Most of you probably know that I
took a two week vacation to Vietnam in October. Many have asked me
about the trip so here it is:
On October 10, I headed back to
Vietnam with a good friend, Fr. Rick Zerwas, pastor of Incarnation
Parish in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. We flew from Albuquerque to Los
Angeles and then on to Seoul, Korea (that leg about 14 hours).
After a two hour layover in Seoul, we continued on to Saigon (now
officially Ho Chi Minh City, but everyone still calls it Saigon)
and, after a five hour flight arrived at midnight of October 11
(10 am on October 11 in Los Alamos).
It was my first visit to Vietnam
since 1973. I had served two tours during the war. One as a
platoon leader with the 82d Airborne in 1968 and a second as an
infantry advisor to the South Vietnamese Army in 1972-3. Much had
changed but the people were as friendly and energetic as before.
Although in my previous visits, I did encounter a number of
gentlemen who seemed not to like me.
We spent four days in Saigon and
visited several sites, including the former Presidential Palace
(now Reunification Palace). Saigon is a busy and crowded city -
about six and a half million people (more that triple what is was
in 1968). There is still a great deal of poverty but the people
seem hopeful that the future will be better. In 1986, the
Communist regime abandoned its communist economic principles and
has been introducing a number of economic reforms that are
transforming Vietnam to a free market economy.
We traveled about 75 miles from
Saigon and visited the "Holy See of the Cao Dai Church" in Tay
Ninh. The Cao Dai religion is an eclectic faith that incorporates
elements of Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity and Confucianism (sort
of like some New Age Christian Churches). Among their saints, they
include Jesus, Joan of Arc, Thomas Jefferson, Victor Hugo, Julius
Caesar, Shakespeare, and William Churchill. (I'm not making this
up). On our way back to Saigon, we visited the Cu Chi Tunnels - an
underground labyrinth of tunnels and rooms that were use to
conceal Communist troops and material during the war.
In Cu Chi and the Saigon area, we
visited a number of places that I had been stationed and a few
places where I had fought. Frankly, I did not recognize most of
the places. Many years had passed and there were many changes. One
thing that had not changed was the sweltering heat.
We attended weekday Mass at Notre
Dame Cathedral in Saigon, a ten minute walk from our hotel. Ah,
there She is - in the center of Saigon - "Notre Dame" - out
Blessed Mother. There was no building dedicated to Purdue or
Michigan or Michigan State - just Notre Dame.
Our next stop was the city of Dalat,
about 125 miles from Saigon and a 30 minute flight on Vietnam Air.
Dalat is a beautiful place set among pine forest at an elevation
of five thousand feet. It was much cooler and we enjoyed the break
from the heat. However, both of us became ill from the malaria
meds we were taking. We stopped taking the meds (which we really
didn't need in the first place) and felt better in a few days. We
saw all the local sights and attended Mass at the Dalat Cathedral.
It was a Saturday vigil Mass and also a wedding Mass. I would
guess the church could accommodate 3000 souls and there were
several hundred standing in the church and outside as well.
Next stop was the ancient imperial
city of Hue, another area that I was very familiar with. I had
served there for four months in 1968 and a year in 1972-3. There's
a lot more to see and do in Hue. Its Imperial Tombs are world
renown and it is claimed that the people of Hue speak the most
beautiful dialect of the Vietnamese language - soft and
rhythmical. I had many memories of Hue and recognized a number of
places that I was stationed. We drove into the jungle area
southwest of the city and passed several firebases where I had
spent many an uncomfortable night. We had an excellent guide in
Hue. His name was Tru and he was a regular stand-up comedian (I
enjoyed the competition). He referred to himself as "your most
humble aide de camp, Colonel sir, and most esteemed advisor to the
Army of Vietnam." I liked that. I liked him.
After four days in Hue, we flew to
Hanoi or Ha Noi, as the Vietnamese say. It is a far more beautiful
city than Saigon and there is absolutely no indication that there
had been a war. Like Saigon, the city is bustling with people and
commerce. And, surprisingly, the people seem to like Americans.
When we told folks we were Americans, they would often smile and
say "Number One." I still don't quite understand that but it is
apparent that the government propaganda has not been very
We attended Mass at St. Joseph's
Cathedral in Hanoi. The church was packed full and, like
Immaculate Heart of Mary, all ages and generations were
represented. I smiled as I stood behind a young man, perhaps 25
years of age, holding a rosary in his hand and with a cell phone
clipped to his belt. We were able to meet the rector of the
cathedral and a curate as well. They welcomed us warmly and wanted
to know how things were going in "Hoa Ky," which means America
(literally "flower flag," indicating the Vietnamese description of
the US Flag). Both priests had a familiarity with the USA and
seemed to hold a great affection for us. They also indicated that
things were going well in Vietnam. The repression of the Church
had faded into the background and people were relatively free to
worship as they pleased. We also learned from another man that,
although Church membership would be detrimental to a government
career, few people really cared to work for the government anyway.
Several others described police and government officials as not
very well respected by the public and stories of corruption – both
large and small - were commonplace. However, in all of our
personal dealings with customs officials and police, we were
treated with respect and friendliness.
After twelve days in Vietnam, we
departed Hanoi for the long trip home. My "last tour" of Vietnam
complete, I reflected on what I thought of Vietnam. For me, the
answer is spontaneous and heartfelt: I love the beauty of the
land, the culture and food but, most of all, I love her people. I
have traveled the world and have encountered no people as warm and
friendly as the Vietnamese. I hope and pray their future is a
bright one. They will always have a place in my heart.
Used with permission of Fr. John Carney
Carney, John (December, 2005). Immaculate Heart of Mary Church Bulletin, Los Alamos, NM.