In October 2019, British police discovered a truck with 39 dead bodies. All from Vietnam. Who were they? How did they get there? The story of twins, one of whom died.
The father is sitting hunched over at the table, a lanky, 50-year-old farmer with leathery skin and hair that is more gray than it is black. It’s late January, the air is warm and dry. Light filters in through the grated window, as do sounds: the crowing of a rooster, the lowing of a cow. The father wipes his nose on his sleeve and takes another drag from his cigarette. There have been a great number of cigarettes since the large, white altar appeared in the house entry bearing the photo of a smiling, 19-year-old girl in a white blouse and a red-and-gold scarf draped around her neck. Her name was Mai. She was his daughter.
An acquaintance drops by, reaches for a stick of incense from the tray next to the altar, lights it and mumbles an Our Father. “Ah! You!” says the father in greeting and pours a glass of green tea. The guest sits down and says what everyone has been saying these days.
“Mai was such a good girl. It must be so deeply painful.”
“I wish for you and your family that you may one day overcome this pain.”
“May God help you.”
The father nods and the visitor puts on his motorcycle helmet and drives off.
The man and his wife cultivate two rice fields in addition to keeping three cows and a dozen chicken behind the house. The mother also distills liquor and the father used to take side jobs in construction – drilling wells or lugging sacks of cement. But since his daughter’s death, he has stopped taking any jobs, and his wife takes care of the fields and the animals on her own.
The father can no longer handle much more than receiving guests dropping by to express their sympathies. Even eating is a challenge.
Mai and her twin sister Lan had a dream: They wanted to get out of Vietnam and head to the West, to America or Europe. Two girls with the same round nose, the same high forehead and the same weakness for flannel shirts and jeans. Two girls who had shared a bed their entire lives, dyed their hair and put on red lipstick like popstars from South Korea. Two girls hoping for a better life.
The father says he understood the dream of his daughters. Here, in the countryside of central Vietnam, all the young people want to leave. But in the big cities of Vietnam, they are ridiculed as rubes with a funny accent, so they head overseas. His brother’s children are living in America; he has cousins in South Korea. Classmates of his daughters have made their way to Japan, Germany and England.
After finishing school, Mai and Lan applied to two American universities, but they were rejected. Then, a cousin put them in touch with a man from a neighboring village who was now living overseas. A smuggler.
The father was worried. He had heard how dangerous it could be to travel to the West illegally, especially for women. On the evening before their departure, he took them aside.
“I won’t let you go,” he said. “I can’t allow it.”
The sisters protested. “If we don’t go now, we might never get away.”
The father relented. When he thinks back to that discussion today, tears run down his face. He reaches for a cigarette.
Mai’s and Lan’s journey to a better life ended in a news report that circled the globe. On 23rd of October 2019, British police officers discovered 39 dead bodies in a container on the back of a truck in the county of Essex east of London. Mai was one of them.
Court documents show that a Northern Irish truck driver had hauled the container through France and Belgium before it was loaded onto a ferry in Zeebrugge for the crossing to England, disguised as a delivery of biscuits. Upon arrival in the port of Purfleet in Essex County, a second driver, also from Northern Ireland, picked up the container at 1:08 a.m. on that October night. A short time later, he turned into an industrial park, where he opened the container door.
According to the London daily Evening Standard, the driver passed out after opening the refrigerator unit and discovering the bodies, although that suggestion remained unverified. The Daily Mail quotes emergency teams who said there were bloodied handprints. At 1:38 a.m., the ambulance was called.
Post-mortem examinations have come to the conclusion that the victims died of suffocation and overheating, likely during the nine-hour crossing to England. The container’s refrigeration system had been switched off.
The two truck drivers and three accomplices are now in custody, with their trial set to begin in Britain this autumn. Eight more suspects have been charged in Vietnam. Investigations into the unlawful migration network are continuing in both countries, but already it seems clear that the authorities have not managed to track down the leaders of the network. Only the foot soldiers will be hauled into court.
Reports of people who die on their way to Europe are usually about migrants from Africa or civil war refugees from the Middle East who drown in the Mediterranean. But the Essex tragedy is different.
All of the 39 people who died were from Vietnam, a country that has been at peace for decades – a place that is popular as a vacation destination and which is growing more prosperous by the year.
Still, the twin sisters Mai and Lan took off on this dangerous journey. What were they hoping for once they arrived in England? And was the container disaster in Essex an isolated case, or was it part of a dangerous migration movement that had managed to stay under the radar until then?
This article was researched over the course of several months. The ZEIT reporters traveled to Vietnam, England and Spain, with much of their reporting taking place long before SARS-CoV-2 arrived in these countries. Like so many other things, the virus has also slowed down irregular migration, and only in the coming weeks will it become clear what is stronger – the pandemic or the desire for millions of people to leave their homeland.
Around 9,900 kilometers from her parents’ home in Vietnam, Lan is sitting in a nail salon in a Spanish city not far from the Mediterranean. To protect their identities, the names of both Lan and her deceased twin sister Mai have been changed for this story, also Lan’s employer will not be identified. Lan, wearing jeans and a black hoodie, is filing a customer’s nails. She has a blue-and-white plaid fabric mask wrapped around her face, as do all of the workers here to protect themselves from the fumes and the fingernail dust. Winter is just coming to an end and the coronavirus has yet to arrive.
Lan bends silently over the left hand belonging to a young Spanish woman with dark brown hair and a cheek piercing, her fingers spread wide. Lan’s workspace is in the back, next to the massage chair with the footbath. On her table is a fan and a clamp-on desk lamp, from which a small electric nail file is hanging. On the wall is a poster of a woman naked from the waist up, her arms crossed to cover her breasts. Next to it are the words “Beauty Nails.”
Spain. Lan is stuck here. The Vietnamese smuggler who organized the sisters’ trip last summer – he’ll be called Long – told them all about the wonders of England. He told them he lived there himself, though it would later turn out that he really lives in Germany.
Mai and Lan didn’t know much about England. They didn’t have a specific idea of the kind of life they wanted to live or the jobs they wanted to have, but they figured they would be granted residency and make lots of money. Then, they would return to Vietnam, get married and have children. That was the plan.
Long, the smuggler, told the girls that the trip he was organizing for them would be almost as comfortable as vacation. They would only have to make a choice regarding the last leg of the journey, from France to England. Would they rather travel in the cab of a truck, in a horse trailer or in a container?
The father chose the truck cab, the safest and most expensive method. The price: 1.1 billion Vietnamese Dong per sister, for a total equal to almost 88,000 euros. To get ahold of that much money, the father decided to take out a loan, with his property and that of his siblings as collateral.
It was a good investment, Long promised. He would take care of everything, including forged passports. And once they arrived in England, he said, one of his contacts would pick up the girls and help them find jobs. Jobs that would lead to a better life.
In the nail studio, Lan stands up from her stool and asks the customer to follow her and the two then sit down at a table near the entrance. The customer spreads her fingers out again and Lan walks over to a shelf where small, colorful bottles of nail polish are lined up. She pulls out two bottles, one white and one clear. The Spanish woman has requested a French manicure: clear nails with white tips.
The nail studio where Lan works is no different from thousands of others just like it in Europe. It is located in a shopping mall with glass entry doors and faux-marble floors. On the ground floor, young shoppers push past H&M while families eat pizza up in the food court. At Beauty Nails, a manicure and pedicure with no polish costs 32 euros. The husbands sit on chairs near the door, fiddling with their smartphones.
What remains invisible from the outside is the world that keeps the business going, the continued arrival of migrants who enter the country illegally. In many Western countries, nail studios are run by the Vietnamese, though the reason is more by chance than by design: In the 1970s, the Hollywood actress Tippi Hedren visited a Vietnamese refugee camp in California. To help the people there build up new lives for themselves, she set up courses in nail care and even flew in her own manicurist to help teach them. That was how the first Vietnamese began filing and polishing nails for a living. They were so successful, that many of their compatriots followed their example, first in the United States and then in Europe. And they are still expanding the business, with the necessary personnel coming from their former homeland.
Only two of the five Vietnamese who are working in the nail studio on this day have valid residency papers, the boss and his longest-serving employee, both of whom have lived in Spain for a long time. The other three – a young man in his early 20s, a woman of the same age and Lan – are in the country without permission.
It’s not easy to trace the circuitous path the two sisters took on their way to Europe. Lan has only faint memories of the many people and places they encountered, while some of the details regarding the smugglers and their methods cannot be adequately verified. The ZEIT reporters tried to corroborate the stories told by the young woman by looking at passport stamps, pictures and social media posts. They compared Lan’s account with those from the families of other victims and discussed them with migration experts. They have come to the conclusion that Lan’s story is credible.
The Path to the West: Malaysia
The two sisters began their trip in late August of last year at the airport in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, 300 kilometers from their home village. Their mother had stayed home, with Long, the smuggler, insisting that there be no intimate hugs or even tears as the parents bid farewell. He was concerned that such scenes could have attracted the attention of the police. Only their father had joined them on the trip to the airport.
Mai and Lan had two, small trolley cases with them, one brown and the other white, in which they had packed T-shirts, collared shirts and a few articles of warm clothing. They also each had 500 USD and 700 euros in cash. Their plan was to pose as tourists heading off on a trip with their partners. At the terminal, they met two young Vietnamese men who were also on their way to the West. The twins were to fly with the two men to Malaysia. Their father thought they looked decent, and the fact that they were Catholic put his mind at ease.
The sisters left Vietnam with the feeling that a grand adventure lay ahead of them.
At the airport in Kuala Lumpur, the group was received by a Chinese woman, who drove them to a hotel outside of the city. Mai and Lan went out to eat and to have a look around, feeling like a couple of tourists. Later, the Chinese woman returned with red passports, telling the girls that they were to say they were from China from then on.
Mai and Lan learned a few sentences in Chinese from the woman and had to memorize their new names and places of birth. Mai’s new name was “Lili,” but Lan has forgotten hers. “It was so long,” she says.
The very next day, Lan had to continue the journey without her sister, with the smugglers saying that their identical dates of birth threatened to attract unwanted attention.
So, she flew with three or four other Vietnamese and the Chinese woman to the Azerbaijan capital of Baku. There, they boarded a plane bound for Istanbul. When they arrived, Lan presented her Chinese passport. Mai arrived two days later with a different group.
At Beauty Nails, the hum of nail filers competes with the rattling of shopping carts outside in the mall. Every now and then, a customer walks in, triggering a flurry of orders from the boss in Vietnamese and the customer is taken to a free table.
Vietnamese acquaintances of Vietnamese acquaintances helped Lan get the job in the nail studio and she now spends six days a week here, from 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., with only Sundays off. It’s of no consequence to her whether it is cold and wintery outside or whether the sun warms the colorful building facades as it does on this spring-like Saturday. All Lan sees are broken nails, split nails, torn nails, nails with chipped polish and unpainted nails that are waiting to be filed and painted.
Lan guesses that she serves 20 customers a day, not many compared to the others, she says. She has been working here for more than two months, but she still hasn’t been paid. “It’s like an apprenticeship,” she later says after the workday is over and she can speak freely. “Plus, they take care of my lodging and food.”
Lan lives in a four-room flat on the fifth floor of an apartment building together with eight other Vietnamese, seven men and a woman. She and the other woman share a room in the apartment and sleep in the same bed. The apartment belongs to her boss and everyone who lives here works in one of his two nail studios. Late in the evening, once the workday is over, they cook together.
Lan speaks in short, hesitant sentences, frequently looking away in embarrassment. She says she doesn’t know how long her purported training program will last and she hasn’t yet managed to muster up the courage to ask.
She leaves her own nails unpainted. Polished nails aren’t particularly practical in her line of work, nor does she like the look of colored fingernails. In the first week, her fingers turned red and scaly, but now she washes her hands after every customer and uses lotion, which has helped.
The Path to the West: Turkey
In Istanbul, the sisters stayed in an old hotel. Along with the rooms for normal guests, there were hidden rooms in the basement and in the attic, Lan says, adding that around 30 Vietnamese and 20 people from China were staying in the hotel, migrants passing through. They all contributed money for the shopping and then cooked together in a kitchen in the attic. After just over a week in Turkey, they made their first attempt to leave the country. The smugglers drove them into a forest, but they were taken into custody by the Turkish police and brought to a police station, where they were held for around four hours. The Turks were friendly, Lan recalls. “We even taught them a bit of Vietnamese.”
Back in the city, Lan and the others waited a few days. Then they tried again.
The vehicle was a minivan, designed for seven people, but the seats had been removed and that evening, 27 people crammed inside: Vietnamese, Chinese, Iraqis and Iranians. Mai and Lan had to leave their suitcases back in the hotel and were only allowed to bring along plastic bags with a bit of food and clothing. After about three hours, they again reached the forest, where they proceeded to wait. At around 2 a.m., two Turkish men showed up with two folded up inflatable rafts. The group then walked for around four hours until they reached a river that was just a few meters wide. The Turks pumped up the boats and brought Lan and the others across to the other side. It only took a couple of minutes. And then, they were in Greece.
Nghe An, the home province of the two sisters in Vietnam, is neither particularly rich nor is it extremely poor. The life that Mai and Lan led there was largely confined to just a few square kilometers: There was their parents’ two-story home with its red roof; there was the Catholic church where the family – the twins, their parents and their two younger siblings – would worship; and there were the rice fields everywhere.
Sometimes, their father would drive Mai and Lan to the seaside, a 15-minute trip on the moped. At others, the twins would head out without him, driving around for a couple of hours on their own.
During their excursions, the sisters could see how their region was changing. In many villages, there were hardly any traditional, dark farmhouses with moss covering the walls. Most families have built multi-story homes in recent years, painted in bright colors like lemon yellow or sky blue. Surrounded by banana trees and high fences, stucco-decorated gables jut upward with Greek columns out front and wooden shutters on the windows. Money left over after the homes are complete tends to be spent on air conditioning.
The prosperity here comes from relatives living abroad, as everyone here knows. Mai and Lan were well aware of it too. There is even a term for these people who live somewhere in the West: Viet-Kieu, overseas Vietnamese.
Emigration has long been a feature of life in Vietnam. After communist North Vietnam won the war against the Americans in the mid-1970s and took over South Vietnam, hundreds of thousands of people fled the country in boats and were taken in primarily by France and the U.S. Later, many Vietnamese traveled as contract workers to socialist “brother states,” like the Soviet Union, East Germany, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia. More recently, migrant workers have followed, most of them young and from rural areas. People like Mai and Lan.
Today, almost every Vietnamese family has relatives living overseas, who regularly send money back home. According to the World Bank, remittances worth $16.7 billion were sent back to Vietnam from abroad last year, a total that is many times what the country received in official development assistance.
If the mother has to go to the hospital; if the son is to be sent to university; if the grandfather can no longer work: Many Vietnamese families are dependent on money from abroad. Those who earn that money thousands of kilometers away are smiling down from pictures hung in living rooms across the country – proud emigrants posing in front of famous Western tourist attractions like Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower and the Brandenburg Gate.
What you don’t see in the pictures are the dangers encountered by many of the migrants who have left Vietnam in recent years.
On that October night in the English county of Essex, 31 men and eight women from several central Vietnamese provinces died in the white metal container. The ZEIT reporters were able to speak with the families of 38 of the 39 victims.
Such as the parents of 26-year-old Pham Thi Tra My. In the final minutes of her life, she was able to write her parents a text message. But only when the doors of the container were finally opened – long after all its occupants had died – did Tra My’s mobile phone once again find a signal and send her words to her family: “Mom and dad, I’m so sorry (…). I didn’t make it. Mom. I love you both. I’m dying because I can’t breathe (…). Mom, I’m so sorry.”
The dead body of Dang Huu Tuyen, 22, was also lying in the container. His parents had sent him to Laos to make money, but the wages paid at the construction sites there were too low, so Tuyen headed off to Europe. Even now, after the death of his son, Tuyen’s father says heading abroad is the best thing a young man can do.
Tran Hai Loc and his wife Nguyen Thi Van, both 35, also died in the container. In contrast to most parents, they decided to head abroad together to make more money so they could quickly return to their children in Vietnam. In the grandparents’ home, there is now an altar bearing a photo of the couple. The children, two and four years old, sometimes gaze at it uncomprehendingly.
The Path to the West: Greece
On the Greek side of the border, Lan says, they saw bushes with white tufts on them. Cotton. They reached a clearing that looked as though someone had just been camping there and the Turkish smugglers spread out a blanket for them to sit on.
The smugglers told the group they had to wait in the clearing until evening and that they had to stay as quiet as possible because of the possibility of police roaming through the forest. It was a chilly evening, Lan recalls, and Mai was shivering because she had left her warm clothing back at the hotel. They passed Lan’s jacket back and forth and embraced to keep warm. At around 7 p.m., they headed off again and kept going until midnight, when they stopped. The smugglers passed out bags of food and drinks, then they all stretched out on the ground and went to sleep.
When they woke up, they were picked up by a truck that had been modified for its very specific purpose. From the outside, Lan recalls, it looked just like a normal truck, with a cab up front and a large container in the back. But there was actually a hidden compartment, reachable through a metal hatch underneath. “We had to crawl under the truck so that we could climb in,” Lan says.
Around four hours later, they had to climb back out of the truck on a country road. From here, the smugglers said, it’s about 10 kilometers to the train station, and the group set out on foot. The Vietnamese, says Lan, stopped at a small bistro they passed for a bite to eat and they asked someone to call a taxi for them. The Chinese, though, she says, walked the entire way and were exhausted when they arrived.
“We Vietnamese,” Lan says, “are very smart.”
They took the train to Athens and separated into smaller groups, with the twins staying together with the two young Vietnamese men with whom they had flown to Malaysia. An accomplice of their smuggler picked them up at the train station in Athens and brought them to his apartment. Here, they had to wait two or three weeks until their new forged passports were ready, this time from China and South Korea.
It was a pleasant time for Mai and Lan. Mai posted a picture to her Facebook page showing the girls in front of the Academy of Athens, the setting sun shining on the building’s white columns and the twins smiling in each other’s arms. They were wearing T-shirts and jeans, both with belt bags slung over their shoulders. “This is the life,” Mai wrote, including a smiley.
It’s Sunday, Lan’s day off, and she wants to head out to the beach for the first time since arriving in Spain. Lan has lived in this city for several months, but still lives the life of a stranger. The language, the food, the streets, the buildings – none of it is familiar to her.
In the old city center, she climbs into a green-and-white electric bus that is so full on this summery spring day that she is only just able to find a seat. The bus drives through a suburb with broad streets and lush palms. Even though the sun is shining outside and it is 20 degrees Celsius, Lan is wearing a woolen roll neck sweater and a black-and-white plaid winter coat.
She begins talking about her apartment and about the eight other Vietnamese she lives with, saying she isn’t particularly interested in speaking or doing much with any of them, aside from church on Sunday, which they sometimes attend together. Her apartment mates offered to celebrate her birthday with her, but she declined. Her birthday reminds her too much of her twin sister, she says.
She gets off the bus at the last stop and follows three young Spaniards carrying a blanket and a ball. They walk past a white casino and a park full of picnicking families. Lan walks up a small embankment until the air begins to smell of salt and the ground gives way to damp sand, the waves splashing onto the shore. The sky is so blue it could have been painted.
“Just like the beach in Vietnam!” Lan yells.
A couple of young people in swimming suits bat a volleyball back and forth. Lan, though, pulls her coat up over her head: Like many Vietnamese women, she finds tanned skin to be ugly.
She stops, sits down in the sand and pulls her knees to her chin. When asked if she would like to return to Vietnam, she says that she regrets not having listened to her father’s warnings. “The price to come here was too high,” she says.
Still, she doesn’t want to give up and go back. Her sister, she believes, would have wanted her to bring her journey to a successful conclusion, making it all the way to England to make enough money to help support her family.
It’s quite possible that Lan would also be working in a nail salon had she made it to England, though some Vietnamese migrants also end up at the illegal cannabis farms there. Experts have compiled reports about young men being locked into buildings for months on end so they can monitor the heat lamps and fertilize and water the plants. The only food that the drug dealers give them are frozen meals they can heat up in the microwave. In many instances, says the British Home Office, these migrants live in a form of “modern slavery.”
It seems likely, in other words, that Lan’s life in England would be no better than the one she has found in Spain. But at least she knows a few people in England who could help her. More than anything, though, Lan seems intent on reaching the goal that she and her sister had set for themselves.
“If I were to return to Vietnam now, I would just be a burden to my parents,” Lan says. “I would have to find a secure, well-paid job. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have enough money to feed my siblings and send them to school.”
In the months following the death of her sister, it seems almost as though Lan has packed up her feelings and set them aside. It’s as though she is bearing her pain just as disciplined as she is bearing her work at the nail salon. In her discussions with ZEIT about her journey and the death of her sister, she only began crying on one single occasion – when she was speaking about Mai dying in the container. “I can actually feel it when I think about her gasping for breath,” she says. “I can feel it with my own body.”
The Path to the West: Separation
In Athens, the smugglers once again wanted Mai to fly onward on her own. Mai resisted, afraid to be without her sister, but Lan reassured her, saying: “Go on ahead.” So, Mai flew to Palermo in Italy, where she looked around in the old town and went to the beach, before then boarding a plane to Spain and then a train to France.
In the meantime, Lan tried to leave Athens with a South Korean passport. She managed to make it through the security check at the airport, but she was detained on the plane. A customs official took her forged passport, leaving Lan to call her parents in tears. “If you have to, go to the police and come home,” her father told her. But after 24 hours, the Greek authorities let her go, though they held onto the fake passport.
A few days later, she spoke with her sister on the phone for the last time. It was the evening of Oct. 21 and Lan was still stuck in Athens. Mai, though, was at a train station in France, waiting for a man who was supposed to bring her to Belgium. From there, her smuggler had told her, she could head onward to England. Mai was thinking about staying in Belgium until Lan caught up with her, but Lan pushed her to keep going. It could be awhile until she got another forged passport, she said.
“Pray for me,” Mai said.
“I’m praying for you,” Lan responded.
That was the last time they spoke. Shortly before the crossing to England, Mai wrote her sister one last time via Facebook.
Oct. 22, 7:48 a.m.: “Lan, I’m leaving at 8.”
8:49 a.m.: “I’m leaving at 9.”
Mai’s father spent that day in Vietnam waiting for his daughter to get in touch after arriving in England. In vain. So, he tried calling her himself. And couldn’t reach her. Her father recalls that Long, the smuggler, tried to reassure him, saying that Mai had arrived safely in England and that he didn’t need to worry and that the father only had to hand over the money and Mai would be picked up and taken to an apartment.
The father tried to believe him and even told Lan. But then, on Oct. 23, news suddenly began spreading in the village. There had been an accident in England. Thirty-nine dead bodies in a truck. All of them Asian.
The father again called the smuggler. Is Mai really in England, he demanded? What about that container? Again, the father says, Long tried to convince him that everything was just fine. Mai had booked the most expensive of the travel options, after all, a seat in the cab. There was room for just two in the cab, not 39.
In the hours that followed, the father says, he paced in the living room like a madman. Only two, not 39 – that thought kept going through his head, he says. He told Lan the same thing. But why wasn’t he able to reach Mai? And why had Long also stopped answering his phone?
Lan says she could also feel that something wasn’t right. She laid in bed without being able to sleep. She says she prayed and read the bible.
Days later, still in the dark about her sister’s fate, Lan flew from Greece to Spain with a forged South Korean passport, the next leg of the journey to England. After her arrival in Spain, Lan again wrote her sister over Facebook.
5:25 p.m.: “Don’t leave me alone.”
“We have to make it to make mom and dad happy.”
5:53 p.m.: “Call me.”
“Try your best to get me to England, too, so that we can see each other again.”
6:53 p.m.: “Call me and I’ll come to you.”
“We have to do all we can for our parents and our family.”
That night, Lan spoke with her mother on the phone. Her mother told her: “Leave your phone camera on so that I can watch over you as you sleep.”
It would take until Nov. 8 until the police in Essex brought an end to their uncertainty and released the names of the 39 people who had suffocated in the back of the truck.
For 40 days, Mai’s body lay in a wooden casket in England, the country where she so badly wanted to live. Then it was flown to Vietnam. On the morning of Dec. 2, 2019, a white ambulance brought the body to Mai’s hometown. Everyone was waiting for its arrival: parents, siblings, relatives, neighbors, former classmates, teachers and other members of the community. On videos of that day, you can see villagers crouched on their mopeds with colorful flags. When the ambulance finally arrived, they crowded around its tinted windows and pressed their hands against them – as if they were trying to grasp something that could no longer be grasped.
In the videos, you can also see Mai’s father standing silently to the side. All around him are the sounds of drumming, rattling, mourning and singing, but it looks as though he’s not making a sound. His mouth is open, his face frozen in place as he walks to his home in the middle of the funeral march – losing strength as he goes, until a relative has to pull him for the last few steps through the crowd.
The sun has already set on the beach when Lan’s phone rings and a photo of her father pops up on the screen. “Dad?” she says. “Are you still awake? It’s late over there.”
Lan and her father frequently talk on the phone several times a day. He always asks how she is doing and whether she has eaten. And he tells her she shouldn’t climb into a truck bound for England, and she shouldn’t go anywhere on her own.
On this day, too, Lan’s father had tried to reach her several times, but because she was speaking with a reporter, Lan didn’t want to stop to pick up the phone. He was worried.
“Everything is fine,” she says. “I’m at the beach.”
They talk for a few minutes and then she sets her phone aside. It has grown chilly and Lan has wrapped herself in her coat. Later, she will say that it was her birthday. She is now 20 years old.
She looks out at the sea as though she is looking for a ship to take her to the other side. “A Vietnamese friend who I met in Greece recently called me,” she says. “He’s in England. He crossed over in the truck, in the cab. He says it was quite comfortable.”
At the edge of the village that she had wanted to leave, just a few hundred meters from her childhood home, is Mai’s grave. The air is still, as is the sky. A low cement wall marks the area belonging to Mai’s family. Her grave is set slightly apart from those of her forbears, who lie close together. It’s also bigger, mightier, more admonishing. A small stone covering protects her photo from the sun and rain. The grave is surrounded by white flowers.
Lan receives her first wages at the nail salon after three months: 500 euros in addition to room and board. She is set to earn more money in the months to come: 600, 700, maybe even 1,000 euros. Finally, she will be able to send money home.
But then the pandemic arrives. And Beauty Nails has to close its doors.
A lockdown is imposed across Spain and Lan spends her days in the apartment with the other Vietnamese migrants. She sleeps, she cooks, she eats and she talks to her parents on the phone or exchanges messages with them. But really, she is waiting. Waiting for the country to reawaken so she can go back to fixing and polishing nails. And she is waiting for the borders to reopen so she can finish her journey to England.