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.
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.
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.
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.
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
"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,
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
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.
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 Gassmanthe U.S. representative for Catholic
Relief Services in Vietnamand her guests from the United
States to a meeting in a reception room at PACCOM (People's
Aid Coordinating Committee).
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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 Iwhen 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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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'sbefore
the Second Vatican Council.
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.
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
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 churchesand a seminarycould 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
Catholic Presence Through CRS and Maryknoll
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.
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.
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,"
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
Embassyand, 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.
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.See Sidebar
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!"
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 peoplewith hopes
and sorrows just like usthe sooner we can get beyond
our troubled memories and work together for a more peaceful
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.
Four Special Projects of Catholic Relief Services/Vietnam