Belfast Telegraph

Man brought to Northern Ireland from Vietnam as infant finds birth mother 43 years on

By David Young

A Lurgan man who was one of 100 children evacuated from war-torn Vietnam to the UK in 1975 is heading east for a double celebration - an emotional reunion with the birth mother he thought he'd never find, and to get married.

More than 3,000 Vietnamese children were given the opportunity of a better life elsewhere as part of Operation Babylift, with Vance McElhinney - then a babe in arms - leaving Saigon in April 1975.

Vance, who was lovingly raised by a Co Armagh family, considers himself a proud 'Lurganite'.

He travelled to Vietnam last year for a BBC NI programme - and met the woman who is now confirmed as his birth mother.

Le Thi Anh, now 64, recognised him immediately as her long-lost son.

"I hardly knew this woman," Vance told the BBC, "but she kept saying, 'This is yours, this is your house', she wanted to sign everything over to me straight away. A DNA test was crucial for me; I wanted to lay a few ghosts to rest, but she was already convinced."

There was no difficulty in getting firm confirmation of their relationship.

"She never made a fuss, she said, 'There's the samples, you go do whatever you need, but you are my son'.

"My mum was so grateful that I was here in Northern Ireland and getting a better life and she was relieved that I was alive.

"It is for me now to stand up and be the son she never had - and look after her.

"The last time I saw her she was maybe my mum - and this time I know she is."

Vance was adopted by Cyril and Liz McElhinney. Cyril is now aged 78, and Liz, a clergywoman, died last year of Motor Neurone Disease.

"The McElhinneys did everything for me. I couldn't have wanted a better family," said Vance.

Chef Vance found more than his birth mum in Vietnam - he found his bride-to-be.

When he returns to Vietnam next month, he will marry fiancée Le Hang (28), who owns a clothes shop.

Although he speaks no Vietnamese, their romance blossomed thanks to his schoolboy grasp of French - and Google Translate.

"My Vietnamese is not good," Vance laughed, "but French is Vietnam's second language, and I speak it a little."

The newlyweds will be travelling around Vietnam for their honeymoon.

Finding his birth mum has turned Vance's life upside down, he said. He now has two loving families on opposite sides of the world. But it's unlikely his mother will be able to visit Northern Ireland because of her age.

"It will be hard on her, seeing me fly back to Northern Ireland so soon after losing me for 40 years," he said.

"But it's my intention to be in Vietnam for most of the time, and return to Northern Ireland regularly. I have my dad and brothers here to think about."

And big-hearted Vance is setting up a charity to help orphaned Vietnamese young people.

Called Helping Hand, it will offer funding to help them develop their talents.

"I was given a good life by my mum and dad in Lurgan - and now I want to give something back and help others," he added.

Find out more about Helping Hand from Vance McElhinney at keltic35@icloud.com

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