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 The Evangelical Clinic of Nha Trang: Then and (Almost) up to Now

by Donald E. Voth

MCC Vietnam, 1958-1961

At a beautiful beach site near the Hòn Chồng formation north of Nha Trang city is the Bệnh Viện Y Học Cổ Truyền và Phục Hồi Chức Năng của Khánh Hòa—the Hospital of Traditional Medicine and Rehabilitation of Khánh Hòa—a continuing physical and institutional remnant of early contributions to the people of Việt Nam by MCC and the Evangelical Church of Việt Nam.

Soon after MCC’s posting of Delbert Wiens, Roy Eby, and Adam Ewert to Việt Nam in 1954, Dr. Willard Krabill and his wife Grace arrived in 1955. Krabill’s attention went primarily to medical needs. The first MCC commitment made to Việt Nam was to provide medical support and construction assistance at the Christian and Missionary Alliance and Evangelical Church of Việt Nam (Hội Thánh Tin Lành, subsequently HTTL) Leprosarium among the Hill Tribes near Banmethuot. Even as that work began, conversations started with HTTL about founding a hospital. MCC would have preferred to begin the project in a new location, but because it already had an excellent property with an orphanage and a Bible School in Nha Trang, HTTL insisted upon launching the proposed medical facility there.

So it was that in early 1960, after having completed two patient wards at the Banmethuot Leprosarium—buildings which still exist and are used to this day—Alan Hochstetler, at that time a 20 year old PAX volunteer, was assigned to Nha Trang to begin construction of a residence, warehouse, and a building for the proposed “Evangelical Clinic,” or “Chẩn Y Viện Tin Lành.” By then fluent in the Ede language, Hochstetler brought with him a young Ede man to interpret for him. Using the 1938 Citroen 5-ton truck at the Banmethuot Leprosarium, he hauled large quantities of high-quality timber, which had been felled and cut on site in the forest not far from the Banmethuot Leprosarium, to raise money for the new hospital. Using a combination of US and Vietnamese construction practices, the residence and warehouse complex was completed by December of 1960, and Hochstetler and Pastor Lam began construction of the clinic building itself. However, lack of funds delayed the process, and Hochstetler was transferred to Korea by those above him in MCC. Ultimately, Pastor Lam supervised the construction of the Clinic.

In the meantime, nurse Elnora Weaver and Dr. John Dick had transferred from Banmethuot to the site at Nha Trang and began providing out-patient medical service, under the supervision of Pastor Pham Xuan Tin, Director of the Clinic. The clinic became fully functional by the July 9, 1961 dedication.

From that small base, which had only very limited in-patient capacity, the hospital grew over time, both in terms of physical facilities, services provided, and staff. Many MCC and VNCS medical nurses, doctors, social workers, and administrators served there. 35 MCC workers served at Nha Trang between 1961-1975.

In the early years the small medical team also carried out mobile clinics, especially at a site near Nha Trang to which a large group from the Hill Tribes—specifically the Roglai and Koho groups—had fled their homes in the highlands after having been attacked, some having been murdered, and having had their food supplies stolen. Precisely this possibility — of providing medical service to outlying areas by way of mobile clinics — was one of the points used by the Evangelical Church to persuade MCC to make its commitment at Nha Trang. It had not been anticipated, however, that this work in the surrounding areas would primarily involve medical service to thousands of the Hill Tribes minorities displaced by the war, never to get their lands and traditional community structures restored. Significant work among minority Hill Tribes also occurred at the hospital projects in Pleiku and Banmethuot. The team also held mobile clinics transported by boat on some outlying islands. In 1963, the Clinic was expanded, and in 1967 a Nurses Training program was launched. 

My own involvement with the hospital was limited to the early period while I served in Việt Nam, and resumed later, after 1975, when I was able to reconnect with the new, post-1975 version of the hospital. I did, however, return to Việt Nam briefly in 1968 on a special VNCS assignment to meet with Hill Tribes all over the Central Plateau. Although I did make a brief stop at the hospital then, my first opportunity to seriously revisit the hospital site was in January of 1997 with Alan Hochstetler. I was on a trip to investigate opportunities for volunteer workcamps in cooperation with what was then called Vietnamese Youth, “Việt Trẻ,” which subsequently became the Việt Nam YMCA, and Peacework of Blacksburg, Va., which was at that time an effort of the Campus Ministry at Virginia Tech University where I was a professor. Alan had made his way to Việt Nam from the Mennonite World Conference in India. He and I hired a car and driver who took us to the hospital site without advance notice or permits. Fortunately, we met a woman, Cô Hiền, who had a small kiosk selling soft drinks on the beach and who knew about our background. She agreed to introduce us to the director and staff of the hospital. We met with Dr. Phạm Thị Xuân, then the Associate Director (Director Dr. Hoàng Công Chương was away at the time). From those early conversations—on my end held in some very fragile Vietnamese—and after more discussions carried out subsequently by Vữ Trông Thực and Lưu Văn Lộc, and others of the YMCA, we agreed to add a second workcamp at Nha Trang after a first workcamp was held at Đồng Tháp. We hadn’t been pleased, during our first workcamp, with the schedule of a maximum of three to four days of work with the rest of our two weeks spent as tourists. Now we would have several days of work in Đồng Tháp plus several days of work at the Nha Trang hospital.


The History of the YMCA in Việt Nam


During the YMCA’s early years in Việt Nam, MCC workers Carl Hurst and Harry Lefever provided support for youth work. Formal association with the International YMCA was not allowed by the Vietnamese government, so the organization that emerged using the YMCA model called itself the “Youth Volunteers of Viet Nam.” In addition to work projects (trại còn tác), they also had seminars (trại nghị luận), and, of course, entertainment. One of their workcamps was held at the Leprosarium near Banmethuot, and another at the Hòn Chồng site where the Chẩn Y Viện Tin Lành was to be located. There, the volunteers planted coconut trees, trees which many of the hospital staff enjoyed over the years. During one of the workcamps held after 1975, I endured seeing many of these trees cut down for expansion of the adjoining hotel.


Many of the Vietnamese youth from the 50’s and 60’s workcamps went abroad, especially to the U.S., and maintained contact with each other, and in 1996 they published a report of their activities with many pictures. Nguyễn Văn Ninh, Co-Director of the MCC program in Việt Nam 1954 until 1975, was active in organizing a YMCA in Việt Nam after the end of the Diem regime in 1963, until 1975.  Although I don’t have detailed information about their activities during this period, I do know that they organized English classes. After 1975 the YMCA emerged again, first as Vietnamese Youth and then as the YMCA—standing for Youth Movement for Cooperative Activities—but collaborating with and receiving support from the International YMCA.


That first workcamp I was involved in after the war ended—helping to build an elementary school with Vietnamese Youth and Peacework—was in a small, rural village in Thanh Binh District of Đồng Tháp Province. Except for the children and one family nearby the school where we received our lunch, we were allowed very little access to the people of the village. However, I was able to talk with an elderly gentleman of that family, probably the grandfather. When he learned that we had connections with Evangelicals, he asked me whether I had known about the Evangelical Clinic in Nha Trang. I was amazed to learn from him that the family was Evangelical and they had many times traveled the long distance, about 280 miles (450 kilometers), to Nha Trang for medical care. The family begged me to accompany them to a service at their Evangelical Church, but that was, of course, impossible at that time and place, even though my Methodist pastor was along and he very badly wanted to accept the invitation.

            Back to my visit to the Nha Trang hospital in 1997: we learned that after 1975, the land and facilities at the Chẩn Y Viện Tin Lành had been taken by the government, and that, at first, the hospital had been closed. However, by 1997, it had re-emerged as a special provincial rehabilitation hospital under the leadership of Dr. Hoàng Công Chương and a fine staff. It was called Bệnh Viện Đương Dụng Phục Hồi Chức Năng (Functional Rehabilitation Hospital) of Khánh Hòa Province—later, the name was changed to its current name, Bệnh Viện Y Học Cổ Truyền và Phục Hồi Chức Năng của Khánh Hòa (Hospital of Traditional Medicine and Rehabilitation of Khanh Hoa). Peacework had received some funds from the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), so it could provide funds for building, usually in the range of about $12,000 to $13,000 per project. We, then, recruited volunteers abroad and the Vietnamese YMCA recruited Vietnamese volunteers. We of course didn’t build the buildings: we sent the money ahead and hired local people to build the buildings, and then we came, and, together with the young Vietnamese volunteers, worked on finishing touches: we painted, cleaned, and did whatever else was needed that would have otherwise burdened the staff.

            The first plan we received from the hospital for a proposed workcamp, in 1999, involved demolishing the original clinic building and building a new multi-story replacement. We responded that, although we neither intended to nor could tell them what to do with the hospital, it would be more difficult for us to recruit volunteers if the purpose was to demolish the original building. They responded with an alternative plan, which was to build another building more or less in front of the original one, with a walkway connecting the two. In January of 1998, with a team of two Viet Youth administrators, 11 Vietnamese Youth volunteers, and 14 foreign volunteers, that is what we did.

            So, on December 30, 1999, 15 of us left the US for our second workcamp in Việt Nam, this time to “work” at two places—a rural village in Thanh Bình District of Đồng Tháp Province in the Mekong Delta, and the Functional Rehabilitation Hospital in Nha Trang, the former Chẩn Y Viện Tin Lành, or Evangelical Clinic. One of the Vietnamese volunteers, Trần Hương Trà, a wonderful entertainer, and our own Carl Hurst, who was with MCC in the 1950’s, frequently entertained us, leading us in Vietnamese, American, and international songs while we were on boats and long bus rides.

            Although I had many pictures of my time in Việt Nam, I was reluctant to bring them, since they were from before 1975 and could potentially have been offensive. I brought only one on the trip, a black and white picture of the 1961 dedication of the hospital. However, former VNCS worker and nurse at the clinic, Martha Henderson, brought with her a whole set of color slides. When she asked me whether we might show them, I asked the Director, Dr. Chương, and he approved. Until then they had very little information about what the hospital had been like before 1975—they only knew that it had belonged to some kind of religious organization. So, we scheduled a show in the community room. It was amazing! The place was packed, and people were looking in literally all the windows. From time to time people would point at someone they knew or had known on the screen.

After that event, the hospital set up a glass-enclosed mini-museum that celebrates the history of the hospital and on-going important events, especially information and pictures about external assistance. It seems likely that that event—the showing of pictures from before 1975—helped break open a log-jam of recognizing and speaking of the past, allowing the people of the town to share memories from the years before 1975. During the second workcamp there, in 2000—which occurred not long after my wife Elnora, who served as the first MCC volunteer nurse at the hospital, had passed away—a memorial plaque to her was included in the collection and remains frequently shown to ex-MCC and VNCS volunteer visitors.

            During that second workcamp at the hospital, in 2000, we were tasked with rehabilitating the old, original clinic building. Very little rehabilitation, however, was actually needed, even on the forty-year-old tile roof. This was, in part, because of the quality of the work and materials used in the construction in 1960. As mentioned earlier, Alan Hochstetler had been able to haul lumber down from Banmethuot and use it for the structure, windows, and doors of the clinic. He used lumber from the same source in building the hospital wards at the Leprosarium in Banmethuot—lumber cut from a type of long lasting and termite-proof mahogany. Instead of disturbing this magnificent wood, we spent our time cleaning up and repainting, which certainly was needed. The inexpensive lime-based paints which were then used on the outside of buildings, though they work well on cement, do not last very long, and they require a very different application technique then we typically use for painting in North America.

            We soon encountered a small complication. Although Hochstetler had incorporated essential Vietnamese construction techniques—including cement block or brick walls plastered inside and out with cement—the windows had been designed in an American, not Vietnamese, style. American windows are made to slide up and down, while Vietnamese windows are usually wing-hinged, like shutters. While engaged in repainting, we discovered that the windows had not been opened for ages: they had been painted over so many times that we really had to struggle to open them at all. It is probable that after the American and Canadian staff left in 1975 no one had known how to open the windows. They likely hadn’t been opened in 25 years.

            The workcamp held at the hospital in January of 2006 was different. Our funds from UMCOR had been designated primarily for construction, but Dr. Bùi Minh Thuận had informed us that there was no longer need, nor space, for another building. In fact, plans were already well underway for major expansion with a multi-story building, with funding coming from the Provincial government. He suggested that we contribute an expensive piece of medical equipment—a hyperbaric chamber especially for treatment of fishermen victims of decompression sickness. For a work project, he suggested that we repaint some of the old buildings. Steve Darr of Peacework was able to procure the funds, and we proceeded with 16 foreign volunteers, including one family of four, one Việt kiều (Vietnamese-descent foreigner), Grace Mishler of the Brethren Mission, and a return visit by Alan Hochstetler. An attractive statue celebrating rehabilitation had been installed at the entrance and, of course, we were welcomed enthusiastically. We had the usual “Completion ceremony” at the end of the week, but, in this case, it was special. A representative of the local government would usually attend and read a short speech; however, this time, Dr. Trương Tấn Minh, the Director of Health Services for Khánh Hòa province, attended. He spoke spontaneously, telling us that it had been because of the kind of medical service his own grandfather had received at the Chẩn Y Viện Tin Lành many years before that he had decided to study medicine. He pointed out, further, that it was the outstanding examples of former Director Hoàng Công Chương and current Director Bùi Minh Thuận, both of whom had formerly led the Leprosarium near Nha Trang, that he had dedicated himself first to that institution and now to leading the Provincial Health Services.

            In the workcamps held from 1999 until 2006, during which we built and refurbished several more buildings at the hospital site, seven former VNCS and MCC folks joined us, including Roy Eby, member of the very first MCC team to Việt Nam in 1954, and his wife Margaret, two former MCC volunteers, one former IVS Director, three Mennonite Missions staff, and four MCC Việt Nam volunteers and staff.

            Anyone visiting the Hòn Chồng area nowadays will be amazed at how it has transitioned from the peaceful little beach area it used to be into a frantic effort to emulate Miami, West Palm Beach, or any other beach resort in the world. However, one can still find the gate for the Bệnh Viện Y Học Cổ Truyền và Phục Hồi Chức Năng của Khánh Hòa, and, upon entering, one will find a large and thriving traditional medicine and rehabilitation hospital. During the years of working with them we were frequently told that, had it not been for the buildings that were contributed by Peacework, the Việt Nam YMCA, and foreign and Vietnamese volunteers, as well as other foreign contributions—the hospital also had a relationship with some German medical organization—the property would long ago have been turned into just another high rise hotel catering to tourists.

Luckily, the hospital and its wonderful staff are all still there. My most recent visit was in 2014. I, and my sponsored Vietnamese “son,” Kiên, were treated like royalty when we visited. We learned, via communication with Dr. Đoãn Quốc Hưng in November 2018, that the original building was about to be demolished to allow for further expansion, as the hospital continues to grow rapidly. Information about the hospital can be found on the web and on Facebook by searching for its name: Bệnh Viện Y Học Cổ Truyền và Phục Hồi Chức Năng của Khánh Hòa.

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