by David Neufeld,
MCC Vietnam, 1966-1969
Someone told us about an experience they had just beyond the airport at a military cemetery. Earl Martin and I decided to check it out on our bicycles. As we approached the end of the runway of the Tân Sơn Nhất Airport, we stopped to observe the planes flying low over our heads. Almost immediately several soldiers appeared and ordered us to keep moving.
We moved on and arrived at the cemetery. Upon entering the gate we observed a long row of open, freshly-dug graves. We walked further and encountered a man who was putting details onto a row of caskets. He pointed to a building a bit further away. We entered the building and were greeted by row upon row of grotesque bodies lying on the concrete floor. They were as they had been gathered from the battlefield: missing limbs, bodies ripped open, torsos bloated from lying in the sun too long. And we observed young women walking down the rows hiding their faces behind their conical hats as they sought out the remains of their loved one for one final goodbye. Yes, the war was real now: war is cruel, war is hell. What we were observing was the evil face of a foreign policy gone terribly wrong. These bodily remains were what would occupy all those open graves we observed on the way in. We knew why we were here in Việt Nam—to try to bring a bit of the love of Christ into this world of insane, hellish war.
One day, while in the downtown of Sài Gòn, we observed an art gallery. There was a painting with many people close together, with arms stretching as high as they could, trying to touch a white dove which remained just beyond their reach. Another painting had a young child asking an aged man: “Grandfather, tell us what peace is like?”
In 1996, we made a return trip to Việt Nam. Our trip started in Hà Nội. While we were waiting for our turn to move to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum a young man, born after the war ended, came up to talk to us. When we told him we had been in Việt Nam during the war, he asked “Tell me what the war was like?”
Three months after arriving in 1966, we finished language training and it was time to head north to Quảng Ngãi. It was deemed advisable that my wife Sue and our son Michael wait in Sài Gòn while Earl Martin and I went to Quảng Ngãi to get things set up, which included building a dormitory-style building to accommodate the size of the anticipated unit. Quảng Ngãi was a life-changing experience for us. We had never experienced war before. Here we were, thrust into the very heart of a massive battle over the allegiance of the rural population of Quảng Ngãi province. The French had never gained full control of this province because of the strong resistance to foreigners. Việt Nam had been subjected to a thousand years of pressure from China, four hundred years of conflict with the Khmer Empire, and one hundred years as a French colony. If the U.S. would have had even a rudimentary understanding of the history of Việt Nam and had any understanding of the resolve of the people to be free and independent, they would never have taken on the futile task of making war with the peasants of Việt Nam.
Our work began in the Rung Lang refugee camp. Some 1,200 Vietnamese had already lived in the camp for 12 years. Home, for many of them, was only about four kilometers away, but it was no longer home—it had become a free-fire zone, and they were now here to be “reeducated.”
Sue put her nursing skills to work relating to a group of young mothers. Babies in the camp were normally nursed for a year or two, and while being nursed, their nutrition intake was fairly good. After they stopped breastfeeding, they generally suffered considerably. Sue worked with these mothers and their babies, providing supplemental food for the newly-weaned children. It was amazing the difference this kind of care made.
My work was wide ranging, and it changed from day to day according to the needs we found. I worked with unemployed carpenters and got them going on wood carving—the products were then sold to American soldiers.
One time, while I was putting my bicycle into a vehicle so we could head out to a refugee camp, a monstrous series of explosions occurred just south of our house. We ran inside and hid. Soon, throngs of people were streaming by, moving away from the explosion. We later found out what happened: a Vietnamese soldier was stealing some large parachutes, attached to phosphorus flares which happened to be stored in a large ammunition building, that he planned to use to celebrate the Vietnamese New Year, Tết. As he was removing the parachutes, he accidentally tripped the ignition switch on one of the flares. A chain reaction occurred, and the entire ammunition building blew into the sky. The explosion was enough to drop some plaster from our ceiling.
Another time, I was waiting at home for a plane to come in with a visitor. Just as it was getting dark, I noticed the plane I was expecting coming into the airport. Even though we never traveled at night, I had to go pick up our guest. When I arrived at the airport, I suddenly heard someone scream “Get out of your vehicle with your hands up.” I immediately obeyed—only to discover an American soldier, back to a large storage container, with his M16 pointed at my head. I explained who I was and why I was there, and he waved me on. In the end, it turned out our visitor wasn’t even on the plane.
One day my translator and I decided to ride our bicycles out to visit some of the villages south of Quảng Ngãi. It was a wonderful experience, and such a pleasure to see the countryside from the bicycle. Suddenly, a jeep full of American soldiers pulled up and one of them hollered out: “who are you and what the hell are you doing out here, this is dangerous countryside." I explained that we did not feel any danger, we were there helping the victims of the war.
A group of U.S. officers wanted to build an orphanage. When we were traveling to Việt Nam, MCC had sent us to Korea for a week to observe that post-war situation. We observed the many orphanages built by the foreigners there, but we knew there was no governmental structure to provide for orphanages in Việt Nam. I got a list of all the orphans in our area, and I visited the homes where they were. I discovered that the extended family was looking after every one of them. I managed to convince the officers that an orphanage was not a solution and would in fact become a problem after the foreigners left.
While in Quảng Ngãi, we attended the local evangelical Vietnamese church. We could understand only a limited amount—but the Spirit of Christ knows no language boundaries. Every so often, the pastor would ask me to have a prayer.
One Sunday when he asked me to pray he was quickly informed by the Vietnamese gentleman beside me that I could not pray that day because my shirt was not tucked in. That was amusing to me, because most worshipers wore their traditional black Vietnamese clothing, which most closely resembled American pajamas, which we would never wear to church. The minister wore a western suit and “always” had his shirt tucked in. Priorities—priorities!
In July 1967, the area just west of Quảng Ngãi was in the throes of a major American “liberation” offensive. The ten thousand residents of the Som Ve Valley were scheduled to be “liberated” on a Monday. Each village was surrounded by the American military, and then the villagers were forced onto helicopters and transported to the towns of Nghĩa Hành and the mountain town of Ba Tơ and placed in interrogation centers. Once cleared, they were housed in schools, in tents, and whatever else could be used for some form of shelter occupied. The cattle were also rounded up and moved out of the valley. Then the valley was carpet bombed and defoliated. The valley was now a free fire zone—anyone seen in the area was deemed enemy and would be shot on sight.
No provisions had been made for the care of these desperate people. Ethnic Vietnamese and tribal people were all placed in one facility—the American commander said there was no reason that the two cultures could not get along in the same place. That week alone, 100,000 Vietnamese and tribal peasants were forcibly removed from their villages and herded into refugee camps to be “reeducated.”
We wanted to provide food for as many of these people as possible, and we prepared a gruel made of corn, soy beans, and milk—20% protein. It did not taste very good. It just so happened that the California raisin producers had over-stocked that year, so they sold beautiful Sultana Raisins to MCC for $50 a ton. When we put a handful of raisins in a bowl of gruel the taste improved considerably. Everyone loved the raisins and often pleaded for a second hand full; except for one little girl who spit out every raisin—perhaps she thought they were bugs!
One day when I was delivering a load of gruel to the camp I was called to a tent where a seven-year-old boy lay unconscious. I got him into our vehicle and sped off for the Quảng Ngãi hospital. We arrived at noon—everything was shut down for the afternoon rest time. Dr. Alje Venema, a Canadian Doctor in charge of the Canadian tuberculosis hospital in Quảng Ngãi, happened to be there and wasn’t napping. He examined the boy and immediately diagnosed the problem as overexposure to tear gas. When soldiers had arrived in his village, the people, in fear, had crawled down into underground tunnels. The soldiers threw tear gas canisters into the tunnels so the people would come out, but in small enclosed areas tear gas can be lethal.
Dr. Venema needed to get into the dispensary to get the needed medication, and time was of the essence, but the room was locked for the noon hour. We broke in and got the needed medication.
The injured boy had defecated all over himself. I gave a few piasters to a boy watching our coming and going on the street and asked him to go buy a bar of soap. My white handkerchief was used to clean the seemingly lifeless body. I left the boy in the care of the doctor and continued with my other duties for the day.
The next morning we again prepared a batch of gruel for the camp, and on the way to Nghĩa Hành I stopped at the hospital to inquire about the little boy. I was told to go to the morgue to pick him up. There, on a slab of concrete, lay the lifeless body of the 7 year old, nude except for my white handkerchief covering his genitals. I went to a cloth merchant, bought some white cloth, wrapped the little body, and continued with it to the camp, where I delivered it to his parents.
I was directed to an old emaciated tribal man who was obviously in very poor health—his skin was covered with open sores from top to bottom. I took him to the hospital in Quảng Ngãi. When I checked on him later, I found him at the back of the compound in an otherwise empty building, lying on an old, discarded, broken door—he had not been touched or treated. Whether this was because he was tribal, or because he could
have had leprosy, I don’t know.
I went back to the MCC unit house and got one of our nurses to attend to him. She cleaned his wounds and put a new set of “black pajamas” on him.
When I returned to his small shack the next morning, I was privileged to one of those beautiful moments in life—this old, emaciated tribal gentleman thrust his arms out and gave me a huge bear hug.
Living in Quảng Ngãi gave one a good sense of what was happening in the war. There was a lot of fighting, there were a lot of casualties, there was a tremendous displacement of people, and the same hills were being captured, lost, and captured, again and again. The infamous My Lai massacre happened some 30 kilometers from our home. If the American war was going anywhere, it was going backwards, but that is not how it was propagandized. After every battle the following words were routine: “specific” numbers in terms of the enemy casualties, while the American casualties were always “light.” Obviously, there was no accurate count of “enemy” casualties. The designation “light” was used for anything up to a total of 10% of the troops involved in a campaign, and since the military never released how many troops were involved, the American people had absolutely no idea what “light” meant. The U.S. lost 50,000 troops in that war, and who knows how many were injured. Another 50,000 committed suicide in the first 10 years after returning to the U.S.
Quảng Ngãi was a good example of how badly the war was going. One day I visited the Quảng Ngãi province military headquarters. There was a map that showed the American-controlled areas of the province. There were four little dots on the entire map of Quảng Ngãi Province that were identified as “controlled.” The rest of the province was considered either “enemy controlled” or “contested.”
About this same time, I visited the office of the civilian commander of I Core. He was a tall, lean Texan. His cowboy boots rested on his desk as he leaned back and declared “It’s sort of like a Jack rabbit drive back home. There are a few of them left out there but it’s almost over."
Eight years later, the U.S. finally gave up and withdrew from Việt Nam. A ridiculous and illegal war—the 1954 Geneva Convention brought the French occupation of Việt Nam to an end and called for an election within two years to form the next government. The U.S. knew what the outcome would be and they did not like it. The U.S. backed a catholic from North Việt Nam, Ngô Đình Diệm, as president in the newly formed South Việt Nam—a Christian president in a predominantly Buddhist country. The result was 30 years of hell, and then in 1975, with the fall of Sài Gòn, the country was united under the communist government they would have elected in 1954. Had elections been held in 1954, the Vietnamese would likely have welcomed the U.S. as allies in their millenia-old struggle with China.
The only way to travel farther than a few miles was by air. You got on whatever plane you could get. In Sài Gòn, at the Tân Sơn Nhất, airport you might board a plane and then park at the end of the runway for an hour in the sweltering heat, waiting for permission to take off—all military traffic had priority. Meanwhile, the tropical sun heated the plane to unbearable temperatures.
Usually, we traveled in planes with one row of metal benches along each side of the plane. When we got into the air, it would get so cold that we thought we were freezing. Many of Vietnamese who traveled for the first time would suffer greatly from air sickness, and the floor of the plane would usually get covered in vomit.
Passenger loads could also be bizarre—on one flight, there was just our family and a load of barbed wire and other military goods. Also, the planes didn’t have doors. This was actually an advantage for photography, as I could crawl on my belly and hold the camera over the edge to take stunning panoramic shots.
Most of the airports had only one air strip and planes would land and take off only in one direction, no matter the wind direction, because of the threat of ground fire on the other end. And the descent and climb were very steep to minimize the risk of ground fire.
When I traveled alone, I would often just go to the airport and raise my thumb and wait for a pilot to welcome me aboard. One time, that flight was on a helicopter gunship—this time it was a Huey helicopter, which has all the controls in one stick, making it very maneuverable.
Once in the air, the pilot winked at the gunner and then proceeded to embark on “contour” flying—about two feet above the lowest part of the environment. If we approached a tree, the pilot would veer to the left, the right, or up just enough to miss the object and then quickly resume the former position.
Suddenly, we were over a river and diving at numerous small boats. I watched as the people dove into the river in utter panic. One time, when the pilot tried to maneuver up to miss a tree, he misjudged it and we hit the top of the tree. When we landed and examined the chopper, he observed that a few wires had been torn away.
Another time, when ready to leave a small mountain air strip which had been developed by bulldozing the top of the mountain, the pilot taxied right to the end of the strip so that nothing but air was left behind us. The pilot motioned for me to come sit in the co-pilot seat. He knew the dynamics of flight and knew he needed a bit more weight in the front of the plane. He held his foot on the brake, revved the plane to full throttle, and then released the brake. We shot forward and quickly approached the end of the very-short runway, followed by a steep drop. When we reached the end of the runway the wheels were still on the ground, and we dropped a few feet over the edge before merrily climbing upward, just as the pilot had anticipated—he knew his plane and all the associated data to a tee! Most of these flights were with Air America. The pilots were experts, with 25 or 30 years of flying experience.
And then we were informed by the VNCS director that we were being reassigned to Sài Gòn. I was assigned to work at the Chợ Quang Hospital in Chợ Lớn, the Chinese sector of Sài Gòn. Chợ Quang was a psychiatric and communicable diseases hospital.
In Sài Gòn, we were away from the active combat environment that we had been exposed to in Quảng Ngãi—but we were not far away from its consequences. Sài Gòn was growing rapidly with the influx of people fleeing the fighting. The state of military preparedness was incredible.
My work at the hospital was as a social worker for the psychiatric patients, and in a limited but similar role with leprosy patients. My work with psychiatric patients was under the direction of a psychiatrist who was also working for VNCS.
The psychiatric hospital was much like how American psychiatric hospitals had been many years earlier. In one ward the residents were chained to the floor. In the general ward we could regularly observe electroshock treatments. The patient was tied to the bed, the shock treatment was administered, and then the patient was left in the hall to slowly recover from the treatment amid the movement of the rest of the residents—it was not a pleasant site.
One lady on the ward, in addition to other ailments, suffered from a serious prolapse of the bowel. I discussed the case with a doctor at the Seventh Day Adventist Hospital. In situations like this, which I frequently encountered in Việt Nam, one sometimes could only do the best one can do under the circumstances. The doctor suggested that for temporary relief I go to a hardware store and get a heavy rubber o ring. She could press the bowel back in and then insert the o ring, which helped contain the bowel.
One day a resident of the psychiatric hospital approached me with a request—what he said was obviously his noble attempt at speaking English. All I could sort of make out were two words—one sounded like “box,” and the other like “chair.” After some considerable struggling and multiple repetitions, I finally guessed that he was probably asking for “some books,” not box, “in the name of Christ,” not chair. Somewhere, he had obviously come across the MCC slogan “In The Name Of Christ." Cross cultural communication can be quite a challenge and sometimes amusing.
Travel through Sài Gòn to Chợ Lớn each day was quite a challenge. The traffic was phenomenal. Riding my Lambretta scooter meant I was using a rather small amount of space and could maneuver through very small spaces. The Vietnamese were much more daring at this than I was. One day, I observed a young fellow on his motorcycle caught beside a big semi-truck, with traffic coming head on towards him. This semi-truck was a high box type, so the fellow just dropped his head between his handlebars and scooted beneath the moving semi, going on his merry way on the other side. It certainly looked like this was not the first time he did this.
Our home was right on the highway between Tân Sơn Nhất Airport and the huge Biên Hòa military base. The military convoy traffic by our place was unended. And the diesel trucks all had their exhaust discharge at the bottom of the trucks pointing to the right, so they discharged right into the pedestrian pathway. Convoy after convoy made their deafening way past our home. Right across the street from us was a Vietnamese military compound.
When I arrived at the Chợ Quang hospital on January 29, 1968, I was informed that on the Friday that had just passed, after I left the hospital there had been a phone call for me from Canada. O my! This was out of the ordinary—this had never happened. Something serious had obviously happened at home! I immediately wondered who in my family died? There wasn’t a follow up call; and then it was the beginning of the Lunar New Year celebration—Tết. This is the holiday of holidays in Việt Nam. It was a full month after that phone call from Canada that the first communication of any kind, including letters, came through from back home. The phone call was not informing us of a death after all: it was just my brother Henry, who had decided he would try to phone me to wish me a “Happy Birthday!"
For Tết 1968, a type of cease fire had been declared for the main three-day celebration. Yet, on the first day of the holiday, major fighting broke out in the northern district of Huế. The second day, fighting broke out simultaneously across the country, including in Sài Gòn. When we woke up, we saw soldiers from the compound across the road placing explosives along the wall of the compound making ready for the enemy advancing down the street. Meanwhile, there was heavy fighting at the end of our street. In the evening we could observe the tracer bullets going in both directions. Then the heavy artillery was brought in.
At one point I suddenly became aware that I had not seen our son Michael for a bit, so I called out: “Michael, where are you?" A voice rang out from our deck: “I am out here watching the war!"
The next day all was quiet as I drove down Bạch Đằng, our street. There were bodies lying on the sides of the road. At the end of the street the fighting had stopped. There were people milling about amid the devastation. I encountered a very old lady who was sifting through the rubble that remained of what used to be her home. She was saving every nail and anything else of any value she could find. She looked up at me and prayerfully asked “Will you help me?”
One thousand homes had been destroyed. There was no water supply. Don Sensenig and I got a hold of a truck and water tank and started hauling water for the residents. In the northern part of the destroyed area, I observed a woman earnestly praying for protection for her new home. The rubble had been cleared from her lot, she had placed an offering on the concrete pad, and the contractors were ready to begin building. As she prayed, we could see planes dropping bombs on an area just beyond a row of trees, perhaps half a kilometer away—the concussion from those bombs was an indication of how close we were to the action—and she prayed on. Life always continues! She wanted to secure her place even in the mad scheme of things.
Meanwhile, the fighting had shifted northwest of our home. Helicopter gunships hovered right over our home and fired rockets into a residential area. The next day all was quiet, so I went to observe. About three hundred homes lay in ruins. An elderly gentleman showed me what remained of his home—the concrete latrine. And on the walls of that latrine were blotches of black hair fried to the walls—the hair of his wife, his daughter, and his granddaughter who were killed there during the fighting. These people, and the many refugees who continued to flock into the city, had no roof over their heads.
Later I received word—from whom, I don’t remember—that I should go to the main dock, where all the American ships delivered their cargo. It wasn’t far from our place and was on the road to Biên Hòa. I went, and immediately saw huge columns of smoke rising into the air. American soldiers had cut a hole in the perimeter fence and were burning huge piles of lumber. This was the dimensional lumber used to shore up loads in the boats so that the cargo could not shift in transit. A commander had come to examine things on the docks and instructed them they must immediately burn all that lumber, lest the Việt Cộng use that wood to set the whole docks ablaze.
I asked whether I could have the lumber to build shelters for refugees. “Certainly, bring the trucks and we’ll even load it for you,” the commander told me.
I went to the VNCS office to share news of my find and get help in taking away the wood before it was burned. I was informed that all relief work must be coordinated through and approved by a city-wide central coordinating committee. I exclaimed that if we waited for approval, all the lumber would all be burned before we could get any of it. So, I hired trucks and headed for the docks. Soldiers quickly loaded the banded piles of beautiful two-by-sixs and two-by-eights onto the trucks—we were even saving the soldier’s work! We dropped a couple of loads off in a Catholic Church compound and several loads into a huge soccer field filled with refugees.
Two of our MCC volunteers were architects. They quickly drew up plans for trusses for temporary shelters. The refugees were eager to help. Any wood that could not be used for construction was immediately used for cooking fires to cook food. I observed that one of the eager workers was the gentleman who had shown me the latrine from his house—the heart wrenching reminder of the hell that had been unleashed upon these innocent people.
I took a trip to the Chinese sector of Sài Gòn and observed a massive area where some three-thousand homes had been reduced to rubble. I was reminded of the situation of another town that had been completely destroyed—there, the American commanding officer had declared “We had to destroy it in order to save it.”
As the Tết Offensive dwindled down, the American military publicly declared: “We have broken the back of the enemy!" Privately, the story was quite different. At a meeting with leaders of NGOs, the military declared that the enemy had actually purposefully used their greener troops in the operation and that they could repeat it any time. The lie that Daniel Elsberg exposed with the Pentagon Papers was also our daily observation.
VNCS decided to evacuate all women and children. Sue, Michael, and Arnold, along with all the other VNCS women and children, were evacuated to the Island of Penang, Malaysia. I stayed on to work at whatever could still be done.
One of the gentlemen at Chợ Quang hospital, a man with leprosy named Lê Hoàng, became a friend of mine. We visited each other frequently and sometimes played bocce ball. The year he graduated from university with an art degree he was diagnosed with leprosy. As for thousands of years, this was a life sentence, even though the disease can easily be arrested with treatment, as his had been, and at a very small cost. He, his wife, and their daughter lived on one bed along the outer perimeter wall of the hospital.
I commissioned three paintings from him: I supplied the titles, and he made paintings to match. One was titled “social rejection." Who better to create such a painting? The second title I gave him was “Khánh Hội street scene." The Khánh Hội district of Sài Gòn was an area over the swamp where thousands of refugees from the war had located and lived in very minimal conditions. The third title was “The Việt Nam War."
Eventually, word came that the paintings were ready. I was blown away by the talent that this artist had. His portrayal of each of the three topics was amazing. I treasure these paintings to this day. Some people that I have shown the paintings to say he is a genius. I paid him what he asked: it was embarrassingly little, but it was what he asked for, and I, then working as a volunteer, had little more to offer. Perhaps in the future there might be an opportunity to make it right!
Thirty years later Sue, Stephen, and I decided to go to the Mennonite World Conference Assembly in Calcutta, India. We then chose to include a stop in Việt Nam on the trip. Arnold had often talked of visiting his birthplace—Sài Gòn—and he was excited to finally make it a reality. Then Michael, our other son, said “If Arnold is going then I am going too!" So, the whole family—myself and Sue, Michael and his wife Sheila, Arnold and his girlfriend Vicky, and the still-single Stephen—all embarked on a trip to Việt Nam. What an amazing family adventure!
I told Sue after our trip was confirmed that “I have to see if Lê Hoàng is still living."
She replied “there is no way that he’s still alive."
I said “I have to find out.”
When we were in Sài Gòn, we made our way to Chợ Quang hospital. I told the guard at the gate that I was looking for one of the leprosy patients, the artist “Lê Hoàng.”
He replied, “They have all been moved from here years ago.”
“Do you know where to?” I asked.
“No,” the guard said.
“Is there anyone still working at the hospital that had worked there thirty years ago?”
“Yes, there is one old lady.”
“Could I speak with her?"
“Just wait here.” He quickly went to fetch her.
He came back with a little old lady. “Do you know the artist Lê Hoàng?”
“Is he still living?"
“Do you know where he is?”
“Could you show me where to find him?”
“Come with me.”
We left the hospital grounds, and I followed her through some very small alleys until she told me to wait outside. This had been standard practice 30 years earlier as well: people didn’t want anyone that might be identified as “American” to be seen visiting them.
After a bit, the woman re-appeared with an elderly man. I asked him, “Do you know the artist Lê Hoàng?"
“Is he still living?”
“Do you know where I can find him?”
“Yes, take the road to Biên Hòa; when you come to a large steel power line follow the road underneath it. Take that road till you come to a fork in the road. Take the left road along the canal. When you come to a bridge over the canal cross the canal and then you will be there."
We eagerly followed his instructions. When we came to the other side of the canal bridge we were met by a young lady who asked, “What do you want?”
“We are looking for Lê Hoàng, the artist, is he here?”
“Can you take us to him?”
“Yes, follow me. But he is not in good health. He probably won’t talk, he has become completely withdrawn.”
We came to the last shack at the far end of the settlement. In the shack, on a bamboo bed, lay the body of an old man—his face was pressed to the wall. I talked to him. No reply. I told him who I was. No reply. No reaction at all. I had with me a picture I had taken thirty years earlier, of him holding one of the three paintings. I took the picture from my pocket, reached over his body, and held the picture right in front of his eyes. Suddenly he rolled over onto his back, raised his arms, and we embraced. For me, this was the highlight of our trip. We wept together.
Suddenly I noticed that our whole family was in tears. Even our driver was in tears. I had my opportunity to give him a proper pay for those paintings.
On our return visit to Việt Nam held another extraordinary experience. Just outside Quảng Ngãi there was a sizable hill called “Buddha Hill." Most of the time we lived in Quảng Ngãi it was not deemed safe to go there. Now, we climbed the hill for a fantastic view of the whole area.
I approached the ancient Buddhist Monastery that was located there. A lady approached me and asked who I was and what I wanted. I told her our family was revisiting Quảng Ngãi thirty years after having worked there. She asked me to wait. She came back with one of the monks. He had all kinds of questions: Who are you? Where did you learn to speak Vietnamese? Were you here as a soldier? After the “interrogation” was complete, he invited our whole family to follow him. We ended up in the inner sanctuary,where he lit the candle on the altar—I interpreted it as an invitation to pray. Our family gathered in a circle and I began praying. The moment I began, the monk was at the large six foot high bell and gonged our prayers heavenward.
Then we were invited to follow him. We went through some trees, and suddenly we were in a cemetery. The monk then explained who was buried in each of the ancient graves. As we walked, the graves became newer. Finally, he stopped at a grave and asked: “Did you ever see the picture in Time magazine of a monk kneeling in prayer and incinerating himself on Du Yo Street in Sài Gòn?"
“Yes,” I responded, “I did.”
“Well, this,” he said, “is his grave. He was one of us!" He knew that I knew why this monk did this. The monk was protesting the persecution of Buddhist monks by the ‘Christian president,’ Ngô Đình Diệm.
We thanked the monk for his grace. He tearfully invited us to visit him again.
As the fighting after Tết dragged on, the air was tense. Our directors indicated that they had no idea when the women and children would be able to return. The decision was made that any families that had completed more than two years of their three-year commitment could return home. Those that had completed less than two years could be reassigned to another country. We had completed more than two years, but MCC asked if we would be willing to relocate to Bihar, India. There had been a major famine there the year before, and MCC had embarked on a major food-for-work project and desperately needed staff to work there. They needed someone from Canada—since both countries were part of the British Commonwealth, we were exempt from the visa process. We agreed.
I said goodbye to Việt Nam, flew to Malaysia, met Sue, Michael, and Arnold, and headed for Calcutta.