Written by Dale Suderman Wednesday, 02 April 2008 17:08
I am writing this column rapidly from a four-star hotel along the Perfume River in the old Imperial City of Hue. We splurged for a chance to get a buffet breakfast and a balcony with a river view.
The downside of four-star hotels is living in a cocoon of European tourists and Asian businessmen.We are in a sanitized world with a view of Vietnam but not the sounds and tastes of life we find when staying in cheap back backer hotels. (Americans are such a rarity in Vietnam that we often strike up conversations with each other when we hear a familiar accent.)
Tomorrow we leave for Hanoi by train and hope to visit Ha Long Bay and take a second train trip to the Vietnamese Alps near the Chinese boarder.
I continue to ponder celebrating Easter in Saigon a few days ago. Tim and I went to a mass at the Notre Dame Cathedral at 10 a.m. By accident we ended up at the English service. The Cathedral uses neon lighting—initially this felt jarring—but I came to appreciate the soft blue hues.
There were more than a thousand people in the congregation—one of about six Sunday services. (“English” services attract world citizens to churches: Africans, Europeans and Asians who speak more English than Vietnamese or the local language.)
The choir was incredible, with parts of the liturgy sung in traditional Vietnamese melodies and then bursting into the “Hallelujah Chorus” as we took communion. The homily was an eloquent exposition on how the resurrection is the beginning of new life for individuals.
At 7:30 p.m. we went to a Protestant service near our hotel in the back backer district. (We were unaware their primary Easter service was at 5 a.m. and probably would not have attended it if we had known.) There were more than 400 folks in attendance—most of them under age 40. I was the only gray-haired person and one of three Westerners in the pews.
The service would have made any American evangelical protestant proud. Both the hymns and the sermon outline were on a PowerPoint projector. A soloist standing next to a grand piano sang in Vietnamese but using a Western tune. The pastor did an eloquent altar call and several dozen young people went to the front. But blue neon lights framed both the church outside and dominated the sanctuary insight.
After the service I realized most folks had driven their motorcycles to church. The nice thing about this is they don’t need a parking lot. The downside is that ladies don’t have fancy Easter bonnets and a motorcycle helmet ruins your hairdo.
Forty years ago I attended a very different Easter sunrise service in Vietnam. After working all night in the Port of Saigon, where I was a G.I., I went to the poop deck of a merchant marine ship on the Saigon River. There were maybe 30 of us in attendance and I vividly remember a small portable organ being used for congregational singing.
As we sang the final hymn, a huge number of American helicopters flew overhead—probably from all-night strafing mission. Clusters of helicopters form a musical note. They were uncannily in tune with the organ. Their sound of death overshadowing the songs of resurrection has haunted me for decades.
The music in both the Catholic and Protestant services this week were a part of a healing process for this memory.
Vietnam today is a nation undergoing a national rebirth after decades of war. It is experiencing an economic and social resurrection.
Two years ago I was amazed by the economic growth. This time I am blown away by the changes in just the past 24 months. Tan Son Nhut airport near Saigon is now a new modern facility. I traveled on a six-lane toll road to the Mekong Delta. Several cyber-cafes and restaurants I visited two years ago have been remodeled and upgraded. Construction equipment from backhoes to cranes are everywhere. Internet connections are far more stable and coffeeshops are starting to offer free Wi-Fi.
Somehow the government has persuaded folks to start wearing motorcycle helmets. Billboards promoting helmets are everywhere. But I suspect the risk of huge fines and actual confiscation of motorcycles have also been key to adults wearing helmets.
(Ironically the law does not apply to children as motorcycle passengers. The wildest sight was a baby in a car seat atop the handlebars of motorcycle.)
Our first night here, jet lag made us wake up at 5 a.m. We went downstairs to the hotel lobby. One clerk was sleeping on the front desk and the night guard was doing his homework for school.
The lady who ran the snack bar in the alley next to hotel seemed to be there 24 hours a day—dozing in a chair next to the cart but always happy to bring me a coffee at any hour.
The transformation of Vietnam is not without pain, loss and internal debate. These are folks who work hard but also enjoy a leisurely conversation. Can they hold both together?
The new life that is central to Easter is also new struggles and growth. To be in Vietnam is to experience this in new ways.