By James Pearson
HANOI (Reuters) – Tradition in Vietnam dictates that the dead should be buried within three days, but Nguyen Dinh Gia is still waiting for his son’s body to come home.
“We are tired. We want our child back as soon as possible,” said Gia whose son, Luong, was one of 39 Vietnamese who died in the back of a truck in Britain around three weeks ago.
British police have charged two people with manslaughter over the incident. The youngest of the victims, most of whom had left poorer rural villages in search of work, was 15.
In Vietnam, the families of the victims have been plagued by confusion and anguish over how to get the bodies home.
Rumours about high costs circulating on social media, conflicting information from local authorities and a partial blackout of news in Vietnam’s tightly controlled media have all contributed to the uncertainty.
Six families told Reuters they had been expecting to receive the bodies of the dead, but were later asked by Vietnamese police to agree that their children’s remains be cremated instead.
Last week, Gia signed a form granting permission for Luong’s body to be repatriated. The next day, police encouraged him to opt for his son’s ashes instead.
“I was told the original form, including the option to repatriate Luong’s body, was no longer valid,” said Gia.
Exhausted and seeking closure, Gia agreed for his son’s body to be cremated.
The family of Pham Thi Tra My, who sent an emotional text message to her parents warning in her dying moments that she couldn’t breathe, has asked local authorities to nullify their agreement to have her cremated.
“I want to see my sister one more time before we bury her,” said Pham Manh Cuong, Tra My’s brother.
Britain’s Embassy in Hanoi said the Vietnamese government was leading efforts to repatriate the remains. Vietnam’s foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
An important event at Vietnamese funerals is the act of walking around the body of the deceased, so that family members can bid a final farewell.
And for most people in the Southeast Asian country, including in the northern-central provinces of Ha Tinh and Nghe An from which most of the victims left on their fatal journey, the dead should be buried within three days.
“We had to persuade the families to accept that the remains be cremated, even though we know they’d rather have the bodies, according to Vietnamese traditions and beliefs,” a senior official in Ha Tinh told Reuters.
“Due to the difficulties in logistics and the arrangements between the two countries, we have to offer that option,” said the official, who requested anonymity given the sensitivity of the issue. It was not clear what logistical difficulties the official was referring to.
Vietnam’s largest state-run media, including the Vietnam News Agency (VNA) and the Thanh Nien and Tuoi Tre newspapers, have not reported on the case this week.
Sources at two privately-owned media outlets said they had been instructed by the authorities not to interview families of the victims.
The issue of repatriation costs has been widely discussed on social media in Vietnam, including in private Facebook groups used by people working in Vietnamese-owned nail salons in Britain, where many Vietnamese migrants seek work.
One such group has been raising money to help fund the bringing back of the bodies.
Gia said relatives told him they had seen social media posts quoting prices as high as 1.2 billion dong ($52,700) to repatriate the body.
“The police didn’t mention any costs when they visited,” said Gia. “They just persuaded us that it would be better to bring back ashes since it’d be very difficult to transfer the body from Britain to Vietnam in a coffin.”
(Reporting by James Pearson; Editing by Alex Richardson)