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.