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.