from Vietnam, and I knew IMMEDIATELY that Vietnam was where my daughter was.

I had to build up my savings before I could get started, so I spent the next year reading everything I could get my hands on about Vietnam and adoption, became addicted to the APV list, and selected an agency, North Bay Adoptions, which works with IMH. (I highly recommend them both - the whole process went like clockwork). After the long wait to get started, and plodding through all the paperwork, at last, on December 1st, 1997, my dossier arrived in Vietnam!

For some reason from the very beginning I felt convinced that my daughter would be a toddler when we met. Despite the fact that practically everyone I spoke to told me about how much more easily infants adapt, and tried to persuade me to request an infant, I knew in my heart that MY child was a little older, so I requested a 12-18 month old at the time of referral, with a preference for the older end of that range. I had been expecting to wait 3-4 months for a referral, but much to my amazement it only took 26 days! The fax just gave her name and birthdate. She was Nguyen Thi Huong, born 6/10/96. It's amazing to think that you can fall completely in love with someone from just a name and birthdate, but I did!

Only 3 days later, on New Years Eve day, the phone rang again - my Fed Ex packet had arrived! What an incredible feeling to open it and see my baby's face for the first time. It wasn't a great picture - she was being held by a caregiver and was all bundled up in several layers of clothes with a knit hat pulled all the way around her head so that all I could see was a little round face peeking out. She was holding a sign with her name written on it, and had a sad, scared expression on her face. Even though I couldn't see that much of her, I could tell she was gorgeous, and I wanted more than anything to be able to hug her and put a smile on that solemn little face.

Then the real waiting began. The first couple of months weren't too bad, because I was busy shopping, finishing Mandy's room, and getting organized. But after that the wait was torture! I wanted so badly to hold my baby in my arms, and it was so hard not knowing how she was doing. A month before I got my travel approval, just about as I was starting to go completely crazy, I got 2 new photos! She looked so beautiful and ever so much bigger and more grown up than in the first photo. In one of the pictures she looked HUGE, and my Mom and I both started worrying that she had grown so much in the last few months that all the clothes I was bringing would be too small!

I had determined from watching the patterns of other IMH families on the e-mail list that it was most likely that I would find out on a Monday or Tuesday that I was travelling, so for that last month of waiting I would be all excited and full of hope every Monday and Tuesday morning and then when there was no news by Tuesday the rest of the week seemed awfully long and depressing. I was just beginning to despair that the call was never going to come, when at long last, on Monday morning, April 27th, at 8 a.m., exactly 4 months from the date of referral, the phone rang! I heard the voice I'd been waiting for, Sidne from North Bay, saying "Well, Laurie, this is it!" I was going to Vietnam!

We arrived in Hanoi on Monday, May 11th - the day after Mothers Day, sleep deprived, but wide awake and filled with excitement! One of Mom's suitcases was lost in route from Bangkok to Hanoi, but was found the next day. We were met by a van from IMH and a delightful young woman, Tam, from the Claudia hotel who would become our translator, tour guide, and completely indispensable person for the rest of our stay. We arrived at the hotel at about noon, and were told that the babies would arrive at 6 o'clock. Only 6 more hours until I would meet my baby!

Meeting Mandy in Vietnam

The babies were here! I couldn't believe it - in just a few moments I would meet my daughter! The lobby of the Claudia hotel was in a state of total chaos with crying parents, babies, hotel employees, IMH facilitator, and orphanage caregivers everywhere. There was one woman who was holding a child who looked larger than the others but still looked more like an infant than an almost 2 year old - could this possibly be Mandy??? I made my way towards her and inquired "Huong?" "Huong", the woman nodded and pointed. This was my baby!!! She looked quite different from her photos - her hair was much shorter - the long bangs in the photo had been cut unevenly all the way to the top of her forehead, she had a couple of sores on the back of her head, and she was ever so much tinier than I had been expecting! But she was so beautiful!

She looked terrified, and I was afraid to overwhelm her too much by holding her right away so I took her tiny hand in mine and talked to her for a few minutes first, then the woman passed her to me. She never cried, just clung to me like a little koala bear. She felt like she weighed nothing! I just couldn't get over how teeny tiny she was. I couldn't see her face, but Mom said she looked absolutely stricken and in shock. I was crying a little, but not as much as I had thought I would, and I remember thinking how it all seemed completely unreal. I tried to ask the caregiver a few questions, but the translator was only available for a few minutes and I wasn't thinking too clearly so I really didn't find out anything except that they said she talked and could say a few words in Vietnamese.

Mrs. Thuy from the Claudia produced several cans of formula and told us how to make it, examined her for scabies and lice (she had none), and told us to bring her down every day at 4 o'clock so that she could treat her head sores with herbal tea. Then we headed up the stairs to the room to start getting to know my daughter! She wasn't wearing a diaper, so that was the first order of business. (The infants weren't wearing diapers either!) She let me put a diaper and sleeper on her, still not crying, and Mom made formula for her and she lay in my arms clutching her bottle in one hand and a plastic toy I gave her in the other. She seemed so weak and limp that I couldn't imagine that she was capable of walking, despite what her referral papers said, that she "goes step by step and plays toys"! She smelled slightly of stale urine, but we decided that she was just too frightened to attempt a bath and that could wait. I sat on the bed holding her tight and telling her how much I loved her, and promised her that I would always take care of her, and she fell asleep almost immediately against my chest. I was finally able to fall asleep too, now that I was holding my baby at last.

The first night went well, and all of us got some sleep. Mandy only woke up once at midnight for changing and another bottle. The weird thing about this trip was that I never suffered from jet lag in either direction. I grew up overseas, and in all the other travelling I've done, I usually would be wiped out for at least 3-4 days with jet lag. I still can't figure it out, except that it must have been from all the excitement and adrenaline! Mom had to go out to the airport to retrieve her suitcase , so Mandy and I stayed in the hotel and started getting to know each other. I had been expecting days and days of nonstop screaming, and had figured it would be at least a week before I saw a smile on that solemn little face, but I got my first smile that morning! She still looked pretty scared when she woke up, but was much more alert than the night before.

Our first real interaction was over a bowl of cheerios - definitely a must bring item for anyone adopting toddlers! I ate one first, to show her what to do with it. Then I fed her one, and then she reached over and tentatively picked one up and ate it. Then she started picking up one in each hand and shovelling them in! She was even generous enough to feed me a couple! I held one up in the air and dropped it into the bowl, and that was what earned that precious first smile! That smile was so beautiful that it made her Mommy cry! She spent the whole day amazing us with how smart she was and how much she could do. At one point I walked across the room to get a toy for her, and when I turned around she had pulled herself up and was walking holding onto one of the suitcases! I was so proud of her - I couldn't believe she could really do it! I think the night before she had literally been frozen with fear. It was funny, because for the first week it was as if it simply didn't occur to her to walk most of the time. She would be quite content being carried or sitting on the mat on the floor, and would rarely try to go anywhere. Then all of the sudden it would dawn on her that she could get up and walk, and she'd take off around the room! By the second week she was not only walking, but running, and was into everything!!! It was incredible to watch her progress over the next couple of weeks - every day she grew visibly stronger and learned so many new things!

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