DIEN THINH, Vietnam (AP) — For many Vietnamese, a job in a Western European country is seen as a path to prosperity worth breaking the law. But the risks of doing so are high and the consequences can be deadly, as the discovery of 39 bodies in a truck in England last week proved.
The victims were believed to be Asian emigrants who had paid traffickers to smuggle them into the country. Now residents of this small rural Vietnamese community fear that two cousins were among the dead in the refrigerated cargo container.
"I miss him very much," said Hoang Van Lanh, who anxiously awaited word on the fate of his 18-year-old son, Hoang Van Tiep. But he added: "That's life. We have to sacrifice to earn a better living. Tiep is a good son. He wants to go overseas to work and take care of parents when we get old. He insisted to go, for a better life."
Dien Thinh in north central Vietnam is a coastal village with 300 households that depend on small-scale farming of peanuts and sesame and seasonal fishing. A big pink church in the village center that marks this as a Catholic settlement is surrounded by modest homes, though there are some new two- and three-story houses belonging to families who have members working abroad.
The village is a 15-minute drive from Yen Thanh district, a similar area where 13 families have come forward to report missing family members.
By Vietnamese standards, Dien Thinh is not especially poor, but like many rural areas it lags behind urban regions economically. The average annual per capita income in the province is $1,620, compared with a national average of $2,587, according to the Vietnamese government.
Many young people head for the cities or gamble on their chances in Europe, whether out of devotion to their families, a desire to escape a life of backbreaking manual labor, or a yearning for a house.
Tiep's parents live in a one-story brick house built three years ago. Hanging across the length of a living room wall, above a cross, is a framed print of "The Last Supper." His mother, Hoang Thi Ai, sobbed and stared blankly this week as visitors tried to comfort her. She carried her phone everywhere in the hope he would contact her.
The last texts she received from him were on Oct. 22 — the day before British authorities discovered the truck. Heand said he was "on the way" to England and "please prepare the money at home" and "10 thousand 5," shorthand for the $13,600 left to be paid to the traffickers.
Families normally pay half the trafficker's fee before the trip and the remainder when the person being smuggled arrives at the destination. Tiep's family was never asked for the second payment, compounding their fears he is among the dead.
Ai said Tiep dropped out of school in the ninth grade to work because they are so poor. "He helped out by going fishing with his father. But fishing trips didn't bring a lot," she said. "He couldn't find a job. That's why he wanted to go."
The family borrowed the equivalent of $17,500 from a bank to pay for him to be smuggled into France in 2017, when he was 16. The journey through Russia and Germany took 20 days. Tiep worked as a dishwasher at a series of restaurants, sending home money to help pay off the loan. But even today, the family still owes about $4,500.