Dashed dreams: Profiles of the Vietnamese missing in Britain

Hanoi (AFP) –


Le Van Ha tried his hand as a police officer, a rice farmer and then an interior designer before paying smugglers for passage from Vietnam to Europe, a move that may have cost him his life -- and his young sons their father.

His family fear Ha is among 39 bodies found in a truck in Britain on Wednesday, a tragedy that has exposed the extreme risks migrants undertake in the quest for better lives overseas.

Fragments of the lives of the suspected victims are emerging from central Vietnam, long a source of illegal migration to Europe -- pictures, hopes of new lives ahead relayed over Facebook or heart-tearing final messages.

They include a selfie-snapping teenager who loved bubble tea and noodle soup; a former army recruit who was travelling with a cousin; and a tattooed 20-year-old who may have sought work in a UK nail bar.

They also include Ha, the 30-year-old father of two young sons who went overseas to earn money to pay off a mountain of debt and support his family back in his remote village in Nghe An province.

He wrote to his family before apparently boarding the ill-fated truck, discovered stuffed with bodies in an industrial park in Essex, east of London.

"I'm about to board a car to Britain. I will contact the family when I arrive in England, Dad," he wrote to his father on Facebook messenger.

That was six days ago, and his father has heard nothing since.

"For sure he was in that lorry. I just want my son's (body) back home," Le Minh Tuan told AFP from the family home in Yen Hoi village.

Crippled by grief, Tuan clutches Ha's son and weeps, the confused child's eyes wet with tears too.

Ha's wife, who stayed behind in Yen Hoi, now fears she is a widow and her children are fatherless.

Ha took off in June, flying to Ho Chi Minh City then Malaysia en route to Turkey. From there he went to Greece then France, where he may have snuck onto the truck to Britain.

Buried by debt back home -- he paid smugglers $30,000 to get him to Europe, and another $8,500 loan to build the family house -- Ha hoped to land a decent salary in the UK.

"He wanted to go to pay the debts... and send money back to his kids so they would have a better life," said his father, clinging to his grandson and weeping.

- 'Bright smile' -

Illegal migration abroad was not Ha's first choice. He trained as a police officer for three years before flunking the final exam, then worked as a rice farmer and an interior designer.

But nothing seemed to stick, propelling his dangerous journey to Britain.

Nghe An is one of a handful of rural provinces in central Vietnam that most of the country's illegal migrants come from.

They are mostly young, eager to escape mundane village life for promises of wealth working overseas.

That might have been what drove Bui Thi Nhung to Europe, where she frequently published photos from on her active Facebook feed.

But two days before the truck tragedy, her feed went silent, and now her family fears the worst.

"Step outside with a bright smile," she wrote in one of her final posts with a selfie of the fair-skinned 19-year-old.

An avid Facebooker, in recent weeks she posted photos of herself posing in France, along with praise for her mother's home cooking and pictures of bubble tea and a bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup, pho, in Germany.

Now her portrait sits atop a makeshift altar adorned with fruit offering and flowers that her family set up, praying they might one day see her again.

Elsewhere in the area, families recount shreds of other lives they fear might have been cut short.

Nguyen Dinh Tu's relatives talk about his time as an army recruit before he moved abroad a year ago. He was with a cousin who at the last minute did not get on the truck, which may have saved his life, Tu's family said.

In neighbouring Ha Tinh province, Nguyen Dinh Luong's sibling has been looking for the 20-year-old in an agonising appeal for information.

"His characteristics: 1.62 meters, weight about 58 kg. He has a tattoo on his left bicep," the relative wrote in a Facebook post above a photo of Luong in a down vest and baseball cap.

The post was published on a Facebook page advertising nail salon jobs in Britain, a common line of work for illegal migrants.