Vi Thi Thao* has never felt so good to be home.
“It feels like a dream,” said the woman who spent more than a year trying to free herself from the marriage she was sold into in China.
Thao has been receiving a lot of visitors to her shabby hut in the central province of Nghe An over the past two days. Her return has been a huge event for the rural community, with police officers and official escorts accompanying her home.
Thousands of people from remote corners of Vietnam have been trafficked to China, but not many manage to escape.
It all started when her siblings-in-law offered to take her to China to find work in October 2016.
Thinking about the money she needed to care for her sick father and two daughters, who were two and four years old at the time, she agreed.
She took a bus to Quang Ninh Province where they crossed the border into China. At the time, her relatives said she had only two choices: marry a local or work in a brothel.
The 23-year-old woman decided she had only one option, and ended up living with a 24-year-old farmer and his family.
Thao said it was tense at the beginning and she kept crying and begging the family to send her back to Vietnam, but they refused because they had paid VND300 million ($13,180) for her.
They always made sure that the doors were locked so she could not escape, and an overwhelming sense of depression and homesickness consumed her.
Thao said she was not beaten like many other trafficking victims, but “the sadness was so terrible I thought about killing myself.”
Vi Thi Thao now lives with her mother and two daughters in a shabby hut in Nghe An Province. Photo by VnExpress/Phan Giang
But she decided that if she wanted to see her children again, she needed a plan.
She started being friendly with her new husband and his family, and once she gained their trust, she was allowed to go out. Sometimes she was given a cellphone, and each time she tried to make friends with people in Vietnam via the Vietnamese messaging app Zalo.
Her escape plan took a crucial turn when a “friend” in Hanoi gave her the phone number of a lawyer in Ho Chi Minh City.
Thao reached out to the lawyer, Nguyen Dinh Thai Hung, for the first time late last year. She told him her name, her parents’ names and her address in Vietnam.
She did not know where she was in China, so Hung asked her to take photos of billboards and collect business cards from local shops. She was also instructed to delete any messages or photos to avoid being caught.
“I was so anxious,” Thao said.
Hung posted the photos on the Nghe An police’s Facebook. Police officers at the time also received many tip-offs and embarked on a rescue mission with help from Blue Dragon, an NGO working for street children and trafficking victims. They brought Thao back to Vietnam on March 9 and reunited her with her family on Sunday.
Her mother broke down in tears when they were reunited: “Oh child, I thought you were dead.”
“My biggest joy was finding my mother and children all healthy,” Thao said.
However, her father died while she was in China, and she is having trouble reconciling with her Vietnamese husband.
She says she will end all contact with the Chinese husband as they don’t have any children.
“I will try to resettle and go back to the fields to take care of my kids.”
Vietnamese trafficking victims rose nearly 13 percent from the previous year to 1,128 in 2016, according to a government report.
Most of the victims were uneducated women and children from poor areas. They were sold to men seeking wives in China, Malaysia and South Korea, or just to bear children or work as prostitutes in these countries, the report said.
*The woman’s name has been changed for her protection.