Pilgrimage 2003

by Malcolm Arthur, Jul 10, 2004 | Destinations: Vietnam / Ho Chi Minh City

As the KAL flight rose out of Incheon Airport the standard announcements were given, first in Korean by a strong authoritative female voice with a hint of menace in it, then in English by a strong authoritative masculine voice that made us know that there were dire consequences of failure to go by the rules. Then they were done in Vietnamese and the voice was soft and feminine in that loveliest of languages and I thought I would be delighted to observe the rules for the owner of that voice. As her gentle suggestions came to an end I turned to the Korean businessman across the aisle from me and said, "Hear that? That's why I love these people." He looked puzzled and turned to his seatmate and exchanged a few words. Then he turned back with a great grin and bobbed his head, held up both thumbs, and said, "Yes, yes okay!" I was on my way on the last leg of the flight to Tan Son Nhut Airport in Sai Gon that I had last seen in 1970.

Many Catholics reach a point in their lives when apilgrimage is appropriate. Most Americans go to Guadelupe or the European sites- Rome, Fatima, Lourdes, some to Medjugorge, and, of course, the Holy land. My conversion to Christianity came at the hands of an old Vietnamese priest I met by happenstance in Florida and I became a member of a Vietnamese language parish so when I started to feel the call of pilgrimage, the focus was the site of Asia's Apparition, i.e. La Vang, a place formerly in the forest near what is now the city of Quang Tri up by the old DMZ. La Vang was actually one of three manifestations that happened simultaneously in 1798, the others being at Tra Kieu and Ben Tre which is actually down south.

I discovered this year that I had enough money to buy the airline tickets and to take some cash with me also and my priest was going in August which was great because an unaided foreigner would have difficulty getting to La Vang and I could travel on a "family visit" visa instead of tourist. That would give me much more flexibility since I did not have to report my movements or stay in sanctioned hotels.

I stayed three days in Sai Gon in the apartment of Truong, a nephew of my priest and went sightseeing behind him and his sister on their motorbikes. We went to mass in the church in the Thu Duc section and many people came to the apartment to meet the American.

A prosperous friend of Truong who had a Suzuki automobile drove me to Phan Tiet to catch a bus up to Cam Duc, a highway village in Khanh Hoa where I stayed with the family of another relative of the priest. Cam Duc is a Catholic village that has no hotels and not tourist trade. It is a poor village but full of shops and stores and small businesses. There are two large churches and several smaller ones and masses are said several times daily and 5 times on Sunday to overflowing congregations. The nearby beach is beautiful and butts up against a mountain on the north end. The sand is light brown on the shore but there is a large area behind the beach itself that is full of grreat dunes of white sand like the Gulf Coast at home in Florida.

There are several convents in the area and each has a small school. One caters to autistic and Downsyn kids. The sisters have no training and can only offer love and care which is far better than they might have without the sisters because there are no other facilities to deal with them at all.

As it was getting close to time to go on to I learned that Hoa Yen Parish would rent a bus to take parishioners to La Vang each year when they could afford it. This year there was no trip planned because there was not enough money. . Many wanted to go but it did not seem feasible so I assured them that I would hire the bus and driver to make the trip. I dwas told it would cost around $200US and that was within my small budget, as I had decided to forego the tourist attractions. I was not in the country to go look at waterfalls or great palaces and museums in the first place, but to go to La Vang on the day of the Assumption.

The bus was hired with driver and shotgun and one of the local ladies agreed to act as tour manager to handle all the tolls and gas purchases. I was told to hold on to my money until the trip had started, that no one pays up front. Actually I was never allowed to pay for much of anything. I do not know where the financing came from but that bus and crew were hired and we went.

We set out in the evening as travel at night is easier with fewer motorbikes on the road. On the whole trip as we traveled, the women on the bus were feeding me different kinds of fruits and cooked food partly to see just what the foreigner would eat. I would eat anything they fed me. Normally I am not a dinner oriented person and eat because I am hungry. In Viet Nam I actually took pleasure in eating at all meals and in between. The variety is tremendous compare to American food and there are a dozen different green leafy vegetables that correspond to spinach and all of it is fresh because of a dearth of referigeration.

I quickly became acquainted with most of my 34 fellow pilgrims as everyone was curious about the American and everyone seemed to think the trip only happened because I was there. One of the ladies is Han Ny, a single mother for whatever reason, and her two daughters, Thuy who was 8 and Trang, 12 and a deaf mute. Han Ny asked me many questions and was intent on finding out just what sort of man I am. Eventually she suggested that I should adopt Trang and take her to America. I regretted that I could not help them that way. The laws and my finances make it impossibly difficult, but I could send some money each month after I was back home.

An and Khoa sat behind me and bought more fruit and and different rice preparations every time we stopped and kept handing morsels to me so I bought no food on the trip. Quyen is a little ten yearold elf child that sat with her mother in the seat ahead of me. She told me she wanted me to take her to America. All these children seem to think that America is the Promised Land. Khai was the assistant to the driver. His job seemed to consist of leaning out the door and yelling at the motorbikes. He is also the mechanic who replaced the belts when they came off halfway up Hai Van Pass.

Vinh, 22, was sent along by his father as my watchdog to see that the foreigner would not get into trouble. He had wanted to go to La Vang and was glad I happened along. Phung is an old soldier who fought in the war for 9 years on the other side and converted before he left the army in 76. Actually he was forced out because the army, in those days, had no room for Christians.

Our first stop other than pit stops was at the cathedral in Hue. We stopped there because the driver and Khai needed to sleep before continuing. We pulled into the church grounds an hour before dusk (actually "dusk" is a misnomer, in these lattitudes when the sun goes down the effect is more like the touching of a light switch). The cathedral is surrounded by a large paved and enclosed courtyard. There is a grotto at one end of the grounds and a large travellers' wash area at the other. We mal attended evening mass. A lady who seemed to be someone in authority informed me that I could not stay on the property after dark but must go to a hotel and register my presence with the police (not true because I was not a "tourist". Instead, Vinh and I and some of the teenagers went walking in the city streets for a couple of hours. When we got back the lady was gone. We had until 2 AM to get some sleep and the whole party stretched out on the stone porch of the cathedral to sleep until 0200 hours when the bus driver was ready to go on.

After sunrise we came to Hoi An, a tourist city at the base of Marble Mountain, from whose rock are cut lions and dragons and Buddhist and Christian saints and nudes and copies of the Pieta.

The bus stopped right among the tourist buses and we went to look around. There was an "American" restaurant there where one could actually get fried egg sandwiches and hamburgers. In this cornucopia of palatal delights who on earth could want such fare? A German tour group was crowded into the Restaurant and as we went by a tall blond fellow stepped out in front of me and said in my face, "You are American, n'est ce pas?" I made a long reply in Vietnamese, put my fingertips together and bowed Chinese style and suggested to those with me that we should go find some real food.

Vinh and a couple of the ladies and some of the children and I went into the town and found a small eatery where we got bowls of pho (truly delightful noodle soup). While we were eating with our chopsticks at the little molded plastic tables the German group walked by. One grabbed the elbow of the fellow who had accosted me and pointed at me . The accoster looked hard and said something to his friend in their own language that sounded like it must have meant, "well, you just never know..." and he shrugged his shoulders.

Most of our group eventually found the street that led to Tra Kieu, also a site of the 1798 apparition. It is at the top of a lump that rises steeply out of flat rice land 150 meters or so. There is a stone stairway up the side of the hill that is a real workout and there is a large chapel at the top. I stayed there a while and asked God what I was doing in Viet Nam. I asked to be useful here in some way.

Later in the day we stopped at Phong Nha for some tourist type diversion north of the Ben Hai River. the old DMZ. Phong Nha is a town in a district of dragontooth mountains, not very large, really, but they stick up out of the plain like, well, dragons' teeth.

We parked in the very large parking area along with a half a dozen arriving tourist buses and most of the riders elected to take the tour up the mountain to see the famous waterfalls. All the tourists in the other buses did the same or went down to the river to hire the sampans and barges for cruises. Vinh wanted to stay in the parking area and I stayed also. When there was no one left but the various vendors, I went over and bought a bottle of water from Suong. a middle aged woman selling sweets and sodas and film, and she asked me how it is I knew the language. We talked for a while and a little boy came over to see what we were doing and then an old man. Pretty soon all the vendors were there and several brought over some little plastic tables and chairs and teapots and little burners and Vinh came over. We all sat in the shade and had tea and talked. One old gentleman said that over the years he had had seen many Americans but had never actually talked to one and this one knew the language. They were elated.

I could have taken the tour and seen the fabulous waterfalls and I would have pictures when I got home to remember the place by. But I can buy pictures or look at them on the INET or in National Geographic but one cannot sit around with good people and talk over tea and sweets in any magazine.

We arrived in Quang Tri a little before nightfall and the driver had to stop and ask for directions of local folks. The roads are actually quite well marked in Viet Nam except that there are no signs for La Vang. It is an embarrassment for the government that the place draws many thousands of pilgrims every year in August and a lesser stream all year round. We finally came to the street that ended at the edge of the grounds and parked the bus in a farmer's yard. It was Wednesday evening and the vigil mass was Thursday evening with the main celebration Friday morning. Vinh suggested I immediately go to the nearest farmhouse and rent sleeping spots before the next hundred thousand people arrived and took all the available space. I talked to the farmer's wife and she asked for 20,000d per person for the two nights.The house had a large concrete porch and a sizeable paved area that would, in America, be a carport, but here was a threshing and drying floor. The well and wash area was behind the house and there were actual privies on the other side. I bought space for Vinh and myself on the porch. We could have slept in the house on the floor but I preferred to be outside. I did not have any note smaller than 100,000d and the lady professed to have no change so I gave her the 100,000d. As a result Vinh and I were asked to share meals and SaiGon beer with the family. It was a very well spent $7.

After our lodging was seen to I went on to evening mass on the grounds. The forecourt appears to be a quarter of a mile long and maybe a hundred yards wide. At the other end is a raised dais covered by very large parasols where the mass is said. Surrounding are many more acres of campground and vendors' stalls and the monastery. Much of the camping area is covered by temporary or permanent tin roofing and tarps and it is well appointed as things go in this part of the world. There are no facilities for bathing and no privies. People just make use of the woods that border the grounds. There is plenty of water as the area has several springs that arose in 1798 in conjunction with the apparitions and it is quite safe to drink. There were several thousand people at the mass and afterward I went among the shops and stalls and bought a beautiful rosary and a statue of Our lady of La Vang.

There were beggars about, not in overwhelming numbers but a definite presence, some healthy looking children holding up cans and some amputees. The amputees are a problem in the country because there are no facilities to take care of them and they cannot work and can only beg. I resolved to leave money with them before I left.

All night and through the next day people were streaming in, on buses, on motorbikes, a few cars, or just walking, many thousands of them. Our group prayed together for much of the day until time for the Vigil mass. The forecourt was crowded. I don't know how many people were there but probably not the million plus that attended in 2000 and for the 1998 bientennial celebrations. This is not a special year. Mass was just the vigil mass of the assumption with no elaboration but there were many priests concelebrating and more nuns on the side of the dais or among the congregation than I would have suspected there were in the whole country. Mass was announced by the sounding of a huge drum in an accelerating rythm until the opening hymn.

After mass I went back to the farmhouse for dinner and more prayer. The crowd started to thin as people streamed out. For many the vigil mass was sufficient and it does fulfill the obligation and they left. At the same time many more were arriving for the regular mass in the morning. The two way traffic in the narrow lane looked as if it must get locked up in immoveabiity but everything just kept flowing without any problems.

As it got more and more crowded and some less respectable people began to drift in, the women in the group rearranged the sleeping plan. Khai and the driver and I were moved to the edges of the porch to act as a sort of barrier for the children and old folks who were assigned to the middle of the porch. The young men were to sleep on the threshing pad. I asked Phuong, our "manager" why I was deemed more efficacious as protection for the children than the younger more muscular fellows. She said that the sort of people who might be a threat to the children tended to believe that all American men carried guns. Score one for the 2nd Amendment.

At mass in the morning the forecourt was packed and there were thousands more outside the low wall. There were more than a hundred priests. I did not know it then but my own priest from back home was up there, also. I knew he would be in attendance but I thought he was somewhere in the crowd like me.

After mass there was a procession that moved the length of the forecourt then doubled back on the outside to proceed around the back by the bombed out 1923 church and ended at the grotto. The procession was as long as the route traversed with many groups represented. Some groups of women wore ao dai and baseball caps. A totally unexpected group of Moi (mountain people) walked in the procession and many thousands of others. It ended with a blessing and immediately the crowd began to disperse.

I went looking for the amputees and gave each 100,000d, about $6.30. It was enough to feed one for a several of weeks and more would have invited robbery of the recipient. I came upon one beggar who was not an amputee but who was obviously crippled. His hair was in patches on his head and was brown. His face was western in shape and only his eyes had the Asian look and they were light colored. I was stopped by the sight and choked up. Here was one of our own children of the war. The French, at least, took their children out with them when they decamped. They gathered up the half caste orphans and urchins and their mothers and took them to France where they had a future. We left our children to beg in the villages and be shunned by the populace. I gave more him money than I had intended and it did not make me feel any better at all.

On the trip home to Khanh Hoa we stopped only once, at the market in Hue so that the women could buy from the more varied and cheaper produce available there. The luggage compartment under the bus was filled with greens and fruit.

Back in Khanh Hoa the bus emptied and the pilgrims dispersed. The 5 days of the journey had seemed to me more like a month. At my age time zips by and weeks are gone in a flash and I felt as if God had given me back some time and I gave thanks for that. After having been to La Vang I did not need anything more. It was two more weeks before my flight home and I settled down to reflect in the village and to walk and to talk.

In my remaining time my new friends made sure I saw everything there was to see in Khanh Hoa, a Bhuddist wedding and a Catholic one, a Bhuddist temple where I met a monk who had been a Catholic in his youth. When I told him about my own youthful immersion in Bhuddism and subsequent conversion to Catholicism he said that it was appropriate for us to meet. He oversees the education of 30 orphans for whom the temple is home and family. Those children, all age 5-9, are the best behaved and most studious children I have ever seen.

Co Trinh and her brother Phung took me to Nha Trang to see the Po Nagar temples. A teenage cousin who had never been outside of the village went with us. At the temple Loan borrowed my camera to take pictures in the cavelike sanctuaries of the 1000 year old structures. Then she told me to come with her because she was afraid of going into the dark rooms. I waited for her outside of one of them and a young man standing nearby spoke to his companion- he said, "Look at the old foreigner with his gai yeu! -that is a stronger term than the English equivalent "girlfriend." Without thinking I grabbed his arm and pressed my fingertips into his wrist and said in Vietnamese, "Don't talk ugly about my daughter. Her mother is nearby and will hear." He looked surprised, folded his arms and bowed (did chao), apologized, and the two fellows left as Loan came out of the temple chamber. When we rejoind the others Loan told them that her father had chastized some men who were talking ugly. I had not thought she could have heard it.

Finally my time was up and I took the bus to Sai Gon. At the airport the customs officer noted that I had overstayed my visa and said I would have to speak to a higher authority. I said in Vietnamese that I would have stayed longer but my money was gone and I had to be on the 0100 flight. He turned to another agent who was leaning on the outside of the kiosk and who seemed to be his supevisor and said that the American talked well and seemed to be a friend. The other officer just nodded. My agent turned back and handed me back my passport, smiled and said "het roi!"( all done) and said in English Please return another time. I will go back again. Perhaps I will retire to a village in Khanh Hoa.

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