Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Vietnam - Day 14 & the Ride Home

Talk about a short night! Today is Wednesday April 21, 2010 and my morning began at 3:00 am! We spent our short night back in the Royal Kimdo Hotel in downtown Ho Chi Minh City where we were awakened at 3:00 am to prepare for the long flight home. No time for breakfast, just a quick shower, throw a few last things in the bags, and we are boarding our busses at 3:45 am for the early morning drive to Tan Son Naht airport. Our flight is scheduled to leave around 7:00 am, and we needed time to clear Vietnamese security.

The flight back was a reverse of the flight to Vietnam. We flew from Ho Chi Minh City to Hong Kong, then to Chicago, and finally back to Cincinnati. Our plane left around 7:00 am local (Vietnam) time arriving in Cincinnati around 7:00 pm local (Cincinnati) time. Altogether we spent another 30 or so hours either in the air or at airports.

Over the past few months, I have had ample time to reflect on the things I witnessed and the people I met in Vietnam. As I bring this series of blogs to a close, allow me to share some of my thoughts and observations.

First, the land I discovered. Vietnam is a beautiful country, and so diverse! From the rice paddies to the mountains, from the warm inviting beaches of the South China Sea coast to the rivers and canals of the Mekong Delta, from the triple canopy jungles to the banana and rubber tree plantations - such vibrant colors, from the green, lush jungles to the deep blue of the South China Sea. Most of the roads are not the best, but that only means your journey will take a little longer, giving you ample time to take in the sights and enjoy the scenery.

Vietnam is a land of contrasts. Yes, the land is diverse, but so are the people. To me, there was a marked difference between those who lived in the cities and those who dwelled out in the rural areas. Their clothes were different, their food was different, and their friendliness was different. It was very obvious to me that the city dwellers had more money to spend - their clothes were nicer and more modern, and many of them loved to shop. In the mountain villages, many were living on the equivalent of about $2.00 per day. In some areas, coca-cola was cheaper than milk, and mothers would buy coke, water it down, and feed it to their babies.
Vietnam is a country of hard working, industrious people. Most labor is still done by hand - whether working in the rice paddies, fishing for self or for sale, or building a roadway - manual labor was abundant. Everywhere we went, in the heavily occupied cities or the sparsely populated countryside, most work was completed with shovels and wheelbarrows.

Vietnam is a country of young people. Everywhere we went we were surrounded by children and teenagers. Conversely, we saw very few older individuals (by older I mean 50+ years). What this means is that there are very few Vietnamese citizens who are old enough to remember the war - shorter life expectancy and a harsh envirenment have left a relatively young population.

Vietnam is a place of hospitality and friendships. At no time did we as Americans feel threatened or afraid. We felt no hatred nor animosity. Instead, everywhere we went we were welcomed with open arms, smiles, and graciousness. In the small churches we were greeted with bottles of water and fresh bananas. They fed us and they graced us with gifts. Church members would surround us, gives us hugs, shake our hands, and want their pictures taken with us, even though they would never see a copy of the photo. It was almost as if they wanted their picture taken for us - so that we would not forget them. And their number one request?? They asked if we would pray for them.

Finally, Vietnam is a country where the Spirit of God is moving mightily. Just three years ago, there were only about 50 United Methodist churches serving about 1,000 people. Today, the congregations number over 150 and serve over 10,000 individuals. Christians in Vietnam are serious and enthusiastic. Serious in that they are literally willing to risk their property and their lives in a Communist controlled country to spread the Gospel. Enthusiastic in their praise and worship, willing to out-sing and out-praise most congregations I know.

In closing, let me offer these final observations. In my opinion, we (the United Methodist mission team) traveled to Vietnam to accomplish three goals. First, to purchase 18 brand new motorbikes, ride them through the country to make ourselves visible, and then to give those bikes away to Vietnamese United Methodist pastors to use in their churches and in their villages to promote the Gospel. Second, we were to visit the budding United Methodist churches, meet their congregations and their pastors, and offer encouragement and support to their efforts. Finally, we wanted to send a strong, clear message to the Communist officials in Hanoi that the United Methodist Church was in Vietnam to promote the Gospel, help the churches and the pastors, and to work with the Government in bettering the lives of their people. In my humble opinion, I really think we accomplished our mission.

In closing, let take this opportunity to thank God for allowing me to visit this amazing country and its even more amazing people. Let me thank all those individuals who helped make my participation possible, either financially or through their prayers. And finaly, my thanks to the amazing people of Vietnam - for their generosity and their friendship in welcoming me and others into their families. :-)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Vietnam - Day 13

Today is Tuesday April 20, 2010, our 13th and final full day in Vietnam. Our day begins with another great breakfast, this time at the Golf Can Tho Hotel in Can Tho, Vietnam. We are deep in the Mekong Delta, Can Tho being a thriving metropolis of over 2 million, with the mighty Mekong River flowing through the middle of the city. After breakfast we load our luggage onto our busses, but we are note quite ready to leave yet. First, an adventure!
The busy Mekong River flows past our hotel. And so before we leave the delta, we are in for one last sight-seeing tour. We board two floating taxis and head up river, deep into the city. What a view! River traffic is always heavy, and now we are just part of the "water ballet". For almost an hour we travel in our boat, soaking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the river.

Eventually we arrive in an area known as the "floating marketplace". Imagine shopping in the produce section of your favorite grocery store - except that each bin is a boat, and each boat is different. Here we found (by our estimation) close to a thousand boats of all shapes, sizes, and each with different produce.
Boats full of bananas, coconuts, and melons - barges loaded with potatoes, fruits and vegetables. Small, personal boats - large, barge-like boats. Men, women, children on board these watercraft - some with entire families, who make these boats their floating homes.
Hundreds of boats and who knows how many people! All buying, selling, trading, bartering their goods. Some loading, others unloading - all done by physical labor - no machinery here. Melons are man-handled from boat to boat, person to person. Flowers are examined and carefully stowed on decks.
Here in Can Tho, as I imagine is true anywhere in the delta, the river is life. Everything and everybody touches it. In the span of less than a half mile, we see a woman washing her breakfast dishes in the river. A little further on we see a man taking a bath in the river. Farther down is a woman brushing her teeth with river water. A little farther and we see a man and woman fishing in the river. Further yet we spy a man using the river as his bathroom!
Imagine the filthiest, smelliest river you could ever imagine. No, worse than that. Dirtier. Matter of fact, we were advised to not touch the water. Cannot imagine the germs and bacteria floating beside our boat. Mile after mile the scene is the same - boats and people, all using the river for their personal reasons.
We slowly trolled alongside this floating market place for almost two hours. It was over a mile long, and then we floated back through again. We watched as families ate breakfast, hung laundry out on the deck railings, or plied their goods. Many families and lots of small children. One mother in a small boat used her young daughter to sell water and cola to passing tourists, like us. Children were everywhere.

Eventually our tour came to an end. The hour long ride back to the hotel was mostly quiet as we contemplated what we had just witnessed. For us air-conditioned, spoiled American tourists, this was a world we simply could never live in. Still trying to figure out how the people survive here.
It is a quiet group that slowly boards the busses. We begin our final journey, this time traveling north, back to Ho Chi Minh City. Ahhhhh, air-conditioned busses! We cross the mighty Mekong River by ferry boat one last time. We stop for lunch, really enjoying the meal, especially the "sticky rice" or "Dragon's Egg" as it is called here.

Several hours later, we enter the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City. We weave our way through the streets and arrive back at the Roal Kimdo Hotel for our last night. The evening is ours as we venture out onto the streets for the last time. I have my picture taken with a couple shop girls at a small store near our hotel. A liitle last minute shopping and off to bed. We are told that we leave for the airport around 3:30 am! Gonna be a short night!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Vietnam - Day 12

Today is Monday April 19, 2010 and our 12th day in Vietnam has just begun. We are staying at the Golf Can Tho Hotel in the city of Can Tho on the Mekong River. We arrived here in the Mekong Delta late yesterday afternoon, and today we are to spend the day visiting United Methodist churches in and around Can Tho. And so, after breakfast, we spend a few moments watching the river traffic, then we board our busses around 9:00 am to begin our goodwill church tour.

Our first stop is a relatively new church in Can Tho. Several United Methodist churches in southern Ohio helped build this small but growing church. Here we met the pastor and his family along with several members of the congregation. A couple of the pastors in our group took turns baptizing several of the new Vietnamese believers.
Here we participate in a short service, preparing new members for baptism.
Here new members are baptized into the Methodist Church and the family of God.
More new members being baptized by members of our mission group.
Reluctantly, we leave this church and our new friends. Back on board our busses we discuss the excitement and fulfillment of helping and encouraging new Christians. Our bus takes us deeper into the city of 2 million, and eventually we stop at another church. This one is more of a house church - the pastor and his family live downstairs while church is conducted in a room upstairs.
Here we meet the pastor and his family.
Allow me to introduce you to a new friend, Bich Nguyen Thi. Bich is a 22 year-old college student attending university here in Can Tho. She is one of five children, (and the only Christian in her family), she is a long way from home, and she found this small United Methodist church where she discovered new friends and a love she had never known before. She enjoys her church because they love God "enthusiastically"! Although she is attending university, her desire is to become a pastor so she can share the love of Christ with her family and others.

Here members of the Vietnamese congregation exchange gifts with members of their sponsor church from Chilicothe, Ohio.

Here members of the American Mission team are seen leaving the house church. The church is located down this alley, back in behind store-fronts and homes. Note the condition of the alley - this is typical of most alleys, especially in the larger cities.
Our next stop isn't exactly a church, but a small wood-working business owned by one of the Vietnamese pastor's and his wife. This particular business is unique in that the pastor/owner will only hire employees who are handicapped. What you have to understand is that the handicapped of Vietnam have little to no life. They are shunned by society as being non-productive. This particular pastor and his wife will hire ONLY handicapped, and provide them a place to stay if need be. We met many of the employees and listened to their stories, sharing in their joy of being able to find not only employment, but acceptance in this biased society.

Our last visit of the day was to a small, but growing United Methodist church about an hour west and south of Can Tho, deep in the delta region. Here we found another church that is being sponsored by United methodist churches of southern Ohio. Once again, we met the pastor and his family, along with a large portion of his congregation. They greeted us with cold bottles of water and fresh bananas!

As with all the churches we have visited on this trip, what they lack in material and 'stuff' they more than make up in their enthusiasm and sincerity. The music may be simple, but they are "loud and proud" as they worship with their new American friends.

We gather together to have one big group picture taken before we take our leave. Once again, we have found new friends, and despite the language barrier, we have been able to communicate our love and friendship for these brothers and sisters in Christ.

Reluctantly, we board our busses once again and begin our journey back to the hotel. The drive is about an hour, giving us plenty of time to try and absorb what we have witnessed today. Homes turned into churches. Churches built with help from small American congregations located in southern Ohio. Employers who will only hire the "unemployable." Yes, I think we have much to learn from our new friends.

And so, we eventually arrive back at our hotel. Most of us are still in deep contemplation of the things we have experienced today. Some are already looking ahead to tomorrow, our last full day in Vietnam. We arrive back at our hotel, looking for supper. Tonight we are on our own, to find whatever we can in or around the hotel. Believe it or not, the hotel serves hamburgers. We are dubious, but hungry, and so many of us order the familiar sounding meal. When our food comes, it looks like hamburger, yet tastes different. We are half afraid to ask, and so we settle on "similar, yet different". We end our long day with a walk along the river. It is a very pleasant evening (in the mid 80's) and many families are out with their families. We enjoy this quiet time, watching life along the Mekong.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Vietnam - Day 11

Today is Sunday April 18, 2010. Our day begins at the Royal Kimdo Hotel in downtown Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). After breakfast we board the busses and are off to church. It takes about 45 minutes of travel time, up and down back streets and into unfamiliar territory. Eventually, we park our busses on a side street and walk down an alley, behind homes and small businesses until we find this small United Methodist church tucked deep into this residential area.
Once again we are struck by the contrasts we face. From the street-front, the buildings look like many we would see in any large American city; but a short journey down a back alley tells a story of poverty and neglect. Yet here, in the midst of such contrast, we find a small, thriving United Methodist church. It kind of reminds me of the Gospels where Jesus came to serve the poor and downtrodden, the members of society that no one else wanted to associate with.
And so, here we are, worshipping on a Sunday morning in Communist controlled Vietnam. As with all the services we have participated in on this trip, we are surrounded by a very enthusiastic group. What they lack in material things (such as musical instruments) they make up for in volume and excitement! The Vietnamese hymns are familiar and so we sing along in English.
This Sunday morning service is fairly similar to others we have experienced thus far. Lots of hymn singing along with several special numbers by a small choir. No piano in this church, just a small electronic keyboard. But it is enough as the congregation outsings the music! I'm pretty sure these small Vietnamese congregations could put most American congregations to shame with their enthusiasm and excitement!
Another surprise this morning. One of our own, Wade Giffin (a member of the West Ohio Conference staff in Worthington), has been asked to preach for the Sunday morning worship service. He has an interpreter, and so Wade steps up to the podium and preaches. He is all smiles and full of excitement as he delivers his message. We are all very proud and happy for him. In attendance is Wade's son Alex who came on this mission trip to enjoy an amazing adventure with his dad. I for one, am very happy for both of them and this time they are able to share together.

After the service, we wind our way through the alley and back to the busses parked on the street. We board our busses and we are off again. The rest of today is a travel day - we are heading south into the Mekong Delta. And so we wind through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, and eventually find ourselves traveling south into the watery delta region.

We leave the city and the mountains behind. The further south we go, the flatter and wetter it gets. We are surrounded by rice paddies, rivers and canals - less road traffic, but much more boat traffic. The motorbike may be the main means of transportation on dry ground, but here one needs a boat to survive.
Here we see boats of all sizes and shapes, from small personal rowboats, to commercial barges. Even more interesting are the homes along the canals and waterways. The difference bewtween Vietnam and America is that these boats are not pleasure boats - they are necessary for livlihoods. I think this is the first place in Vietnam I have seen where boats outnumber motorbikes! After several hours of driving south, we eventually come to the mighty Mekong River! The Mekong is huge! Much bigger than the Mississippi River, and much busier. The government is in the process of building a huge bridge across the river, but it is not finished yet. And so, we muct cross the river by ferry boat.
There are many large ferry boats criss-crossing the river, and yet there is so much traffic that we must wait in line to cross. The river is so wide we have time to leave our busses and wander around the ferry boat. Here I am crossing on the ferry with our bus drivers, Nat and Bee (rubbing my tummy in happy Buddah fashion!)

Here I am with one of my new friends, Pat Aloisio from Chilicothe, as we cross the Mekong River. Soon we are across the mighty Mekong and driving through the streets of Can Tho. We will be staying in Can Tho for two nights. We finally arrive at the Golf Can Tho Hotel along the river. We check into the hotel around 5:00 pm and prepare for supper. Our meal is at the hotel, and then we are off to explore this river city of over 2 million.
There is a park near the hotel along the river, and this evening the park is full of families and couples, some taking evening boat cruises, but most just relaxing with their families in the cool evening air. And so for a short while, we find ourselves surrounded by couples sitting on benches, by familes watching over small, active children, and street vendors hawking their merchandise - all under the moon and stars along the Mekong River. How peaceful. How relaxing. The foreign music mixes with the sing-song Vietnamese language, and for a short while, we are content. Tomorrow we visit United Methodist churches in and around Can Tho, but tonight, we enjoy the lazy river and the life around it.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Vietnam - Day 10

Today is Saturday April 17, 2010, the tenth day of our Vietnam Mission adventure. We are back in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and our day begins with breakfast at the Royal Kimdo Hotel somewhere in the downtown area. We have finished our motorbike ride (1,600 kilometers, almost 1,000 miles from Hue to Ho Chi Minh City). Today we are to join in the celebration of the dedication of the new United Methodist Center here in Ho Chi Minh City.

We all board our busses for the drive to the new center. The bus ride takes about 45 minutes (Ho Chi Minh City is huge with over 7 1/2 million people). We arrive at the new 5-story building along with many dignitaries. Joining us is a United Methodist group from the states that had been touring Cambodia and Laos. Also joing us was Bishop Bruce Ough and his wife, Char. Bishop Ough will be giving the dedication address. Also in attendance are representatives from several of the local churches.

The service lasts a little over two hours. The time goes quickly as there is much singing and praise. Here a choir of Vietnamese pastors sings a couple songs for us. It is very warm in the un-air conditioned top floor sanctuary. A few fans make for a nice breeze, but the room is very warm.

Here a group of young seminary students in traditional robes sing for us. Part of the new center is a seminary with dormitories for the students. We sing several hymns, both in English and in Vietnamese. The Vietnamese are especially enthusiastic. The songs are loud and the praise is exhuberent.
There are a couple individual songs performed by local church members. This couple sang and played a flute-like instrument. Others sang or shared their personal excitement of having the center available. A couple of the Vietnamese pastors share with the group the story of our motorbike adventure. The bikes are officially turned over to the Methodist Church in Vietnam to distribute to pastors to be used in their home parrishes.

Bishop Bruce Ough of the West Ohio Conference presided over the dedication service. Afterwards, there were many people to acknowledge and gifts to share. Following the service we enjoy lunch served on the first floor of the new center. I am seated at a table with a group of the Vietnamese pastors - I am the only American at the table without an interpreter, yet I think I enjoyed this lunch as much as any I had shared during the entire journey. By way of broken English and hand gestures, we are all soon laughing and having a wonderful time. I cannot begin to tell you how much I will miss these brave, enthusiastic, committed pastors. We are now brothers and sisters, united by a common bond in Christ.

Here I am posing with three female United Methodist pastors. Some women are flocking to the United Methodist Church in Vietnam because it is the only church in Vietnam to allow female pastors. Two of these girls are married to pastors, and all three of these women rode with us some or all the way during our motorbike journey.

The service and the meal were finally over. We took our time saying our goodbye's - to our new Vietnamese pastors and friends, and to the motorbikes that had brought us to this place. With much emotion, we boarded our busses for the trip back to the Royal Kimdo Hotel.

We return to the hotel in the early afternoon. We are told that the rest of the day is ours to do as we please. And so, in groups of 2's and 3's and 4's, we head out to explore and shop in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. Yes, the Methodist's are loose in the city! I join a couple girls from our group, Midge and Pat. Together the three of us spend the rest of the afternoon and evening sight-seeing. Our first stop is a local ice cream parlor just down the street. Yum! Nothing like ice cream in 95 degree city heat!
A couple doors down from our hotel is a four-story indoor shopping mall. The first floor is all jewelry and seems very expensive. The second floor has a drug store and expensive clothing. The third floor contains less expensive clothes along with shoes and fabric. The fourth floor is a giant flea-market. We rocket up to the fourth floor! We spend most of our evening browsing and bartering. What a hoot! Hint for future travelers - never pay the first price quoted. Half the fun of shopping was in the negotiations.

We finally tired of shopping and returned to our hotel. Tomorrow is Sunday - church service in Ho Chi Minh City, then we travel south by bus into the Mekong Delta.