Return to Vietnam

Return to Vietnam

Paul Hien Pham Dinh mhm

Return to Vietnam, my native land.

When visiting Vietnam one cannot fail but notice the thousands and thousands of people riding on motorcycles and the endless streams of trucks and other vehicles clogging the narrow streets. Everywhere in towns and villages dense crowds of people selling and buying goods and agricultural produce line both sides of the street. Rural and urban life in Vietnam evokes the image of a beehive.

The demographic explosion Vietnam has witnessed over the past 41 years since the fall of Saigon in 1975 is truly astonishing. At the time the population of the whole of Vietnam, North and South combined, was estimated at about 30 million. Now, 41 years later, that number has risen to nearly 95 million! Riding on a motorcycle or sitting in a vehicle, one feels privileged to be on the move, aware, at the same time, of the greater risk of being caught up in an accident.

Vietnam’s economy has also experienced rapid growth over the past decade and is still growing strongly. Although the Communist Party is in absolute control of the government and holds a tight grip on all aspects of life in the country, it allows foreign companies to invest and industrialise Vietnam at an alarming rate. My home town was a small village of perhaps one thousand inhabitants when I left 36 years ago. Now it has been turned into an industrialised zone with over forty thousand workers coming from every corner of Vietnam. The many companies that have set up shop manufacture anything from Nike shoes, clothes, to ceramic tiles, or animal feed: you name it, they produce it! All these huge factories are surrounded by high walls controlled by security guards.

The Vietnamese Communist Government makes sure that every one of its citizen is well informed of its policies as well as its regulations on traffic, health and development. As early as 5 am every morning, the loudspeakers fixed on high poles outside every local government office start broadcasting the Vietnamese communist anthem followed by a bulletin of news mainly focusing on Party issues and extolling the Government’s triumphant success.

It seems that the Government favours investors from North East Asia. But just over three months ago, the Formosa Ha-Tinh Steel factory, a Taiwan owned corporation, in Ha Tinh province, central Vietnam, caused a huge toxic chemical spill in the sea that killed thousands of tons of fish which were beached by the waves along a 120 miles stretch of coastline in central Vietnam. This was a tragic case of a rich country causing an environmental disaster in a poor country and endangering the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of poor fishing people living along the coast of central Vietnam. Asked what they could do these people said they could not do much as no one came to help them, they had no voice and no one spoke up for them. They could no longer go fishing as there was no longer any fish. Yet, they had to feed their children and pay tax to the Government. Sadly, the Vietnamese Government hardly showed any concern for the livelihood of these so badly affected people.

Paul Hien mhm (4th from left)

What strikes a returning visitor with a religious interest like myself in present day Vietnam is the large number of churches everywhere. These are mainly Catholic churches. If you travel from Ho Chi Minh City (former Saigon) to the town of Long Khanh, situated at about 100 kms northeast of Saigon, along high way number 1 to Hanoi in North Vietnam, you may see a beautiful imposing church building standing proudly within a kilometer or so off the road. Other churches stand closely to people’s houses hidden in the urban setting. You can see people going to or coming from church all day, in the early morning hours, during the day and in the evening as well. Some churches in Ho Chi Minh City are always busy from early morning till late at night, seven days a week. They are frequented by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

Is there freedom of worship in Vietnam? Yes. No doubt there is!

When you see those huge churches being frequented by thousands and thousands of Christians at every Mass, especially on Sundays, you can say contentedly: “Wow, these people are serious!” Or the mere fact that new churches are being built and new parishes are being established points to some degree of freedom of religion. But freedom can never be fully understood unless one lives it!

It is also striking to see not only in the South but also in the North, that many churches built by the French and Portuguese missionaries in the 18th-19th centuries are now dilapidated and badly in need of repair. Especially in the North you see many churches beautifully built in local style with roof carvings in the form of a dragon. Ancient Vietnamese cultural and architectural codes demand that these roofs and their pointed slopes be carved in a form of a dragon! What does that mean? I do not know. Perhaps it is about the external beauty or the details of it! One cannot but admire the energy and time that has been put into this apparently simple but very detailed stone and woodcraft: altars, doors and cemented concrete beams at the edges/ points of the church roofs. In many of these churches the beautifully carved wooden tabernacles and high altars are painted in bright red and bright golden yellow colours.

Generally people are very proud of their own church. In every area/zone of the average healthy parish you’ll find beautiful chapels not far removed from the central parish church. Is it necessary to have such a density of churches and chapels per square kilometer, one wonders? Maybe people take such pride in their local church because they have little else to show? Fact is that they get lots of financial support from their fellow country people who were lucky enough to escape the Communist takeover of the South in 1975 and are now living abroad. They too are very proud of the parish ‘back home’ where they come from and continue to send home their remittances to maintain existing churches or build new ones.

Many Bishops encourage large parishes of say over ten thousand Christians to divide into smaller units. In this way many new parishes were established during the past decade and many others are in the process of becoming independent parishes as well. In this sense, churches, shrines, catechetical classes are made available, even where many are poor and cannot contribute financially to the building of those facilities. However, they are willing to work voluntarily without demanding any payment. “After all, this is our church, and these are catechetical classes for our children!” they say.

Many parishes are self-supporting financially and are able to build huge and beautiful churches. People really care for their church and work hard for it in every way, including maintenance, physical and spiritual contributions and so on. They really give generously of their time, energy and interest to their church.

Moreover, many bishops are free to ordain as many priests as they have candidates. It is the same for many religious congregations, local as well as international, which have seen their Vietnamese membership growing at a steady pace in recent years. In fact, the Catholic Church in Vietnam is now reaping the fruits of past hardship and dogged perseverance in the face of strong opposition by receiving many vocations into the religious life as well as the ordained ministry.

All dioceses in Vietnam work hand in hand in terms of pastoral care and catechetical training and teaching. But they are not able to do so effectively in the areas of justice and peace as well as the protection of the human rights and of the environment. They have no influence over civil organisations nor have they found a way to speak truth to power in matters concerning government policy.

Qualified religious nuns, brothers or priests are not allowed to teach at higher levels, for example in state high schools or state universities, nor can they work as nurses or doctors in state institutions.

In Vietnam, they are only allowed to do simple jobs such as looking after babies from infancy to the age of primary school. They are allowed to do voluntary work like caring for the poor and the sick at home, but not in hospitals. Such blatant discrimination imposed by the Government on religious communities is ample evidence of the Government’s determination to keep a tight grip on the influence of religious teaching on young people as well as the freedom of religious expression.

The Episcopal Conference of Vietnam in fact does exist, but hardly dares to raise its voice at the national level to denounce the damaging practices of foreign companies which exploit the environment with impunity, put people’s lives at risk by polluting the air, causing people to eat contaminated food, drink polluted water and live on the toxic waste released by countless factories. Many visiting tourists praise Vietnam for being a young and vibrant nation. What they don’t know is that these labourers often work under in unhealthy environments for long hours including on Sundays, and in many cases, for a meager salary ranging between 100-300 euros a month. The food they eat is often manufactured in China and. so they told me, “the ants and the cockroaches do not dare to come near”!.

Paul Hien Pham Dinh mhm

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