Essex lorry migrant deaths: 'We didn’t know they were found hand-in-hand until now'

There are 39 graves in Vietnam for victims of the Essex lorry tragedy, but only two are buried together.

Nguyen Thi Van and Tran Hai Loc were the only couple inside the trailer, and when they were found they were still holding hands.

ITV News has been in contact with their family in the Nghe An province of Vietnam since the deaths were confirmed last year.

Now, Van’s family has spoken for the first time about losing both their daughter and their son-in-law.

“We didn’t know they were found hand-in-hand until now,” Van’s brother, Nguyen Xuan Thuy, told us.

  • Van’s brother, Nguyen Xuan Thuy, speaks about the heartbreak of losing his sister

“This is the first time we have heard about this. They loved each other very much. Anything they did, anywhere they went, they were always together.

"Now I know that even when they died, and before they left this world, they were still together. They still showed their love.

"It takes some of the pain away for our family, and for myself."

The couple had two children who are still in Vietnam.

Nguyen Thi Van's mother has been left heartbroken by her daughter's death. Credit: ITV News

A son called Thang is seven years old; their daughter Trang is just five.

They were told their parents were leaving to set up a new home for the family overseas, but they would be going to join their mum and dad in the UK once it was safe.

The family tell me it’s common in rural Vietnam for children to be left with the grandparents while their parents work in migrant labour jobs to send money home for school fees.

Instead, the children have been orphaned, but they haven’t yet been told their parents are dead.

"Van and Loc left the country to seek a better future for their family,” we are told.

“So their children would have a better life and a better education. Right now, the two children are still too young to know about this - that their parents have died. They've now gone to live with their grandparents - but their grandparents are very old."

We are shown photographs of Van and Loc the day they left Vietnam. They pose proudly at Noi Bai airport in Hanoi, ready for a new life abroad.

Their luggage in the picture is stacked high, filling two trollies, their names written in bold letters.

The married couple pose for a picture at the airport - one of the last pictures of the pair taken together. Credit: ITV News

A detail that betrays just how ill-prepared and oblivious they were for the perilous route that lay ahead.

“They left Vietnam on 10 September, 2019,” Thuy tells me.

Just six weeks after waving their family goodbye at the airport, they both died crammed in the back of a lorry.

“First, they went to work in Bulgaria,” Thuy says, showing us photographs of the couple posing for selfies like tourists while in Europe.

“After working in Bulgaria for about a month, they tried to cross the border to the UK. It cost almost £13,000 for them to go to Bulgaria, and then another £16,000 to get to the UK.”

The smuggling gangs charge almost £30,000 per person for safe passage - money Van and Loc had to borrow from loan sharks.

This was to be repaid once they started working in the UK.

“Both of them had learned how to paint nails here in Vietnam before they left,” Van’s brother says. “They had plans to work in a nail bar in the UK.”

Van’s family showed us pictures of her training to work in a nail bar before she left - the gangs promised her it was normal that this kind of job could pay up to £3,000 per month in the UK.

Van had been made redundant from her job in a hotel, but for context, that’s more than she would have normally earned in a year in Vietnam.

It was sold as a lucrative investment, where the debt would have been paid back quickly, and within a couple of years their family would be earning life-changing sums of money.

Nguyen Thi Van and Tran Hai Loc left behind their two children, Thang (top) and Trang (bottom). Neither know about their parent's death. Credit: ITV News

Instead, her children have been left without parents and her family in Vietnam is now left with the debt.

Van’s brother Thuy says the smuggling gangs present themselves as a kind of ‘travel agent’ in Vietnam, offering hope to people who would otherwise never qualify, or be able to afford, a legal UK entry-visa.

They promise desperate people safe passage, claiming that the lofty fees they charge will cover the cost of a taxi to transport them into the UK. There is no mention of hiding in refrigerator lorries.

"Only after the tragedy happened, I learned that they actually went by lorry,” says Thuy. “Our family has investigated and found that there are still many travel agents operating to take people to the UK illegally.”

"They are still promising to take people to the UK via places like Hungary and they say it’s safe, just like they told Van and Loc. They advertise to take people to other countries safely but they don't. So I want to advise all the young people, if you plan go and find a job abroad, please only go legally. Don't go with these so-called travel agents. Anything can happen."

Every Sunday since Van’s death, her family has lit incense at her grave and prayed for justice - now they have heard the callous smugglers responsible have been found guilty.

Nguyen Thi Van and Tran Hai Loc were buried together after their death with 37 others in England. Credit: ITV News

“The last year has been very hard for us,” says Thuy. “Now I just want these smugglers to get the punishment they deserve.

“We must never again have a tragedy like this where thirty-nine people have died this way in England.”

Thuy’s mother still cries when she goes to the graves - pain caused by smuggling gangs who treated 39 people like cargo.

One day the children will visit the graves too - to pray for their parents who died holding hands, and are now buried side by side.