Originally published in The Word magazine in December 2012. The original article can be found here.
At 3am on April 20th, 2012, Edwin de La Cruz – known to his family as "Bong" – disappeared in the center of Ho Chi Minh City's District 1. Accompanied by his mother and older sister, the family had set off from the Philippines on a trip to Cambodia via Viet Nam's capital. After four days visiting family, the tired three made the bus trip back to Vietnam, arriving in the city at 1am on April 20th. They checked into a hotel near Ben Thanh Market, planning to check out the next morning. As it turns out, they would not make the journey until several weeks later and Bong would not be with them.
"On the bus, Bong insisted that a man had a gun and a hold-up was about to take place," Chit, his sister, remembers. "We noticed something was off, but his confusion came and went very quickly." While at the hotel, circumstances didn't get any better – Bong's confusion resurfaced with a vengeance. "I'm just going to go down, get the car, and grab the kids," Bong had said to his two travel companions. His mother and sister, understandably, didn't know how to react – his three children were back in the Philippines.
"He was crying while we were Skyping," his wife, Emily, notes (Emily was back home in Manila). "He missed his family so much. He may not have understood where he was, but he most definitely knew what he was looking for."
Worried, the two women gently reminded him that they were not in Manila; there was no car to get and no kids to take care of. He hesitantly backed off, leaving them at a loss as to what to say or do. He knew who he was and who they were, but he was clearly disoriented and confused. Not knowing quite what was going on, they tried to rid what was currently only concern from their minds. When they went to check on Bong, who had recently gone out for a cigarette, he was nowhere to be found.
"It had only been 10 or 15 minutes, but he was nowhere," explains Chit. The two women quickly called his wife and daughter, Erika and Emily, to alert them. They would stay in contact nearly every hour, often just for moral support. "We couldn't believe it. We immediately started praying," says Erika.
The last person to see him in a lucid state was the receptionist at the hotel. Bong's behavior was seemingly normal, cigarette in hand, asking for the doors to be unlocked so he could step out briefly for a smoke. When Bong walked out of the hotel's double doors, no one had any idea he was walking out of their lives forever.
Upon hearing the news, Neil Suarez, Bong's nephew, dropped everything and rushed to Ho Chi Minh City. He immediately made missing person flyers and contacted every single police station in every district in the city. It was five days later when Neil was told that his uncle had been picked up for causing a disturbance in a residential area in District 6, only to be dropped off shortly after and told to find his own way back to his hotel.
For Neil and his family, this posed a number of questions: How did he get all the way to District 6? And if the police stations in District 1 aren't in contact with the others, what's the best way to conduct their search? Bong had $10 (USD) and some pesos in his wallet, how far could he get?
That same day, Neil received a phone call. A Filipino woman, while on a xe om, had spotted a Filipino man looking lost under a tree while she was stopped near the roundabout on Ly Thai To, two days before. They made eye contact, each trying to figure the other out. She made the phone call as soon as she heard the story, but by then it was too late. However, she's been living with and helping the family ever since.
Neil spent his days (and nights) putting up flyers around the city and even driving around on a motorbike plastered with his uncle's image and a phone number to call, which he still drives to this day. "I was working around the clock. I wasn't sleeping. I couldn't sleep. For weeks I was running on adrenaline," he recounts.
Calls were pouring in, but they were all days after the fact, or, worse still, people looking for an easy way to make money. The next legitimate phone call would be a week later: a man, selling tokens on the street, was approached by a foreigner asking for a cigarette using only hand gestures. The foreigner then attempted to pay with a currency other than dong or dollar.
"That had to be him," Neil says, adamantly. "He must have been down to the few pesos he had left in his wallet."
Since then, he has received hundreds of phone calls originating from all over the country – from Can Tho to Halong Bay – but to no avail.
Neil, six months later, still spends the majority of his time searching, but is losing steam and understandably so. However, he and all his family believe Bong is still alive. And he makes a convincing case for it: if a foreigner were to be found dead, word would get around. Neil is in contact with virtually anyone and anywhere that might become leads – hospitals, homeless shelters, consulates, immigration offices, newspapers, television stations, etc. You name it, Neil has their number on speed dial. This belief keeps him going; he doesn't plan on leaving Ho Chi Minh City anytime soon. Though dozens of people have tried to benefit from his family's struggle, overall, people have been supportive and eager to help.
"I've considered every logical angle from begging syndicates to being taken in by a kindly monk. But the fact of the matter is that there's a very good chance he is still alive," Neil explains.
"We often wonder not just where, but how he is. Does he have a roof over his head? Food to eat? But we're not losing hope," says Chit.
"We remember him at every meal; he was such a good cook," Erika and Emily add, between tears. "We're still praying. We will always keep praying."
The family simply asks that everyone be mindful. Keep an eye out, spread the word, and do not hesitate to call, day or night.
Hotline: 01285 601413
Sister Pascale: 0918 218356
Immigration Police: 0938 328939