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Nun Returns to Vietnam

Photos courtesy of Sister Gioan Linh Nguyen Sister Gioan Linh Nguyen with two women of the Red Dzao minority group in their town of Sa Pa in northern Vietnam Sister Gioan Linh Nguyen with two women of the Red Dzao minority group in their town of Sa Pa in northern Vietnam

By Anna Weaver | Hawaii Catholic Herald

Thirty years after she fled communist Vietnam with her family, Daughter of St. Paul Sister Gioan Linh Nguyen last month fulfilled her long-held desire to return “home.”

“For me, it was a graceful moment, just a blessing to go back,” said Sister Linh as she is known here of her 16-day trip spent touring the country where she was born, and visiting family and members of her religious community.

She was only nine when her family left the war-torn country on a boat in 1977 in search of freedom fearing persecution because her father had been in the South Vietnamese military. The Nguyens became refugees in Japan before being sponsored by family members in the United States and moving to New Orleans.

Sister Linh, 39, has been in Hawaii working at Pauline Books and Media in Honolulu for three years and has often thought about going back to Vietnam where, in recent years, the communist government has become more friendly to religion.

Six million Catholics

According to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook, approximately 6.7 percent or about 6 million of Vietnam’s 85 million people are Catholic.

A Catholic church in Vietnam has been closed for worship for 60 years.  Permission was recently received to renovate and reopen it.

When the communists took over the entire country in 1975, they seized church property, closed Catholic-run seminaries, hospitals, and schools and placed restrictions on priests and religious.

Seminaries in Ho Chi Minh City reopened in 1987 followed by others, but restrictions were placed on the number of seminarians and the selection of bishops.  Since then the government has gradually lifted restrictions on Catholics.  Seminaries are now allowed to enroll new candidates more frequently.

Since 1990 the Vatican has sent a delegation to Vietnam each year; and in January 2007, the Vietnamese prime minister traveled to the Vatican for the first time to meet with Pope Benedict XVI.

A 2004 law on religious practice and organizations also allowed religious groups to operate education and heath care charities.  Catholic schools, however, are still banned.

Sister Linh says that the government does not permit the wearing of religious habits in public (She wore plain clothes on her trip.) and does not encourage new religious orders to come to Vietnam.  When the Daughters of St. Paul opened a convent outside of Ho Chi Minh City in October 2004, it had to be referred to as a "house." 

Path to her past

Sister Gioan Linh Nguyen and Family

Sister Gioan Linh Nguyen fled Vietnam on a boat with her parents and three siblings in 1977. This picture was taken after they were picked up by a Japanese ship and living for seven months in Japan before coming to America. From left, Sister Linh’s mother Nha Thi, Gioan Linh (in red sweater), younger sister Trang Thi Thuy, older brother Nhan The, and father Tinh The, holding youngest sister Chau Thi Hai.

Last fall, Sister Linh wrote to her superior general in Rome expressing a desire to visit Vietnam. She received an encouraging response. She eventually was connected with a group of mostly Hawaii residents planning a trip and was able to pay for it, she said, through the generosity of “all the people that I’d known throughout the years around the country.”

However, Sister Linh didn’t get final approval from the Daughters of St. Paul’s motherhouse in Boston until April, only three days before the sponsoring travel agency’s registration deadline.  Sister Linh said “it was providence” that she snagged the last seat on the group’s China Airlines flight. 

Sister Linh’s trip back to Vietnam ended up retracing milestones in her past.  On April 30, which also happened to be the 32nd anniversary of the fall of Saigon, the group of 13 travelers (four more later joined the group) flew to Taiwan. They hopped over to Japan where Sister Linh lived for seven months before coming to America. 

The group arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capitol in the northern part of the country, a region she only knew from her father’s stories because of its isolation from the then-democratic South Vietnam where Sister Linh grew up. “It’s kind of new to me to see the country as a whole,” she said. 

The travel group spent time in Hanoi, touring by boat the picturesque islands in Ha Long Bay which Sister Linh said was “one of the best places in the world.”

Sister Linh said the highlight of her time in the north was visiting Sa Pa, a village where the Red Dzao and Black H’mong minorities live. There she learned that a Catholic church closed by the communists 60 years ago might soon be repaired and reopened.

On May 8, the tour group flew to central Vietnam, an area rich in history, particularly from the Nguyen Dynasty, which ruled from 1802-1945. Traveling to the south on May 11, Sister Linh visited her hometown of Nha Trang and met family members still living there.

She saw the church where she was baptized and where her grandparents’ and infant brother’s ashes now rest. She also saw what was left of Cam Ranh Bay where her father, Tinh The Nguyen, was stationed in the military. “Basically I recognized the mountains and the sand,” Sister Linh said. “That’s the same. There’s really nothing there because it was a base.”

She said the south has developed a lot since she was last there, with more highways, roads, hotels and buildings.  But she was happy to see that modernization had not eliminated cultural arts. “From the north to the south my impression is that the handicrafts, the manual laborers, are still artsy,” she said, “not dependent on machines.”

Mission for her mother

Father Bang, who was the godfather of Sister Linh’s mother, Nha Thi

Father Bang, who was the godfather of Sister Linh’s mother, Nha Thi.

Sister Linh spent May 15-17 in and around Ho Chi Minh City where she went on “a mission” for her mother, Nha Thi Nguyen, who grew up in an orphanage in then-Saigon.  Here I was on a motorbike trying to find my way around,” she said laughing, with many of the streets having changed. She eventually tracked down the nun who took care of Nha Thi at the orphanage and the priest who was Nha Thi’s godfather.

Sister Linh also spent time visiting with the two Daughters of St. Paul who live and work near Ho Chi Minh City before the tour group left the country on May 17. Two young Vietnamese postulants live with them and go to college.  Another seven young women live in another house while they go to school.  And the Daughters of St. Paul recently translated its prayer book into Vietnamese to help communicate the Catholic faith.  All that Sister Linh saw as “a hopeful presence.” 

Sister Linh’s brother, Nhan The Nguyen, is planning to become a Trappist monk but will also travel to Vietnam in November before he enters the contemplative order in California.

She herself hopes to one day go back and serve in Vietnam, encouraging young women to enter the religious life as she did and spread the Catholic faith.

Reprinted with permission from

 Hawaii Catholic Herald

 

 

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