Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Vietnam 2016 - Day 6
Monday April 4 dawns bright and warm. We are up early and wolf down our breakfast. Today, our 6th day in country, we are back on our motorbikes by 7:30 am and scheduled to ride north into the mountains. We ride out of Dien Bien Phu following our guides and steadfast friends, the Vietnamese pastors. Our destination today is the very mountainous region better known as the Tonkinese Alps.

We head out of town riding mostly north along the main highway. We follow our Vietnamese guides for about an hour along this fairly decent highway until we suddenly turn off the main road and begin an ascent up the side of a mountain on a not-so-decent road. For the next couple hours we ride mostly up! We are in a very mountainous region with very narrow, dusty roads that are crumbly in some places, and always with some motorbike traffic or water buffalo obstacles.

After a couple hours of mountain hugging roads, we enter and stop in a small village, once again to make introductions at a regional police station. There we met the chief of police for this district, and we exchange gifts and pleasantries. Once again we happen to notice that they already have our names in front of them. After the speeches are made and gifts are exchanged, we take some time to shake hands and meet some of the local government staff. When we leave the police station, one of the local officials hops on our mini bus to ride with us for a while.

We ride out of this small town and continue down the mountain jungle road. A few kilometers down the highway, we turn off the main road to follow a dirt lane back deeper into the jungle. We follow this dirt lane (no way you could call it a road) as it winds deeper into the jungle. We follow a river for perhaps 7-10 kilometers (very hard to judge distances when your riding a dirt trail in a jungle).

Eventually we leave the dirt trail and ride down along the river and into a fair sized Hmong mountain village. We are told that we are the first Westerners to ever visit this particular village. The building are mostly crude wooden shacks with dirt floors and no running water. Yet here amongst the village houses we find a small United Methodist church. As before, we find ourselves surrounded by these extremely friendly and generous people. Greetings are exchanged, songs are sung, and we spend considerable time in prayer with the villagers.

*Side note: as I reported at the beginning of this blog, I had not been feeling well, and had not been eating because of kidney stones, although I didn't know what was ailing me until later. Here in this remote village, with temps in the high 90's, high humidity and no air moving down in this jungle valley, I pass out from the heat and dehydration. I was quite humiliated when they picked me up off the dirt floor. The Vietnamese pastors refuse to let me ride up and out of the village, so they put me on the back of a bike and I ride out as a passenger. From that point on, they refuse to let me ride on my own, and instead I will ride in the mini bus the rest of that day. And what a ride that was! I have come to the conclusion that our Vietnamese bus driver learned to drive by playing the video game "Grand Theft Auto"! All I can say is, "Wow! What a ride!!"

We finally (and safely!) arrive at our next destination, the town of Lai Chau around 7:00 pm that evening. We are exhausted, but exhilarated! What a day and how blessed each of us feel to have been able to see and experience some of God's Children in such a remote location. As before, we were surprised and humbled by the exuberance of these humble people. Their singing was loud and boisterous... their praise was joyful and exciting. Their worship was sincere and meaningful. As pastors and ministers of the Gospel, we couldn't help but admire their enthusiasm and join in with them. Once again, these American preachers got preached, and experienced God's blessings in a way that both humbled and excited us. What a joy to be able to experience God in such a new and unique way.

Tomorrow we continue north toward the Chinese border, but for us weary pastors, it's time for supper and bed. Good night from the Tonkinese Alps of northern Vietnam.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Vietnam 2016 - Day 5

It is Sunday April 3 and the mission group is in the northwestern city of Dien Bien Phu, located on the Laotian border.  It is an off-day, a day of sight-seeing and relaxing after several days of riding our motorbikes up into the mountains of northern Vietnam. We enjoy a relaxing breakfast, then around 9:00 am the manager of our hotel volunteers to guide us in and around historic Dien Bien Phu.

*A little background... Dien Bien Phu was the sight of the regional headquarters of the French Army in Vietnam. The French had been in control of Vietnam for over 100 years, and had built up a very large military base in and around the Dien Bien Phu valley that included an airbase and several French garrisons. In late 1953 and early 1954, the Vietnamese Army surrounded this valley and laid siege to the French troops stationed there. Despite having the most modern equipment and significant help and material from the U.S. and other allies, the Vietnamese, using out-dated equipment that had been man-handled up and over the mountains surrounding the valley, soundly defeated the better equipped and modernly trained French Army. As a result of this enormous defeat, the French were forced completely out of Vietnam in July 1954.

Our sight-seeing tour today included a war museum dedicated to that 1954 victory over the French. On display were many pictures, statues and busts of various Vietnamese generals and others responsible for the victory, along with many dioramas portraying images and scenes of heroic Vietnamese endeavors.

Across the street from the war museum was the sight of the main headquarters of the French Army. This sight included trenches and underground tunnels used by the French to fend off their attackers, along with displays of captured and destroyed tanks, trucks, planes, artillery batteries, and other French equipment left behind after the battles. We spent quite some time walking around and climbing in and out of trenches and peering into the abandoned French bunkers.

After climbing around the battle display in the heat of the late morning for several hours, we paused for a little lunch.  After lunch, we boarded our little bus for a journey back into the moutains in and around Dien Bien Phu. This trip took us up and down back roads and crude lanes... bumpy, curvy, mountainous, mostly one-lane roads (although we often encountered motorbikes, water buffalo, goats, walking Hmong villagers, road construction crews, and the occasional dump truck. We made stops at a newly constructed man-made lake with a resort hotel on the shore, and we stopped by the headquarters of General Giap, the Vietnamese commanding general who orchestrated the defeat of the French Army. 

A quick note about our Vietnamese bus driver... I'm not sure, but I think he must have learned to drive at a NASCAR training facility! Our sight-seeing trip this day was fast, it was furious, and more than once, he had this captive group of preachers praying earnestly for their safety!

We arrived back at our hotel around 5:00 pm with supper scheduled for around 6:00 pm. A special surprise awaited us... First was a group of young ladies who surrounded each of us for pictures... then we were especially surprised with pizzas for supper!  We had our choice of chicken and mushrooms, sausage and cheese (the sausage was a cut up hotdog!) or beef pizza. And a special topping adorned each pizza... kernels of corn! Not sure who thought that one up, but corn instead of pizza sauce??

Well, our off day had been a very warm and filled with travel and activity. We learned a lot about this far flung corner of Vietnam, and of the determination of the Vietnamese people. It was a very tired group of preachers that finally made their way back to their hotel for a well deserved rest. Tomorrow, back on the bikes as we travel deeper and higher into the real mountains of northern Vietnam! 

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Vietnam 2016 - Day 4

It is Saturday April 2 and the group is up and breakfast is over.  We leave our hotel in Son La around 9:00 am with our Vietnamese pastor brothers and continue our ride west into the mountains.  We spend the morning riding through small towns and villages as we enter some of the more remote areas of north western Vietnam.  The people we encounter now are mostly from the various Hmong tribes that live in the mountainous areas... the Hmong are distinctive with their brightly colored clothing and the women with their long hair piled high upon their heads.
 Some 30 km outside of Dien Bien Phu, we make a stop at a regional police station.  Introductions are made all around, speeches are given and gifts are exchanged.  As the introductions are being made, it was noticed that the officials here already had a list of our names! Gotta remember... we are not in America anymore... foreign country, foreign values.  We leave the regional police station, only now we have a couple plainclothes police officers riding with us!
We now turn our motorbikes up and into the mountains... we will be traveling back in time to a very remote Hmong village.  We soon leave the paved road and start back a one-lane dirt trail... not wide enough or smooth enough to be called a road.  We follow this trail up and down and around hills for about 5 km or so, always winding back and up the side of a mountain. The path is sometimes steep and somewhat difficult in places, but our Vietnamese pastor brothers are there to assist and help us travel the rugged terrain.
We follow this trail until we suddenly pull onto the edge of a clearing with a couple of ponds surrounded by rice paddies and about 20-25 small wooden buildings.  Hmong homes are set up on poles, usually about 10 feet off the ground.  They are simple homes made of wood planking, some shingles, some with thatched roofs, normally one or two rooms with no running water or bathrooms.
There is a one-room church in this village.  We gather there with the villagers to make introductions (in English translated into Vietnamese translated into Hmong!), we sing songs, and we offer to pray for them.  At this first village, I am asked to say a few words, so I read from Psalm 121, "I lift up my eyes to the mountains - where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth."  And then I am asked to pray... so I pray for the village and for their healing.  After my prayer, many of the villagers come forward to be prayed for individually, and for a time, this mountain village church sitting on the side of a Vietnamese mountain, becomes the scene for a healing prayer service. We gather around the villagers, American and Vietnamese pastors, and we pour out our hearts in prayer on behalf of the remote mountain Christians. 
We then spent some time just visiting, taking pictures and sharing hugs all around.  Eventually, we reluctantly mount our motorbikes once again for the bumpy ride back down the mountain trail.
A few personal observations... first, we had just spent a scant few hours with a group of people who have had little to no contact with the outside world, much less with a group of non-Vietnamese foreigners.  We found these people to be some of the friendliest, most generous and loving people anyone could ever meet.  They welcomed us with open arms, loving words, and a Christ-like spirit.  When they worship God, they worship with their whole being!  They are loud and enthusiastic, and there is no doubt that the Holy Spirit is in this place when they worship.  Their enthusiasm and spirit would put most churches to shame, and once again, we Americans found ourselves being schooled in evangelism.  There is much to learn from a group of people who seemingly have nothing in terms of material possessions, yet have an abundance of the Holy Spirit in their midst.
Back on our bikes, we end our day by riding into the far north western city of Dien Bien Phu near the Laotian border. It is a very tired group that check into their hotel rooms and prepare for supper.  It is a quiet group during supper, for each one is lost in thought, trying to process the sights and sounds of the day.  Each in his or her own way, quietly praise God for His unconditional love and His grace that reaches deep into the mountain jungle villages of northern Vietnam. Tomorrow, we will do some sight-seeing in the historically important city of Dien Bien Phu.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Vietnam 2016 - Day 3
It is Friday April 1st, and I am excited!! Today we will meet with the Vietnamese pastors, and we will pick up our motorbikes!  Praise the Lord!! Let's go!!
We wolf down a quick breakfast around 6:00 am local time (at least what we can eat, which is mostly bread and Sprite for me).  At 7:30 am we assemble in the lobby of our hotel with our suitcases, because we will be hitting the road shortly.  We glance out the front lobby doors, and there are Karen and Ut, surrounded by a group of Vietnamese United Methodist pastors!!!
It was a joyous reunion as we are reunited with pastors some of us have known from previous trips, and we quickly meet the newer pastors who will be joining us for the very first time.  These brave and resourceful preachers are from all over Vietnam, some from as far south as the Mekong River, some from the Ho Chi Mihn area, and for the first time, some are from the Hmong villages in the far northern areas near the Chinese border.
Everyone is excited, and so we begin by singing a couple songs together in praise,  It is noisy and boisterous and we sing, some in English and some in Vietnamese.  Traffic in front of the hotel slows down and pedestrians stop and stare as this group of pastors are singing joyously at the top of their voices!! 
After several songs are sung, we take turns praying... praying for safety, praying for direction, praying for fellowship, and praying for the weather... but mostly thanking God and praying that our mission might touch the lives of the villages and churches we have traveled so far to see.
At last, we mount our motorbikes and we ride off into the busy traffic of Hanoi.  To get an idea of just how big Hanoi is, it will take more than an hour to navigate the streets and the traffic just to reach the western outskirts of this city of over 8 million!
One minor incident... one of our riders, Roberta Eddy, Shawnee Valley District secretary, got sidetracked by following the wrong person in front of her, then she ran out of gas!  Luckily she had a walkie talkie, and after several anxious moments, a couple of our very sharp and resourceful Vietnamese pastors were able to track her down, get her to a gas station, and catch up with our group in short order.  A few quick prayers of thanks and we are finally out of town and on our way toward the mountains.
We rode over 300 km (about 200 miles) that Friday. The roads have been decent as we traveled west and a bit north of Hanoi.  As we travel farther away from Hanoi, the towns become smaller, and we pass through many small villages.  Mountains and valleys, towns and villages... and the villagers we encounter along the way seemed enthusiastic and friendly to see these motorbike riding foreigners.

 In the late afternoon, we arrive in the town of Son La.  We check into our hotel around 6:00 pm, clean up after the long ride, and head to the dinning room for a nice supper.  Everyone is tired, so most head off to bed before too long.
**Side note:  While meeting the pastors and picking out our motorbikes prior to leaving our Hanoi hotel, our luggage was loaded into our minivan by the hotel staff.  Much to my surprise, my suitcase was missed and left in the hotel lobby!  About half-way to Son La, we received a call from the hotel informing us that they found my suitcase in their lobby.  Well, believe it or not, we made arrangements for a hotel shuttle to deliver my suitcase to our Son La hotel!  This was a trip of about 300 km here, then 300 km back to Hanoi!! What a trip for the shuttle driver.  But by 9:30 pm, I had been reunited with my suitcase and was able to shave, shower, and change clothes! 
Yes, God is good, and despite our best (or worst) efforts, He cares for us, watches out for us, and leads, guides and directs us.
One other observation... after several delays, missteps, and glitches, we developed our own catch phrase... "Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not get bent out of shape!"  Praise the Lord!!


Thursday, May 12, 2016

Vietnam 2016 - Day 2
It is Thursday morning March 31st... note we lost a day when we crossed the international dateline sometime yesterday.  Well rested from our night at a Tokyo airport hotel, we enjoy a breakfast buffet, then board our bus for the trip back to the airport.
We arrive back at Narita-Tokyo airport at 8:00 am and begin the security and boarding process.  We board our plane, a Vietnam Airlines jet at 10:00 am for the 5 1/2 hour flight to Hanoi.  By the way, flying with Vietnam Air was a better experience than we had with American Airlines... more room, better food, more entertainment choices, and a smoother ride.
We arrived Hanoi airport around 3:30 pm local time, and survived entry inspections.  Now for those of you who are paying close attention, it was at this point, waiting for my luggage at the Hanoi airport, that my real adventure began... for while waiting for my suitcase, I slip into the men's restroom and throw up my breakfast! 
Before I continue recounting my Vietnamese adventure, some explanation is in order.  From this point on, my tummy is on an adventure all on its own.  During the next two weeks, I will have difficulty eating and keeping anything down.  I will survive mainly on peanut butter and crackers, granola bars, sprite and bottled water, unable to eat or sometimes even smell the Vietnamese food.
As you can imagine, I was very concerned that I had picked up a virus, a parasite, or food poisoning as I suffered day after day, unable to eat and keep food down.  It wasn't until I returned home (and suffered for a few more days at home) that I passed two kidney stones!
As we leave the airport, we are met by Karen and Ut To, our United Methodist representatives in Vietnam.  I have known Karen and Ut since my first trip to Vietnam back in 2010, and over the years they have become great friends.  We join Karen and Ut as we board our mini bus and head toward downtown Hanoi.

We decide to do a bit of sightseeing before we check into our hotel.  It begins with a rickshaw ride around downtown Hanoi.  Nice to sight-see from a comfortable moving chair!  It was fun and interesting watching the Hanoi traffic and the people...

Next on our agenda was the Water Puppet Theater... puppets, not controlled by wires from above, but by rods and wires under water.  Really enjoyed the show and especially the traditional Vietnamese music.
After the show, we stopped by an outdoor café and watched with amazement as the evening traffic became completely jammed below our 3rd floor café balcony!
Finally, we check into our downtown Hanoi hotel for some much needed rest.  While everyone else headed off to supper, I was more interested in my Pepto-Bismo and Xantx!  Yes, at this particular time, I still thought I had a simple foreign stomach bug, and was more interested in sleep after our tiresome travels.  Night-night, everyone!



Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Back to Vietnam 2016 - A Daily Journal

And so once again, I am beginning a journey... A physical journey to be sure as I prepare to board a plane for the seemingly endless flight to Vietnam... A mental journey as I contemplate the wonders of a different country and climate, the different peoples and cultures, the different foods and aromas, and the different traveling companions I know I will encounter along the way... And a spiritual journey as I witness firsthand the amazing diversity and power of God to be found in the willingness of my fellow travelers and the enthusiasm of the Vietnamese pastors we will be traveling with, and the village churches and congregations we will be visiting...

In the picture above, it is Tuesday morning March 29th... It is approximately 5:30 am as I await the arrival of my fellow travelers.  I am seated in a waiting area at the Columbus, Ohio international airport, preparing to begin the boarding process.  On this trip I will join ten others from various southern districts of the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church.  Most of the group I know, having traveled to Vietnam with them before.  A couple of them are new to me, but we quickly become friends as together we contemplate the journey before us.

Our journey today will entail a two hour flight from Columbus to Dallas-Ft. Worth.  After a short layover there, we will endure a 13 1/2 hour flight to Tokyo, Japan.  Another couple hours there, then a final six hour flight to Hanoi, Vietnam.  Altogether, we anticipate about 30 hours of airports and airplane time!  At least, that was the plan... but you know that God sometimes has other plans for us!

After we gather and pray for God's guidance and traveling mercies, we board our plan scheduled for a 7:30 am takeoff.  However, an unexpected announcement informs us that the pilots are having difficulty starting one of the engines!  Hearing that sure fills one's heart with confidence!  But after about a half an hour, the plane is started and we are in the air... just a half hour behind schedule...

We arrive Dallas-Ft. Worth airport where we have a layover.  We find our next gate and sit to await the arrival of our next plane, a Japan Airlines flight to Tokyo... However, after sitting and waiting at our gate for some time, our scheduled time for departure comes and goes, and our plane does not arrive!  When asked what happened, the airport staff informs us that they cannot find our plane!  After about an hour and a half, an American Airlines plane pulls up to our gate and we begin boarding.  We finally take off, but we are now an hour and a half behind schedule.

Thirteen and a half hours to Tokyo... at least we are finally on our way.  As I glance around the cabin, I see our group busily engaged in reading, watching movies, or trying to nap... At least until we arrive somewhere over the Rocky Mountains... As the stewardesses are passing out drinks to the passengers, our plane hits an unexpected area of severe turbulence!  It just so happened that I had just been given a glass of Coca-Cola when the plane decided to leap up, the drop down.  Needless to say, I ended up wearing my coke!  On a more serious note, one of the stewardesses was injured, having hit her head in the turbulence.  After an announcement asking if there was a doctor on board, another announcement followed stating that we would be making an unscheduled stop in Seattle to drop off our injured stewardess.  Land we did sometime later, which took an additional hour to off load the injured and top off fuel tanks.  We are now two and a half hours behind schedule.

Finally, back in the air.  It is still nine hours to Tokyo.  The flight from this point is pretty much uneventful.  We fly quietly and smoothly (Thank you, Lord!) across the northern Pacific Ocean, somewhere along the way crossing the international dateline...

We arrive in Tokyo around 7:00 pm local time.  However, we arrive to find out our connecting flight to Hanoi left about a half hour ago!  A representative from Japan Air Lines informs us the next flight to Hanoi is scheduled for tomorrow morning!  So they put us up in a hotel there at the airport, with no cost to us.  Check out this picture of my Japanese toilet in my hotel room!  I call it the new and improved Ipot!  It has more buttons and icons than my IPhone!

And that, my friends was just my first day!  Adventure awaits... the Promises of God are before us as we trust in Him during this mission time.  Watch for my next blog to be posted in the next couple days... Next stop... Hanoi!!!

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Counting Down the Days

Yes, it's official. I'm counting down the days until I travel back to Vietnam.  Our United Methodist Mission Team flies out of Columbus, Ohio on Tuesday morning March 29th. We fly from Columbus to Dallas-Ft. Worth... Then from Dallas-Ft. Worth to Tokyo, Japan... then from Tokyo to Hanoi, Vietnam.  Travel time from Columbus to Hanoi will be about 30 hours!

This trip will be somewhat different from previous trips.  We will be spending all our time in the north, visiting new United Methodist churches between Hanoi and the Chinese border.

Keep the team in your prayers.  Keep their home churches in your prayers.  Especially, keep the Vietnamese pastors, the new churches, and the Vietnamese congregations in your prayers.  Pray that we will touch lives, that others will see Jesus Christ reflected in our words, actions, and deeds.  Pray that the love and light of Christ will light our path.

I will be doing my best to reports via this blog as to our daily itinerary along with pictures along the way.  Watch for daily updated beginning March 30th...

In His Service.... Pastor Gary Ginter & the 2016 Vietnam Mission Team