Across sand dunes edging the shoreline of southern Vietnam, Phan Sy, his wife, and their children trail behind an ox laboriously pulling a cart containing their life's belongings in nine nylon-woven satchels.
Behind the family is six years in detention centers in Hong Kong. Before them, the sandy terrain extends, vast and foreboding.
Where they're going - back to Mr. Phan's parents - there is no electricity, running water, or toilets. Education beyond the ninth grade is rare, and most livelihoods depend upon the four-month fishing season. Despite the bleak outlook, Phan will take solace in seeing his parents after so long. He is eager to introduce the youngest three of his five children to relatives they have never met. Tran Thi Dao, his wife, slings the youngest, an infant, across her hip. She is surrounded by their other silent children, apprehensive of the week-long journey's end.
Life at the detention camps was better than in Vietnam - so the couple thought. Even without work, their survival was secure. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Hong Kong government provided food, beds, and school. "I left [for Hong Kong] full of hope that I would be granted refugee status because my brothers were resettled," Phan recalls. "Because I lived so many years in Hong Kong, I never thought I'd go back, even though others did."
His two brothers fled Vietnam in 1988, leaving their wives in Phan's care. He followed a few years later with Tran, their two children, and his sisters-in-law. Vietnamese who fled their country before June 16, 1988, including Phan's brothers, were automatically granted refugee status and allowed to immigrate to a third country. After that date, the Hong Kong government established a screening policy.
The two sisters-in-law eventually joined their husbands in America, where they gained asylum, while Phan and his family stayed on Tai A Chau, one of Hong Kong's tiny islands used for housing refugees. Realizing that the refugees were content sleeping in a fenced-in compound, the Hong Kong government moved them in September to Whitehead Detention Center and gave them a choice: Return to Vietnam voluntarily or be forced to.
Hearing stories of police using tear gas at at the camp, Phan volunteered, afraid his children would become ensnared in riots as July 1, 1997, neared - the date when Britain returns Hong Kong to China. Beijing says it wants all the Vietnamese refugees gone by then.
Many Vietnamese have spent years in the detention centers. As of Dec. 14, the Hong Kong government counted 7,238 Vietnamese as economic "migrants" - not political refugees. The number is shrinking rapidly as deportations are stepped up. Another 1,330 in Hong Kong await asylum elsewhere.
Phan's brothers have written to him about their freedom and $40-a-day salaries in America, which is how much Phan earned in an entire fishing season. Phan has been been deemed an economic "migrant" by the UNHCR.
Jean-Noel Wetterwald, chief of mission in Hong Kong for the UNHCR, doesn't blame Phan and other Vietnamese for trying to stay, although they endure hardships and have nothing.
In areas where returnees resettle in Vietnam, the UNHCR funds small projects, such as the building of roads, schools, fences, and fish farms. "Vietnam is becoming, fortunately, a country like any other, and there's no longer any reason these people need to stay in Hong Kong,'' Mr. Wetterwald says.
Although the private sector has expanded in Vietnam, the country's economic turnaround remains tenuous. The poorest areas are in the countryside, where Phan is returning.
The day they decide to go back, Phan and his family are whisked to Whitehead's departure center, a barren complex bordered by 20-foot fences topped with razor wire. People sleep, cook, and wait on plywood bunk beds and cement floors in buildings that look like airplane hangars. On that day, Phan's family is among 348 people preparing to return. Two days before leaving, they're packing some belongings and selling others. Phan carefully folds clothes and blankets given to him by his brothers. But he destroys their letters to avoid questions from Vietnamese authorities.
Departure day begins at 12:30 a.m. with screening by immigration officials. Five hours later, on the tarmac at Hong Kong's Kai Tak Airport, white-gloved officers frisk everyone down to their feet.
Neatly dressed and solemn-faced, the Vietnamese step into a UNHCR-chartered Vietnam Airlines plane. Seated, Phan opens a white envelope to count $1,275 in US currency - a small fortune paid by the UNHCR and Hong Kong government to voluntary returnees. The UN agency has his parents' address in Vietnam and will send him another $1,680 in a few months.
When they land two hours later in Hanoi, the returnees get a glimpse of the capital's new construction as they are shuttled to a nearby transit center behind towering stone walls. At the center of the shaded complex, they fill out health forms, take blood tests, and answer questions for identification cards that they must carry at all times. With hands blackened from fingerprinting, they sit on a stool to be photographed behind a number.
Two days later, the family boards a bus for Hue. But it can't make it all the way because of flooding. Dropped off at a curbside in the darkness, they search for a way up the swollen Perfume River. Phan hires a boat for $200 to take them as close as they can get to their destination. As soon as they dock, people gather around the family and word spreads swiftly of their return.
They turn off a narrow dirt path along lush tropical vegetation and enter barren land. An hour later, Phan comes upon his village, Dong Hai, a settlement of colorful concrete buildings mingled with thatched huts sprawled above the pristine shore of the South China Sea.
Shortly after arriving, half the village's 100 families gather around his father's home, a concrete structure with tiled floor built in 1993. Women crouch in a circle at one end as men sit on beds and tables on the other idly talking.
Phan's children find it all very strange: grandparents, aunts, and uncles exclaiming and embracing them. Even the eldest, 11-year-old Phan Thi Loan, doesn't remember the village and doesn't talk to anyone.
"It's embarrassing to be back," Phan says. "I've done a lot of thinking on my way back, and I do have money from the UNHCR, but not enough to build a new house, a new life, start a career."
Twenty people now live in his father's house. In a few days, Phan plans to go to work on someone's fishing boat and apply for a loan to build his own home. "I'll do anything that I have to do to help my family, and the easiest thing to do is fishing," he says. "But I think I'll have difficulty in ... making a living."
Although Phan's older brother, Phan Nien, often thought about leaving, he never dared. "It's my brother's fate that he couldn't find a better life in another country" Phan Nien says. "I'm quite glad he's returned."
The Vietnamese government has given some help, but the village needs more assistance, the brother says. Electricity is accessible - but unaffordable. The village has only one telephone. And the elementary school can't fit all the children. Those who attend must pay $4.50 monthly, an exorbitant amount.
"We need help from the government," Phan Nien says.
Phan quietly listens, as the hardships he tried to forget flood back. The village looks different; but life hasn't changed.
His wife looks worn. This isn't what she wants. "Of course, it will be harder to take care of the children," says Tran as she rocks the baby who is craving some milk.
"I was hoping for a better life, but I wasn't clear what that would be. Now it's not possible to leave," she says.