From Austria to Vietnam with MCC

by  Carl Hurst,

MCC Germany and Austria, 1956

MCC Vietnam, 1957-1958

MCC Indonesia, 1959

In December 1956, when I was working with Hungarian refugees in Lintsz, Austria, I was contacted by MCC and offered the opportunity to go to Việt Nam to replace Delbert Wiens in the MCC office in Saigon. Duane Swartzentruber, another PAX boy working with me in Lintsz, was asked to go to Banmethuot, where Willard Krabill was the head doctor at the leprosarium located there. Duane would provide mechanical services and general maintenance. Duane and I sailed together from Marseille, France on a French liner the day after New Year’s. 

Our trip lasted over a month because the Suez Canal had been blocked by a sunken ship during fighting between France and Egypt. Our ship instead had to go around Africa, so we made many stops in places like the Canary Islands, Cape Town, Madagascar, Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka), and Singapore. There was a shipwide party when we sailed over the equator, with some folks dressing up as Neptune and dunking one another in the ship’s pool. 

We arrived in Saigon the first of February, 1957. For the next year and a half I helped distribute food and clothing to Vietnamese refugees from North Việt Nam. We brought in ship loads of surplus rice and milk powder, as well as canned MCC turkey meat.

Our office building was shared by Catholic Relief Services, MCC, Church World Service, and the International Rescue Committee. A Mrs. Cole was head of the IRC during my first week in Việt Nam, and she shared extensively about her husband’s work with Michigan State University’s program in Việt Nam. She and her husband frequently had students over to their home in the evenings, and from their conversations with these students they developed an understanding that the social classes in Việt Nam did not have significant relationships with each other. They felt that if the students were to become good leaders in the future, they needed to get a better understanding of the needs and desires of the common farming and labor class of people. Relationships needed to be built to establish trust. The Coles had the idea of developing a program of volunteer work camps to get villagers and urban students working together on projects to improve conditions in the villages. In the evenings, there would be cultural exchanges through songs, dances, and entertainment.Before they were able to initiate such a program, however, the Coles were transferred to Egypt.

 

The concept of a work camp program excited me, and I decided to develop a program along those lines. I wrote up a program plan and submitted it to MCC and Church World Service. I hoped to change my main work assignment from material relief to developing the work camp program. Glenn and Geneva Stoltzfus had just arrived to head up the MCC program, and I knew he could cover the relief part of the program if needed. 

The work camp program was soon approved, and a group of interested students was organized. The first work camp was held in Long An, west of Sài Gòn. Our project was to build a railroad platform by the railroad line heading towards the Mekong Delta. The platform was made from hardened pieces of clay. 

The project went well, and we began having camps fairly often. Other projects in future weeks included building a road from a village to the river so that farmers could get their goods to market more easily, planting gardens at UNESCO Fundamental Educational Center at Tân Vạn, painting a school house in Gia Định, repairing a road at Thủ Đức, rebuilding bamboo thatched houses destroyed by fire at Gò Váp, and painting the exterior of the buildings at the Rhade school in Banmethuot. During this time, we also had frequent seminar/discussion meetings with lectures given by Vietnamese government officials and business leaders from Việt Nam, France, and the U.S.

Early on, leaders among the students included Bui Minh Đức, who was a medical student, and Tràn Văn Hgo from the school of law, who wrote a constitution to establish a Voluntary Youth Association (VYA) in Việt Nam, which required approval by the government. Pham Thị Thân was elected president of the newly formed VYA, and later Vũ Thị Thu Điem and Anh Nguyễn Hưu were as well.

I have fond memories of sitting around campfires at night while the students entertained the villagers with songs, dances, and skits. I had taught the students American folk songs and rounds from a song book I had brought from use in my Mennonite Youth Fellowship meetings back in Goshen. I gave them printed copies of these songs, and 47 years later, when some of us met at a reunion in California, they still had those song sheets, and we sang them together again. I also remember sleeping on school room floors and the hard wooden beds of Buddhist temples, where the sound of temple gongs and the smell of the burning incense would wake us up as the priests said their morning prayers. Then there were the cold showers in makeshift shower stalls.

Laughter and joy were always present during camps, and deep friendships were formed among the campers. They were always sorry to see the camps come to an end. I still remember Hiếp’s happy nature and his playing of instruments while we sang. I remember Điem’s smiles and laughter, and Chủ’s cheerfulness, and finally the dedication and leadership Thân displayed from the very beginning of the work camp program. 

My friendship with Thân lasted until her death in 2005. I still correspond with Anh, who lives in California.

In late 1958, I was asked to transfer to Indonesia to head up the MCC material aid program there and handle correspondence and travel plans for MCC workers in Jakarta. Harry Lefever was transferred from Banmethuot to Sài Gòn to take over the work camp program when I left for Indonesia.