After visiting his birth country for the first time, Vietnamese adoptee Chad Hassebrook shares highlights — and surprises! — from his trip.
When adoptee Chad Hassebrook finally got to visit his birth country of Vietnam along with his wife, Christina, he brought a few old pictures he had of himself as a baby — the only baby pictures he has. He had no idea the unexpected discoveries they would bring!
Chad didn’t know exactly when the pictures were taken, or who the woman was who was holding him in them. But he knew they had come with him from the orphanage, and he could tell that the woman in the yellow floral shirt was smiling tenderly at him.
Chad had come to an orphanage in Da Nang, Vietnam when he was an infant, dangerously malnourished. He doesn’t know much about his early life other than that. He came to the orphanage in 1992, received excellent care that restored him to health, and then he was adopted by a loving family in Lincoln, Nebraska in February 1993.
“A Whole Tour of Vietnam“
Chad had always wanted to visit Vietnam one day. But when he was 20 he joined the military, so for a while security measures prevented him from traveling.
“From 2012 to 2020 I wasn’t able to go to Vietnam,” Chad says. “Then, when I got out of the military, Christina and I were going to get married and then visit Vietnam. But that was in 2020, so you know what happened — the pandemic, and we couldn’t go.”
Time passed, and then in early 2023 Chad and Christina realized they each had some work leave coming up. Their chance to visit Vietnam had arrived!
“We were just going to go to Da Nang, where I was adopted from,” Chad says. “But then Christina urged me to create a whole tour of Vietnam out of it! So I reached out to Holt and they helped us put together a trip with CI Azumano Travel and Kensington Tours that included visits to Holt-supported orphanages in Vietnam, including the one where I had been.”
Chad and Christina visited the orphanage together, and he brought his pictures with him.
“I Remember You!”
“I brought my photos there since I’d been adopted with pictures of myself at the orphanage,” Chad says. “So I just started showing them [to children and staff there] out of a whim.”
Chad shared that he doesn’t feel a strong sense of urgency to find his birth parents. But, he did hope to find some connection to his past.
“I came to the orphanage horribly malnourished,” Chad says. “I’m guessing my birth parents couldn’t take care of me and just wanted me to have a better life. So, finding them was never really my intent. What I really wanted to do was to find someone who took care of me at the orphanage and say thank you.”
Chad thought that there was no way he would ever find someone who had known him when he was being cared for at the orphanage. He’s in his early 30s now, a strong and healthy adult who is unrecognizable as the small, almost scrawny baby in the picture.
“’There’s no way this is going to happen,’” he says he remembers thinking. “But as luck would have it, as I was showing photos around, some of the workers at the orphanage said, ‘I recognize that person holding you in the photo!’”
The next thing Chad knew, an older woman had showed up and introduced herself as Miss Phuong.
“She looked at the photos and looked at me and asked for my birth name,” Chad says. “I told her, and she said, ‘I remember you!’”
“The First To Come and the First To Go”
It turned out that the orphanage that welcomed Chad in 1992 had just opened, a few months before he arrived. Chad had actually been one of the first children to come to that orphanage… and one of the first to be adopted from it.
“You were my first orphan, and you were the first orphan to get adopted,” Miss Phuong told Chad.
She told him that she was the one who had cared for him when he had come into care, a small and sickly baby. Chad says he cried all the way through this conversation, standing in front of this person who had known him so long ago. She had bathed and fed him, rocked him to sleep and held him when he cried.
“She said that she even ended up carrying me from Da Nang to Saigon on a plane to be flown to America when I was adopted,” he says.
Chad found this connection with a person from his past incredibly meaningful. But, it wasn’t the only new information he would receive on this trip.
“More Than I’d Bargained For”
“This trip prompted many discoveries about my past, more than I’d bargained for,” Chad says, laughing. “Originally, the paperwork I received stated that the orphanage had waited over a month for someone to claim me. But no one came, so they deemed me eligible for adoption.”
But there was another piece of the puzzle, in the form of a piece of paperwork from his adoption files. It states Chad was born at a Ca Tu maternity ward in a different district than Da Nang. Chad had always just thought that “Ca Tu” was a Vietnamese word to describe a maternity ward, a reference he didn’t understand since he didn’t speak Vietnamese.
“I wasn’t sure what it meant, and I didn’t think about it much,” Chad says. “But I showed our tour guide in Da Nang my paperwork. He didn’t think I was born in Da Nang.”
Chad’s tour guide, Tony, recognized the Ca Tu maternity ward clinic as a reference to a specific region and people group. There are 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam, and one of these minority populations is an indigenous group called the Ca Tu people. They live in tribes in the mountains far outside Da Nang, in central Vietnam and eastern Laos. Chad learned from his tour guide that the Ca Tu people live in small, isolated and extremely rural communities.
The tour guide theorized to Chad that his mother was probably Ca Tu and had given birth to him at one of their small clinics.
“A lot of the tribal people come in from their tribes to the clinics,” the tour guide told him. “It looks like she had you at a clinic and then you got transferred to Da Nang. That’s why you don’t look Vietnamese, because you’re not. You’re part of a very small people group.”
This resonated with Chad, who knew that he didn’t appear to be typically Vietnamese. He had just never had a reason to suspect that he wasn’t. Chad researched the Ca Tu people and sure enough, he learned that they are a private people with a population of a little over 100,000 in Laos and Vietnam.
His interest was officially piqued.
“Strings to Unravel“
Chad went back to Miss Phuong to ask if she remembered any specifics of how he actually came to the orphanage.
“Miss Phuong said that from what she remembered, they’d found me in front of the Da Nang hospital,” Chad says. “That’s when they wrote up my birth certificate, but I was already at least a few weeks old. I could have a different name or a different birthday, even!”
Chad isn’t too fazed by this information. It just motivates him to return to Vietnam and continue researching his origins.
“There are a lot of strings to unravel, so I’ll be going back to Vietnam someday soon,” Chad says. “The Ca Tu people in recent years have opened up some of their homes to tourists to experience their culture, so my tour guide offered to help take me back to one of the villages when I come back. He turned out to be so helpful and wanted to help me figure out my origins.”
Chad wants to go back to understand more about his past, to learn what his story might have been during the first few months of his life. Mostly, he’s interested in any ethnic or cultural connection he might be able to discover between himself and the Ca Tu people.
“I would love to get over there and confirm that I am part of this community, and that my origins can be traced back to this group of people,” Chad says. “For me, I want to know what my ethnic roots are. That would really be success.”
But regardless of what Chad finds out about this newly discovered ancestry, he will always be grateful to have met Miss Phuong, who did know and care for him.
“The Most Important Part“
“It’s been wild!” exclaims Chad, laughing. “I definitely got more than I bargained for, it was super exciting! But really, the most important part was just meeting Miss Phuong and being able to thank her in person — this person who knew me before anyone else did. She knew me as a baby, which is something a lot of adopted kids don’t have. It was really special to meet someone who knew me from way, way back then.”
Chad shared that adoption has been a roller coaster for him, as it can be for so many adoptees. The lack of connection to a cultural past and knowledge about where he came from brought waves of anger and sadness in his teenage years. But today, especially after his unexpected discoveries in Vietnam, what he feels most is gratitude.
“Understanding my situation better makes me really grateful,” concludes Chad, thoughtfully. “Understanding how malnourished I was and how few children were adopted from Vietnam in 1993, I am so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had. Being able to come back after all this time and meeting someone from my past was crazy. What are the odds? I couldn’t believe I met Miss Phuong! I was the first to leave and the first to come back.”
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