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Vietnam: Dreams and Reality

“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 graduated from Oxford University and Notre Dame Law School. She is a host at Forward Boldly Radio, whose episodes can be found here.