The Catholic Thing
Vietnam: Dreams and Reality Print E-mail
By Christine Niles   
Saturday, 29 March 2014

“While the promises of the false prophets of this earth melt away in blood and tears, the great apocalyptic prophecy of the Redeemer shines forth in heavenly splendor: ‘Behold, I make all things new.’” Divini Redemptoris (On Atheistic Communism)

When Saigon fell to the Viet Cong on April 30, 1975, the Vietnam War ended, and a typically Communist, systematic program of depopulation, re-education, and redistribution of wealth ensued. In the next two years, a million people left the city for the countryside – or for farther shores.

I had been born nine months earlier in a Saigon hospital. By April, my mother was already pregnant with her third child. My father – an engineer and bank chairman – had done well for himself. Although he had grown up dirt poor (literally: he and his ten siblings lived in a rural house with a dirt floor), he had excelled at school, often studying by candlelight late into the night. He was valedictorian of his high school, won a college scholarship, and embarked on a successful career in civil engineering.

His intelligence, success, and good looks – coupled with a lack of moral guidance from an absentee father – led to some years of self-indulgence. But at thirty-one, he met a girl half French, half Vietnamese. With the black hair and eyes of an Asian and the aquiline nose and sculpted face of a European, she was a knockout. He proposed, she said yes, and they settled down and started a family.

We were affluent and lacked for nothing. In that spring of 1975, my father switched careers, hoping to fulfill his life-long dream of becoming a doctor. A motorcycle accident several years earlier had left him hemorrhaging internally, many of his bones broken, half-dead at the side of a provincial road. But as coincidence – or, rather, Providence – would have it, a military ambulance happened by within minutes and spotted the bleeding man. He was rushed to a hospital, where recovery would take place over several long weeks. Doctors told him that if that ambulance had not chanced by, he would have died within an hour.

This miracle was not lost on him. He spent time rethinking the course of his life, regretting his past, and resolving to pursue a more meaningful vocation – one that would bring healing to others. Once recovered, he entered medical school.

I was too young to remember, but my family tells me the Communists seized everything we had. After some agonizing months, seeing the many souls who fled the city, knowing we had no future there, my father made the difficult decision to leave his homeland, and all that he knew and loved, to begin anew in France.

        The author, left, with her mother and brother, 1974

We were fortunate. French citizenship, passed down from my mother, whose father had been a colonel in 1950s Indochina, meant plane tickets out for all of us. Other Vietnamese were less lucky. Stuck in a country that had suddenly become strange and terrifying, many became refugees, exchanging gold on the black market for passage to Singapore or the Philippines. They fled under cover of night to flimsy sampans awaiting them at the docks of what was now called Ho Chi Minh City.

Horrors took place in the South China Sea, as roaming bandits overtook the boats, thieving and raping. My cousin, whom my parents had sponsored and who roomed with me on her arrival in the United States, told me in hushed tones, her voice trembling with shame, how one night, after several weeks of aimless floating and growing starvation, she and the surviving “boat people” had taken part in cannibalism of the corpses on board.

            After two years struggling through menial jobs in France, my father made the hard choice to pack up and move yet again – this time to America. With a wife, three young children, a few possessions, and almost no English, we came to the United States. We’ve lived here ever since.

Vietnam is a much different place today than it was in the post-war period, when the corrupt regime took power. A period of rapid decline followed: people were forced to live on meager government rations; roadways, once beautifully maintained, crumbled into disrepair; beggars and the homeless – the many casualties of war – proliferated in the streets; and Catholic clergy, once free to practice the faith in a land consecrated to Our Lady in 1959, where the Vatican Flag once flew at public events, where universities once fostered Catholic orthodoxy, now became a hunted and persecuted minority.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that Vietnam opened itself up to foreign investment. Today’s Saigon, as I prefer to call it – with its high rises and skyscrapers, Internet cafés and expensive hotels – little resembles the city the Viet Cong had hoped to re-shape in its own image.

The Vatican, in continuing hope of establishing diplomatic relations, sends delegates annually to the country, but Vietnam’s insistence on nominating bishops without input from the Holy See remains an obstacle, as do the continuing restrictions on the practice of the faith. The opening of the beatification process for Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, imprisoned by the Communist regime from 1975 until 1988, serves as an encouragement to the country’s faithful.

Thousands have marched in peaceful protest to the former apostolic nunciature in Hanoi, confiscated by the Communists in 1959. Promises made that the building would be returned to the Vatican have so far not been honored, and relations with the Holy See remain tense.

My father returns to Vietnam each year, where he spends weeks teaching, visiting charities, and traveling. The visits are always bittersweet. He dreams of spending his remaining years in the place of his birth, the place from which he was driven out by the scourge of Communism. My mother, whose adopted home is America, would never agree. But in his heart, he continues to dream.

Christine Niles, a new contributor to The Catholic Thing, graduated from Oxford University and Notre Dame Law School, and is currently a stay-at-home mother. She is a host at Forward Boldly Radio, whose episodes can be found here: 

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (20)Add Comment
written by Austin Ruse, March 29, 2014
Congratulations, Christine!

I have been on her radio program and will tell you that she is the most thoroughly prepared host I have ever encountered....
written by schm0e, March 29, 2014
It is a constant source of amazement to me that those places where communism seems to have the most success destroying are the places that have grandest Cathedrals.

Is anyone paying attention?
written by william manley, March 29, 2014
Interesting essay. Thanks. Of course the other side to this is that America was an entirely different country before the Vietnam War. We have never recovered.
written by Myshkin, March 29, 2014
Great inspiring words! Thanks!
written by Manfred, March 29, 2014
It is well that Ms. Niles' mother had French citizenship as otherwise, we might never had heard of her. Pity the Catholics and Buddhists (the majority) left behind.
Ho Chi Minh spoke at Versailles after W.W. I asking that Indochina, a French colony, be granted independence. He was promptly shown the door! With W.W. II, the Indochinese, with French and American support, drove out the Japanese invaders. Then they drove out the French (Dien Bien Phu) in 1954, and finally the Amnericans in Saigon in 1975.
"Horrors took place in the South China Sea.." I am sure they did. The worst horrors occurred in Viet-Nam itself with Amercan cluster bombs, napalm and the Agent Orange defoliant which is still causing birth defects to this day. The Viet-Namese do not know how many they lost, but the Americans put the number at 2 million dead. We lost just over 56,000 dead. We are not even counting the wounded and maimed. Two Americans were instrumental in ending that horror: Daniel Ellsberg of the Pentagon Papers, and Walter Cronkite, who was invited to visit by the Amnerican military.
They were stunned when Cronkite returned to the States, contacted Robert Kennedy and encouraged him to run against Johnson on the Democratic ticket in 1968 in order to end the war as quickly as possible. When Johnson saw he had lost Walter he chose to not run for re-election.
The Catholic Viet-Namese were the elite who had been educated by the French. They had years to correct the inequities in Viet-Namese society. They didn't. Former colonies consider Westerners the occupiers and that is why Western religion(s) are always suspect.
BTW, Ms Niles has a very attractive blog site. I have already visited it.
written by Jack,CT, March 29, 2014
You are certainly a natural writer!
I have read the book of "Prayers" by Cardinal
Frances Nguy'en Van Thuan while i prison those
long 13 years in (Prayers of Hope) and they
are not Just words of a persecuted priest
but of a man of absolute integrity.

I enjoyed nightly prayer with him.

I admire your father as he sounds as equally
brave and strong.I hope you can pass on to
him he reminds me of my dad and his story.

I welcome you as a daily reader here I look
forward to your work.

Your family certainly was all you say simply
classy and attractive!
Your writing is proof one" does NOT need to
constantly "stirring the pot" to get readers,
God Bless

written by Jack,CT, March 29, 2014
PS:The link to your interviews are great!
written by Daniel Nichols, March 29, 2014
Yes, I'm sure that life in prewar Vietnam was sweet for affluent descendants of French colonialists. Maybe not so great for the peasants, no? I am sure the sufferings among refugees were horrible. The sufferings of the Vietnamese under the colonial regime were no picnic either, and as Manfred points out, neither were the sufferings of the Vietnamese people under first French attack and then American.
written by Morrie , March 30, 2014
The U.S. Made mistakes but we were trying contain communism which is responsible for tens of millions of deaths. If 2.5 million people had not fled Vietnam, the death roll would have been much higher. Lest we forget. Up to 155,000 refugees fleeing the final NVA Spring Offensive were killed or abducted on the road to Tuy Hoa in 1975.[9] Sources have estimated that 165,000 South Vietnamese died in the re-education camps out of 1-2.5 million sent,[10][11] while somewhere between 50,000 and 250,000 were executed.[10][12][13][14] Rummel estimates that slave labor in the "New Economic Zones" caused 50,000 deaths (out of a total 1 million deported).[10][12] The number of Vietnamese boat people who died is estimated between 200,000 and 400,000, out of the 2.5 million that fled.[15] There were also tens of thousands of suicides after the North Vietnamese take-over.[16] Including Vietnam's foreign democide, Rummel estimates that a minimum of 400,000 and a maximum of slightly less than 2.5 million people died of political violence from 1975-87 at the hands of Hanoi.[12] In 1988, Vietnam suffered a famine that afflicted millions.[17]
Wiesner, Louis, Victims and Survivors: Displaced Persons and Other War Victims in Viet-Nam, 1954-1975 (Greenwood Press, 1988), pp. 318-9.
^ Jump up to: a b c Desbarats, Jacqueline. "Repression in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam: Executions and Population Relocation", from The Vietnam Debate (1990) by John Morton Moore. "We know now from a 1985 statement by Nguyen Co Tach that two and a half million, rather than one million, people went through fact, possibly more than 100,000 Vietnamese people were victims of extrajudicial executions in the last ten is likely that, overall, at least one million Vietnamese were the victims of forced population transfers."
Jump up ^ Anh Do and Hieu Tran Phan, Camp Z30-D: The Survivors, Orange County Register, April 29, 2001.
^ Jump up to: a b c Rummel, Rudolph, Statistics of Vietnamese Democide, in his Statistics of Democide.
Jump up ^ Al Santoli, ed., To Bear Any Burden (Indiana University Press, 1999), pp272, 292-3.
Jump up ^ Morris, Stephen J. Glastnost and the Gulag: The Numbers Game, Vietnam Commentary, May–June 1988.
Jump up ^ Associated Press, June 23, 1979, San Diego Union, July 20, 1986. See generally Nghia M. Vo, The Vietnamese Boat People (2006), 1954 and 1975-1992, McFarland.
Jump up ^ Le Thi Anh, "The New Vietnam", National Review, April 29, 1977, estimated some 20,000 post-war mass suicides.
Jump up ^ Crossette, Barbara, Hanoi, Citing Famine Fears, Seeks Emergency Aid, The New York Times, May 15, 1988.
written by Christine Niles, March 30, 2014
Mr. Nichols,
I love how American socialists presume to speak on behalf of Vietnamese "peasants." Did you read the article, or was it lost on you that my father was one of those "peasants"? And the affluence our family enjoyed in Vietnam had nothing whatever to do with the accident of my French ancestry, and everything to do with my father's education and industry (and, it goes without saying, God's goodness).

My father remembers what it was like in colonial Vietnam. Unlike you, he grew up there. I know it goes against your narrative, but if there were inequalities, they were nothing--NOTHING--compared to the horrors of life after the Viet Cong swept in.

Next time you comment, please be sure you've read and understood the article first.

Christine Niles
written by JOHNO, March 30, 2014
Manfred certainly puts a spin on things.

He fails to mention that North Viet-Nam was, and is, strongly Communist. South Viet-Nam was not. In fact, although there was an elite, the citizens of South Viet-Nam enjoyed many of the freedoms that U.S. citizens enjoy--newspapers and radio stations were privately owned. It was capitalistic like Hong Kong, and, in fact, after some years of foundering economically, the Communist regime sought to invigorate the economy by adopting some capitalistic practices.

The United States entered the combat at the invitation of the South Vietnamese government, similar to the United States response to the effort of the North Koreans to take over South Korea. South Viet-Nam was relatively stable until the overthrow and murder of the Catholic power structure, which was approved and supported by President Kennedy.

Manfred may think that Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and their ilk were heroes, but rather than being reporters accurately reporting the news, they were agenda driven. For example, the Tet Offensive was in reality a desperate attempt by the Viet-Cong, much like the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, and it was militarily disastrous for them. That fact was acknowledged privately at the Paris Peace Talks by the Viet-Cong who admitted being mystified by the reportage of the American correspondents.

Manfred glosses over what took place in South Vietnam after the Communist takeover--the re-education camps, the prisons, etc. He would lead you to believe that life was peachy keen wonderful under the Communists. The fact is that there is still an elite. However, the fact that people were desperate enough to become "boat people" with all of its dangers speaks volumes about the relative quality of life under the Communist regime.
written by Howard, March 30, 2014
"It is a constant source of amazement to me that those places where communism seems to have the most success destroying are the places that have grandest Cathedrals." So, L.A. is safe, then!
written by Jeff Culbreath, March 30, 2014
Good article, Christine.

Manfred wrote: "The Catholic Viet-Namese were the elite who had been educated by the French. They had years to correct the inequities in Viet-Namese society. They didn't." Actually, they did a great deal more than most Westerners give them credit for. The Diem government, despite some corruption, embraced Catholic social doctrine and achieved a measure of success with land reform and creating self-sufficient villages.

Daniel Nichols fails to appreciate that the French colonial regime was far less oppressive than its predecessors, but because it was "foreign" it is unfairly demonized - even by many Catholic Vietnamese who were also fiercely anti-colonial. I think it's fair to say that anti-colonial hatred is at the root of the Vietnamese catastrophe.
written by mark mitchell, March 30, 2014
I'm struck by the absence of a fact left out by both Ms.Niles and some of the commentators; and that is, the GENOCIDE perpetrated upon the Vietnamese, both communist and non-communist by the Viet Cong hordes. A horrifying bloodbath took place and millions were decimated. Is this not common knowledge? It once was, though, as usual, the LameStream media of the 'seventies muted much of it. Some things never change. Also, Manfred's response post is riddled with distortion, untruths and bloviation, too much to go into detail here. He wants to blame the previous colonials, France, for everything, as if Ho Chi Minh had no will of his own.If what the French did was so bad, and probably a lot was, why was it that what H.C.M. did in revenge good? Same callousness, but this time in Communist spades.Just saying. God Bless All, Markrite
written by David Brandt, March 30, 2014
There needs to be a lot more stories collected and published about what life was like in Vietnam after the communists took over. For people to suffer and sacrifice the way they did to get out Swiss a lot, but more needs to be said and put in movies. America needs to be enlightens as to the true horrors we were trying to rescue the Vietnamese from.
written by Other Joe, March 30, 2014
Bless you Morrie, Christine Niles and Johnno. The time for wallowing in toxic (and false) guilt narratives is surely gone by. There either is or is not a spiritual battle for human souls in this world. If there is, and as Catholics we should know this to be the case, it is evil to pretend there is a moral equivalence between aggressive atheist Marxism and a poorly run attempt to prevent millions of people from being overrun by it. It also is an easy armchair dismissal of the suffering of the people in Vietnam and the many young Americans who died in the attempt to help them preserve their culture. It is to reduce an historic tragedy to a glib, cost-free talking point. Cynicism is the currency of the secular minded. Catholics know there is no place for it in a world facing ultimate judgment.
written by Mack Hall, March 30, 2014
The post-independence government in the Republic of Viet-Nam technically did have years to improve things - perhaps six. This government had to deal with the Communist International and with the harmful actions of the Kennedy administration, which encouraged, if not engineered, the assassination of the Vietnamese president. The Diem and van Thieu governments did not promote the murder of babies, did not invade other countries, did not use corpses for generating energy, did not send operatives to set off bombs in Hanoi's marketplaces, did not establish gulags, and did not commit genocide against their own people.
written by Michael H. Smith, March 30, 2014
"written by william manley, March 29, 2014
Interesting essay. Thanks. Of course the other side to this is that America was an entirely different country before the Vietnam War. We have never recovered."

Mr. Manley corectly says we have "never recovered" but I recommend Diana West's recent book, American Betrayal which reveals the extent that Communism was spread by the Franklin Roosevelt regime and the many Communists he harbored in government. Perhaps beginning with Walter Duranty and his now infamous "workers paradise" proclamation, communists, their sympathizers and all of the ugly offspring, have dominated America's informatio industry ever since and still weaken both foreign and domestic policy. Communism took over half the world because of Franklin Roosevelt! And we will never recover unless enough Americans realize it and enough of our politicians dare denounce all leftist, "Culture of Death"totalitarian ideologies that now threaten the very existence of all world societies.
written by Jack,CT, March 30, 2014
AHh Politics of that "War" spurs all you see above!
written by Jake, June 01, 2014
Powerful, and sad. Unbelievable what happened--what could have been, and instead what was. I'll be praying!

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