Vance returns to Vietnam to find his family and his roots

Vance McElhinney
Vance McElhinney

Though he has lived in Lurgan for most of his life, Vietnamese born Vance McElhinney returned to his native land in a bid to come to terms with his past.

“I’ve got ghosts I need to lay to rest - I’ve got to at least figure out if I’ve got any relatives out there.”

Vance was airlifted out of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War 40 years ago.

Mr McElhinney does not know his birthday, his birthplace or even whether his biological family is still alive.

His name - Nguyen Van Tan - was only established because it was written on the only known photograph of him as a child in Vietnam.

Now, for the first time since being one of 100 orphan children included in what is known as Operation Babylift, he is returning to the country.

In April 1975, the Daily Mail flew 100 children from war-torn Vietnam to the UK.

The name and date of birth of one of the children was unknown. The boy, estimated to be around 18 months old, was brought to the north and adopted by Lurgan couple Cyril and Liz McElhinney, who named him Vance.

Encouraged by Cyril and Liz, Vance, now 41, returns to Vietnam and the village of Quy Nhon where he believes he was born, in an attempt to discover his real name and if any of his birth family are still alive.

True North: A Place To Call Home, a Below The Radar production for BBC NI, follows Vance on his difficult and emotional journey.

Along the way he meets Victoria Cowley, another of the child evacuees and Brian Freemantle, former foreign editor of the Daily Mail, who explains the circumstances surrounding the rescue.

The programme also hears from Cyril and Liz, and Vance’s adoptive brothers David and Stephen, who speak of Vance’s struggle to find a sense of belonging in Northern Ireland and their understanding of his need to discover who he is.

As well as sharing his journey of self-discovery, Vance also recalls the difficulties he faced growing up in Lurgan during the Troubles.

Producer Sinead Ingoldsby said: “Before he was 18 months old, Vance had been through more trauma than most of us will experience in a lifetime.

“The questions Vance has about his past have haunted him all of his life and prevented him feeling fully at home anywhere.

“Meeting Vance made me realise how difficult it is to make your way in life when you don’t have answers to the basic questions most of us take for granted. When was I born? What is my name? Where do I come from?

“While spending time with Vance over the past year, it became very clear why he is as popular as he is with friends and colleagues and how deeply loved he is by his family in Northern Ireland.

“I hope that after making this difficult journey back to Vietnam, he can finally make peace with his past and feel settled and truly at home in Northern Ireland.”