Vietnam: 25 years later

I will never forget that moment for as long as I live. It was the culmination of many emotions that had flooded my heart during that eventful week—the most difficult week of my life. At that particular moment 180 Vietnamese, along with one lone American missionary, dashed toward a sleek C-141 aircraft, used by the U.S. Air Force to haul cargo from the United States to various military airports in Asia. Only this time the precious cargo was Vietnamese people—infants, boys and girls, moms and dads, aunts and uncles, and grandparents. They all rushed from buses that had brought them to this location at Tan Son Nhut Airport.

Who were these people? Why were they leaving Vietnam? Where were they going? What about those who were left behind? What would become of them?

These were the thoughts that raced through my mind as we lifted off from the runway. We had to ascend in a tight circle to avoid being hit by rockets and mortars from the invading forces. Once we reached a safe altitude, the pilot turned the plane in an easterly direction. After midnight we would land at Anderson Air Base, in Guam, a flight of nearly eight hours.

I looked around me at the large group of Vietnamese on the plane. I was one of a few fortunate people to have a seat in the aircraft. It was not a commercial aircraft, but one designed for military purposes. There were no seat belts for the vast majority, and many were seated on the floor of the aircraft.

Although I recognized a few people, most were total strangers or brief acquaintances. Some whistled and cheered. Some were stoic and expressionless. Others sobbed or cried openly. For some, the decision to leave had been made for them within the past few hours. They were among the fortunate to get their names on a manifest, a requirement for everyone who was boarding a flight. Others had anticipated it for days. Many had had no opportunity to say good-bye to relatives and loved ones. Others had walked away from their jobs when they found a way to the airport. Some were too young to know what was going on. But most recognized that they were leaving their homeland, the land of their birth—probably never to return.

With me in the aircraft were some of the leaders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Vietnam—the mission president, Pastor Le Cong Giao; members of the Saigon Adventist Hospital administrative staff; leaders of the church’s educational work in the capital; and publishing house and other employees. Why were they leaving? Did they not have a responsibility to stay behind even though it was obvious that it was only a matter of hours before the North Vietnamese would capture Saigon and the entire country would fall under their control? Why was it necessary for them to leave at this time? What would happen to the work of the church and the institutions left behind? These were some of the issues and questions we had to wrestle with and agonize over during the few days that had led up to the event of Friday afternoon, April 25, 1975. These questions will never be resolved until we get to the New Earth.

Thousands of members and many pastors and teachers and other employees remained behind in Vietnam. They had to pick up the responsibilities of leadership and carry on the work of the Seventh-day Adventist Church to the best of their ability. Some lost their lives. Some were forced into re-education camps. They could not move or travel from one area to another without permission. Most of the churches were shut down, and all the schools were closed. Most of the decisions that affected people’s daily lives were made for them by higher authorities. Life was extremely difficult for many of years. Only in the past few years has there been an easing of the restrictions governing the work of the Adventist Church and agencies such as the Adventist Development and Relief Agency International (ADRA).

In retrospect, there are two parallel stories to tell about the past 25 years: One deals with what happened to the Vietnamese who left in April 1975; the other covers the work of the Adventist Church in Vietnam and the activities of the only legal organization that the Vietnamese government recognizes—ADRA.

The church in Vietnam

My wife, Patricia, and I along with Pastor Le Cong Giao and a few other friends were recently in Saigon for the 25th anniversary celebration of the reunification of Vietnam. The heart of Ho Chi Minh City was packed. Big celebrations were underway. Signs advertising this event were on every corner and on most of the buildings. It was a festive occasion, somewhat like a New Year’s celebration.

As we looked out from our hotel balcony to the street below to one of the major intersections of Ho Chi Minh City, I was impressed with the fact that many who were there celebrating the event had not even been born at the time of the fall of Saigon and the reunification of Vietnam. Little did they realize what their country had experienced over the past 25 to 50 years—the bloodshed, the maiming, and the killing of millions, many of them innocent civilians. The war took its toll on the Seventh-day Adventist Church along with other religious communities. This was evident throughout the country—especially for me.

During the last few years, I had returned several times to Vietnam, not only to Ho Chi Minh City in the South but also to Hanoi and other northern cities. I had had the privilege of meeting with some of the highest officials, from the foreign minister and other foreign ministry personnel to the heads of other key ministries and entities—particularly health-care institutions.

My first visit to Hanoi took place 12 years after the fall of Saigon. I found government leaders eager to rebuild the country’s infrastructure and to provide assistance to people, cities, and communities. I also heard them state on several occasions that religious freedom was a constitutional guarantee. But I discovered that what was guaranteed under the constitution and what was reality were two different things. Adventist leaders do not have the freedom to travel around the country on church business as they would like. Evangelism is extremely difficult.

However, witnessing is being done, lives are being changed, growth is taking place, baptisms have occurred, the church is growing—but not as rapidly as in many other parts of the world.

A new and young group of Adventist leaders is emerging. Some are fortunate enough to study abroad with funding that has been made available from other sources, since the Adventist Church in Vietnam has very limited resources. Whether and when the church will be able to re-establish schools remains in question. We don’t know when our publishing house will be back in operation. The publications our members use today are either brought in from the outside or are produced by individuals within the country using whatever technology is available.

The Adventist World Radio station in Guam beams Vietnamese broadcasts into the country. The broadcasts and the Bible correspondence courses have reawakened an interest in spiritual matters for thousands of Vietnamese who are eagerly searching for a better way, a surer hope, and a brighter future.

ADRA continues to expand its services throughout the country. Several projects are making a positive impact upon the local communities. Major health initiatives are a very high priority for the work of ADRA and similar agencies. A number of small hospitals have been built throughout the country. The communities that benefit from the services provided by these facilities have a very high regard for ADRA. Medical personnel in major health-care institutions are being trained by experts from other countries under the sponsorship of ADRA. Micro-enterprises are another activity promoted by ADRA, helping people to develop skills so that they may become successful in operating little business enterprises and provide economic welfare for their families.

Disaster assistance also has been much appreciated by the government, for the country does get hit with torrential rains and typhoons almost every year. Three of the highest ranking officials in the Vietnamese government recently visited ADRA’s world headquarters to discuss future expansion of development and relief activities in their country. Funding for these initiatives will come from diverse donors. ADRA Australia has played a major role along with private donations from the U.S. and other nations.

The Vietnamese in the U.S.

Now, to the Vietnamese evacuees who came to the United States, particularly the Seventh-day Adventists evacuees. In addition to more than 410 who left Vietnam during that last week of April 1975, thousands more have arrived over the years. Some crossed the borders into other neighboring countries. Tens of thousands of people of all ages endeavored to leave Vietnam by boat—the so-called “boat people.” Thousands of them lost their lives in tropical storms or at the hands of pirates. However, many were eventually able to make their way to the U.S. and other countries. The local Vietnamese community led many of them to the small Adventist Vietnamese congregations scattered in the Western and Southeastern regions of the United States. As these congregations ministered to them, many realized that the love, care, and support they were receiving from their fellow countrymen was prompted by the love that came from a higher power. They too chose to unite with God’s people.

A number of those who left Vietnam in April 1975 on the Air Force plane were not members of our church, but worked in our Saigon Adventist hospital. Many have joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Some were well-trained physicians and other health-care professionals. Their talents have been well used in their adoptive country, and their children have gone on to become successful professionals such as physicians, educators, researchers, and computer experts.

The work of Adventists among the Vietnamese in the United States has flourished. There are now 12 fully organized congregations; eight of them possess their own facilities, which were built with their own sacrificial efforts and resources. They are faithful in supporting the work of the church, generous with their gifts, and zealous to share their faith with others. While the membership growth in Vietnam has been difficult and slow, the growth in this country as the result of the evacuation that took place 25 years ago has been phenomenal. We praise God for the commitment and dedication of the Vietnamese leaders in this country.

On September 2, 2000, I had the privilege of leading out in the dedication of a new Vietnamese church facility located in Orlando, Florida. This was a thrilling experience, one in which we reminded ourselves that we are all pilgrims, strangers in a foreign land. Although we work, study, and live in this country, it is not our permanent home. We are only transients. Heaven and heaven alone is the home to which we all really look forward.

Ralph S. Watts is the director of Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) and the author of Saigon, the Final Days. His address: 12501 Old Columbia Pike; Silver Spring, Maryland 20904; U.S.A. Readers interested in the work of ADRA may contact its international offices at: 12501 Old Columbia Pike; Silver Spring, Maryland 20904; U.S.A. E-mail: 74617.2161@compuserve.com or www.adra.org or fax: 301 680-6750.