When Mai went missing, her husband Dat and the entire family went looking for her. It took them 17 years and they found her in a place 200 kilometers away.
For the last 10 days Dat’s family has been full of laughter as every evening relatives and neighbors come to talk and share the joy.
“We have a wife, a mother and a grandmother eating with us now, which increases our happiness manifold,” the now 54-year-old Dat says.
Dat and Mai got married in 1990, and had two sons and a daughter. Dat worked as a carpenter and Mai was a farmer.
In 1995, three months after giving birth to her third child, Mai was involved in a traffic accident when she was hit by a motorbike and thrown to the ground.
It is not known if this trauma had any bearing on her future conduct though she seemed normal enough until that fateful day.
On November 6, 2006, she borrowed her sister’s bike, left home and never returned. Her family began to search far and wide for her, but in vain.
They made publicity appeals on newspapers and TV channels. Whenever there was a possible lead, Dat would immediately follow it up.
There was one time when someone notified them about seeing a woman who looked similar to Mai in Thai Binh Province.
The whole family got on a bus to Thai Binh and traveled around for two days. But it turned out to be a false alarm, and they returned home depressed.
Her husband and children continued to hope Mai would come back one day, though with time that gradually began to fade.
Dat remained single and took care of their three children on his own from the time they were in school until they settled down and had children of their own.
“Sometimes thinking about how I had to take care of them on my own made me sad,” he says. “There were nights when I would sit and cry.”
Though the lack of information about his wife made him feel hopeless sometimes, he believed she was still alive, probably living on the streets or trafficked to another country.
The good news the family was hoping to get for 17 years finally came on May 19, 2023, when Dat received a phone call from a local commune officer.
The person told him that a homeless woman who looked like Mai had been spotted receiving treatment at Thanh Hoa Mental Hospital, and sent him a photo.
Though years had passed and Mai’s appearance had changed greatly, Dat immediately recognized his wife.
Early in the morning the next day the entire family left for Thanh Hoa. Dat traveled the 200-kilometer distance with bated breath. As soon as he saw Mai at the hospital, he burst into tears.
That evening her family took her back to their home in Hai Phong. Their small house was immediately filled with people coming to share their joy.
When they saw each other after 17 years, Mai’s parents, now in their 90s, held her in their arms and sobbed.
It had been a long time since the whole family sat and had dinner together. Mac Thi Ha, Mai’s niece, says her extended family had never had such an emotional event.
Mai has gotten back much of her memory after having lost it for a while, and has been able to recognize most of her relatives and acquaintances except for her third child, Manh, who was only 11 when she went missing.
Ninh Ngoc Que, a Thanh Hoa official, recalls that since early May people were reporting about a homeless woman in her 50s wearing torn clothes and behaving abnormally.
During the day she would wander around to ask vendors and restaurants for uneaten food, and at night she would sleep on sidewalks.
Que managed to approach her and take her to a local health center. He also got the Department of Labor, Invalids and Social to process her hospitalization and treatment procedures.
Over the following days the department regularly posted notices about her hoping to reach her relatives, but in vain.
Tran Thi Ly, nurse and head of the women’s ward at the Thanh Hoa Mental Hospital, says on the fourth day after being hospitalized Mai started to cooperate with doctors and nurses.
The nurses could approach her more easily, have her hair cut and treat her illness. They were relieved she was only diagnosed with a mental disorder.
On her 10th day at the hospital a miracle occurred: Mai’s memory came back partially. She told the staff her name was Mac Thi Mai and she was from Hop Thanh Commune in Hai Phong.
Based on the information she provided, local authorities managed to contact Dat, confirm her identity and help the family reunite.
Dr Le Bat Tan, director of the Thanh Hoa Mental Hospital, says during her 17 years away from home, Mai did not take any medicines or undergo treatment, and that was why her memory loss seemed to be severe initially.
After being brought to the hospital and given proper treatment, her memory gradually recovered, he says.
When they met her family, doctors at the hospital gave them a prescription and instructed them in how to take care of her.
“We were touched at seeing Mai reunite with her family after 17 years,” Tan says. “I hope her health improves soon so that she can enjoy her time with her family.”
“This is a miracle, also the biggest happiness and good fortune in my life,” Dat says.
Manh says his mother’s health, memory and emotions are all improving. He has been taking leave of absence from work to take care of her.
“We will compensate for the hardships she experienced over the past 17 years,” he promises.