Vietnam: The Contrasts

by Morris Ruddick on May 20, 2012


© Morris Ruddick


A recent photo seems to tell it all. It shows an aging North Vietnamese General wearing his old uniform, with a look of deep joy on his face, as he lovingly gazes into the face of his newly born granddaughter. That photo captures the most pronounced impression I’ve had during my recent return to Vietnam: the contrasts.

This image is made even more dramatic by the fact that just a handful of years ago this communist war hero was dramatically healed by God of a terminal illness. The result has transformed him into a committed Christian.

The contrasts and disparities in this nation shout the reality of what these special people have been through and the potential for what lies ahead. From my time living among them forty years ago and the subtleties and contradictions that now prevail, the contrasts mark them as a nation and people coming to terms with their true identity. The contrasts also unveil the reality of God, Who so often manifests Himself in the most desperate and unlikely of situations.

The most obvious contrasts are the ones between the showcase cities and the communities just outside their boundaries. A narrowing contrast is present between those who were alive as ordinary citizens before 1975 when the North came into power; and the generation born after 1975.

Then there is the contrast marked by the hope and purpose evident among believers. It points to the deep, but subtle clash that exists between the forces of Good and evil; a contrast that demonstrates the realities having been and currently being faced by the Vietnamese people. It reveals how faith in God employs simplicity to confound the wise, as the Lord has demonstrated throughout history in shining the light of His truth in darkness, with the result bringing hope and change where hope has been lost.

The stories of individuals and families from the South who were alive before 1975 are grueling and too often tragic. Homes and businesses were confiscated. Those who had anything to do with the government of the South or the US, who hadn’t fled, served extended times in re-education camps where some didn’t survive and others lost their minds. Those born after 1975 were subjected to a portrayal of history that is now being challenged, as these people emerge from the turmoil, seeking reality and truth as they enter the future.

Far too many who had no hope committed suicide as they faced the abrupt changes that came with 1975. One Christian leader, who lost most of his family in their quest for freedom, tells how he and his father were both considering ending their lives when they heard a Christian message from a FEBC radio broadcast that resulted in them, against all odds, trusting the Lord for their future. Despite this man going on to be imprisoned several years at hard labor for his faith, both his joy and the fruit of his faith bespeak the reality of the decision he made years ago.

The Subtleties
Since the time I was in Vietnam in the late sixties, Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City has seen the influx of five star hotels, high-end department stores and shopping malls brought in by Japanese and Singaporean multinationals and investors. Hanoi is becoming a viable industrial city, with huge Canon, Panasonic and other multinational factories. Yet, within a short drive of each of these locations are communities that, except for the tangle of electric wires and street lights, the herd of Honda scooters and the cell phones, bear little change from forty years ago.

The most significant subtleties are revealed by the interactions behind closed doors in high places. The man who served as Prime Minister for Vietnam during the nineties significantly closed the gap in the breach with the US. A Wall Street Journal article following his death tells the story of his first wife and child dying as a result of American bombs. Yet in his role as Prime Minister, he publicly told the Vietnamese people that it was time for Vietnam to put these things behind them. What is not widely publicized is that this man’s second wife was a believer, with many concluding that his policies demonstrated his own personal spiritual shift.

The current Prime Minister was this man’s choice as successor. He too has been continuing to close the gap in relations with the US. However, the rampant inflation over recent months has given the hard-liners in the wings a toe-hold in their quest to undermine his control and programs. Indeed there continues to be a serious, behind-the-scenes struggle for this nation.

The Issues
While those of Communist leanings in the fifties and early sixties held a view that the first step in Communist domination was Russia, the second China, with the third expected to be Vietnam; there currently is a saying among the Vietnamese who have lived under its realities. That saying is: “throw it all in with China and lose the country; throw it all in with the Americans and lose the Party.”

Many within Vietnam feel tourism is the answer. Others point to international trade. Resort areas have transformed impoverished towns into thriving economic oases. Restoring relations with the US is nothing short of a broad position held strongly among everyday people.

Yet, despite the significance ascribed to each of these factors, the real hope for the future is more obscure. It is an identity issue defining who the Vietnamese really are as a people. It bears on the Vietnamese emerging as the people God uniquely created them to be. This subtle process is most strongly manifesting itself through believers. It is a grass roots movement, a simple response to the basics of their cultural, God-given identity that incorporates the love these people hold for their nation. It is through this movement that the restoration and purpose they all seek will come.

The Groundswell
The dynamics behind this groundswell must begin with a snapshot of the history of the church during this era. Despite the years of Catholic influence brought by the French and the efforts of the missionaries from the early twentieth century, the church in 1975 was at best, a feeble one. Between 1975 and 1980, what had existed as the church, all but died. Then in the early eighties, during some of Vietnam’s darkest hours, unusual things began to happen.

Across the land, including the north, people began fleeing the country in mass. Many, far too many died in their attempts. The jails could not hold the numbers caught in their attempts to escape. Those who were successful in getting to Hong Kong found another hurdle. The requirements for political asylum took more than they could justify in their pursuit of freedom. They wound up in refugee camps, where 70 percent were reported to have come from northern Vietnamese provinces. Many spent five, six and seven years in miserable conditions in these camps. Yet, within those untenable conditions were the glimmers of hope and a future.

Christian emissaries extended themselves to help the refugees confined in these camps. In the process, many came to faith.

Simultaneously, during these bleak years, broadcasts with messages of hope were regularly beamed to those who remained in Vietnam. These sparks of hope gave birth to a simple, unstoppable move of faith. This movement resulted in pockets of light that flickered into flames as believers met secretly in homes to encourage one another in this reality of the Spirit of God operating in their midst. Despite its non-political simplicity, the momentum of those coming to faith was at odds with those who sought to deify the system. The persecution that followed was brutal, yet that only gave fuel to its spread.

Then in 1996, in Hong Kong, a significant happening began unfolding. As the time of the return of Hong Kong to China neared, China decided the refugees had to be returned to Vietnam.

The boldness of the believing returnees, combined with the tenacity at the core of the underground, persecuted Christians released a movement that spread like wildfire and began penetrating the nation. A turning had begun, that couldn’t be stopped by the former threats, beatings and incarcerations. Those who professed faith met together to pray and help one another. A groundswell of gatherings was underway that was uniquely Vietnamese; and at the same time, timely for the course underway in their nation.

The Soul of a People
The Vietnamese as a people reflect the strengths of patience, passion, innovation and industriousness. As a people they are extremely entrepreneurial. Like the Jewish people, they excel in community and embrace community responsibility. Yet, their zeal and unique cultural gifts have been accompanied by a trust susceptible to deception. In spite of that, overriding their weaknesses is a kindness and openness. The way this has all melded together has been in their response to the fires of adversity, as they have been forged into a force for good to be reckoned with among the nations.

Some have estimated that almost 2 million Vietnamese died in the combination of the post-1975 purges, suicides and attempts to escape by boat. Yet, what is emerging challenges the highest standards held by the West. Embracing a “purpose-driven” life is a pursuit found in discussion and study groups throughout the West. Vietnam, in facing their realities with an astute spiritual intuitiveness, has simply embraced it.

The church in China has also gone through a fire that continues to this day. With its middle class eradicated by the Cultural Revolution, the foundations in their incredible growth of believers gained its momentum at a very basic grass roots level. What distinguishes the Vietnamese phenomenon has been the lack of social boundaries at the core of its faith movement. While both have reflected a simple response of prayer and faith to the hurdles of suffering; for Vietnam it has extended from everyday people to the highest levels in the nation’s infrastructure. That simple faith has been the catalyst to the barely noticeable turning underway, providing a hope for the future for all Vietnamese.

With a simplicity that confounds the wise, Vietnam in overcoming the hardships is revealing an identity that culturally is distinctively Vietnamese, yet spiritually conforms to an eternal standard of those historic figures the Bible labels as heroes of faith. These are the ones who have, against all odds, reset the default button by serving as community builders and those changing the course of nations with God at the center.

Post-1975 Vietnam, the soul of its people, is a story worthy of telling. It is a story of courage, of unity and a people who love their nation; yet who give first honor to the God who created the nations. It is a demonstration of how, against the odds of adversity, the biblical precepts of community, entrepreneurship and the spiritual operate together. It is a story that extends from rice paddy laborers to small business owners to commanders of armies to members of the politburo. It stretches from the southern most city of Ca Mau to the northern most tip at Mong Cai. Each story is unique; yet significant in the mosaic comprising the spirit of this most remarkable people.

The response of those outside this cauldron of contrasts is to follow their example: to pray. As with the Macedonian vision, there is a cry for a helping hand. Yet, the tipping point to the balance will come through prayer; as these people emerge into their destiny with the purity of refined gold.

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