Vance went back to his native Vietnam to find Lurgan is home

He was just a baby when he was airlifted from war torn Vietnam but now Lurgan is home to Vance McElhinney who returned to his native land to find his birth family.

Thursday, 3rd March 2016, 10:48 am
Updated Thursday, 3rd March 2016, 10:51 am
Vance McElhinney

It was a struggle for the now 41-year-old man whose journey to Saigon was filmed by the BBC in a moving and emotional documentary this week.

Vance, who has a strong and happy adopted family here in Lurgan, admitted that he needed to address the issues of his past and at least try to find his birth family.

“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 McElhinney

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

He 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 returned to the country.

Vance McElhinney

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

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 province and adopted by Lurgan couple Cyril and Liz McElhinney, who named him Vance.

Encouraged by Cyril and Liz, Vance went back 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, followed him on his difficult and emotional journey.

Vance McElhinney

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

The programme also heard 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 recalled 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.

Vance McElhinney

“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?

“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.”

However since the documentary was aired on Monday night, Vance has been inundated with messages of support.

“My phone hasn’t stopped,” he said smiling. “I didn’t realise how much support I really had.”

It had been a struggle to go to find the convent, about 30 miles from Saigon, from where he came and that the nuns there had no memory of anyone in his biological family bringing him there.

He said it had been tough to know that his quest to find his birth family had come to a dead end.

However he learned a lot in the three weeks he spent in his native land.

Since returning home and since the documentary was aired, he is very aware of how Lurgan is very much his home and that he is so much loved by his friends and family.

He is particularly concerned about his mum who has Motor Neurone Disease and is keen to spend as much time looking after her as she has for him.

And he is focusing on a new career. As a scout for his model agency VCM1 Modeling Agency, he promises to help young and old find their dream as a model whether it be for TV adverts or the catwalk.

He is proud of coming from Lurgan and happily calls himself a ‘Lurganite’.

He is at home now.