HANOI • In Berlin, she posed outside a beer garden, a beaming smile on her face. In Brussels, she sipped sugary bubble tea and posed on the steps of the old stock exchange.
To anyone else, she was just another tourist.
But it was the make-or-break trip of a lifetime for Ms Bui Thi Nhung, 19, a Vietnamese. Her family believe she was one of the 39 people found dead in a refrigerated truck near London last Wednesday.
“Being grown-up means having to hide your sadness in the dark and keeping a smile on your face,” Ms Bui wrote in an Oct 21 Facebook post, just days before her family lost contact with her and news of the doomed shipping container emerged.
From interviews with her family and a series of messages left on her social media accounts, Reuters has pieced together the last movements of one of the young Vietnamese migrants thought by relatives to be among the dead.
Ms Bui was from Nghe An, a poor province 300km south of Hanoi, Vietnam’s fast developing capital.
Last Saturday evening, Catholic priest Anthony Dang Huu Nam led around 500 worshippers in prayers for the dead as they held lit candles in the white-walled church in Yen Thanh, Ms Bui’s hometown.
Many have made the same fateful journey. Britain’s ambassador to Vietnam wrote in an opinion piece published last month by local papers that the dangers were clear.
QUEST FOR PEACEFUL LIFE
I just want a peaceful life… The happiest thing in life is finding someone who doesn’t abandon you during your hardest time.
MS BUI THI NHUNG, in a Facebook caption on Aug 27, beneath a photo of her smiling in a field, a few weeks after leaving Vietnam.
“In recent years, hundreds of potential Vietnamese victims of trafficking have been identified in the UK,” ambassador Gareth Ward wrote in the Sept 29 column.
“There are cases of illegal immigrants suffering injuries when being chased. There are cases of death due to extreme cold, lack of oxygen inside lorries. Many never even set foot in the ‘promised land’,” Mr Ward wrote, referring to guarantees made by Vietnamese people smugglers to resettle migrants in Britain.
Ms Bui’s family said she left Nghe An on her journey overseas in August. She went to China first, before making her way to Germany, then Belgium, where they believe she boarded the fated truck. Officials in Britain have not yet identified the dead.
“I just want a peaceful life,” Ms Bui wrote in a caption beneath a photo of her smiling in a green field, a few weeks after leaving Vietnam. “The happiest thing in life is finding someone who doesn’t abandon you during your hardest time,” she wrote on Aug 27.
Late last Saturday night, her family, devoid of hope, set up an altar in her memory, with her photo next to her father’s.
Her father died of cancer a few years ago. Her mother was unable to work because of health complications and so her loved ones clubbed together to finance a new life overseas for Ms Bui, her family said.
“Nhung didn’t have the qualifications to get a good job with handsome pay. Nor do her friends and many others here,” said Ms Bui’s uncle, Hoang Binh.
“Going abroad and sending back money was the only choice,” he added.
It was not clear what sort of work was lined up for her.
Some 70 per cent of Vietnamese trafficking cases in Britain between 2009 and 2016 were for labour exploitation, including cannabis production and work in nail-bars, according to a British government report last year.
“Women and girls from rural areas are also considered more susceptible to trafficking,” it said.
By early last month, it was not clear where Ms Bui was, but she was already well into her trip and reflecting on her next steps.
Beside an image of two children flying kites at sunset, she posted: “As I grow up, I see that life is not as peaceful as I used to think. When I grow up, I want to go back to my childhood, when I lived freely”.
In one of her first pictures, more clearly taken from the start of her adventure in Europe, she posed in front of a German beer garden. Days later, late last month, she posted on Facebook photos of Vietnamese noodle dishes she said she had cooked for friends in Berlin.
Mr Ton Quang Tuan, one of Ms Bui’s friends living in Berlin, said: “We went out a few times when Nhung was in Berlin.” He added that “she was in a good mood, very happy”, but they lost contact after she said she had to leave for Britain.
It was not clear how Ms Bui had travelled from the Vietnamese countryside to China and then Berlin, but the German capital has emerged in recent years as a staging ground for Vietnamese and other migrants looking to start new lives in Britain.
“I feel lonely in the place I used to dream of every day,” Ms Bui wrote on Sept 25. It was unclear where she was. Vietnamese smugglers are said to advise their subjects to live discreetly and not to give away too many clues in order to evade detection from the authorities.
Ms Bui wrote: “I don’t know when I can get used to my current life but I do know one thing for sure. At this moment, I miss you, dad. I miss you like crazy.”
A few days later, she was pictured outside Berlin Cathedral with a cup of bubble tea in her hands.
By late this month, she was in Belgium. She posted photos of herself, again with a cup of bubble tea in her hand, excitedly exploring the sights of Brussels, including the old stock exchange and the bustling Rue Auguste Orts.
It was from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge that the doomed container eventually departed. Her family believe she was on board.
In Berlin, Ms Bui had written: “Back in Vietnam, I thought Europe was pink. But it turns out it’s black.”
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