Thursday, February 24, 2011

Across the Mekong River February 22, 2011

Tuesday morning started by concelebrating 5:30am Mass at the Saigon convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Unity (of Bắc Ninh), Sr. May’s community. After breakfast we drove for six hours southwest of Saigon, across the Mekong River to the Province of Kiên Giang and the town of Kenh 7. That is where Fr. Thinh, an amazing man, operates a parish, a free clinic for the poor (that is a collaborative effort of five different religious groups), and a small orphanage.

The clinic specializes in Eastern medicines and treatments (which we would call supplementary or alternative) that involve herbal remedies and acupuncture. One of our reasons for making this trip was to deliver gifts from SARA. But another reason was to deliver Sr. May, meaning that we introduced her to the pastor who would oversee her studies of the healing arts there for the next 3 months to a year. I believe it is the plan for her to bring those skills back to the clinic her community operates (funded by SARA) in Bắc Ninh, in the North.

We toured the grounds and activities, which are abundant. Then we had dinner, after which we were treated to an impromptu talent show that Fr. Thinh called into action earlier in the day. It was amazing and fun.

The next morning we had to rise early (again!) for Mass at 4:45am. There were men women and children, four priests and three altar servers for this middle-of-the-week Mass. The church was almost full. I continue to be amazed at the devotion of these Vietnamese Catholics.

We drove back to Saigon, after stopping by the parents of Quang (our Saigon host) who live in the area. The Quang family hosted us for a last Vietnamese supper and then we made our way to the airport and, eventually, Oregon. It has been an incredible month, but I do miss the comforts of my own home. I really miss the parish and my family. But I am grateful for all God has shown me of his amazing people in Vietnam.

Boats of all sizes fill the Mekong River. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to traffic patters. All kinds of small boats hurried across the path of the ferry.

Fr. Thinh shows us the clinic in the Province of Kiên Giang. Here there are ultrasound heat treatments being offered. (At least, that is what I think was translated.)

Fr. Thinh demonstrates back muscle therapy on me. It felt great!

This woman is undergoing a form of acupuncture.

Many forms of physical therapy are being employed at this clinic.

The physical therapy gym seems to be well outfitted.

Almost all the cooks for the clinic are volunteers who provided meals with out charge for the free clinic. Here is a large, multi-tray rice steamer.

Vegetables being prepared by one of the enthusiastic volunteers.

Much of cooking any meal is all the prep work. These women are slicing and dicing. In the background are very large rice fields, owned, planted and harvested by the parish for use at this hospital.

Hospital beds. By American standards, these beds may seem inadequate, but a mat on a board bed is a very common way for Vietnamese to sleep. The sisters, in some of the convents we toured, sleep on straw mats. This is just as ‘comfortable" as home for the patients. In addition, the patients are served generously and compassionately.

Typical parking lot in Vietnam. The truck is used rarely to transport larger amounts or items.

Another demonstration of a treatment that Sr. May (far left) will be learning about during her stay here.

Sr. May with one of the children in the orphanage classroom.

The camera is a lot more interesting than me or the school subject matter.

At an impromptu talent show (that Fr. Thinh only called for earlier in the day!) some of the staff perform a traditional dance with fans and drums.

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Video of the Drum Dance.

The staff (doctors and nurses) ham it up in a skit to the delight of the patients.

Fr. Thinh does the old "put-a-man-in-chains-tie-him-in-a-bag-lock-him-in-a-box-and-have-him-magically-trade-places-with-the-lovely-assistant" trick. He made it look easy and Fr. Bình was a volunteer in the audience who attested to the security of the chains and box.

A group photo at the end of the show, after we had presented a financial gift to the hospital. The woman in the ao dai (pronounced OW-dzai, a traditional Vietnamese dress) was the Emcee of the show. She also is a physician who used to be a Buddhist nun. After working a few years at the hospital, she became a Catholic.

Đà Nẵng February 20-21

Friday evening we arrived in Đà Nẵng for a few days with Fr. Bình’s family. The house where he was born is tucked into a neighborhood like most others, but inside had more than average space, which was necessary for his parents to rear him and his 10 brothers and sisters. We met his brother-in-law, Luan, who lives in Oregon, but still owns a bakery in his neighborhood run by his daughter and son-in-law. Luan was back in Vietnam (like a lot of people) for the Lunar New Year. Fr. Bình’s niece, Suong, and her husband, Qua, live in the family home with their two beautiful children. They run a hair salon in the front. It is quite common for families to run a shop of some kind in the front of their house (homes are side by side along the city streets, usually sharing a wall). In American city planning this would be called “mixed-use”. But it means that everything is close. You know your neighbor who cuts hair, or has a diner, or sells motorcycle helmets, or has an internet café, or operates a travel agency out of is home.

After dinner Fr. Bình wanted to show Sr. May, Huong and myself “The Lonely Madonna”. It is a shrine to Mary out by the water front that is enough by itself, not attached to a church, that she looks alone. We went there to pray. There are signs of prayer from flowers, incense sticks and “thank you” messages inscribed in stone for prayers answered.

The next day we visited the cemetery to pay respects to Fr. Bình’s father’s and his eldest brother’s graves. Then, Sunday afternoon, Fr. Bình and I con-celebrated Mass at his home parish. It was nice to see him walk down the street in his old neighborhood and hear people call his name.

We flew out late Monday night to Saigon to prepare for a Wednesday night departure. But there was 24 hours left and opportunity to do more charity work across the Mekong River southwest of Saigon.

The Lonely Madonna, named for its location all by itself near the sea. This shrine is a famous local landmark. We went there to pray.

Visiting the grave of Anton Hoang, Fr. Bình’s father. We also went to pray at the grave of Fr. Bình’s eldest brother who died this past year. In Vietnam it is customary to leave burning incense sticks as well as flowers at a grave. One usually has enough sticks to then place them at other graves nearby.


Standing at the grave of Anton Hoang are Huong, Sr. May, Fr. Bình, his brother-in-law, Luan, and me. Photo taken by Qua, the husband Fr. Bình’s niece.

Sr. May drives the motorcycle. Everyone needs to be able to operate a motorcycle as it is the primary mode of transportation.

Since the motorcycle is the only mode of transport for most people, one needs to be able to balance many different items on the back (and front, and sides).

Fr. Bình’s home parish.

A shrine to St. Peter is on the property because this is a fishing town with excellent seafood. In fact, Fr. Bình’s Christian name is Peter.

Every parish seems to have an outdoor shrine to the Blessed Mother.

At our last dinner in Đà Nẵng we enjoyed a local favorite, broken pot rice. It is more crispy on the edges. See video.

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The presentation of broken pot rice, a Đà Nẵng specialty.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Húê February 19, 2011

We, again, rose early for Mass. I can understand that a convent might have Mass before 6am, but that is true of every parish.

Today the Sisters Adorers of the Holy Cross of Húê (pronounced: hWAY) were offering a free clinic at their motherhouse. The timing worked perfectly for us to distribute our gifts from SARA to those who were coming for the free clinic. But then, the free clinic, in part, was also a gift from SARA because some of the medical equipment used at the sisters’ small medical facility was provided by SARA. For example, we were shown a new urine analysis machine and a blood testing machine that analyzes for everything from uric acid to cholesterol. The sisters offer these clinics in outlying areas as well.

The number of volunteers was impressive: doctors, nurses and medical students, not to mention the sisters, some of whom are nurses, medical technicians, or doctors. They do this on a monthly basis and have some volunteers who are there every time. One cardiologist had been helping for many years.

We gave out the gifts we brought from SARA to those who had been designated by the sisters, based on family need. Then, after receiving our gift, people were moved a few feet away to a makeshift waiting area in the courtyard, or on the porch. Names were called and somehow it was all organized. All I know is I saw sisters everywhere, calling names, moving chairs, directing people, directing me. They made everything work efficiently.

Most importantly, children and the elderly received basic medical treatment that they would not have been able to procure in any other way. The Sisters – in allegiance with SARA and all the volunteers – were providing what should be a basic human right. Those who received these services seemed quite grateful.

After lunch that involved speeches of gratitude for SARA, a taxi arrived to take Fr. Bình, Huong, Sr. May, and myself to Da Nang (which is Fr. Bình’s hometown) for a weekend of R&R. We bid farewell to Kim Dung and Nguyệt Le. It has been an amazing few days. I don’t think we will see each other in Vietnam again on this trip, but I hope to see them in Portland some day.

Fr. Bình with a group of people who came for the free clinic at the motherhouse of the Sisters Adorers of the Holy Cross of Húê. We distributed our gifts from SARA as the first order of business when people arrived.

Many brought their children with disabilities or other ailments.

Sr. May presents a gift to a boy who was present for the free clinic.

The elderly woman, and many like her, found it very beneficial to receive the blanket, rice, oil and candy SARA distributed as well as a free medical check up. All in one day!

Nothing makes Kim Dung happier than the sight of people who are in great need being served. She is delighted that the medical equipment donated by SARA is being put to good use at the sisters’ free clinic.

The table is still full of SARA gifts. Those who already received those gifts now sit in the waiting area for their medical appointment.

Fr. Bình "works the crowd" who are waiting for their appointment. Each room on the left, off the porch, is busy with aspects of the free clinic. A sister calls out names for who is next.

Many of the sisters are nurses and some are doctors who assist at the clinic.

Parents are comforted to know that their children’s health can receive professional attention.

A volunteer physician (in suit jacket) who got his medical degree in Germany has taught all the volunteers how to operate the equipment. The three young adult volunteers standing are medical students. The far end of the table holds a urine analysis machine. The larger machine in the foreground analyzes blood samples.

After a check up, complete with labs, the patients can attain the pharmaceuticals they need from these sisters who are trained to distribute the meds (with a smile).

The sisters also operate a day care. For families in great need, the care is provided for free. When I ask questions like, "How is all this funded?", the answer is always the same: "God provides."

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

La Vang February 18, 2011

We awoke at 5am in Quảng Bình as guests of the sisters who operate an orphanage for disabled children. Mass was at 5:30 and some of the children were there as well as all the sisters, including novices and postulants. As noted before, people go to Mass very early in Vietnam. I thought it had to do with being the cooler part of the day, but it is cold all day in North Vietnam. I think it is like anything, if you put your mind to something, and the expectation is clear, and there is a custom around it, then you can do anything. That is just the time that people expect for Mass to be offered.

Before breakfast (we ate on the road) we headed south to Minh Cầm where the pastor, Fr. Giáp (whom Fr. Bình knew from years before), greeted us. He had gathered into the parish courtyard those families he knew were in greatest need. The area had experienced severe flooding in the past year and its subsequent economic devastation. Kim Dung and SARA had visited this community in years past.

From there we went further south to Gia Hưng, to a parish also impacted by the flood. Kim Dung said this was the first time she had visited this community. The pastor met us and welcomed us in the usual style. He had parish leaders help him contact those in greatest need from the neighborhood and have them all at the church in time for our arrival. The flood was so deep that the water was up to the keyhole on the church, and the church is sitting in a higher spot in the village.

After distributing our gifts we had lunch with the pastor, Fr. Vinh, and an unexpected guest, Fr. Hửu, the pastor of a neighboring parish who happens to be a younger cousin of Fr. Bình. Fr. Hửu got word that his cousing would be in the area.

After lunch we headed for La Vang, one of the key spots we had planned to visit. It was here in 1798 that Our Lady appeared to Catholics who were facing persecution for the faith – by edict of the king – and who were forced to flee and to hide in the forest. They were also starving and had some very ill members. Mary appeared to them under a tree and encouraged them in their struggles, then she taught them how to use herbs to heal their maladies.

We prayed at the contemporary-styled shrine depicting Mary under a Banyan tree. I prayed specifically for those who are still in need of healing from the Vietnam War: for the people of Vietnam, especially those whom we have met who are still struggling from the devastating side effects of the war. I prayed for all American Vietnam war veterans suffering from post traumatic syndrome (PTSD), especially for those whom I know. Someone had given me a small medal with the POW/MIA insignia that said “Lost, but not forgotten.” I prayed for those POWs and MIAs and all those Americans who did not come home. I put the small medal at the feet of Our Lady.

This shrine suffered its own devastation during the war. It surprised me that there is no church on the site, only a stage and arena sitting for outdoor Masses. Apparently, there is a plan to build a church. In the past, there was a large church which had been completed in 1928, and that had been designated as a minor basilica in 1961 by Pope John XXIII. It was destroyed during the war due to a battle in 1972. The only thing that wasn’t destroyed in that battle was the main shrine you see in the pictures. The statue shrine was only completed in the late 1960s. Vietnamese Catholics are VERY devoted to Mary, especially under the title of Our Lady of La Vang.

We ended our day by going to Hue (Hway), the former capital of Vietnam under the kings, and a center of Vietnamese culture. We went for a boat ride on the Perfume River that featured traditional Vietnamese music (see video).

We stayed the night as guests at the motherhouse of the Sisters Adorers of the Holy Cross of Hue.


Fr. Bình preaching during 5:30am Mass at the orphanage. Yes, some of the kids were there!

Group photo of the SARA volunteers with the children and the sisters who operate the orphanage.

Not the Oregon Ducks, but the Vietnamese Ducks!

Meetings at Minh Cầm where the pastor, Fr. Giáp (whom Fr. Bình knew from years before), greeted us and gathered into the parish courtyard those families he knew were in greatest need so that they could receive our gifts.

It is scenery like this that I saw in movies that made me want to come to Vietnam.

The church in Gia Hưng. In the last year, floods put water as high as the keyhole on the door, just above the window sill.


One of the enthusiastic young members of this parish who is vision impaired and mentally challenged.

Catholic parents were always anxious for us to bless their children.

Many in this area live with disabilities, like this man whose feet are dramatically out of position.

This boy rides on the back of his father’s “rowing powered” wheel chair. I saw a lot of these in Vietnam. One pushes and pulls on the steering wheel to be propelled forward.

A woman receiving a gift from Huong Nguyen

Children and women are especially hurt by poverty and disaster.

Its hard to tell whose eyes are bigger. This little girl stole everyone’s heart.

Fr. Bình blesses another child.

After lunch we pose for a picture in Gia Hưng. L to R: A volunteer from the parish, Fr. John, Sr. May, Fr. Bình, Kim, Fr. Bình’s cousin, Fr. Hửu who is pastor of a neighboring parish, Huong and Fr. Vinh, the pastor.

The scenery in the Quang Tri province is spectacular.

The 1993 movie Heaven & Earth (about a Vietnamese woman’s struggle to survive in time of war) depicted scenery like this and made me want to come to this amazing country.

I finally made it to Our Lady of La Vang shrine.

A painting depicting the 1798 apparition of Mary to persecuted Catholics hiding in the forest of Central Vietnam.

Close up of the statue of Mary and Christ. The shrine in which this statue is displayed was completed in the late 1960s.

Huong, Nguyệt, Kim and Sr. May praying at the shrine.


L to R: Sr. May, Fr. John, Huong, Fr. Bình, Kim and Nguyệt at the shrine of
Our Lady of La Vang.

Releasing floating candles on the Perfume River in Hue (Hway), Vietnam.

Sr. May, Nguyệt and Kim.

Hue by night along the Perfume River.

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Traditional dancing that used to be performed for the King. These nighttime boat shows are a tourist standard in Hue, Vietnam.