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Vietnam Today:
A Time of Healing
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Photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

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Nguyen Thu Ba, CRS program coordinator, says one of CRS's goals is "to promote reconciliation between the two countries."

Photo by David Maloney

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Hanoi's large Catholic Cathedral of St. Joseph is neo-Gothic in style. The Hanoi Archdiocese serves some 400,000 Catholics.

Photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.


Both Vietnamese and Americans are putting the past behind and focusing on the work of peace and reconciliation, a trip to Vietnam reveals. Catholic Relief Services is part of the healing process. By Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

 Words of Friendship From the Vietnamese

 Signs of Hope and Healing

 Tourists Are Welcome

 Catholicism in Vietnam

Is There Freedom of Religion in Vietnam?

'Not Just a War'

Four Special Projects (Sidebar)

VIETNAM AIRLINES FLIGHT #832 out of Bangkok was beginning its descent toward Hanoi in northern Vietnam. I kept asking myself with a touch of disbelief: Is it possible that 22 years have passed since the end of the Vietnam War? As we landed in the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam for a 10-day visit (July 29 to August 8), troubling memories of that bitter conflict hung fresh in my mind.

Though this was my first visit to Vietnam, I recalled uneasily that Hanoi had been repeatedly bombed by U.S. planes, as was Haiphong, the principal northern port city less than 100 miles east of Hanoi. I remembered, too, the storm of controversy stirred up in the United States when movie actress Jane Fonda came to this city in 1972 and spoke out against America's involvement in the war. I also knew that 58,000 Americans had lost their lives in the war, while the Vietnamese had suffered many, many more losses.

Naturally, like most American visitors to Hanoi today, I was anxiously wondering what kind of reception our small group of writers from the United States would experience. We soon discovered that the Vietnamese people received us most warmly. And signs grew clearer in the succeeding days that in Vietnam friendship and healing have replaced hostility and destruction.

Words of Friendship From the Vietnamese

This was clearly the sentiment of Nguyen Thu Ba, a 31-year-old Vietnamese woman who is program coordinator for Catholic Relief Services, Vietnam. Married and the mother of a six-year-old son, Thu Ba is one of 11 Vietnamese serving on the staff of Catholic Relief Services in the Hanoi region.

"When we think of the war," she tells St. Anthony Messenger, "we still feel hurt. Many of us had family members or relatives killed in that war. But if we only think of the past and never forgive or try to build better relationships, nothing is gained. We see the past as an experience from which all of us should learn.

"I'm very pleased to work with Catholic Relief Services," Thu Ba adds. "CRS is in this country to help the poor and disadvantaged, regardless of race, religion or nationality. We are also trying to promote reconciliation between the two countries. We consider the Americans working with us to be our friends, not enemies. They are here to help." The war is over and now is the time for building peace and working together for social improvement, she believes.

One of the CRS projects in which she has been involved demonstrates the potential for genuine reconciliation between Americans and the Vietnamese. An American veterans group from Albany, New York, contributed $7,500 to a Catholic Relief Services project of building a new school in Yen Lac Commune, Thanh Hoa, a poor rural district some 150 miles south of Hanoi. The old school building, damaged by a typhoon, was in such bad shape that many students were dropping out of school because their parents were concerned for their safety.

Now, with a sturdy new building, more than 1,000 students are attending. In 1997, Thu Ba went to Albany, New York, along with Lam Duc Kim of the Thanh Hoa Province Foreign Relations Office to thank personally the American veterans group on behalf of the Vietnamese.

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After meeting with American visitors, Vietnamese official Nguyen Van Thanh stands with Sieglinde Gassman, the U.S. representative for CRS in Vietnam.

Photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

More evidence that Vietnam wants a peaceful relationship with America came from an official of the Vietnamese government, Nguyen Van Thanh. Thanh praised the spirit of cooperation that exists nowadays between the United States and Vietnam. He had invited Sieglinde Gassman—the U.S. representative for Catholic Relief Services in Vietnam—and her guests from the United States to a meeting in a reception room at PACCOM (People's Aid Coordinating Committee).

After greeting us graciously and making sure that all were offered a cup of green tea, Thanh spoke about his work as the vice president of the Vietnamese Union of Friendship Organizations. He said that some 190 U.S. organizations like CRS are working in Vietnam and giving assistance to the country. Several American veterans organizations and university groups have also visited and have good relations with Vietnam, he reports.

"We Vietnamese do not nurture sentiments of hatred against Americans. We are a very small country," he says with a smile, "and the only way for us to survive is to restore friendly relations with other nations."

After the war ended in 1975 and Vietnam was reunited, he notes, the Communist government inaugurated a program of national reconstruction on a model of socialism. "Socialist values are very similar to Christianity and other religions," he asserts. "We all want peace and equality and are opposed to social evils like corruption, prostitution and the squandering of public properties....And we are happy to receive assistance from our friends," Thanh says, turning to the CRS representatives present. "Thank you for your understanding and assistance....Please continue helping the Vietnamese to stand on their feet and to help themselves."

Signs of Hope and Healing

The visit of our group to Vietnam had a limited geographical scope, namely, Hanoi and the surrounding region. The focus of this article, too, is restricted to the same area, though some of the information applies to the nation as a whole.

The first impression a visitor gets of Hanoi today is that it is upbeat, on the move and open for business. Most people seem to be in good humor and the children laugh a lot. This was less so the first 10 years after the war. The United States had imposed a trade embargo. The country was struggling with the effects of the war and was in a serious economic slump.

In 1986 the Communist government saw the need to liberalize the economy, moving toward private enterprise and capitalism. Foreign investment was encouraged. Small private businesses began sprouting up so that now the streets are lined with small shops and restaurants. Some 10 years ago, observers point out, Hanoi was a "bicycle town"—the bicycle being the most common vehicle on the streets. Today almost everyone, men and women alike, seems to be cruising along on motorbikes, with a good number of automobiles, vans and buses mixed in.

Other positive things have been brightening the economic outlook and the future of U.S./Vietnam relations. In early 1994, President Bill Clinton lifted the U.S. trade embargo against Vietnam. The next year, the United States opened full diplomatic ties with its former enemy. And in 1997 U.S. Ambassador Douglas Peterson was appointed to Vietnam and took up residence in Hanoi.

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With its streets humming with motorbikes, Hanoi strikes American visitors as on the move and open for business.

Photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

Ambassador Peterson, a former Democratic congressman from Florida (1991-1996) and a Roman Catholic, has done much to accelerate the growth of international goodwill in Vietnam since his arrival in Hanoi last May.

Ironically, Peterson had been a U.S. Air Force pilot during the Vietnam War and was shot down by antiaircraft fire in 1966 while on a bombing run on the Hanoi-Haiphong railroad line. It was his 67th mission. His parachute caught in a mango tree as he landed on the edge of a rice paddy. Captured by local militiamen, he was taken to the dreaded Hoa Lo prison, nicknamed the "Hanoi Hilton" by American POWs. At the Hanoi Hilton, he was tortured and mistreated. He was held in various prisons for some six years.

Since arriving in Hanoi, Ambassador Peterson seems to have gained many admirers. Father Charlie Robak, an American Maryknoll priest working in and around Hanoi for four years, described as "very marvelous" Peterson's impact on Vietnam since his arrival. "The ambassador is doing a great job. He has given some beautiful talks on reconciliation."

Father Robak shared with St. Anthony Messenger a story that began circulating after Ambassador Peterson's meeting with Do Muoi, the chairman of the Communist Party of Vietnam. According to Father Robak, Chairman Do Muoi asked the ambassador if indeed he had spent time in the "Hanoi Hilton." "Yes," replied Peterson. "And were you tortured and treated badly?" Do Muoi asked. "Yes, I was," replied the ambassador. Do Muoi said in response: "So was I—when I was imprisoned by the French!" Then the two men embraced, according to Father Robak's account. "It's a beautiful story of reconciliation...and a good example for everyone," says Father Robak.

In a September 11, 1997, article in The Los Angeles Times, writer David Lamb tells of a more recent incident in which Peterson again became a "symbol of reconciliation." In September Peterson returned to the little village of An Doai some 90 minutes east of Hanoi. It was there 31 years ago that his plane was shot down and he ended up in a tree. There the ambassador had a friendly reunion with his captors. He told them that his presence at this site was a sign that the two nations had put the war behind them. Peterson was described as "a walking billboard for Vietnamese-American friendship."

Tourists Are Welcome

Tourists from America, and elsewhere, are welcome in Hanoi today. Although our group was in the Hanoi area to write articles about the political and religious climate in Vietnam today and to visit projects of Catholic Relief Services, we had opportunities to play tourist as well.

Halong Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin is one of the most popular natural marvels of Vietnam. Several CRS staffers, including three Vietnamese, accompanied us on the four-hour drive east of Hanoi along the vast rice fields of the Red River Delta to this Vietnamese wonder of the world. Tourist boats glide through a magical maze of 3,000 vegetation-covered, rocky islands rising out of the emerald water. Grottoes, beaches, caves and hidden coves, shaped by wind and waves, add to the charm of this vast stretch of islands.

Back in Hanoi, we also had time to view a number of beautiful lakes that lie within the city boundaries, as well as to visit a number of local temples and monasteries such as the Temple of Literature, dedicated to Confucius, and the Tran Quoc Pagoda on the shore of West Lake, where we found many Buddhist monks and nuns fervently chanting prayers.

The influence of the French (who were colonial rulers in Vietnam from the mid-19th century until their ouster in 1954) is still visible in many remarkable buildings that adorn the capital city. Especially beautiful are some of the restored French colonial structures which are now Vietnamese government buildings, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Presidential Palace.

One morning our group joined the hundreds of tourists, both local and international, who lined up outside Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum. The huge block-shaped monument is the final resting place of Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969), Vietnam's revolutionary leader and nationalist who brought Communist rule to this nation.

Ho Chi Minh had spent many years as a student of revolutionary movements and Communism in France, the Soviet Union and China before returning to organize the Communist movement in Vietnam. He ruled as president of North Vietnam from 1954 until his death in 1969.

Honor guards at the mausoleum watch carefully to see that visitors carry no cameras or handbags, are properly dressed and behave respectfully as they walk single file past the body of Ho Chi Minh lying in a glass sarcophagus in the tradition of Lenin and Stalin.

Great public respect is shown to Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam where he is affectionately remembered as "Uncle Ho." His picture seems to hang in every classroom and municipal building.

Catholicism in Vietnam

Among the sites open to visitors in Hanoi is St. Joseph Roman Catholic Cathedral. Some of our group visited this large neo-Gothic church. Inside we found all the images and adornments of traditional Catholicism: statues of Joseph and Mary, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Anthony of Padua. According to several American observers in Vietnam, the style of Catholicism in many areas is like the Catholicism they remember of the 1950's—before the Second Vatican Council.

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Built in the style of a Buddhist temple or pagoda, this Catholic cathedral in the town of Phat Diem is a popular site for tourists and pilgrims.

Photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

Vietnam, which is eight percent Catholic by many estimates, has the second largest contingent of Roman Catholics in Southeast Asia after the Philippines. In 1990 there were 400,000 Catholics in the Archdiocese of Hanoi, according to a supplement of The New Catholic Encyclopedia.

Catholicism was introduced to Vietnam by Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century. French missionaries came in the 17th century and the Catholic faith took solid root. The renowned French Jesuit Alexandre de Rhodes, an accomplished linguist, came to Hanoi in 1627 and was so successful in spreading the Christian faith that he is known as "the Apostle of Vietnam."

In the 19th century, however, Catholics were persecuted and killed by the tens of thousands, especially under Vietnamese Emperors Ming Mang (1820-1841) and Tu Doc (1847-1883), giving the French an excuse to intervene militarily in this part of the world. In 1861, French forces captured Saigon and by 1867 the southernmost tip of what is now Vietnam was a French colony. Then in 1883 the rest of Vietnam was made a protectorate. Under French rule Catholicism received preferential treatment and the Church prospered.

Last August, we saw several signs of the Catholic presence in northern Vietnam. For example, our group visited the Cathedral of Phat Diem, a small town some 75 miles south of Hanoi. The whole region surrounding Phat Diem is highly Catholic. At least 12 Catholic churches—and a seminary—could be counted along a 20-mile stretch of road leading to Phat Diem. The large, spectacular Cathedral of Phat Diem, dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary, is famous because its shape is that of a Buddhist temple or pagoda, with several tiers of overhanging curved roofs. The well-known shrine is popular with tourists today. The church was constructed at the end of the 19th century by a Vietnamese priest, Father Tran Luk. The cathedral was damaged by bombs dropped from an American plane in 1972.

Is There Freedom of Religion in Vietnam?

According to Nguyen Thu Ba, the CRS program coordinator quoted earlier, "The government neither forbids nor encourages religion." Noting that she is not an expert on the issue, Thu Ba shares her impression that some years back "the government was closing some churches and keeping some priests out of the active ministry....Now there seems to be some softening toward religion and some churches are reopening."

Thu Ba sees this softening in the case of her parents, who are Buddhists as well as members of the Communist Party. For a time they felt some pressure not to practice Buddhism publicly, so they would close their shutters before burning incense in their home. This was to keep their neighbors or fellow party members from knowing that they were Buddhists. Now, she says, her parents feel free to go openly to the Buddhist temple without fear of recrimination.

According to a Catholic News Service story published in August, four Catholic priests were elected to seats in the Vietnam National Assembly. Two of the priests were reelected while the other two were elected for the first time. All began five-year terms in September. Three Buddhist monks were elected to the same assembly. Such reports suggest a growing openness to religion.

At the same time, however, prisoners of conscience are still detained in Vietnam because of their religious beliefs, according to Amnesty International's 1997 report. The report refers by name to Thich Huyen Quang, the 77-year-old supreme patriarch of the unofficial Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, and to Brother Nguyen Chau Dat, a member of the Catholic Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix who is serving a 20-year sentence in a "re-education" camp.

Another sign that freedom of religion is not fully respected is a September report from a Vatican agency (Fides) which reveals that the Vietnamese government has censored a section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that sets forth Church teachings on human rights. The government informed Vietnamese bishops that it would not authorize publication of the entire Part Three of the four-part catechism. Part Three contains sections on human rights and dignity, the role of Christians in society and promotion of the common good.

The government's rigidity and restrictive policies toward the Catholic Church are no secret. The government watches the Church closely and exercises control over which seminarians may be ordained and which priests and bishops appointed.

There are historical reasons, of course, for the government's wariness of Catholicism. The Catholic Church was closely linked with the French colonial leadership which ruled Vietnam for a good part of the last two centuries. After the French were defeated in 1954 and the Communists came to power in North Vietnam, some 540,000 Catholics chose to flee to South Vietnam when the Geneva Accords divided the country in two. The Catholic Church, always strongly opposed to Communism, had power and influence at the highest levels in the regimes governing South Vietnam.

Even today, the Church is a unified force and an important institution in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. One is not too surprised that the Catholic Church is considered a threat by a one-party Communist system that does not welcome alternate points of view.

Despite the confiscations of Church property, the arrests of bishops and priests, and the harsh treatment of Catholics after the Vietnam War, the Church has generally complied with the government's plan of national reconstruction. In many cases, Catholic religious leaders in both the North and the South are working closely with the poor and participating in the building up of a more equitable society. Such actions on behalf of the poor and the common good are in harmony with the gospel, of course, and with developments in Catholic teaching since the Second Vatican Council.

The Catholic Church's willingness to work for the social betterment of all members of society is perhaps one of the reasons that the government has made minor concessions toward it in recent years.

American Catholic Presence Through CRS and Maryknoll

Hopefully, the government recognizes in a U.S. Catholic agency like Catholic Relief Services the desire of the American Catholic Church to be a willing partner with the Vietnamese people in improving the lot of the poor. Interestingly, there are no Catholics at present on the staff of Catholic Relief Services in Vietnam, not even the American who heads CRS's operations in Vietnam, Sieglinde Gassman. This could even be a plus, suggests Gassman, in that it makes clear to Vietnamese society and government that the primary goal of this Catholic charitable organization is to work for the social advancement of all, not to advance the cause of Catholicism by seeking to make converts.

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American Vietnam War veterans donated funds to help build this school in Yen Lac Commune, 150 miles south of Hanoi.

Photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

Father Charlie Robak, the Maryknoll priest already mentioned, is another case in point. He and another Maryknoll priest and two Maryknoll lay associates in Hanoi have permission from the Vietnamese government to work in that country as long as their purpose is social improvement and not to preach religion. In Hanoi for almost four years now, Father Robak worked on projects with poor farmers his first two years. Now the 54-year-old native of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and former missionary in South Korea, is working with delinquent minors at a detention center, a ministry he finds "very satisfying." He teaches the young people English and offers them "human contact, love, affirmation and self-esteem, which is much needed and appreciated," he says.

Though the government does not permit the Maryknoll priests to assist Vietnamese Catholic priests by celebrating Mass in Vietnamese parishes, it has allowed them to pray and celebrate the Eucharist with Christians from other countries, such as visitors and embassy personnel. In the past, they have brought this Christian group together in homes, hotel conference rooms and the French Embassy—and, for over a year now, in a room at the United Nations building. Each Sunday morning, they gather there for prayer and Mass with some 100-120 people in attendance.

Father Robak noted, however, that U.S. Ambassador Douglas Peterson attends Mass regularly at St. Joseph Cathedral in Hanoi. "It would be great if he joined us on occasion," he adds with a smile.

'Not Just a War'

After 10 days of traveling in the Hanoi area and enjoying the hospitality of the Vietnamese and learning more about their lives and their land, I understood better the expression: "Vietnam is not just a war; it's a country!"

Twenty-two years after the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese in many ways have gotten beyond their wounds and tragic losses more quickly than the Americans. This does not mean that the painful lessons of history or the still-unresolved issues of the war like the treatment of MIAs should be forgotten.

It does mean, however, that the sooner we in the United States view Vietnam not just as a war, but as a people—with hopes and sorrows just like us—the sooner we can get beyond our troubled memories and work together for a more peaceful world.

Jack Wintz, O.F.M., is senior editor of this publication and editor of Catholic Update. He is also the author of Lights: Revelations of God's Goodness (St. Anthony Messenger Press), an inspirational book exploring the spirit of St. Francis.

See Sidebar
Four Special Projects of Catholic Relief Services/Vietnam

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