Success Case

Herhold: A father’s three-decade search for his kidnapped son

Viet Van Ngo with his son, Dam Ngo. (Courtesy Ngo family)

Late in the evening of March 17, 1981, a rickety Vietnamese river boat embarked on an ocean journey to Thailand, carrying 27 people in a desperate attempt to find a new life.

A day and a half at sea, they were picked up by a Thai fishing boat, which they saw as salvation. Instead, the new vessel brought them a plague of robbery, kidnapping and starvation.

When they were set back aboard their own disabled craft several days later, only 25 Vietnamese remained. Two infants — a boy of five months, a girl of 11 months — were kept by the fishermen.

Against the odds 31 years later, Viet Van Ngo, the father of one of those infants, found his now-grown son, Dam, who was raised in a Thai family without knowing he was Vietnamese.

It’s an extraordinary story that turns on the persistence of a father, a doughty battle by the media and a curious bend, or crimp, of the left ear.

I hew to tough standards on local stories. A gray-haired Glendale man who was an auto mechanic for 27 years, Ngo would not ordinarily meet my demands. After all, he and his wife live 350 miles away.

But one of his daughters, Chaupha Ngo, is now a social worker in Santa Clara County. And she was on that boat in 1981. Though she largely deferred to her father, it was through her friends here that I learned of her family’s story.

Finally, there is this: No one who has followed the trials of the Syrian refugees over the past months should forget that the Vietnamese boat people faced their own huge challenges.

For those who believe in compassion in tough circumstances, Ngo’s story touches the heart.

Last moments

The Glendale man can remember the harrowing last details of his time on the Thai boat. The captain told him that they could not reach land with the refugees. And so they were obligated to go back to their own boat, which had been emptied of supplies except for a little water.

Six children remained behind. The Thais brought four of them forward to the Vietnamese craft and then cut the rope. The refugees never saw the infants again. For the next five days and four nights, they survived with no food and only a few cupfuls of water.

“They (the fishermen) ran away from us,” Ngo told me. “They wanted to get the kids.”

Though one of their boat motors was inoperable and the other worked only fitfully, the Vietnamese finally reached a Thai landfall, swimming the final yards from a battered and overturned boat.

With help from the United Nations, Ngo and his wife spent time in Bangkok and Indonesia before arriving in America in 1982, settling first in Texas before moving to California with their four remaining children. While he was busy learning English and forging a new life, he never forgot his kidnapped son.

In 1990, he returned to Vietnam and Thailand on his first search for the boy. All he knew was that he needed to find Thai ports with big piers: The fishing boat was a large one. But he got no closer to his son.

More forays

Several more trips followed, and after the fourth, his daughter told me, Ngo’s wife asked him to stop. He refused. With the Internet, the persistent father found new resources. A television show in Saigon is dedicated to finding missing people. And Ngo was helped by Thai officials and another man who had found his son after 34 years.

Finally, in early 2012, a significant break occurred: A Vietnamese-American family searching for their kidnapped son — a boy about the same age as Ngo’s — conducted an extensive campaign on Vietnamese newspapers and television.

Their appeal brought them in touch with a young woman who remembered a Thai family with a Vietnamese son. The Vietnamese-American searchers contacted that family and concluded that the boy, now in his early 30s, was not theirs. A video of their search was put online.

In Vietnam to care for his mother, Ngo heard about the video and asked to see it. As soon as he saw a picture of the young man, he said, “Oh, that’s my son.” The shape of the face and the nose looked almost identical to pictures of himself in his early 30s.

Sensing a good story, the television station arranged for Ngo to meet the young man in June 2012 at a cafe in Songhkla, a fishing town on the Thai peninsula.

A video caught the moment: Ngo bows briefly before his son, sits down politely and then brushes back the young man’s hair to check his left ear.

The young man, whose Thai name is Buff Sompon, almost recoiled. For Ngo, however, it was proof. The ear had a sharp bend, or crimp, toward the top. It was identical to Ngo’s own ear. “I knew it was my son,” Ngo said. A DNA test confirmed it.

Inevitably, the back story emerged: Ngo says his son was raised in the family of the Thai fisherman who kidnapped him. The boy’s cousin, the infant girl, had died at 18 months in a choking accident.

For now, the young man remains in Thailand, where he is an accountant and a competitive cyclist. He has visited America twice and has even talked of settling here.

But what I find most impressive about the story is how Ngo views the man who kidnapped his son. Ngo says that Thai authorities asked him whether he wanted to prosecute for kidnapping. He declined, saying he did not want his son’s Thai family ripped apart. “I don’t want to see him in jail,” he said.