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The First Steps: My Journey to Vietnam

by Max Ediger,

MCC Vietnam, Quang Ngai, 1971-1976 

MCC Vietnam, Hanoi, 2007-2011

I was sitting comfortably in my window seat on the Pan Am 707 as it approached Tân Sơn Nhất Airport in South Việt Nam’s capital of Sài Gòn. Yes, I was comfortable, as there was much more leg room in those days, but I was also feeling a sense of excitement with some apprehension. What would it be like to live in a country at war? The only real fear I ever felt in Turpin, Oklahoma was the possibility of a tornado as a violent storm blew through the Panhandle, lightning lit up the sky and the house shuttered as roaring thunder threatened to break the windows. Soon I would be landing in a country that was exploding with the terror of war. What would I experience? Would I be capable of dealing with the suffering of war?


My imagination intensified as the aircraft began its descent. Would we have to run to a bunkered terminal because of threats of incoming mortars? Would the city of Sài Gòn be littered with piles of crumbled buildings, swarm with frightened people and be covered in a haze of smoke and despair? I wondered if it would have been better to stay home and I was worried about what mom and dad might be feeling.


The idea to join the MCC team in Việt Nam had actually been growing in my mind for many years already. I had always felt an aversion to war as a solution to disagreements. I could never understand how killing people and laying waste a country could possibly result in peace. World War II had been the “war to end all wars” and yet wars were now raging in many hot spots around the world. It seemed to me that war only laid the foundations for new wars. Surely, I thought, if God had created everything and everybody and found them good, and if God had given the human race the ability to make their own decisions knowing that they would often make very bad decisions, then God must have also given humans the ability to think more creatively about how to solve differences and not feel that by destroying God’s beautiful creation and people the world would be better and safer. Besides, there undoubtedly must be a great many potential solutions to end disagreements and violent conflict even though solutions are often presented as only two—either this or that. Have we, as a Christian people, taken the time to study the different options prayerfully? Or have we become comfortable thinking that it is a choice between doing something or doing nothing so then war is the only real option? Are we too fearful or too lazy to seek other answers? What would Jesus do? To hopefully find some answers to these and many other questions was the purpose for this pilgrimage.


The questions increased as I began my study at Bethel College in 1964. The pro-war people in America were telling us that we had to fight the Vietnamese in Việt Nam because if we didn’t we would have to fight them on the shores of California. That made no sense to me. How could the Vietnamese military ever get halfway around the world to California? I found other arguments for war in Việt Nam just as ludicrous, but with no experience or special knowledge, how could I really know? I needed to go there to find the answers myself.


My first two years at Bethel were almost disastrous. I could not concentrate on my studies, and also I really had no idea what I wanted to study. We were always under pressure to make plans for our future careers and I had no idea what to prepare for. This uncertainty about my career possibilities was further compounded by the constant bombardment of news from the frontlines of Việt Nam. Daily we heard of the latest attacks on villages and “suspected enemy bases.” We were told that we were winning because the number of “enemy” killed was much higher than our own losses. We were being asked to see victory in terms of body counts. I found this unsettling, almost repulsive.


I finally knew that I could not continue studying if I was to keep my sanity. I needed to go find out for myself what the truth was and what the Vietnamese people, themselves, wanted. As I applied for a position with MCC, one question on the application form I kept for the very last. “What country would you prefer to work in?” Obviously that was Việt Nam, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that I probably didn’t have much life experience to bring to that country program. After days of reflection and inner debate, I finally decided to leave the question blank. If God wanted me in Việt Nam, God would fill in the blank for me.


A few weeks later, I excitedly tore into an envelope I’d received from MCC, hoping it would be my assignment to Việt Nam. Instead, it said “Burundi.” I had never heard of Burundi, but suspected it was in Africa. I was extremely disappointed, but as I had left my own preference blank I needed to see this as a request from God. I could probably do something good there for two years, and then return home to become a “normal” American again. Hopefully the war would be over by then and Việt Nam would fade from my mind.


Finishing my term in Africa, I returned to Bethel College and realized that, for me, not much had changed. Every morning I would wake up early to read the news about the war still raging in Việt Nam, then go to class and struggle to concentrate. I wanted to drop out, but I had promised my parents I would graduate, so I kept at it. I involved myself deeply in the Peace Club on campus and began attending MCC conferences on issues related to peace and the Anabaptist vision. I felt a strong need to understand the chaos in the world from a New Testament perspective and I felt very strongly attracted to the Anabaptist vision of peace and justice. This was a time of deepening Biblical understanding for me and I am thankful for professors who encourage me to think critically and ask lots of questions. I was particularly challenged to look closely at the Sermon on the Mount as a guide for my life. I wondered if I could ever live up to the expectations Christ outlined there. Could I really forgive enemies? Could I love unconditionally, even when life was threatened? These kinds of questions gave me sleepless nights but I knew that if I wanted to profess Christ as my Lord, I needed to try to follow as best I could even if those expectations didn’t really make sense in our conflicted and dangerous world. 


I then knew that my dream of going to Việt Nam was not over. I applied again with MCC, but this time I said I would only go to Việt Nam. I was accepted, and shortly after graduation, I packed my suitcase and boarded the flight through Hong Kong and on to Sài Gòn.


As the plane began to fly over the city of Sài Gòn, I looked down and saw a city much like most others I had flown over. There were very few tall buildings then, and a great many of the houses and buildings had red-tiled roofs. When we were low enough I could see streets congested with thousands of motorcycles. It did not seem like the capital city of a country at war that I had imagined.


When we finally passed over the fence that surrounded the airport, I began to feel that maybe this was not such a normal place. The double fence was covered with barbed wire and guard towers, guns at the ready. Sentinels stood at many points along the airport boundary. Taxing to the terminal we passed rows of concrete bunkers where helicopters and jet fighters were parked to give them some protection from possible mortar attacks.


The airport served both military and civilian operations, so it was a beehive of activity. C-123s, jet fighters, Chinook and Huey helicopters, military jeeps, trucks hauling war material and civilian passenger planes all jockeyed for space. It seemed to be total chaos, but it also seemed to work.


We parked on the apron a short distance from the arrival terminal which was an old building built during the French occupation around 1920. The door of the plane opened but we were told to remain seated. Several stern-faced and heavily armed South Vietnamese soldiers entered the plane and walked slowly up and down the aisles staring into the faces of each passenger. I’m not sure what they were looking for, but finally they were satisfied and we were allowed to deplane.


Immediately when I stepped out the plane door, I knew without doubt that I was no longer in Turpin, Oklahoma. The humidity was something I had never experienced before, not even in Burundi. And in those days we did not dress comfortably to travel by air. Suits, ties, and shoes were common. Within seconds I felt drenched, hot, and weak. Luckily we did not have to run to a bunkered terminal to avoid incoming mortars because I could not have made it. The humidity was far too heavy.


Once inside the terminal, it was not much better. There was no AC and the old squeaking fans in the high ceiling gave little comfort.


There were many different lines and little direction about which one I needed to go to. Slowly, though, I made it through the red tape, filling in various forms, passing my passport to officials and smiling as much as I could in the heat. That smile seemed to result in more sweat pouring from my forehead.


At the final desk, I again handed my passport to an official who had a large ledger in front of him filled with names. Without a smile he began looking for my name. First he tried ‘Norman,’ my rarely-used first name, but found nothing. Then he tried ‘Max,’ and finally ‘Ediger,’ and still nothing. I was worried. Perhaps my visa was not valid and I would not be allowed into the country. Finally he looked at me, handed me my passport and indicated I could go find my luggage. Later I found out that the ledger contained the names of people who were banned from entering the country. Luckily my name was not there.


I found my heavy suitcase (no wheels in those days) and lugged it toward the exit, perspiring heavily in the sweltering heat and humidity. I was unsure what to expect next. Would someone meet me or would I have to find my own way into the city? I had some addresses, but felt some stress in not knowing how to get a taxi, how to change money, etc. As I walked through the exit into the arrival hall, I was met by a huge crowd of Vietnamese people. None of them were looking for me. But in the back I saw two non-Asians and knew immediately they were Mennonites. Mennonites have a certain look about them that makes them easy to spot as I found out in the following years when I had to meet a variety of Mennonites at the airport.


Titus Peachey and Maynard Shirk waved at me frantically until I saw them through the crowd. They were not with MCC, but were working with the Eastern Mennonite Mission as volunteers. They welcomed me, took my suitcase, and suggested I remove my coat and tie. We became very close friends and remain so today.


They drove me to the VNCS guesthouse which was situated in a shaded compound at the end of a small street. The name of the guesthouse was Em Dem, or Tranquility. Again I was welcomed by friendly people, shown to my room—with a suggestion that I get some rest—and told that food would soon be ready. It was very quiet and peaceful. There was no sound of incoming mortars or machine gun fire. I was finally in Việt Nam, the guesthouse was quiet and cool, and I was ready for new adventures. So far, Việt Nam wasn’t at all what I had been expecting.


On to Quảng Ngãi

After a few days of introduction to the city of Sài Gòn by MCC and Việt Nam Christian Service (VNCS), along with a very thorough orientation to VNCS’s programs and regulations, I was informed that I would be sent to Quảng Ngãi for three months of language study. This seemed a bit strange because other volunteers studied Vietnamese at a formal language school in Sài Gòn. I don’t know why the change, but in the end it was a good deal for me.


The distance from Sài Gòn to Quảng Ngãi is about 460 miles north by road, but the drive could take two or three days depending on security along the route. Due to fighting, the road was closed at night and occasionally closed to traffic for some hours during the daytime if there was fighting along the way. So we generally took the hour-long flight in the small DC 3 aircraft Air Việt Nam used for their smaller airports. These planes do not fly high so most of the flight was out over the ocean to prevent National Liberation Front (NLF) soldiers on the ground taking pot shots at it.


The DC 3 aircraft were quite old, as production of them ended in 1942, but they were strong and reliable and most useful for short runways. They were not pressurized, as they couldn’t fly high, so windows could be opened. Occasionally, the windows flapped in the wind because the latch was broken. A friend told me that he once rode on a DC 3 with the entrance door tied shut because it couldn’t be locked, but I suspect that was a bit of an exaggeration—at least I hope so.


Two propellers drove the planes at approximately 207 mph and they could carry around 28 passengers. For me, boarding a DC 3 was always a unique experience. The rear wheel of the plane was small, so the plane rested on the ground at an angle. We would board in the rear of the aircraft and then have to climb “up hill” to our seats.


Like most all airports in South Việt Nam, the Quảng Ngãi airport also served as a South Vietnamese air base, but due to its small size, generally only Huey helicopters landed there for refueling, loading troops, and storing war material. Flights in and out were often cancelled due to bad weather, as there was no working radar at the airport.


Nguyễn Văn Ninh and Doug Beane escorted me on this first trip into the Vietnamese countryside. VNCS had a team of volunteers in Quảng Ngãi, and I was to live with them while I did language study. The team leader was Bob Miller, and he and his wife, a Vietnamese, had a small daughter, Anh Dao. Steward Herman, a volunteer through Lutheran World Relief, was also on the VNCS Quảng Ngãi team. 


The house was down a short and narrow street not too far from the Trà Khúc River, which marked the northern boundary of the town. It was a small two-bedroom French-style house. In the back, a two-story cement structure had been built to house more staff. The ground floor of this extension housed the kitchen, a bunker to be used during attacks, and two bathrooms. The second floor was composed of two bed rooms.


I was given one of these bed rooms, which, though warm during the day when I first entered it, I thought would be comfortable enough. I was proved wrong the first night there. The building was made entirely of cement and had a flat roof. All day the cement absorbed heat from the burning sun, and it released the heat at night, creating a virtual oven. The ceiling fan did nothing but move hot air around. It was the most uncomfortable room I have ever slept in. Everything was hot including the sheets on the bed, the pillow, and the floor.


That first night was a very restless one for me. Not only was the room too hot, but outside there was the unending sound of war. Machine gun fire, RPGs (Rocket Propelled Grenades), and an assortment of other war sounds kept me awake the entire night. As we gathered around the breakfast table the next morning, I asked about the heavy fighting all night. No one else had heard anything. I learned that it was the regular nightly serenade, and I too later became accustomed to it and could sleep more soundly; however, at times it sounded like the fighting was in the street outside our house. The sounds were deafening. In the morning I would look our house over for any bullet holes, but never found any. I suspect the fighting was on the other side of the river and the sound just carried clearly. 


I remember writing home once that I hoped the sounds of war would never become normal to me. I wanted to continue to hear them and the evil they represented. This was a legitimate concern, as illustrated by a group of Americans in Sài Gòn who emerged from a bar late one evening. They heard a distant booming sound that rattled the night air. One of the Americans said, “I hope that’s bombing and not thunder, I don’t have a raincoat.”


I lived for four or five months in that oven called a bedroom. Often at night I would go take a bath and not dry off, hoping the air from the fan would cool me down. This worked for a few minutes, and then I was dry and hot again. There was no respite from the heat.


As soon as Bob and his family moved to a new assignment, I grabbed my things and moved into their room. I didn’t ask anyone's permission. It was so much cooler and I would have fought viciously if they had asked me to move back upstairs.


Language study started almost immediately. Two grade school teachers were recruited to be my language teachers. Neither of them had any experience teaching the Vietnamese language to a foreigner, so it was a struggle for all of us at first. The language book VNCS had given me used a special kind of phonetics that my teachers had never used and struggled to understand, just as I did. Later, we just practiced words and phrases that I could use daily. My language skills developed much more slowly than other volunteers who studied at the formal language school in Sài Gòn, especially in reading and writing.


The two teachers, however, Cương and Ti, quickly became good friends. Often they would arrive at the house for a lesson but tell me they wanted to take me somewhere outside for some special food or to visit an area of interest. These were great experiences for me. At that time there was not much “development” in the area, so village restaurants were generally small bamboo huts with mud floors and thatched roofs. There was often no electricity and it was usually dark inside, but the food was delicious. In the rainy season when the wind was damp and much cooler, these little restaurants were a very cozy place to spend some time. The food, usually soup of some kind, was prepared in the same room as it was served, so the boiling broth filled the space with warmth. For me, this was the perfect introduction to Việt Nam.


One day, Cương and Ti came very early in the morning and said they wanted to take me for a special Vietnamese breakfast. Always up for special food, I got on my Honda motorcycle without hesitation and followed them to the edge of town. We pulled into an open-air pig butcher shop. Pigs were hung by their back legs and then had their throats cut. The blood was collected in bowls. And that was the special breakfast! A big bowl of fresh pig’s blood with some herbs and vegetables mixed in! I ate almost two bowls, not because I enjoyed it, but because I didn’t want my friends to think I couldn’t stomach it—that was my ego taking charge. I luckily never had that breakfast again.


With these friends I got to know much about Quảng Ngãi Province and while many areas of the province were xôi đậu, meaning the control of the area often shifted between the two opposing sides, we traveled through them to many villages, crossed rivers, met peasants, and enjoyed the beauty of the province. This time was a highlight for me.


After three months of language study, I was informed that I was to stay in Quảng Ngãi for the rest of my term. By then I had fallen in love with the province and was happy with the assignment, but it was not always an easy place to live. U.S. policy in Quảng Ngãi was to create numerous free fire zones, so constant bombing raids, destruction of villages, spraying of Agent Orange took place, and people were not always very friendly to foreigners. Children, especially, had developed the harassment of foreigners to a high level of skill. When I walked through a refugee village in the rural areas I was often followed by a group of kids chanting “Ông Mỹ! Ông Mỹ!” meaning “Mr. American!” which was not always a compliment. At times, they would close in, try to pull the hair on my arms, and remark to each other, “Just like a pig!” I learned to laugh with them and try to enjoy their harassment, but there were days I didn’t enjoy it.


There were also incredibly friendly people in Quảng Ngãi who invited us to their homes for meals and weddings and accompanied us on visits around the countryside. I didn’t suspect it at the time, but Quảng Ngãi was to become one of the major influences in my growth as a political, economic and social human being. 


Quảng Ngãi Province was relatively poor economically due to very heavy fighting and also to the fact that much agricultural land was often inundated by sea water during storms. Farmers had erected dikes to keep the salt water out, but U.S. bombing often focused on destroying the dikes in order to deprive the people of food. Many areas had also been heavily sprayed by Agent Orange, and sometimes when we drove in the countryside we would not see any green, only dry brown brush. Everything was dead. In the city, all of the trees started turning brown, and Bob Miller said he suspected it was due to Agent Orange. Later I was to learn just how devastating Agent Orange was to the people of Quảng Ngãi.


The province was also known as a very strong NLF stronghold, so it experienced a lot of heavy fighting, spraying of Agent Orange, and displacement of rural populations. Most every night we would listen to outgoing artillery fire from 105mm and 155mm Howitzers fired randomly into free fire zones. This was called H&I fire or “harassment and interdiction” fire. It was designed to scare both civilians and NLF soldiers from entering free fire zones. The boom from the artillery guns would shake our house, and we would listen for the impact to the north and west of town, near the mountains. 


Other nights we could watch flares fired into the sky on the other side of the river to illuminate the land below in order for pilots to identify if there was any enemy movement below. The flares would rise to a height of about 750 feet, at which time a parachute would open and the chemical creating the extremely bright and hot light would ignite to show the land below. The light would burn for approximately 1 minute as it slowly floated back to earth. The light was so bright it would also throw some light into our small yard. The flares swung back and forth under the parachute causing strange moving shadows on the ground. Sometimes the parachute wouldn’t open and the flare would crash to the earth, landing on a peasant’s hut and incinerating everything and everyone inside.


If enemy movement was detected, helicopter gunships would arrive and begin strafing the area. Tracer bullets would leave long red trails behind in the night sky, giving the pilot an idea if he was on target or not. 


In the evening, I believe around 6pm, the city would be blockaded. On the north side, the bridge spanning the Trà Khúc River near our house would be barricaded and all other roads into the city would be closed. Still, it was not difficult for the NLF to enter the city if they wanted, and I am sure they came most every night. Many people in the city supported them, and NLF fighters could come in for visits or just to see what was going on and to gather information. 


Quảng Ngãi City was quite small, with a population of perhaps 100,000, or even less. It was situated on the flat lowlands between the sea to the east and the Trương Sơn Mountains to the west. It flooded often during the rainy season. Highway #1, which carried traffic from Sài Gòn up to the DMZ (before and after the war the highway went all the way to Hà Nội), passed through the city and was about the only paved street during much of the war. The rest of the streets were dirt, and with a lot of military traffic on them they became thick, sloppy mud in the rainy season. People had to navigate their Honda 50 motorcycles through the mud, and, at the same time, avoid the military jeeps and trucks. It was impossible for us to drive our Honda to the market and then return home without needing a bath. In the dry season it was choking dust that covered everything, including the trees, people, and buildings.


I had a bit of a run-in with an American army jeep that passed me going too fast through a mud hole I was trying to steer through safely. A wall of mud and water, like the closing of the Red Sea, swept over me, almost knocking me down. When the driver saw I was an American, he apologized, but being rather annoyed, I asked him if he was sorry only because I was American and not Vietnamese. He smiled and drove on.


For two years Quảng Ngãi was my home. I grew to love the small town and the surrounding countryside, but I really was not yet aware how radically I was changing. My normal political, economic, and social perspectives were crashing hard against the wall of reality I was experiencing every day. I had to choose whether to ignore that reality and remain in my comfort zone, or if I would take the risk of self-exploration and reflection and allow myself the discomfort and agony of transformation.


After my two years in Quảng Ngãi I was transferred to Sài Gòn. I ended up staying in Việt Nam for five years, even staying on in Sài Gòn when the war ended. I would not be the man I am had I not lived in Quảng Ngãi as I did. Though there were hard times—bedrooms too hot to sleep in and pain shared with Vietnamese friends in impossible situations—engaging in the work of helping people in the midst suffering became my life passion, a passion for peace and healing. 

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