Monday, May 01, 2000

Vietnamese keep faith here

Many in church have overcome peril, hardship

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        ELMWOOD PLACE — Their pastor challenged them to focus on the present, but some Tristate Catholics who fled South Vietnam at war's end couldn't help but look back.

        Sunday was the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the end of a decades-long civil war in Vietnam that killed more than 1.5 million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans.

        “By this time today in 1975, me, my wife and our five children and my brother-in-law were floating on the South China Sea,” said Joseph H.V. Nguyen, 59, of Fairfield, who served in the South Vietnamese military. “It is a very emotional day for my family.”

        Mr. Nguyen was one of 400 Vietnamese Catholics who attended 11 a.m. Sunday Mass at St. Aloysius Catholic Church, the home of Our Lady of La Vang, the local Vietnamese Catholic community.

        The Rev. Huan Tien Nguyen, the pastor who escaped Communist troops in April 1975, reflected on the war and its effects during his homily, but there were no other major references to it or ceremonial remembrances.

        “Did we keep our promise?” Father Nguyen asked from the pulpit. “When we left our country to look for freedom, did we keep our faith? Or did we get sidetracked by materialism and our daily work?

        “Have we given in to temptations of pleasure of the life here?

        “Do (we) take time to be with our family? Do we take time to serve the community, to practice our faith?”

        The Tristate is home to an estimated 3,000 Vietnamese immigrants and Vi etnamese-American children.

        Even without the homily, the anniversary was on the minds of many inside the church — including Joseph Nguyen. “We left home 10 hours before the surrender,” he said.

        The sadness of April 30, 1975, was tempered Sunday by a happy event — the baptism of Mr. Nguyen's granddaughter, Christina Anh. She is the daughter of his son, Thomas Nguyen, 39, and wife, Khanh Nguyen, of West Chester.

        Joseph Nguyen's mother, Sau Nguyen, 82, also was there.

        “Four generations, yes,” Mr. Nguyen said. “Now, when I remember the fall of Saigon, I can remember Christina's baptism.”

        Hai Phu Tran, 45, of Pleasant Run, thought about his mother, father and sister, who live in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.

        “I am trying to get them to America,” said Mr. Tran, who escaped in 1986. He spent six days on a small fishing boat before washing ashore in Indonesia.

        A year later, Mr. Tran reached Springfield, Ill., where he earned a civil engineering degree and met his wife in 1991.

        His wife, Thuy Nhi Phan Nguyen, 34, is the daughter of a former South Vietnamese provincial vice chairman. He spent 131/2 years in a communist “reeducation” camp after the war, clearing lumber in a jungle, before being freed.

        Then the family came to the United States under Vietnam's political prisoner program, which expired in 1996. The only way for Vietnamese to get to the United States now is through an “orderly departure program.”

        Vietnamese who are U.S. citizens can petition Hanoi for the emigration of a spouse, child or parent but the wait can last 10 years.

        “It is a very sad day,” Thuy Nhi Phan Nguyen said Sunday after Mass. “I could not see my father for five years. And when I did, we were seated at a large table. I could not hug him or hold his hand. I was forced to leave school in seventh grade and go to work and embroider.”

        During Mass, Hao Nguyen, 54, of Greenhills, offered a prayer of thanksgiving. He also asked for something.

        “We can do nothing, but God can make the government change its ways and give the people freedom they need for a good life,” said Mr. Nguyen, 54, a South Vietnamese soldier for 11 years. He has nine children and a brother and sister in Vietnam.

        “We are trying to make a good life here for our families and create a second country for ourselves,” he said. “We are hurting. We can't forget our country. I miss. ... I was born there.”


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