Nguyen Thi Nguyet at the house she and her husband had built in Quang Yen, much of it financed with money from a daughter and a son-in-law in South Korea. Her husband, Bui Van Vui, got to live there for only three months before he died of cancer.
Published: March 12, 2012
QUANG YEN, Vietnam — In the end, Bui Van Vui lived only three months in the new house that two of his daughters, married to men in South Korea, had helped him build here. Dying of throat cancer, he had exhorted the anxious contractor to hurry, scribbling on scraps of paper after he could no longer speak.
Wed to Strangers, Vietnamese Wives Build Korean Lives(March 30, 2008)
Korean Men Use Brokers to Find Brides in Vietnam (February 22, 2007)
The New York Times
The massive two-story house dwarfed the squat concrete structure next to it, the family’s old home for a quarter of a century. The new home’s elegant red-tiled roof could be seen from afar in this rural corner of coastal northern Vietnam near Haiphong, rising above a landscape of dirt roads, rice paddies and banana trees.
“This house was his dream,” Mr. Bui’s widow, Nguyen Thi Nguyet, 60, said recently on a quiet Saturday afternoon, occasionally shooing away roosters that kept coming up a flight of five marble steps from the courtyard into the living room.
The couple, like many others in the Vietnamese countryside, had prospered in recent years, thanks to daughters who, driven by dreams of better lives for themselves and Confucian filial piety for their parents, had emigrated to marry South Korean men. The money they and others earned in South Korea, wired regularly to small towns in Vietnam like Quang Yen, often manifested itself in telltale new homes, though the wealth paled in comparison with the Lexus S.U.V.’s favored by businessmen in Hanoi, about 100 miles west of here.
The young Vietnamese women typically married older South Korean men who, because of their low incomes or previous marriages, had difficulty finding a Korean bride. South Korea’s fiercely competitive marriage marketplace gave birth to a booming industry of marriage brokers who took these men on tours of Vietnam and other developing nations, where they chose wives in hastily arranged meetings.
It was during such a tour in 2007 that Mr. Bui and Ms. Nguyen’s daughter, Bui Thi Thuy, then 22, met her husband, Kim Tae-goo, a widowed apple farmer in his mid-50s. At the Lucky Star karaoke bar in Hanoi, none of the two dozen women there initially expressed interest in Mr. Kim. But Ms. Thuy and two others stepped forward after Mr. Kim promised to send $100 a month to the parents of the woman who would marry him.
Ms. Thuy and Mr. Kim settled in a rural town in South Korea and had a daughter a year later, but they separated a year ago. Ms. Thuy now lives in Seoul with a younger sister who also married a South Korean man.
At Ms. Thuy and Mr. Kim’s wedding in Hanoi in 2007, Mr. Bui could not conceal his disappointment that his daughter was marrying a man his own age. Aware of the father’s displeasure, Mr. Kim reminded him of the $100 he would send each month.
“He didn’t keep his promise,” Ms. Nguyen said of her son-in-law. In four years of marriage, he sent a total of $880, she said, adding, “He’s poor.”
Mr. Kim declined to be interviewed for this article.
By contrast, Ms. Nguyen said, she received more than $100 a month from her younger daughter and her Korean husband. The younger daughter sent part of her earnings from a part-time job in addition to the money from her husband.
The couple provided half of the $20,000 needed to build the new house here, Ms. Nguyen said, adding that the family sold land to raise the rest of the money.
They could not have built the house with Mr. Bui’s meager earnings, Ms. Nguyen said. Mr. Bui had worked as a farmer and stevedore, loading sand and rock at the local port. He made $120 a month.
“My husband had a very tough life,” Ms. Nguyen said. “His parents died when he was a boy. He was always poor. By the time our children started helping us, he died.”
Ms. Nguyen met Mr. Bui in the early 1970s, while he was serving on the North Vietnamese side in the “American War,” as the Vietnam War is called here, and she was a member of a women’s militia. They fell in love, and because she was two years older, they lied about the age difference to their relatives. They married in 1974.
The couple would go on to have one son and four daughters. The third daughter, Ms. Thuy, was her father’s favorite, the mother said. She was the gentlest and hardest working, Ms. Nguyen recalled. By the age of 11, she was so diligent in performing household chores that relatives and neighbors began calling her “Tam” — a hardworking Cinderella-like character from one of Vietnam’s most famous fairy tales, “Tam and Cam.”
“I have four daughters, but she did all the work,” Ms. Nguyen said. “The other girls didn’t have to do anything.”
With their daughters in South Korea, the family began thinking of building a new house. It was not only the father’s dream but also the daughters’.
“We wanted to do something for our parents — that was the plan,” Ms. Thuy said in a telephone interview from South Korea.
The new house’s foundation would have to be reinforced, because the family’s property sat on soft, reclaimed land. But no sooner had the contractor laid the foundation of the house in early 2010 than Mr. Bui learned he had throat cancer.
He sought treatment in Hanoi, putting the construction on hold. But after the treatment proved ineffective, he focused all his remaining energy on completing the house. He lingered over the choice of tiles. He gave the contractor precise instructions on the size of the doors and windows.
He scaled down his original plans for an even bigger home, and the house was completed in October 2010. In the last three months of his life, Mr. Bui grew so weak that he could no longer walk up to his bedroom on the second floor — his favorite vantage point, from which he could take in the surrounding rice paddies. The tumor in his throat swelled to the size of a grapefruit, leaving him unable to talk to his family, including Ms. Thuy, who had flown in from South Korea.
Shortly after her father’s funeral — eight uniformed military officials carried his coffin — Ms. Thuy returned to South Korea. But her parents had kept a small plot of land for her next to the new house.
“After her child grows up, maybe Thuy can come back to live here,” the mother said, standing in the courtyard.
It was getting late. A large crack ran almost the length of the courtyard’s pavement, evidence, she suspected, of a shaky foundation. A couple of the roosters sneaked inside, and Ms. Nguyen chased after them.
One of the birds zigzagged across the living room toward the Buddhist altar for Mr. Bui. A framed photograph of him in military uniform was surrounded by sticks of incense and flowers. In keeping with Buddhist tradition, objects thought useful in his journey to the afterlife were laid out before his photo, including drinks, cigarettes, fruit and yellow paper signifying gold, as well as an offering now fashionable in the new Vietnam: stacks of fake American $100 bills.