All Men become Brothers

A Day in the life of Father Nguyễn Văn Lý

All Men become Brothers

December 8, 2011. The dissident priest Nguyễn Văn Lý (64), the current longest prisoner of conscious of Catholic Church in Viet Nam, is deported from a rest home in the archdiocese of Hue to the concentration camp Nam Ha in the north of the country. He’s half paralyzed after having suffered four strokes, but has still to spend five years in prison. Since the mid-1970s  he’s fighting peacefully against a totalitarian communist regime: towards freedom in general and religious freedom in particular. But his continuous fight has physically affected him. He’s partially paralyzed as a result of his imprisonment.
We follow Văn Lý during 24 hours while a driver, a nurse and two guards accompany him by ambulance from Hue to the camp Nam Ha. The book has eight chapters that follow the divine office in monasteries. And the trips take place at the beginning of December, during the Advent. In this liturgical period believers of the Catholic Church look forward to Jesus' birth on Christmas. But what can Văn Lý still expect?
Another common thread is music. Ludwig von Beethoven’s  Ninth symphony plays a key role. Furthermore we can figuratively ‘hear’ the Peace song of the Vietnamese composer Kim Long. The conversations portray his life story through flashbacks and result in a hopeful climax. He realizes that their lifelong struggle was not in vain because a people's church massively emerges from the catacombs.

The book has eight chapters.
For more information: see on this website Koenraad De Wolf à Books

1. Midnight

“I thought Vietnam was a free country?”
   The Lieutenant threateningly pushed his revolver under my chin.
   “Doesn’t Article 3 of the Constitution ensure freedom of religion?" I asked him in a shrill voice.
   The man pushed me away. He didn’t understand what was happening to him. At the My Chanh market roadblock, more and more cyclists are showing up. To the patrol that was guarding the site, they almost looked like ghosts in the morning mist.
   “The curfew. You’re violating the curfew,” yelled the Lieutenant, who was now gesticulating in all directions. “It lasts until six in the morning.”
   “If my information is correct, the curfew was lifted two years ago.”
   “Go back!” he ordered. “Go back to where you came from. Now!”
   “Why should we? We are going to worship Our Lady of La Vang.”
  Our group of pilgrims responded enthusiastically and began singing the Song of Peace by Kim Long spontaneously:
Lord, teach me to love and serve God.
Make me an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love
   “Control!” the Lieutenant shouted. “We are going to check everyone’s documents! Now!”
   “Here is my temporary I.D card. Your colleagues in the State Security confiscated my I.D. card last month.”
   “Not valid,” he barked. The officer he called to assist him also shook his head.
   “But don’t you know me? I am Father Ly—a ‘good friend’ of Pham Van Dong.” I gesticulated as if I were the equal of Prime Minister.
   My humor really didn’t seem to amuse them, and the atmosphere became even more dicey when those of us without identity cards were told we would be taken away.
   “Who do you think you are?” The lieutenant paced up and down. “Those who have not an I.D. card, come with me. Now! Immediately!”
   I protested. “Do we really need an I.D. for a one day excursion? Which Article of the law did we violate?”
The Lieutenant flashed his revolver, taunting, “I represent the law here!”

“Now it gets really exciting.” My neighbor said as he gave a nervous smile.
   “I think it’s the first time since of Communist takeover in 1975 that something is happening here.”
   “You’re coming with us?”
   "Sixty-five kilometers is too far. Next month, I'll be 72 and my legs…” he sighed. "But my son and grandson will participate.”
   “Why won’t you try? We’ll push you when the way goes uphill. Some participants are even older than you.”
   He shook his head.
   "No, no, no. Though, I hear you still don’t have a bike. Here, take mime."
    “I can’t accept…”
“You know, this is a real Peugeot. Do you see clawing lion under the brand? Indestructible,” he boasted. “I bought that iron horse in 1939 with my first savings that I had earned in the Michelin rubber plantation. You can’t say no.”
My neighbor put the bike in the lobby of the rectory when Father Tran Van Qui entered.

“So early! Mass is at 6:00 p.m. Or do you have an appointment with the communist major?” I continue teasing him. “If you're late, I could say Mass. I've also prepared a sermon.”
   “You're not allowed to do so,” he said surly. “And you know that very well. Anyway, you won't get the opportunity. I'll be back in time.”
Van Ly and his neighbor were laughing, while Van Qui looked at the bike with surprise.
   “You have a bike?”
   “I am going to repair it, tinker with it. It’s a service for my neighbor,” I lied.
   “Don’t you have anything better to do?”
   I pretended not to hear himand shortly after Van Qui leaved the presbytery.
   “Fortunately the Vietnamese Catholics still have Our Lady of La Vang. But her name is taboo for the Communists. But tomorrow we will celebrate the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady in a dignified manner.”
   “Did you request a permission?”
   “What do you think? Of course not. The answer would undoubtedly have been ‘no.’ Even worse, the police would do anything to prevent the pilgrimage.”
   “But is everyone informed?
   “Not yet. I was extremely carefully. The people I told have been sworn to secrecy, because such is necessary for our undertaking. But I still have an opportunity tonight.”
At the end of the Mass, I climbed the pulpit.
   “Announcements. Tomorrow, August 15, 1981, is the Feast of the Assumption. We’ll venerate Our Lady of La Vang. Meet in the church at three o'clock,” I said casually.
   Smiles everywhere; only Van Qui and the Communist major looked astonished. But my next announcement about the catechism classes diverted their attention.
   “Since when is Mass at three o’clock?” asked Van Qui in the vestry. “It’s normally at five o’clock!”
   “Did I say three o’clock?” I could barely hide my amusement.

In the middle of the night cyclists silently showed up from all over.
   “What do you think, sister?”
  “The grapevine had done its work.”
   I saw radiant faces everywhere.
   “Look, those people have brought lanterns,” whispered Tri Hieu. “They will come in handy.”
   “Will you carry the red lantern at the rear?” I asked.
   “Only arrived yesterday,” she smiled, “and already ordered to work.”
   Shortly after 3:00 a.m., I signaled with my arm, and the long column started moving in silence. Once over the hill, people bursted out laughing.
   “What a performance to quietly slip away,” Ms. Hieu said proudly. “You're awfully brave!”
    “Now we only have to reach La Vang. I will keep a steady tempo. The pace should not be too rapid because everyone at the back must be able to follow.”
When the road goes uphill, I asked the young people to help the older pilgrims. At the top of a hill I inspected “my troops.”
   “About two hundred participants! All expectations are exceeded.”
   I looked at my sister when the last people crossed the top. “Ah! To breathe in free air!” The adrenaline raced through my body.

A minivan arrived in a big cloud of dust. Eight nuns of the Order of the Holy Cross hadn’t been allowed to continue their journey. They were stopped at the My Chanh roadblock, and the driver was interrogated.
   The driver gave them to the Lieutenant.
   “Look here!” the Lieutenant barked. “What’s written here? You are only allowed to transport six passengers. And that’s not all, your license is only valid as far as the boundary of Hue Station.”
   “I have . . . the nuns . . . ” the man stammered.
   “Back!” the Lieutenant shouted. “Go back immediately! And tomorrow you can search for another job. Your driver’s license is hereby revoked.”
   The driver and the nuns turned round, but I didn’t want to be pushed around. I put on my cassock, and I told everyone to be quiet. “Friends, let us pray together. If they don’t let us through this afternoon, we will go on praying until the evening and, if need be, all night.”
   When I kneeled, everyone followed my example. I took my Pater Noster.
  “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”
   “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.
   As more pilgrims arrived in My Chanh, the prayers grew louder. I was beaming when my colleague, Phan Van Loi, reinforced our troops with his own group.
   “I.D. cards,” shouted the lieutenant once again. “I want everyones I.D. card!”
   Meanwhile the agents started to panic.
   “What are we going to do with the pile of these cards?”
   “There comes no end to this work.” He let out a deep sigh. The man felt more and more uncomfortable. Hundreds of people from My Chanh and the surrounding villages and hamlets gathered around the market.
   “I don't feel good about this,” an agent said. Do you also sense a threat emanating from that repetitive prayer and that silent mass of bystanders?”
Suddenly the District Captain of the State Security arrived in a limousine. He was a war veteran and only had one arm.
   “Oh, Father Ly, is that you? What a surprise to see you here?” he said in a friendly voice.
“This is something other than your daily visit to Doc So.”
   “Traveling without a permit. That is a serious offense. And you know that,” he said sternly.
   “A permit? What permit? Vietnam is a free country, right?”
   “Don't take me for a ride,” he warned. But when the captain looked at the group of people, he didn't want any further difficulties.
   “Comrades,” he ordered, “give Father Ly his identity card back.”
  This was the opportunity I was looking for. I clenched my fists. “It is not enough that you give me back my identity card. Everyone’s papers should be returned, and you should allow us to continue our journey.”
   The Captain consulted the Lieutenant for a long time. “Yes, you may continue your journey, but on foot. Don’t use your bikes. Agreement?”
   People applauded spontaneously. The first pilgrims that got their identity cards back started walking. But Ms. Hieu got on her bike and started to pedal.
   “The distance to La Vang is after all twenty kilometers.”
   “I will get you!”
   All the others pilgrims followed that example.
   “This looks like a bicycle race, brother.”
   Everyone was thoroughly enjoying the little bit of freedom that had been won and was delighted upon arrival.
   “Look over there,” I cried. “The large mushroom-shaped steeples were still standing beneath the glittering statue of Our Lady.”
   I let my tears flow freely and hugged Van Loi.

But only three weeks later, Van Loi starred in a parody of that pilgrimage.

But only three weeks later, Van Loi starred in a parody of that pilgrimage.
   He came on the scene with his bicycle. There was a little boy sitting on a chair behind him. In the middle stood roadblocks. Two policemen and an officer kept him standing.
   “What’s going on?” asked Van Loi.
   The officer gave a sign to his policemen to take their gun: “I’m the one who’s asking the questions. Where you’re going to?”
   “La Vang.”
   “What for?”
   “Dedicate my nephew to Our Lady. So he’ll become a priest.”
   The public applauded spontaneously.
   “That’ll be very soon forbidden by law”, reacted the officer.
   “I don’t understand.”
   “In the future no priest will be ordained.”
   The public reacted surprised.
   “That’s the first thing I hear about”, intervenes Van Loi.
   The officer took self-assured his revolver: “The study of Marxism-Leninism will, from now on, play once again a central role in all education programs.  And only dedicated communists ‘ll be allowed to study religion.’ The man laughs. ‘But that’ll happen only very seldom.”
   “All the truth lies within the communist ideology”, said the officer proudly.
   Everybody started laughing.
   “There’s no life, no hope and no future without communism”, continued the man. “But what we need, are good examples. People who are, what you, catholic people, should call ‘holy’. We need ‘holy communists’ who give an example.”
   “Mum always says that that I’m yet giving an example all my life.’
   “So you’re a holy man!”
   Van Loi looked surprised. “I don’t know…”
   “We need people like you. Come to strengthen our ranks!”
   “What must I do?”
   “Serve loyally the party and government. No questions. No critical points of view. Just execute blindly what our man of light and leading ask.”
   “And what’ll I get in return?”
   “All kind of profits. You can choose… And the more promotion you make, the more advantages you’ll receive.”
   The officer beamed and put his revolver back in his pocket: “I can feel it: you’ll become a holy communist.”
   Van Loi got on his knees. “Master, can I get your blessing?”
   Everybody started laughing.
   “I’m so glad that at least one catholic starts to see the true light behind the red star on the Vietnamese flag.”
   Everybody bursted out of laughing and applauded.
   “Master, am I, as your humble servant, allowed to make a proposal?”
   The officer directed his revolver again on Van Loi’s head: “You are, my loyal son.”
   “Why should’n we replace the statue of Our Lady of La Vang by a statue of Marx or Lenin?”
   A shivering went through the hall.
   “Very good.” The officer looked at the two policemen. “Why didn’t we think earlier at it?”
   “Or maybe better … a statue the holy Ho Chi Minh?”
   “That’s really brilliant, my loyal son! You make such a great progress in your re-education.  You’ll make a promotion very soon.”
   “Can it be, master, that I feel already the eternal joy of being a member of the communist family.”
   “What you feel, is real communist happiness. That’s the most wonderful feeling on earth. Many people are looking for it all of their life … without finding it. From now on nobody will ever take that feeling away from you.”
   Van Loi bowed and the curtain falled down. All actors got a standing ovation.

But downstairs tens of real agents were waiting for them. An officer took Van Loi by his collar. “You’re under arrest.”
   “On … what charge?”
   The man hit him in his face. “Propaganda against the regime.”
   Van Loi saw van Ly in the corridor and cries: “Pray for me. They’re going to destroy me.”
   The officer put his revolver in Van Loi’s face: “Never laugh to communism again or I’ll kill you.”
   Van Loi acquiesced helplessly as officers pushed him into a police car. He was sentenced to seven years in prison.

“Where has the time gone? I can’t believe it’s been thirty years since they dragged you away,” I said breathlessly. The squeaky wheels of my walker were echoing down the hallway.
   “Visiting the chapel of the archdiocese at midnight made me happy,” Van Loi said enthusiastically. “Because prayer unites us. Couldn’t you wait to light the second candle of the Advent wreath? It's only Thursday!”
   “Of course. I’m looking forward to Christmas.”
   “Yet I mainly feel anxiety. What's wrong?”
    I looked downward. “Ever since the beginning of Advent a question has tormented me: What will my future be now that I have to go back to the concentration camp? And what will happen to Vietnam?”
   Back in my room, I collapsed in my chair. It took me a few minutes to catch my breath.
   We were sitting next to each other without saying a word.
   “I draw a lot of strength from your presence.”
   “There’s more than that,” Van Loi mused. “Enormous strength lies in silence. But in our hectic times, people are not interested in silence. Yet nothing is stronger than silence. And nothing is as powerful as the silence of the night.”
   Moments later, Van Loi yawned and got up. “This is…our farewell.” He was unable to say anything else.
   I put on my glasses, and I combed my hair with my stiff fingers. Drops of sweat glistened on his forehead, and his eyes were wet. For the first time in a long time, we hugged—he, the little priest in his black cassock, and I, slender and a head taller in my beige pajamas.
   As I opened the door, we softly sang the Song of Peace by Kim Long:
Lord, teach me to love and serve God.
Make me an instrument of Your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love . . .
   In the corridor, Lieutenant Colonel Kien, my head guard, was startled as if he had been caught. He was apparently asleep. With automatic reflex this forty year old stout man with chubby cheeks adjusted his cap and tie and caressed his insignia: two stars and a bar.
   Leaning against the doorframe I tried to give myself courage. “Our peaceful struggle . . . for freedom . . . continues,” I said seemingly in a firm voice.
   “Five years . . . another five years in Camp Nam Ha.” The voice of the always so determined Van Loi vibrated suddenly. “I'm worried . . . about your health. Will we ever see each other again?”   
   I looked him straight in the eye, half whispering, “It is becoming an uphill battle, because four strokes have left me half paralyzed. But you’re right. We will remain united in prayer.” I continued trembling. “Even when I will no longer be here.” I turned my gaze skyward. “Then I will continue to support you, along with Nguyen Kim Dien, our murdered archbishop.”
   “Be assured. We will continue to campaign,” reassured Van Loi in a soothing voice. “Tomorrow, I'm going to the prayer vigil at the Redemptorist monastery in Thai Ha in Hanoi.” And as the Lietenant Colonel looked on, he continue, “And we’ll continue to sign the letters of our Priest Association also in your name.”
   I nodded. “Do those letters make sense anymore? Huu Giai and Chan Tin are old. Why don’t any young priests defy this regime? Why should each prospective seminarian accept the blessing of the Communist Party? When will this government meddling stop?”
   “You should think less, and we should act more,”  Van Loi replied confidently. He pulled a small packet out of his briefcase. “Here, for the road,” he said with a lump in his throat.
   In the corridor he didn’t look back. This farewell was too difficult for him. The creaking of his sandals died out as he went down the stairs.
   I shuffled to the window of my room behind my walker and saw him step into his old Renault. How many years has he had that car now? Amongst the impatiently honking motorbikes, he drove onto the bridge and over the canal. Behind it, the towers of Hue Cathedral stand like lighthouses.

On April 30, 1974, together with three colleagues, I was prostrate on the steps of the choir. My whole family were dressed in their best clothes in the first row. For my parents, staunch Catholics, donating their youngest son to the church was a form of extreme obedience. For me, the priesthood meant the culmination of eleven years of training.

June, 27, 1963. My childhood friend Truc accompanied me to the entrance of the seminary, where the yellow and white papal flags hung from the facade.
   “Do you see those cranes towering above the city? They're building the cathedral,” Truc proudly said when he rang the doorbell. It echoed in the corridor. “Success! See you later.”
   “I have a meeting with President Nguyen Van Thuan.”
   The hunchbacked handyman who opened the door didn’t utter a word as he led me to the President’s office. His room impressed me. Bookshelves along the wall contained hundreds of neatly arranged books, but chaos reigned on his writing table. In the air hung the smell of new books and pipe tobacco.
   “Never mind the mess,” he said with a disarming smile. “As editor of seminary journal, I have to check all the citations and references.”
   “The letter of recommendation from my pastor,” I said meekly. Already 16 years old, I was a so-called late vocation.
   He read the letter carefully.
   “Tell me, when did you first think of becoming a priest?” This colossus with black hair and thick glasses challenged me. He sat at his desk with his back to the window and the desk lamp was pointed at my face.
   “I have been thinking about it for a long time. I’ve always loved pretending that I’m a priest for boys and girls of the neighborhood. On a kitchen chair, there would be a glass of water beside which would lay a piece of bread and my mother’s missal. An old bedspread served as a chasuble.”
   I rarely found myself searching for words, but I was babbling.
   “I have no explanation, but in the past year, the dream of becoming a priest has come to the surface again.”
   “Tell me. Has something special happened?”
   “Nothing in particular. My friend next door, Truc, is already in the seminary, and then our pastor is very enthusiastic. I want to follow in his footsteps.”
   Van Thuan read the letter a second time put his chin between his thumb and index finger. “‘A sharp intelligence, great tact, and a large dose of idealism.’ Your pastor was my classmate. Sounds like he hasn’t changed since I knew him. That makes me happy. When belief is authentically experienced, it generates enthusiasm.”
   The next question was fired at me. “Tell me, what do you expect from the training?”
   “I want to get to know Christ better, to be able to think and act like him. God says that you can only love him if you love your fellow human beings, and among them especially the outcasts. I grew up in poverty, but I’ve found that you can make the poor happy by being close to them. I’m ready to sacrifice my life for this.”
   Van Thuan nodded. “Do you know why the early believers were called Christians?”
   He didn’t give me time to answer the question.
   “Because people have recognized the Doctrine of Christ in their way of living. And yes, salt should have the taste of salt. You become a Christian only when Jesus' words also have an impact on your life. Authenticity, that’s what it is about. What matters is who you really are—not who you claim to be. If people don’t recognize the figure of Christ in you, you are not a Christian.”
   I remained speechless while the President filled his pipe and mulled over the letter. “The study of the Bible is so important because this unique book gives an answer to the questions of life. We must minimize the distance between the source that inspires us and our ways of living. Exactly like in the time of the Old Testament, we need prophets, people who teach us that we should not deviate from the truth, even though our country is torn by the civil war between North and South Vietnam.”
   “Please excuse me for saying so,” I said, “but I grew up in a poor family, in an isolated village without a newspaper. I therefore have little understanding of politics.”
   “We'll teach you critical thinking. No problem,” continued Van Thuan. “But you must always remember that there’s only one way out. We must return to the roots of our faith. Look around you. How many deaths and injuries are there each day? I expect peace neither from the current leaders of North and South Vietnam nor from the South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. I say that with regret in my heart because he’s my uncle. Yet I believe that peace is possible. Peace begins within ourselves. When everyone is at peace with themselves, there will also be peace in our country and in the world.”
   “Now I understand why Truc speaks so enthusiastically about you.” I reacted.
   Van Thuan smiled. “Tell me, what was the reaction of your parents?”
   “Mama wept with happiness. For years she has been praying for a vocation in the family. Dad was not surprised. ‘I just hope that your temper will not play tricks,’ he said.”
   “We will soon know who we are dealing with.”
I felt that he was seeing right through me. His handshake upon departure remained with me for a long time.
   “Come back next month for the entrance exam.”
   With a warm feeling, I followed the hunchbacked man down the long hallway to the front door. I turned around one last time. Soon I would receive confirmation of the choice I had made in the depths of my heart.

“Hey, how was your meeting with Van Thuan?”
“He's got such a personality, and he's a real intellectual! I feel so insignificant and small.”
   “The training at the seminary is on a very high level,” Truc assured me. “I'm sure about this. This is really your thing. You will like it over there.”
   On the street, I saw American advisers equipped with modern amenities for the first time. I stared.
   “Is this the first time you’ve seen them?”
   I nodded. “What does that soldier with his khaki beret have in his hand? A telephone?”
   “Of course not. That's a walkie-talkie. Soldiers can talk to each other with them, even if they’re on opposite sides of the city.”
   When we walked by, I only understood a few fragments of sentences because I only knew a few words of English.
   “The Americans instill confidence in me, Truc.”
   “Why? Are you sure?” He looked surprised.
   “Nobody has such state-of-the-art military equipment. And aren't they our brothers in Christ? I'm convinced that they will beat the hated Communists of the Viet Cong.”
   “Everyone hopes that they'll do that of course,” Truc agreed. “But…”
   “You eternal pessimist! Haven’t you heard the words the U.S. President, John F. Kennedy, at the Berlin wall today? ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’ To me, Kennedy is not only a resident of Berlin but also of South Vietnam.”
   “After what has happened to my father, you know, my aversion to all forms of violence has grown even more. I don't like seeing more and more American advisors arriving over here.”
   “Yet not all things coming from the U.S.A. are bad?” I argued.
   I took a can of corned beef out of my bag. "I don’t have mustard, pickles, onions, or bread as the American soldiers have, but that cooked beef smells good. Taste!”
   “Too salty,” Truc said making a dismissive gesture.
   “Come on. Don’t exaggerate. There’s nothing wrong with this meat.”
   I saw that he was deep in thought.
   “I’m not talking about that meat,” Truc challenged me. “The main question is whether more military force can lead to peace. And whether a Christian justify the use of violence? I'm not blind. Very soon the Americans will participate in the war. I don’t like them.”
   “But they really can stop the Viet Cong.”
   “I’m afraid that that Vietnam will become the playground where the Americans and the communists will fight their Cold War. And the Vietnamese people will be the victim.”
   I did not know how to answer him.
  “And that is just the tip of the iceberg,” Truc continued. “For two weeks already, a revolt has paralyzed the country. Why did the police kill eight women and children during that peaceful demonstration by Buddhists? Their only request was to hang their flags for the celebration of the birth of Buddha. Why wasn't that allowed? Yet anywhere in the city, the papal flag can fly to celebrate the silver jubilee of our archbishop. And after a monk had immolated himself in a street of Saigon, four others followed suit.”
   He sighed. “What else will happen?”
   While I was still pondering Truc's words, we saw a new demonstration by Buddhists from the steps of the cathedral.
   “What's happening over there? Look at these monks in their orange robes proudly display their flags with a wheel drawn in the middle. Why are these so important to them?”
   “The great wheel symbolizes the Dharma, or the teachings of Buddha. The spokes of the wheel evoke the eightfold path that each disciple traverses during his lifetime,” Truc said. “Van Thuan will explain all that in his lessons.”
   Hundreds of heavily armed policemen in the middle of the bridge clearly signaled that the protesters were not allowed to enter the European quarter, and although they did not have the intention to travel to this part of the city, the police charged. What a provocation! The sacred flags of the Buddhists were especially targeted. The cries of fear and panic were deafening. Before our eyes, we saw a bald monk and a woman holding up a protest sign being beaten.
   Truc grabbed me by my shirt. “We must run now or we'll be beaten up too.”
   A few streets away Truc began to weep. "How do you justify such repression?”

What had been expected for months had finally happened. The South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem was assassinated in a coup, but his death was not a harbinger of a return to peace. Instead, South Vietnam became bogged down in a political stalemate, and the civil war became more terrible every day.
   Almost all of my childhood memories are about this violence. After all, I lived near the demarcation line with the communist North Vietnam. Each trip to Hue was strewn with dangerous pitfalls. Sabotage, bombings, and firefights took place on the road leading to town almost every day.
   Like on January 30, 1964, a day I will never forget.

I was sitting on the bus, on the way home, when an ambulance with a shrill siren sped past us, accompanied by two jeeps with South Vietnamese soldiers.
   “Something terrible has happened.” I told Truc. “Hopefully, it isn’t too bad.”
   I held my breath when a little further along our bus was stopped by soldiers. On a stretch of the road, I saw pools of blood and spent bullet casings. A doctor and two nurses were trying to resuscitate the victims, but they had arrived too late on the scene. Truc held his hands over his eyes.
   “I have to fulfill my duty as a Christian,” I said.
   “Don't do that,” intervened Truc. “That's too dangerous.”
   Despite the ban, I managed to sneak up to the door of the bus.
   “Stop or I'll shoot!” The soldier pointed his rifle barrel at me, but his hands were shaking.
   I looked him straight in the eyes and felt that he was more scared than me. "I am a seminarian." My voice became louder. “These are not animals, but people. I'm going to say a prayer for them and sign their forehead with the sign of the cross. That is my moral duty.”
   With great difficulty I finally got close to the victims. On the side of the road, the bodies were covered with sheets that immediately became red with blood. I kneeled in front of a girl who was about eight years old. She was still holding on to her doll. Her face was partially blown off.
   Anger swelled up inside of me. I raised my hands to the sky and began to cry. This was the first time since my childhood that I had been physically confronted with death again. The only question that haunted my mind way “Why?" I broke into a cold sweat when I realized that this attack had taken place just ten minutes earlier. The unit of Viet Cong had, obviously, already disappeared.

The next day I read a short article in the newspaper. The District Officer and his wife were assassinated. They were the targets of that attack. But three bystanders were also killed. The Provincial Governor praised the fallen officer, “This was a conscientious man with a great sense of responsibility.” A picture of another government official who was also murdered in Saigon the day before appeared on the same page.
   I was shocked.
   “Can you imagine, Truc?”
   “I’m afraid so,” he answers stoically. “The South-Vietnamese army, as well as the Viet Cong, conduct daily raids. The difference is that you are now physically faced with it.”
   “The tone of the article is unbearable. It’s as if these bystanders had just been unlucky, the wrong people in the wrong place. Don’t they have parents? And what would the future hold for their children now?”
   “Of course you're right. But unfortunately there's a world of difference between being right and the triumph the righteousness. I hope and pray everyday that Vietnam will one day live in peace.”
   “I also do. But how can I put the image of the little girl with her doll out of my mind?”

Meanwhile, the coup by General Nguyen Khanh got all the attention in the media.
   “I have only one purpose”, said the man with the goatee beard and the uniform with three stars. “I want to give Vietnam a better future.” He read this empty phrase off of a piece of paper that he got from his principals. I felt that he was even more corrupt than his predecessors whom he had executed.
   “Never will I use a weapon, Truc.” I promise.
   “For us it’s easy to say, of course, because as seminarians we are exempt from military service.”
   “I made a final decision. I want as a priest commit myself, body and soul, to fight for peace with nonviolent methods.”
   “Glad to hear that I’m not the only one.”
   Even before I celebrated my seventeenth birthday my life’s goals were firmly set.

With a thud, the little bundle of Van Loi fell from my hand. As always at the slightest noise Lieutenant Colonel Kien immediately burst into my room.
   “Thanks!” I laughed.
   “Did you think that I suffered a stroke again?” 
   Kien grimaced sourly.
   “Oh, sorry. I almost forgot. I'm under house arrest.” 
   The man yawned. His guard duty was almost over. As he had been taught, he kept his right hand on his shiny revolver. It hung prominently on his belt next to the golden buckle. The Communists know how to intimidate people. They constantly showed me that I’d better not flee.
   “Shouldn’t you say goodbye?” I said, not without a touch of malice. “Life in the remote camp of Nam Ha will be quite different from what you're used to over here! What do you think? Where would you prefer to stay? Over here in this beautiful city or in the middle of the jungle?”
   Kien turned around and left the room. He’s too proud to show any emotion and too loyal to the system to which he owed everything.

Especially at night in the seminary we heard the impact of the bombs in the distance.
   “You can’t sleep?” I whisper.
   In the bed next to mine Truc is tossing and turning.
   "What do you want. The demarcation line is just forty miles away as the crow flies," I said.
   "What does the U.S. President Johnson want to achieve with that incessant bombing?"
   “Get the Communists on their knees; what else?”
   “How many deaths will there be again tonight? Why all that pointless violence?”
   “You can't stop the war, Truc,” I told him when we were woken up at five o'clock in the morning. “We can only try to become better human beings and demonstrate this to others as a priest. That's what we are doing every day through Holy Mass, meditation, lessons and study. This is your only alternative.” 
   “Do you believe that?”
   “I'm absolutely certain of it.”

   “Self-control is a key word in your formation,” underlined Rector Van Thuan during class. “It’s important to learn to control yourself and not immediately yield to whims. Voluntary celibacy is part of the priesthood; a priesthood in which you must pursue asceticism, also in food and drink.”
   “The latter is here not hard,” I whispered in Truc’s ear.
   He was biting on his tongue not to laugh.
   “Regard forward to celibacy trustingly,” continued Van Thuan, "and count on the state of grace. The key to achieve this is humor. Humor ensures that problems remain in perspective and reduces them to their correct proportions.”
   Sitting next to me, Truc was sunk deep in thoughts.
   “Sooner or later, every human being falls in his life in love,” said Van Thuan. “Yes, that could also happen to a seminarian or a priest. It hits you before you notice it. However, succumbing to this temptation is venturing on a slippery slope. It is best not to show that love, because as soon as the feeling is mutual, you attract unexpected trouble. You lose your serenity, balance, and inner peace. And you become unhappy. But be aware that these feelings wear off, love is like water-based paint, it disappears after a while”
   One evening I had an appointment with Van Thuan. “I'm trying to meet each seminarian every month, but I have so little time. How are you?”
   “With me everything is fine.”
   “Tell me, how do you look back to your first six months at the seminary?”
   “What I find most fascinating is the way we learn to think and pray through the study of philosophy and theology, the services, the literature, and personal interviews. I'm making my first steps in developing my spirituality and personal prayer. That is not so easy. But since we are learning to preach, I want to do this every day. Furthermore, the introduction to catechesis and Gregorian chant is an enrichment.”    
   “It seems that you've found your feet over here. Persist in this way. And don't hesitate to contact me when you have questions.”

But life is simply a series of ups and downs. And things were not always easy. The most difficult time was when fellow students gave up. They realized after an internal struggle that the priesthood was not really for them and left. It stunned me every time, because during our stay in the seminary a personal relationship had developed.
   “I'm leaving tonight.” Truc bowed his head and wept softly.
   We grew up as neighbors, and I joined him here when he had already been in the seminary for four years. But now we went out separate ways. I could hardly believe it. I hugged him for several minutes. “I felt in recent months that your thoughts were often elsewhere. You think I have never doubted my vocation?”
   “After the early death of my dad, I feel an enormous need for affection and tenderness,” said Truc. “No, I don’t think I can handle celibacy. I can’t live in solitude. With you it’s different. You 're so much stronger mentally. You draw strength from the silence, while I lose myself in it.”
   The bell rang; study started. Upset, I was the last person to enter the study room. Truc saw that and before leaving, he sneaked into the study and put his passport photo on my table. On the back of the photo he had written: "My heart will always be with you.”
   That same evening I went to the office of the rector Van Thuan, my spiritual father.
   “It's normal that you are confused at such a critical moment. All I can do is prescribe some spiritual medicine. You can draw much strength from regularly going to the Confession and you will learn how to meditate.”
   “In view of my temperament, I don't think this will be self-evident.”
   “What you need is an iron discipline. And you have that. You must create silence in your heart; push everything aside, and I think about your inner evolution. By this way you learn to speak with the “Other,” the great mystery about whom Jesus says He is a Father. Try to feel His presence. In order to give content to your meditation, prepare it before bedtime. Try it. You will see. This approach works. I wish you good luck!” 
   To this day, I still continue to note down a thought before bedtime.

   Near the seminary, in the heart of the European district of Hue, the broad boulevards and colonial buildings still breathed the grandeur of French imperialism.
   Every Sunday afternoon, I walked with Truc to the Imperial Citadel on the other side of the river. This gigantic complex was built after the unification of Vietnam in 1802 by emperor Gia Long. I was impressed by the size, the pageantry and the splendor. The beating heart, the “forbidden" Purple City, was originally exclusively reserved for the emperor and his entourage.
   But the area was in decline when I went there for the first time. In this haven of tranquillity, birds and butterflies reigned in daytime.
   “I can't understand why Gia Long was inspired by the Forbidden City in Beijing.” I said. “Isn't China our hereditary enemy? For the past two thousand years the shadow of the Chinese Empire has hung over Vietnam, and we've been a colony for centuries.”
   “You're right about that,” Truc said. “Each time the Vietnamese people wrestled independence from China, the kings paid an annual tribute to the Chinese emperor. That feeling of superiority…… I do not like the Chinese either.”

The door of my room swung open. The doorknob slammed against the wall.
   My frightened bodyguard Phuc, who took over from the Lieutenant Colonel, didn’t see me in the bed as I was standing in front of the window. “Damn it, you’re not sleeping yet?”
   “Did you think that I had run away?” I said grinning. “That would be bad for your career!”
   The man shook his head. "Go to bed. Tomorrow I'll call you up. At five.”
   “I know that you monitor me day and night, but that the regime now also determines when I should go to bed is news to me. It would not surprise me to learn that the newly appointed parliament of puppets is debating this issue. All communists are obsessed with the idea that citizens should be more restricted.”
   My aversion to this uncouth, greasy pompadour with the rank of sergeant is stronger than myself. He thinks that he can look forward to a great career by faithfully serving his paymasters. “How old are you, that you think you can lecture me?”
   He adjusted the tie of his green uniform. “Born in 1968 when the Tet offensive marked the end of American imperialism,” he beamed with a greasy smile.
   I turned my head. His breath stank. He hadn’t brushed his teeth for weeks.
   “What do you know about Tet, except for the fables in the falsified history books?”
   As he was unable to formulate a response, Phuc was pissed off and returned to his chair in the corridor.

“Why is Tet is the greatest feast of the year, Mom?”
   “That’s the evidence itself, my little boy. It’s the beginning of the new lunar year and springtime, and also the feast of ancestor worship. Every Vietnamese celebrates Tet.”
   “Also the communists in the North?”
   “I . . . actually don’t know . . . We know nothing about them . . . You should ask Dad when he comes from the land. . . . But, I think so . . . Hmm, yes, I’m sure they do.”
   “Why do we offer for our ancestors incense sticks, fruit, and flowers?”
   “What do you think? To appease their spirits, of course. You know that! Because they still affect our everyday life. I’m going to clean the family grave. Will you give me a helping hand?”
After our return, I want to play again with his improvised toys.
   “Hey, our job isn’t finished yet. Now we have to decorate the house and the family altar. And we must clean the shelves with the pictures of our deceased grandparents. You see: they are smiling to us.”
   “Has every ancestor his own shelve?”
   “Of course!”
   “You tell me a story of each of them!”
   Mom sighs. “A very short one, because there’s also the family dinner tonight.”
   In the evening the whole family was there, including my oldest brother Nguyen San with his wife and children. He was twenty-one years older than me. Uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces joined us also at the festive table. The family home was bursting at the seams. We didn’t often come together, but it was always a cordial reunion. For a while the war was forgotten and joys and sorrows are shared. To grandfather and grandmother, this was the most beautiful day of the year.
   Everyone brought food, and after drinking several glasses of bia hoi, the atmosphere was boisterous. When my oldest brother began to sing; we shrieked with laughter. A song from his childhood about a duck was most popular:
   “One duck opens its two wings,
   It says quack, quack, quack, quack, quack, quack,
   It jumps into a pond . . .
   Everyone made the corresponding gestures and sang along cheerfully. Even my father who was always fully absorbed in the social discussions was moved.
   “I wish you, Mom and Dad, a prosperous and happy life,” I said. Finally I got my long awaited gift. I opened it in an instant.
   “Wow! A real car!” I exclaimed.
   “Well, not a real car, it's made of wood.” He laughed.
   But I was as proud as a peacock. This became my dearest possession.
   I was allowed to stay up until after midnight. Before the family altar, we always gave thanks to our ancestors. At midnight we finished the feast with both a round and a square rice cake.
   “Where is the ruou de?” asked my oldest brother, Nguyen San. “No Tet without a toast with rice alcohol.”
   “Be carefull with the porcelain cups,” said Mum every year again. “These family heirlooms who are only used once a year must serve for eternity.”
   Then the village feast started. Open-mouthed I watched the fireworks.
   “The evil spirits flee at the sound of firecrackers,” Mum said while she put me to bed. I held on to my wooden car while I fell asleep.

Traditionally Tet was regarded as a short-term respite during the civil war. And every year the seminary closed its doors for two weeks.
   “Will you celebrate Tet in Saigon?” Nguyen Tri, the older brother, who was working in Saigon, invited me in 1968.
   “I can't refuse that. I've never been to the capital.”
   After the banquet, at midnight, my brother opened the windows of his apartment. "Your eyes will fall wide open," he laughed. "Fireworks in Saigon are quite different from the fireworks in Ba Ngoat."
   Open-mouthed, I watched the glittering spectacle that illuminated the sky.
   “But don't I hear bombs falling.” I asked aghast.
   I had just spoken when dull thuds could be heard nearby.
   “That's near the presidential palace around the corner,” my brother said, bewildered.
   “Shall we go and have a look?” I asked. “Maybe we can help people?”
   “Are you mad?”
   More detonations followed.
   “This must be an attack by the Viet Cong.”
   Soon also the sound of gunfire from elsewhere in the city stopped the revelry.
   “What's happening here?” my brother said. “Wasn't there a cease-fire?”
   Nguyen Tri was still confused. “Father is right. You can never trust the communists.” 
   And he ordered: “Switch on the radio!”
   We picked up a North Vietnamese station. “All over the country a spontaneous popular uprising against the corrupt puppet regime of the Americans has erupted.” Everyone was aghast. “We call on all residents of the South to support the uprising. You are about to be saved!” After this message, communist battle-songs were broadcast.
   On TV we learned that in a surprise attack the Viet Cong had attacked military barracks, police stations, and government buildings in more than a hundred places. “The building that housed the TV station was also targeted, but that attack was repelled. And everywhere a counter-offensive is being launched. Stay inside.” The TV presenter said.

The next day I heard a testimony from Hue. "Thousands of civil servants, politicians, religious leaders, and even foreigners were executed, burned alive, or bound hand and foot and dumped in mass graves,” said a man upset.

   The spontaneous popular uprising did not happen, but quite the contrary. There came a massive reaction by the Americans and South Vietnamese troops. I saw trucks carrying loads of killed Viet Cong fighters to mass graves. I still shiver when I recall that image. Any sense of humanity had disappeared.
   In the evening the media widely reported these “successes.”

   “What's happening over here, brother? First the North-Vietnamese propaganda and now South-Vietnamese propaganda. The media coverage about the war is one big lie and sheer manipulation. The “good cause” they fight for is nothing more than ideological propaganda.”
   “Only now you've understood that?” he said to my surprise. “Propaganda is an essential part of not only our society but of all societies. It has always been like that in history. And you can't change that, believe me. Despite everything, we can consider ourselves lucky that we are living in South-Vietnam and not in the North.”

   “You were right”, I told Truc later.
   “That's the first time you've admitted that,” he joked.
   “You were already skeptical of the Americans in 1963. Despite their superior weaponry and the incessant bombing, they are not our saviors. The Tet Offensive hit them in the heart. This is a turning point. It will be impossible for the Americans to win the war. Although they were decimated, the communist Viet Cong are the moral victors.”
   “Do you still like corned beef?” laughed Truc while he ran away.
   I threw my shoe at his head.

I'm lying on my bed, but cannot sleep.
   In the closet with the door slightly ajar, I see the glow of the streetlights on my black cassock. I will definitely pack my cassock in my suitcase tomorrow.
   Moments later, I get up. I carefully fold my cassock and rub the buttons. I don’t have to count them. There are 33 buttons, as are the number of years in Jesus’ life.
   No, I do not regret that I followed in His footsteps. If I had to start all over again, I'd do the same, even though I know that anyone who consistently defends the truth is still being mercilessly persecuted. During the past two thousand years little has actually changed. The Communists do not kill us, but let us rot slowly, as if we were lepers of modern times. But whatever may happen: Ill continue to stand up for the truth.

My cassock still felt new when, in 1968, I entered the major seminary. I only had a short time to unpack all my stuff, because we were immediately expected in the chapel for a ceremony. A prayer formula in Latin was followed by being sprayed by the aspergillum. After Ordination I could finally wear my cassock.
   Back from the chapel the “transformation” took place. Civilian clothes were stored in the closet, and I put on a cassock. Closing all the buttons was a complicated chore, and putting on the Roman collar was not easy either; it takes getting used to.
   In full regalia, we were ready for our first public appearance. Doesn’t one say: fine feathers make fine birds? I was the first to enter the recreation area. The older student companions judged me, their words laced with witticisms.
   Someone pulled on the rope around my waist while another observed: "Is there water in your basement?” He pulled down my cassock.
   When my colleagues trickled in, they were also noisily and critically judged.

The black robe was an outward sign of our dignity. We now belonged to a privileged caste. On the street, some bowed or removed their hats, while others made a detour so as not to cross me or look upon me as a marginalized person.
   According to the beliefs of the time, people dressed in a cassock were above the common man and knew everything better. The priest then officiated in the church with his back turned to the people and still climbed the pulpit.
   But I especially wanted to mingle with people and lead by example in the fight against poverty and for peace and justice. This difference of opinion led in 1969 to heated discussions with the person responsible for our spiritual training. This "holy priest" had a penchant for sentimental devotion.
   "You always think you know everything better," said the professor as the umpteenth debate reached boiling point. His textbook plopped down on the desk.
   “Revolutionary! Your place is in the army and not in the seminary. Where are we going if devotion to Mary and the saints no longer occupy a central place in the life of priests!”
   “The saints and especially Our Lady of La Vang are dear to me, but this devotion only fuels my commitment. Our mission is rooted in the real world, right?”
   The bell signalled the end of the course. I was the last person to leave the classroom.
   “Professor,” I said, “for months now I have followed your lessons with a bitter feeling. I want to discuss the matter with our Rector.”
   “After Compline,” he said measuredly.
   “Tell me what bothers you.” Nguyen Van Thuan listened to the arguments of both parties. After some thought, he said: "The image of God . . . Every believer tries to grasp it. Some do that through contemplation, others by action. At first sight, your ideas are diametrically opposed, but that is not so. You are both climbing the same mountain, but from different sides. Both of you hope to reach the top. But the top remains inaccessible because God is infinitely greater than we are.”
   I was impressed by so much wisdom and insight.
   “Asking which one of the two paths is the best is a false question,” he continued. “The most important thing is to allow the Spirit of God to penetrate deep within yourself.” Van Thuan began to look for something on his permanently chaotic desk. “That booklet. Where did I put it? I recently read the writings of the thirteenth-century Persian writer Muhammad Rumi.” Van Thuan took off his glasses. “I believe the mystics become the closest to God in all religious traditions” Moments later, he found what he wanted and began to read: “I have travelled the world seeking God and I have not found him anywhere. When I came back home, I saw him at the door of my heart. And He said, ‘Here I have been waiting for you for eons.’ Then I entered the house with Him.”
   Van Thuan closed the booklet. “One way. There is only one way to happiness. That is to find God within yourself. That's the issue.”
   I got up and bowed.
   “One moment," the Rector ordered. "Before you leave, I want you to listen to a piece of music that sums up everything and will give you food for thought.”
   He set up his old phonograph and took a vinyl record with the Ninth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven in a performance of Herbert von Karajan.
   “At the time of the completion of his last symphony Beethoven was completely deaf, but it became his crowning achievement. This work reflects his suffering and despair, but especially his dream that one day all men will become brothers. Listen to the finale!”
            “Your magic brings together
            What custom has sternly divided.
            All men shall become brothers,
            Wherever your gentle wings hover.
  Without a word, we returned to our rooms.
I went back to bed and turned painfully on one side. Because of my paralysis, it was difficult to find the right position for sleeping. The twilight lit up a photo on the wall of my inspiring example: Redemptorist Brother Van.
   He stayed after the division between North and South Vietnam in 1955 in the monastery of Thai Ha in Hanoi. Today, that same monastery is once again the center of the resistance against the communist regime. For several weeks there, everyday thousands of believers demonstrate peacefully against the plans for the construction of a wastewater treatment plant next to the church. This plant is intended to serve Dong Da Hospital that the government has set up in the former monastery. Last month the presence of thousands of Catholics who were mobilized by the chimes of the church bells prevented the storming of the site by the police. Since then a tense atmosphere hangs around Thai Ha.
   Brother Van. I’m fascinated by his consistent peaceful thinking and acting. But more than half a century ago the Communists sentenced him to fifteen years' hard labor. After suffering torture and brainwashing, and having been locked in solitary confinement in a re-education camp, he died due to tuberculosis. The word “compromise” was not in his dictionary. This is how I want to live and how I always will, whatever may happen. I have learned that I will pay with my life for this attitude.

2. 5:00 a.m.

“It’s time!”
   Still half asleep I pretended that I didn’t hear Phuc.
   “Damn it. We leave in one hour.”
   When he grabbed me by my pajamas, I didn’t react immediately. I pushed him away. “You’ve no right to touch me.”
   Getting up was difficult. The melody of the Song of Peace by Kim Long still lingered in my head: Make me an instrument of Your peace. I thought of Van Loi who was now going to Thai Ha in Hanoi to attend this evening a prayer vigil.
      I was still sitting on the edge of the bed when the secretary of the Archbishop knocked on the half-open door. My Advent wreath wobbled when the door swung open. The light of the lamp illuminated the purple ribbon, a symbol of penance and repentance. I realized that my penance was to begin today. But will the Communists ever repent?
   “Dearest colleague. I bring you greetings from our Archbishop, who wishes you a safe journey,” said the man hesitated as he put his hands around mine.
   First, I didn’t know how to react, but I put my teeth on each other.
   “Why can’t . . . the Archbishop . . . come and greet me  . . . and wish me a safe trip?” 
   “His Lordship wanted to greet you personally yesterday.” The secretary tried to calm me down. “But his visitors stayed longer than expected.”
   “Any explanation seems acceptable. The Archbishop knows I never go to bed before midnight. Does he not understand the importance of this moment? This is my farewell to Hue. My rickety body will not survive another five years of imprisonment. What new compromise did he sign with the Communists?” was my biting comment.
   “Now you are imagining things. His uncle and aunt from Da Nang were visiting him. You know very well that His Lordship is an advocate of a gentle approach because this produces better results than your hard line. Religious freedom has increased in recent years.”
   “Don’t make me laugh. What does this freedom mean? Even before the sun has risen, I will return to the concentration camp.”
   “Pessimism does not help us move forward. After 35 years, we are once again active in schools, hospitals, orphanages, and institutions for the disabled. And we also take care of HIV patients. The six seminaries count 1,500 candidates for the priesthood, and restrictions on the pilgrimage to La Vang, which is so dear to you, have been lifted.”
   “A zero result makes you happy. Lenin believed that the idea of ​​the existence of God is an unspeakable horror and an awful plague. And the current rulers are still as merciless as their mentor. Don’t try to reach a compromise with a regime that, for decades, has destroyed every form of religion and now makes some opportunistic concessions.”
   I pointed trembling to the cathedral. “How many Catholics, who had desperately taken refuge there during the Tet Offensive, were killed?
   The secretary didn’t answer right away.
   “Were that four hundred or five hundred people?”
   “Dearest colleague,” let us not quarrel when we say goodbye,” sighed the secretary, while he helped me button up my shirt.
   “Don’t bother too much, because tonight I’ll have to wear prison clothes.”
   “Remember the good times. You had a good time here anyway, right? After your stroke we’ve taken good care of you.”
   His smooth talking got on my nerves.
   “In the refrigerator in the kitchen you will find a portion of banh khoai,” he whispered. “You’ll like that pancake. Next to it is a jar of your favourite peanut sesame sauce.”
   “Thanks for that last supper.”
   “Look at things positively, dear colleague.” He tried to reassure me “Do you know that . . . ”
   “You can talk, you. How many years have you spent in the camps? Since the Communist takeover in 1975, my counter indicates eighteen, with an additional fourteen years of house arrest with greased pompadours who watch you day and night.”
   Phuc, with his pointed chin in the door opening, was intently listening to our conversation. In anger I burst out, “Can you count how long I’ve lived in freedom?” I sneered.
   “Do you know how to count?”
During the final offensive of 1975 the retreat of the South Vietnamese troops without the backing of the Air Force was a debacle. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers were killed or captured during desperate fighting. On March 30, the port city of Da Nang, where two million refugees had gathered, fell.
   The road to Saigon was now wide open. While some units with the courage of despair offered resistance, the country fell into the grip of a psychosis of fear. It was buzzing with rumors of massacres in the conquered territories. Day by day these stories became more gruesome. But who could distinguish truth from fiction? An unstoppable flow of refugees moved from the North to Saigon.

“Will you pick up my wife and children at my house?”, Nguyen Tri anxiously asked over the telephone. “Go to the headquarters of the State Security. Use the back door to get in. Here also the situation is dramatic. "
    There was a lot of activity around the building. On the roof , American helicopters flew to and fro. Only with great difficulty we got inside. We walked through the corridors and up the stairs. In the courtyard heaps of documents were being burned. They were even thrown out of the windows.
    "You're going to leave soon," my brother told his wife and children to reassure them. "There is a naval vessel off the coast. That ship is leaving for the United States. "
    “Are you leaving too?” I asked.
    “I don't know  . . . I'm the head of department over here  . . . But do I have a choice in the matter? If the Communists would discover that I've worked here, they'll surely kill me.”
    "How great is the risk?"
    "Very big," he said dejectedly. "Our service is infiltrated by agents of the Viet Cong. Like the doormen downstairs. They record everything that happens."
    "But you can also join us, brother," he assured me.
    I shook my head. "No, I'm waiting for orders from my bishop. He's my boss. He decides.”
   “At home I also have a boss”, Nguyen Tri smiled. “But it is I that take this decision now.”
   His wife blushed a deep red, but he immediately added, “It was only a joke.”
   “This is not the time to make jokes,” she said with tears in her eyes as she firmly hugged her children.
    "Sorry, you are right." Nguyen Tri heaved a deep sigh. "Yesterday I wanted to visit father and mother in Quang Bien, but I could not possibly leave here."
    "But don't worry," I reassured him. "I just came from there. Many people have fled the village. But all is quiet over there. Father and mother are doing well. Our big brother San and our sister Hieu will take care of them. "
    The door swung open. "Next flight: in about two minutes! Leave now!” commanded a senior officer.
    "I want to  . . . " my brother said haltingly.
    "No goodbyes,” commanded the man.
    "Hold on to your car," I patted my cousin's head. "Once I also got a gift from your father. This is your most treasured possession!" Sheepishly he looked back while the others had already rounded the corner.
“I’ve only ten employees left," said Archbishop Nguyen Kim Dien in a panicky voice on the telephone. "And only seven of my hundred and twenty priests remain at their posts. All the others have fled. Is your presence as Chaplain of the Society of Missionaries in Saigon still necessary? Over here in Hue, you would be of great help.”
   “No one is irreplaceable,” I answered him.
   In Saigon, I used my remaining money to buy a plane ticket to Da Nang. Dressed in my cassock, I took the last flight to the North with a few other passengers.
   The customs officers didn’t trust me. They stuck their nose in a small bottle of holy oil and, rummaging through my bag, they only found some clothes, a prayer book, and a copy of the New Testament.
   On arrival troop movements severely disrupted my onward journey. It took me seven days to travel the last hundred kilometers. I travelled by car, by push cart, and in a railway carriage that was pulled by a horse. I found a collapsed rusty bicycle but it was broken after a few kilometers. Along the way I took care of the wounded and administered the Last Rites to the dying. Some scenes seemed to come straight out of the Apocalypse, the description of the end of the world by John the Evangelist.
   As I did not even have a single piastre, I managed to pay for a room and board by working one night in the kitchen of a restaurant. The next day, I exchanged in a bar my New Testament for a bowl of pho soup.
   “It’ll help you overcome the bad times,” I told the woman.
   She smiled. This was the first smile I had seen in weeks.
   I continued my journey on foot and I was swimming in the South China Sea when an army patrol turned up. Luckily I stayed out of their sight.
   A fisherman took me to the port of Thuy Duong. The first North Vietnamese soldiers I met were courteous. They allowed me to continue my journey to Hue.
   On March 25, I arrived in the Archdiocese. The hunchback man who opened the door made wide gestures. He thought I was crazy, but the Archbishop cordially welcomed me.
“You’re a man of my heart”

The next day, long columns of North Vietnamese troops marched through the European neighborhood. At the same place where twelve years earlier I had seen American advisers brimming with confidence, I now saw silent and shabbily dressed soldiers marching through the town. Their health was visibly affected by their stay in the jungle.
   In the South, hundreds of thousands of people, led by President Nguyen Van Thieu, left the country. However, many people didn’t succeed in leaving the country. On April 30, Communist troops marched through the deserted streets of Saigon.

"Are you ready?" asked Kien in his plush, ironed uniform and Sunday shirt. The man exuded a sense of responsibility. In a conversation of his superior, that I accidentally heard years ago, I could deduce that Kien reportedly ever had studied at the Institute of Marxist-Leninist Studies in Hanoi. That’s the breeding ground of party leaders. But he has had to take a step back. What happened? Kien never said a word about it.
   Clinging myself to my walking frame, I put my cassock, as well as some clothes, toilet utensils, my missal, photographs, and Van Loi’s gift into my travel bag. In the small pile of letters, my eyes were drawn to the picture of my First Holy Communion, a few letters from Mom when I was in the seminary and in the camps, and a photo of my father and myself. “The two rock-hard heads,” I read on the back. I recognized the handwriting of my sister Thi Hieu.
   I opened a letter of congratulations that I had received from Hieu on the occasion of my priestly ordination. “Jesus compared the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed. This smallest seed on earth grows into a large mustard tree that yields thousands of fruits if planted in good soil and given much water and light. This is what I wish you during your priesthood. And whatever will happen: I will always be on your side. Warm greetings. Your loving sister.”
   I clenched my teeth. “Van Loi is right,” I muttered. “No matter how difficult the situation of the Catholics in Vietnam, we shouldn't give up the fight. No, me too I shouldn't throw in the towel. Not for the secretary of the archbishop. For nobody!” 
   The last document I put in my travel bag was an envelope with the Coat of Arms of the Archdiocese. It was my appointment as Secretary of Archbishop Nguyen Kim Dien. I closed my eyes.

“Bring a message of reconciliation and cooperation," the Archbishop recommended when he asked me to write a draft for an open letter to the new rulers.
   “Already an expression of sympathy for the Communists?”
   “No, I’ve seen too many horrors. But you noticed in the eyes of the North Vietnamese soldiers who marched in the streets here that they are downright tired of this war. Finally peace and tranquillity can return. We must insist on religious freedom which is guaranteed by the Constitution of North Vietnam.”
   “Don’t delude yourself. I don’t trust the Communists at all.”
   “Give them the benefit of the doubt.” 
   “A search warrant!” Secret Service Agents pushed aside the hunchbacked gatekeeper and noisily burst into the Archbishop's palace. “You stand guard at the front door,” the leader ordered three armed men, “and don't let anyone in. The others follow me.”
   “May I ask what's happening here?” I said.
   The leader consulted his paper. “Are you Bishop Nguyen Kim Dien?”
   “His secretary.”
   “Where is Dien?”
   “Monsignor is in his office on the first floor. And who may I announce,” I said while I tried to stop the men from mounting the stairs.
   “That's none of your business,” the leader snapped.
   Two agents stood guard in front of the office of the Archbishop. He was interrogated by the leader and two men.
   I regularly peeked out into the hallway, but the situation remained unchanged for hours. Around noon, I took a folder under my arm, and I went to the office.
   “His Lordship has to sign these letters,” I said to one of the agents.
   He knocked on the door and an interrogator came out. Through the half-open door, I saw the dazed Archbishop.
   “The outgoing mail,” I stammered.
   “The Archbishop currently has other things on his mind.”
   “Should I come back later?”
   “Everything depends on his cooperation. We're not on the same wavelength yet, but we’ll get there,” said the man laughing. “I’ll let you know when we’re ready.”
   It was half past seven in the evening when the interrogators finally left.
   The Archbishop looked like a beaten dog. "This is absurd! I had to answer the same questions in writing over and over again. The versions were compared, and a discussion then ensued about the differences.”
   “Well, that was that. We're rid of them.”
   “That's what you think! They'll be back tomorrow.”
   “To do what?”
   “That's what I'm asking myself too.”
   “Try to put all that out of your head. Don't you want to watch the news program on TV?”
   “Yes, the English language Channel 11.”
   “Impossible. It doesn't exist anymore!”
   “And Channel 9?”
   “What's happening here? These are new presenters. And they speak with a North-Vietnamese accent.”

The next day at eight o'clock Secret Service agents again burst into the Archbishop's office.
   “And this time you won't disturb us,” the leader snarled.
   But I didn't let him put me off. “Can I be of any help monsignor?”
   “Deliver this letter to the principal of the Quoc Hoc-College and go to our institutions in the poorest areas of the city. Prepare a report on their greatest needs.”
   In the streets of Hue hung the smell of burnt books. A truck delivered a new load from the University Library. Under the all-seeing eyes of soldiers, students enthusiastically threw the books on a large bonfire. “Fortunately, yesterday, we have moved all the important books of our library to a safe place,” I thought.
   I saw that members of the Youth League cut the long hair of passersby. There was no getting away from it. And in the streets workers placed loudspeakers at every twentieth house. Soon the loudspeakers incessantly broadcast songs praising Ho Chi Minh, socialism, and revolution.
   I asked for Tin Sang at the news stand.
   “Don't you know that all South-Vietnamese newspapers are banned since yesterday? I only have Nhan Dan, the mouth piece of the communist party, and the newspaper of the Youth League.”
   “No, thank you,” I said astonished. There were also stacks of books for sale with the writings of Ho Chi Minh, Marx, Engels and Lenin, and books about the achievements of the Communist Party.
   “Have you sold much today?”
   The man didn’t reply.
   An immense portrait of Ho Chi Minh was hung on the facade of the Quoc Hoc-College.
   “Why the portrait?” I asked the receptionist.
   “Don't you know that our historic leader attended school over here?”
   “Eh, . . . no. Are you new here?”
   She laughed. “Everyone is new here. And you are?”
   “The secretary of the Archbishop.”
   “A bishop, you said. What is that?”
   “I've come to deliver a personal letter to the principal,” I mumbled.
   “He's coming down the stairs.” I saw a man who was neatly dressed in a custom-made suit.
   I was completely bewildered. “Since when have you been the principal?”
   “Since yesterday.”
   “Where is Mr. Truong, your predecessor?”
   “He is attending a  ‘ten day class.’ As soon as their minds are purified from the cultural and ideological contamination of which they have been victims, they can get back to work,” the man smiled.
   He addressed his secretary. “Please send the driver of the removal van from Hanoi to the principal's residence next door. My wife is waiting for him.”
   In the classes I pass by when leaving the building, children are singing militant communist songs. Is this there new morning prayer?

Back on my room, I listened secretly to The Voice of America. Thich Quang Do, the leader of the underground association of Buddhists, said, “We will never become slaves of the Communist Party.” He was arrested the same day. In protest against the religious persecution, twelve Buddhist monks and nuns set themselves on fire. But I did not see any pictures of it on TV.
   I was perplexed by the clever form of state control that quietly usurped our society. Communist administrators were appointed in our orphanages, nursing homes, and institutions for the disabled. The seminaries became training centers for communists and all religious properties were nationalized. To make way for the invasion of North Vietnamese and to relieve pressure on the cities, millions of South Vietnamese were ordered to move to the New Economic Zones. For the deported Catholics abandoned to their fate, together with some colleagues, I wrote the manual, I Live Happily.
   A week before the fall of South Vietnam, Pope Paul VI had appointed Nguyen Van Thuan, my former rector at the seminary, to be Archbishop of Saigon. But he also ended up behind bars. Later, I helped to put the messages he had written in prison in the book The Road to Hope.
   The interrogations of the Archbishop continued for 120 days. Everyday I assisted him as much as possible.
   “Keep your spirits up!” I said. “Prayer is the most powerful weapon against such psychological terror.”
   “Do you think I’m doing something else,” he answered irritatedly. “The Communists do not want reconciliation, only install a terrible tyranny.”

“Prime Minister Pham Van Dong is willing to receive you, My Lord.” I gave him the letter.
   “That surprises me. I never thought he was going to answer my letter. But I want you to come with me.”
   The rainy season had just ended when we took the train to Hanoi on a sunny November morning.
   “Our security is guaranteed,” I said in a whisper. I had recognized four agents of the Secret Service in our wagon. We communicated in writing, exchanging small pieces of paper.
   At the station, the secretary of the Archbishop of Hanoi awaited us.
   “Finally we can talk freely," sighed Dien in the office of his colleague. But the man pointed his finger to the ceiling and the wall. Here every conversation was overheard.
   “Shall we prepare ourselves for the six o'clock Mass?” The Archbishop of Hanoi winked.
   “It's only half past five,” I remarked.
   “It is necessary to prepare well for the service,” Monsignor Dien said, giving me a poke in the back. The vestry was the only place where they could talk freely.
   I stood guard in the choir, and I knocked on the door when two acolytes, of course Secret
Agents, arrived.
   When Mass started, I noticed my boss had lost his composure.
   After dinner, we walked in the garden. “After the Communist takeover in 1955 terrible things have happened here,” he whispered, distressed. “The church has been decimated, and I fear that we do not fully understand what is awaiting us. The Communists have only one goal: to exterminate all religions.”
The office of Prime Minister Pham Van Dong in a former French residence was crammed with books. We noticed the works of all the great French writers: Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus.
   What had gone into the making of ​​this son of a Mandarin who also is a renowned Francophile? After graduating from the college Quoc Hoc in Hue, the best school in the country, he fought in the jungle against the French and the Americans and now, for over twenty years, he has been at the head of a regime that is more repressive than any previous. But somewhat intimidated by his multitude of advisors, I didn’t have the courage to ask that question.
   Dong didn’t address the question of attending the Synod of Bishops in Rome: "We regret that we cannot guarantee your safety abroad.”
   All other issues were also systematically rejected.
   After ten minutes, Van Dong rose and bowed. "I beg your pardon, but I have to attend another meeting. I wish you every success.” On the way out the Prime Minister added: “Don’t hesitate to contact me if you have other questions.”
   We were bemused.
   “Why didn’t you speak about the suffering of the Christians?” I asked Dien.
   For the first time since I have known him, he thundered: “Do you want to make my life impossible? That I suffer the same fate as Nguyen Van Thuan?”
   Thinking of “my” former rector of the seminary, the music of the Ninth Symphony of Ludwig von Beethoven sounded again in my ears.
   It was a sad return journey. The Archbishop had forgotten how to laugh. After having been cross-examined for four months, he was now publicly humiliated. Retreating into his office he became very silent.
   Meanwhile, I represented the Archdiocese at meetings of the Fatherland Front. These meetings of the umbrella organization of the Communist associations started by singing the song Ten Thousand Years. That hymn wishes Ho Chi Minh longevity. When singing the refrain the participants waved their hands in the air.
   I observed this artificial enthusiasm with arms crossed. When someone scolded me, I answered: “Nothing in this world lives for ten thousand years. Am I correct in saying that Mr. Minh died in 1969?”

“Hmm, do you want me to carry your suitcase?” asked Kien.
    I shook my head. "It is not heavy. There are no strait-jackets or handcuffs in it”
   The Lieutenant Colonel remained silent. He knew that at this early hour the slightest reaction could lead to a litany of complaints. He went into the kitchen, took a cup of coffee and read the newspaper of the Fatherland Front.
   “I’ve come for my Last Supper,” I said when I wandered into the kitchen. On the front page I saw a picture of Vice-President Ha Van Nui. Drool ran out of that man's mouth. From the headline it inferred he had exchanged experiences about religion and ethnicity in Laos.
   “What's going on? The Fatherland Front is also interested in religion?” 
   Because there was no reaction from him, I went a step further. “Shall I tell you something you don’t know yet?”
   This time he looked up.
   “In April 1977, when you were still in elementary school learning about Marxism-Leninism, Archbishop Nguyen Kim Dien denounced the treatment of Catholics as second-class citizens at a meeting of the Fatherland Front. As the Director of the seminary, he and I distributed hundreds of copies of the text at home and abroad, and we disappeared behind bars. I got twenty years.”
   Kien put down his newspaper. “Hmm, and how many have you actually done?”
   “Four months. Thanks to international protests after the admission of Vietnam to the United Nations, I was released on Christmas Eve. Although free, I was under house arrest in Doc So parish, and since that time, I am forbidden to say Mass and preach.”
   Shaking his head, Kien plunged his head into the newspaper.

My mind travels back to Doc So. In 1978 I headed a small, close-knit, but traumatized parish.
   “What has happened over here?”
   “Leave the past behind,” advised the oldest man of the village.
   “Why do so many parishioners visit my predecessor's tomb every day?”
   “He was a just man who cared for young people and the poor.”
   “What has happened to him?”
   “It's better that you don't know.”
   I gave the man a steely gaze. “I shall literally follow in his footsteps.”
   At first the man looks surprised but then he bowed his head. “The Viet Cong have buried him alive in 1968.”
   “I don't think that the communists will dare to do that a second time”, I said.
   I saw appear a shy smile on his face.
   “Tomorrow I hope to meet many people in order to clean up the parish hall,” I said at the end of the evening prayer service. “We will create a study area. I personally, and others too, I hope, also will guide young people who  have learning difficulties. We'll also have a recreation room where one can play chess and domino. There'll be a ping pong table next week. And then we'll organize a competition” There was spontaneous applause.
   Afterwards the communist mayor who was sitting in the first row approached me. “Congratulations. Our village needs people who take initiatives. And why shouldn't we work together? The municipality will create a farmers' cooperative association. Can you urge the farmers to join the association?”
   “It looks like a valuable idea,” I replied. “But I am not a farmer and everyone should decide for himself whether to join or not join the association. Isn't Vietnam a free country?” Without saying another word he slinked off.
   The next Saturday I asked the parishioners: “Tomorrow morning, take your pick-axe and your hoe and follow me after Mass.” Together we cultivated the confiscated land of the Church, although we were offered a smaller lot, by way of compensation, that was less fertile and further away.
   The next day, while I was playing dominoes in the parish house with some young people, the major called me to account.
   Impassive, I kept on playing.
   My neighbor said, “There is no Ly here, only Father Ly.”
   The major repeated, “I want to talk to the Father for a while.” Immediately he exploded, “What gives you the right to farm government land?”
   “Then answer the letter I sent you three weeks ago,” I reacted. “Silence means consent. We could not wait any longer because the planting season has already started. And please excuse me, my playing partners expect me to play now.”

In Doc So began also my peaceful struggle for religious freedom. I never asked for permission for my activities, nor did I ever draw up ​​a list with the names of the participants in the Masses and the Bible classes.
   In my first manifesto, Seven Just and Reasonable Points, I listed the violations of human rights and listed the measures that restrict religious freedom. But how could I publish it? My colleague Phan Van Loi gave me a copy to the international human rights organizations. And Thi Hieu, my older sister, who remained unmarried and who visited me often with my parents, brought me an old loudspeaker from our former parish.
   “That's the most useful gift I've ever got,” I crowed with pleasure.
   I hung that loudspeaker in the steeple of the church and I read myself the text of the Manifesto through a microphone. Father didn’t say one word, but he was beaming.
   By this way I also broadcasted the Vietnamese programs of Radio Veritas, a Catholic radio station in the Philippines.

I continued to challenge Kien and asked, “What do you know about me?”
   I loved to sow doubt in the mind of my head guard.
   “From 1992 and after nine years in the camps, I was again placed under house arrest in the Archbishop's Palace where we are now.”
   Kien looked up.
   “Don’t look so surprised! Here I wrote the Ten Point Program, my indictment against the harmful effects of religious politics. Without being noticed, my colleague Van Loi, who visited me as recently as yesterday, managed to distribute hundreds of copies. Your intelligence network never knew this. There is no shortage of secret agents; making them work together is apparently impossible.”
   “You with your manifestos and letters! What have you achieved? Nothing!”
   “Religious freedom is crucial to every society. For that I will continue to fight my whole life.”
   “You, always with your faith.” Kien makes a disposable gesture.
   “You really don’t want to understand it! Believing is about the call of God, and not that of Marx. The government wants to reconcile obedience to God and love of socialism. However, the more you force the faithful, the less they have sympathy for the hideous tyranny that you impose on their thoughts.” I continued in a higher gear. “In addition, your words have no value whatsoever. The only words that can mean anything are those of the Secretary General of the Communist Party and the Prime Minister.”
   “Ah, don’t think that they care about your writings!” laughed Kien. “Our country has other fish to fry with the village leaders than to take account of worldly ideas of erring priests.”
   Undaunted, I went on. “Why do I have to return to Nam Ha? Why was I exiled to Nguyet Bieu after I had written my Ten Points Program?  Do you know what one of your bosses said  in order to prevent the contamination of other priests? You are afraid. Yes afraid, because the authenticity of our faith threatens your corrupt regime.”
   Kien hid his face behind his newspaper.

I remember Nguyet Bieu, after Doc So the second remote parish that I was assigned to as punishment. Starting in 1994, I was the successor of my other colleague and dissident Huu Giai over there.
   “Your parish has less than a hundred believers," said Giai. “Because your pastoral mission is limited, you still have plenty of time. Why don’t you teach? You speak different languages ​​and have musical talent. And who in this country has such a knowledge of astronomy? In this region no training or specific education is offered. The only thing you find here are Communists stationed at the front and rear of the house and near your bedroom”
   “You and your humor" I laughed.
   I didn’t think his idea crazy. “I accompanied in Doc So young people with learning lag, but I've never taught. Maybe I’m too hot-tempered? Because when I teach, it’ll do it my way.”
   “Try it,” said Giai encouragingly.

Many people showed up for my first French lesson. With the help of some parishioners, the offer was quickly extended to English, and music. People even came from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, to attend the course on astronomy.
   I demanded full attention of the participants. Whoever was inattentive was expelled from the course after the first warning. The courses were free. I just asked for a small contribution for electricity. And those who didn’t have money paid nothing.
   At Nguyet Bieu, my interest in technology prompted me also to use a computer. But as they had quickly understood the potential danger, the authorities interfered and hampered the possible sale of computer equipment parts. Friends who had fled Vietnam and who lived in the United States sent me parts by mail. And tourists gave me packages. “Fragile” was written on the package above the symbol of a glass. With a manual in my hand, I assembled patiently my first computer and then a second, followed by a third. I also taught beginners how to use computers. But my priority went to the children of the poorest families.
   Van Loi later helped me to establish a connection to the Internet. We kept this secret, because I sensed the enormous potential of this media. For the first time we were able to spread our ideas worldwide without being confronted with Communist censorship. What a revelation! I felt that the Internet would become the most powerful tool in my peaceful struggle for freedom. In anticipation of the use of our “secret weapon,” we continued the use of the traditional “fighting methods.” So in the year 2000, I hooked up the slogan “Religious Freedom or Death”to the church tower of Nguyet Bieu.

At five to six, I heard the chapel bell. Some retired colleagues shuffled to the chapel.
   Kien got up. Since I received amnesty at Tet 2005, he is my inseparable shadow. However, he is the first Head Guard to have lasted longer than three months. He has become calmer in the last year, probably due to his Zen meditation exercises, but he doesn’t speak about that for fear of losing his job. Last year, he was promoted from Major to Lieutenant Colonel. And there are those who wonder what good can come from a dissident priest! Despite our differences of views a bond has grown between us. It seems we are destined for each other. I guess he will be there when I'm on my deathbed.
   “Err, your wheelchair?” he asked.
   I made a dismissive gesture. "In the Gospel of St. John we read, ‘When you are young, you put on your own belt and walk where you like; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go.’ I don’t feel old. My spirit is alive and well.”

3. 6:00 a.m.

When I opened the sliding side door of the ambulance, the driver didn’t move an inch. I climbed painfully aboard and clung to Kien when I tried to lie down. He put my legs straight.
   Heaving a sigh, a nurse wriggled in with a wicker basket and my walking frame.
   “Good morning,” she said gruffly. “Nurse Ngoc. I must accompany you. And with a sick priest on board. That’s all I know.”
   It looked that she stood up with her wrong leg.
   “Ah! You bring the provisions”, said Kien.
   “Why a nurse?” I was thinking by myself. “What could she possibly do should I suffer another stroke?”
   Because of our travel bags the space was very cramped. The metal folding seats were especially uncomfortable. I remembered last year’s journey. Then we had to face the ordeal of sections of bad roads at the beginning of the journey, now they would come at the end of the journey. Anyway, this trip was to be a terrible ordeal for my poor body.
   Similarly during the outward journey, we had little trouble with the driver. All he could do was mumble a few sounds that were like “yes” or “no.”
    Installed at his side, Phuc enjoyed his position of strength. He caressed the barrel of his gun. Did he think that I may want to escape? Without my walking frame I couldn’t even take two steps.
   When Kien gave the signal to leave, Phuc indicated that I must be tied up. “These are orders.” He produced the letter from a senior government official in Hanoi.
   I protested. “I will not be put on a leash,” and I turned to Kien. “You want to turn everyone into slaves. If Phuc could make decisions here, he would even put a muzzle on me. Because that's the goal—to silence me.”
   The Lieutenant Colonel, who is now under attack on both sides, raised his voice. “Shut up! I am the boss here, Phuc. The journey is already difficult enough. Ly will not be tied up.”
   Then he turned to me. “As for you, you're exaggerating things again. I've never silenced you.”
   “The 1.2 million employees of the Secret Service are spying on everyone in every city, every village, every street and every house. Anyone whose head sticks out of the field is arrested.” I gasped for breath. “Besides, the government sins against the Confucian tradition.”
   Kien pricked up his ears, for he had never heard this argument. “Err, Confucius? What has the Chinese thinker and philosopher to do with the governance of our country? He lived 2,500 years ago.”
   “Following the example of Confucius, the communist propaganda cultivates the combination of talent and virtue and emphasizes the values ​​of incorruptibility, moral leadership and effective management every day on TV and in the newspapers. Yet our leaders are common bandits, and this country of ours is rotten to the bone. But you dont see that on TV.
   Ngoc was stunned. “What’s wrong with watching the seven-o’clock news? I look every night at it. So I’m well informed about what’s happening in our country. And why would I dissatisfied? I’m happy. Last month, I could buy a moped for my son. Five years ago that was unthinkable.”
   Kien and Phuc nodded in agreement and the driver agreed with a buzzing sound.
   “I 'm talking about freedom. Only on paper does our country guarantee human rights, because over and above everything and everyone sits the government with the Communist Party at the top of the hierarchy. They are untouchable and can get away with anything. What a farce!”
   Suddenly it was quiet inside the car. The ambulance had to execute a difficult maneuver when it left the Palace of the Archbishop. We needed to drive onto the boulevard in the opposite direction. The danger didn’t come from cyclists and rickshaws but from hundreds of scooters. When we finally managed to cross the road, a cacophony of horns and bells erupted.
   I looked at the steeple of the chapel. My thoughts turned to my colleagues who were celebrating Mass. To unite myself with them, I took out my breviary. The now battered copy that I got during my ordination remains my anchor.
    I looked at the annotation made last night in the chapel. The first reading of the Mass for the coming weekend comes from Chapter 40 of the Book of Isaiah.

Comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her

that her hard service has been completed.
It’s been years since I had last read that text. The prophet Joshua not only announces the end of exile, but also predicted that Yahweh Himself will guide the return of the exiles.

See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power.
And he rules with a mighty arm.
He tends his flock like a shepherd.
These words were written 2,700 years ago and are still relevant!
   “No, our fight is not in vain”, I convinced myself. ”We will turn the tide! One day Vietnam will be freed from the Communist yoke. The question is not whether that will happen, but when.”
   I kissed the text of Isaiah and pressed it against my heart.

Nurse Ngoc pointed to the Central Hospital. “My father died there in 1987,” she sighed.
   “What happened to him?”
   “A long illness.” The tone of her voice betrayed the fact that his death continued to affect her. “First, he lived in the jungle during the war. And then he was deployed in the occupation of Cambodia. His health was broken.”
   “You have a Tonkin accent?”
   “I was born in Vinh.”
   “Then you shouldn’t worry. As a North Vietnamese and with a war hero in the family your children will receive priority in the allocation of a scholarship and a place at the best colleges and universities. And later they can go to work for the government or a state-owned company. However, I advise you to become a member of the Communist Party, if you haven’t already got your party card.”
   Ngoc shook her head.
   “Such a card makes your life a lot easier. My guards can give you all the information about it.”
   Kien and Phuc looked at each other in despair, but remained silent.
   “Another piece of good advice; always obey your bosses. For anyone who steps outside the line there is the rule of Three Generations. You not only put your own future at stake, but also that of your mother, your husband and your children. They will be banished from school, their job will be taken from them, or access to health care denied.”
   Frightened, the nurse didn’t know how to react.
   “However, I have one consolation: Communism will self-destruct!”
   At the traffic lights my words were drowned out by the decibels of the young guys on their scooters, so I repeated in a loud voice: "There will be no external attack. Communism will destroy itself.”
   “What are you saying now?” Ngoc exclaimed.
   “Communism bears all the elements of self-destruction in itself. Atheism, materialism, hatred, violence in a combination with corruption and deception reinforce an already negative spiral. Only harsh repression manages to temporarily keep up appearances. But this cocktail is ultimately fatal. On the Vietnamese flag the large yellow star surrounded by a red field will soon be replaced by a shooting star.”
   Phuc threw a tantrum. “Damn it! Don’t mock the symbol of our country.”
   I grinned.

We drove across the Perfume River parallel to the citadel. I cast a last look at the impressive complex where I spent much of my free time on Sunday afternoons. And it must be said: it has been beautifully restored in recent years. I don’t suspect the Communists have any interest in history or culture, but each year millions of tourists visit the Imperial City and that yields a lot of money.
   We turned right, onto Main Road Number 1. At the Kim Long exit are the homes of former mandarins of the emperor. They are now inhabited by party officials. And on the horizon we see the seven-story Thien Mu Pagoda, once a hotbed of resistance against the French colonial power and the regime of President Ngo Dinh Diem. Monk Thich Quang Duc went from there in June 1963 to Saigon to set himself on fire.
   “There,” Ngoc pointed out a bit further. “My husband works in that factory.”
   To my surprise, I notice a lot of construction activity from all sides.
   “Err, so quiet?” said Kien who noticed my surprise. “Shall I refresh your memory? Since 1986, Vietnam has experienced economic growth of 7% each year. Or is that not permitted?”
   “You know very well that the planned economy was replaced by capitalism because the occupation of Cambodia brought our country to the edge of the abyss.”
   Ngoc, who was certainly thinking of her father, listened intently.
   “The doi moi, that infamous political reform, proves that this regime has no legitimacy at all. Marx and Lenin would turn in their graves if they were to see that their ideals were transformed into crass financial gain.”
   “Vietnam has only introduced free market economy, not capitalism,” Kien defended himself.
   I tried to set him straight: “What’s the difference? What?”
   Kien, who found it hard to to invent a response, changed the topic immediately. “Poverty has decreased dramatically. Agree? You must be pleased as a friend of the poor.”
   For the first time today I couldn’t contradict him. “Of course, I applaud the reduction in poverty” was my first reaction. But after some thought I added that his triumphalism seemed totally inappropriate to me.
   “Why then? Isn’t that a major achievement of the government?”
   “There would hardly be any poor people in Vietnam,” I told him a little later, “if our country should had become an Asian Tiger like Singapore or South Korea.” I shook my head. “But that will never happen.”
   “Because the Reverend knows everything better?”
   “No, because the authorities don’t conduct a policy against poverty. This decrease is only a side effect of the general increase in prosperity. Our political leaders have only one thing in mind: filling their own pockets. Name me one Communist government that is committed to fighting poverty.”
   No reply.
   “Name just one!”

Throughout my life, I have always given priority to the less fortunate. I was still in the seminary when, during the holidays of 1968, I did an internship in Saigon with six worker-priests. Inspired by the spirituality of the French mystic and priest Charles de Foucauld, we lived in a mud house in the middle of a slum. I sought no career, but wanted to put my life completely in tune with the Gospel and be a humble servant close to the poor. I also wanted make the dream come true of Monsignor Van Thuan. Are all humans not the no brothers of each other, as that is expressed in Beethoven's vision of the Ninth Symphony?
   I made a living out of the itinerant sale of goods. Anything I earned I shared with the poor. I drew my inner strength from reading the Bible and praying.
   One day during a police check I didn’t have my papers on me, and I was sent to the recruitment centre of the South Vietnamese army. What a nightmare! I had to learn to shoot a gun. After intervention by my brother Nguyen Tri, who worked for the State Security, I was released.

On the motorway, heavily loaded trucks overtake us at high speed.
   “It is important for your future and that of your children to work towards more freedom,” I tried to convince Ngoc once again.
   She shrugged.
   “I know a story you can tell at home,” I challenged her, because I felt that she wasn’t indifferent to what I said.
   “What would that be?”
   “In 2001, the new party leader, Nong Duc Manh, who is as you know the illegitimate son of Ho Chi Minh, cracked down on dissidents. And do you know who was the first to be put behind bars?”
   “You guessed it!”
   Unexpectedly, Kien intervened. “Ah! The Reverend forgot to say is that there was a good reason for this. He had sent two slanderous testimonies to the U.S. Congress in which he ridiculed our very moderate religious policy.”
   “Moderate?” I reacted outraged. “Why do the identity cards mention the religious preference? Why does the state appoint the priests and the Bishops? Why are the seized church properties not returned? And the religious prisoners not released?”
   I remember with nostalgia once again how, with the help of Phan Van Loi, I succeeded in sending my documents to the United States via email. To the frustration of the Secret Service that continually guarded me, we used the Internet as our “secret weapon” for the first time.
   “Did you at least read these testimonies?” I challenged Kien. “Because they contain a correct and complete image of the religious situation in our country.”
   “Your baseless slander completely distorted the facts. It was a slap in the face to all Vietnamese.”
   “So you haven’t read my documents. You only know the caricature that has appeared in the press. These texts were well and truly available on the Internet, but because of government censorship, not many people in Vietnam could read them.”
   Kien took a thick folder with documents out of his bag. A moment later he showed us an article entitled A Snake in our Midst. “Listen to what the editor of the most influential newspaper in our country writes. ‘The testimony of Nguyen Van Ly will only benefit the small group of overseas Vietnamese who want to undermine the country for their personal interest.’ What do you think of that, nurse?”
   “That the Communists have a well-oiled propaganda machine,” I replied in her place.
   Ngoc didn’t know what had hit her.
   “Or do you want me to quote a colleague of the Reverend?” Kien continued.
   I protested, but he elevated his voice.
   “A priest should teach religion and help people put the biblical texts into practice, but he shouldn’t engage in economics and politics. Van Ly is a saboteur of the Christian religion. He should be punished by the Archbishop and the government.”
   “Where do you get all this nonsense?”
   “And here's another colleague, ‘Everyone knows the evil acts of Van Ly, and they want him to be punished severely. Everyone is surprised that  . . . ”
   I tried to intervene again, but my effort is in vain. Kien continued: “Everyone is surprised that he still behaves so provocatively, ignores the law and spreads messages that encourage Catholics to revolt. He has never shown any sign of remorse or of self-correction. Shouldn’t the authorities urgently prevent the spread of his poisonous ideas?’”
   Kien was on a roll. “Err, do you know on top of that that the Reverend advised the U.S. Congress not to approve the trade agreement with this country? And this guy calls himself a Vietnamese! How dare you!”
   He put down his file and waved both arms. “Why do the Americans interfere in our country? The Vietnamese government would do well to expose once and for all the atrocities committed by the Americans in the prison camp of Guantanamo. Ah, that would make some noise!”
  I tried in vain to intervene.
   “And that's not all. He has also written in 2001 a series of summons to the government. I saw one of these texts. Do you know what he did? The Reverend had changed the slogan ‘Independence Freedom Happiness’ on the official letterheadto ‘Lack of Independence Loss of Freedom No Happiness.’ You are a disgrace to our country!”
   “Damm it. A shame. Damn shame,” agreed Phuc these words.
   “Sha  . . . me.” Emitting a deep sigh that resembled a laugh, the driver approved his words.
   “Where does this anger come from?" I said.
   I turned to Ngoc. “It is the truth that hurts.”

Nineteen summonses. Despite my arrest, my sister Thi Hieu, when she stayed with me, and parishioners which I could trust 100%, were able to bring them one after the other surreptitiously to Phan Van Loi, who put them on the Internet. Because the government did not understand how that was possible, I got two extra guards. But my smuggling route was not detected.

   The first victim of the wrath of the authorities was Lars Rise, a member of the Norwegian Parliament. In April 2001, he and hundreds of worshipers attending an evening service in the church and met me afterwards in the sacristy. Twenty minutes later my assistant reported that the police had surrounded the church. A few minutes later the police broke open the locked church door. Rise and his entourage were arrested and interrogated until three o'clock. The interrogation continued through the morning until shortly after noon, when the delegation was put on a plane in Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City and expelled from the country.

A month later, I was arrested by six hundred agents. The police actually wanted to be greater in number than the parishioners. These were simple farmers who, every morning from half past four, recited their rosary and then attended Holy Mass.
   “More and more soldiers have surrounded the church,” parishioners whispered in my ear. But I started celebrating Mass without any fear. Accompanied by the organist, I heartily sang the opening hymn:
We carry Your Word,
It touches us, it drives us.
   I saw hordes of soldiers invading the church via the two aisles. They headed straight for the altar. While the organist continued his singing the parishioners screamed, “Save our priest!”
   Some rushed forward to protect me, but they were beaten with truncheons and electric batons. This was the first time I saw this type of weapon. An elderly woman who had already stood watch all night was thrown on the floor and kicked. And my faithful servant, a seventy-year-old man who stood guard at the church for one hundred days, was manhandled with the electric batons. To my consternation his body was covered with blood stains. He groaned in pain.
   A special unit grabbed me by the collar and dragged me out of the church.
   The organ music turned into a cacophony, because the organist was also beaten up.
   All the parishioners were forcibly placed against the outside walls of the church. Whoever moved was beaten up.
   “What happened afterwards?” asked Ngoc curiously, looking very pale now. “So much violence. Why was that necessary?”
 I stared at Kien. His anger seemed to have subsided.
   The next day, two hundred parishioners visited the headquarters of the Communist Party. When asked by the police where they were going, the children who marched at the front said, "We are searching for our priest. Bring him back!"
   “You drivel on, man,” intervened Phuc. “Damn it. How do you know that? You were arrested!”
   “Dozens of witnesses have told me later on the same story. The hastily summoned police reinforcements again scattered the parishioners beating them with electric batons. Meanwhile, the protesters shouted ‘Down with the regime of terror’ and ‘Religious Freedom or Death.’”
   A young woman stepped forward and asked, "Where did you hide him? If you have murdered him and secretly buried him then at least bring us his body.”
   When the police threatened to shoot her, she shouted, "I'm ready to die! Shoot me!”
   Ngoc had tears in her eyes, but Phuc intervened with his hearty laugh. “Don’t believe too damn much of what the pastor says. He is a champion of exaggeration.”
   “There is evidence," I replied indignantly. “The police filmed everything. Everyone had to take off his straw hat all the time. These images were later used as evidence against the protesters.”

It was not the first time that I was violently arrested. In 1983, when officers surrounded the parish and the church of Doc So, I mobilized my parishioners through the loudspeaker on the church tower. Dozens of parishioners spent the night in the rectory. By candlelight, prayer forged a close bond. Those who came to join us the next day brought us food and drink. We shared everything we had. Given the sheer number of participants, the police did not dare to intervene immediately.
   In a letter to the Communist Party, I promised to stop my activities provided I received an answer to my first manifesto, Seven Just and Reasonable Points, that I had sent five years earlier.
   As there was no reply from the government, I distributed my second manifesto My Final and Ultimate Position with the help of Van Loi. The announcement that I would continue my battle until I got satisfaction on all issues had resulted in a tripling of the number of officers stationed around the rectory and church. Although supply of food and drink was disrupted, dozens of believers, and some of them Buddhists, stood by my side.
   A few weeks later, the authorities decided to intervene anyway. After the first Mass, 300 armed soldiers quickly and violently forced their way in between the parishioners. An officer attacked me on the back with a baton and struck me until I lost consciousness.
   That same day, Amnesty International adopted me as a prisoner of conscience, a status that I have had now for almost thirty years.

We drove past a sign with the town name “Quang Tri.” In the distance I see the remnants of the Citadel—a mini version of the Imperial Palace in Hue. But the citadel was also severely damaged during the war.
   In Quang Tri, I attended the lower secondary school from 1960 to 1963.
   A little further on, an arrow indicated the route of La Vang.
   “Stop!”,I shouted. “I have to go to the toilet urgently.”
   Surprised, Kien gave the order to leave the Main Road.
   The ambulance stopped on the side of the road.
   “No, a toilet,” I repeated. “Four kilometers further down is the cafeteria of the place of pilgrimage.”
   Kien’s look revealed that he suspected I was up to something, but he agreed.
   Beaming with happiness, I clambered out of the car. Next to the statue of Our Lady I saw the new basilica which was consecrated in January 2011. Finally, it had happened! Pope John-Paul II dreamed of completing the reconstruction of the basilica for the bicentenary of the apparitions in 1998. Better late than never.
   “The cafeteria is closed,” said the cleaning woman. When I showed her the little cross on my shirt, she let me in.
   “Why did you want to absolutely stop here?" Kien was leaning against the wall while I was washing my hands.
   “I used to live two kilometers2 further down.”

My thoughts went back to 1955.
   The French defeat at Dien Bien Phu announced the end of colonial rule, and the Geneva Conference which followed divided the country. North Vietnam got a communist government led by Ho Chi Minh, and South Vietnam remained within the Western sphere of influence. Anyone who wanted could, nevertheless, move. A million people left the North, mostly Catholics, among whom all the people of my hometown Ba Ngoat, on the territory of the municipality Ho Xa.
   Although I was only eight years old at the time, I remember that day like it was yesterday.

Waving his hands around the priest gave instructions. “No furniture. Take only clothes and food.”
   My sister Thi Hieu helped me to stuff have all my things in my cardboard suitcase; we both sat on top of the suitcase to force it shut.
   “When will we go back home?” I asked the priest.
   “It won’t be long. We’ll have elections in two years’ time. Then the country will be reunited again.” His face lit up with a big smile.
   “I don’t believe a word of it,” grumbled my father later on. “The Communists don’t accept any compromise. There will be no elections.”
   Seven trucks of the French army rumbled through the village.
   “We were promised twelve,” protested the priest.
   “We do what we can.” The French soldier said. “We are trying to help everyone . . .”
   “All men over the age of twelve will walk," announced the pastor. “We’ll meet in Quang Tri.”
   When our truck moved forward jerkily on the dirt road, grandmother started to weep softly. Mama comforted her. I cast a last glance at my birthplace. Suddenly it dawned on me that the toy car I got from my brother Nguyen San was still under my bed. I started to cry.
   “The door isn’t locked, Mom,” I shouted. “What if thieves steal my car?”
   She smiled. “No house is locked and who would take your car now? Next year we will be back here.”
   “But Papa says . . .”
   Mom held me against her. I hardly dared move for fear of breaking the spell of her embrace.
   I woke up in a refugee camp near Quang Tri. We slept in tents. Volunteers were struggling to make our stay as pleasant as possible. Mom and Dad lived in joyful expectation. The South Vietnamese President Diem had, indeed, promised to give a plot of fertile land to each refugee.

A year later, six new villages sprang up in the hilly forest surrounding the shrine of La Vang. We moved to the centre of La Vang. Around the new church volunteers of an American aid organization built prefabricated houses. They wore blue T-shirts with the letters CRS.
   As the crow flies, our former village was barely forty kilometers further north. However, life was not like before. As the land was less fertile, we also had less to eat.
   “When are we going back, Papa?”
   “Finish your plate,” ordered my sister Hieu.

“Does that village still exist?” Kien asked. “I never heard you speak about it.”
   My breath gasps. “The Communist Easter Offensive of 1972 razed the whole area.”
   I got a lump in my throat. “My two adoptive brothers died in combat over there. They fought in the South Vietnamese army. Finding work was difficult and the barracks were nearby. Nguyen Van Toan left a woman with seven children. The war has heavily marked our family.”
   I hesitated for a moment. “Yours as well?”
   Kien turned his head away.

“Your place is not in the seminary now. Come home immediately. The whole village must move today.” I heard panic in the voice of my father.
   Of course I had heard the morning news. The North Vietnamese army had launched an offensive in the province of Quang Tri. But did everything really happen so quickly? Or did the South Vietnamese radio give a distorted picture of the situation?
   I took the bus, but I was the only passenger. The refugee flow in the opposite direction made the journey difficult. It was not until four hours later that I arrived at La Vang.
   The truck engines of the South Vietnamese army were running while three hundred villagers were boarding the trucks with all their possessions. The memories of our first flight, seventeen years earlier, resurfaced.
   There was, indeed, a sense of urgency. The points of impact of bombs were coming perilously close. The target was the South Vietnamese military camp which was only five kilometers away as the crow flies. I felt the earth vibrating.
   “We should run to Hue as quickly as possible,” I advised the priest.
   We drove away from the war zone and approached the old imperial capital at nightfall.
   The director of the parish school near the airport of Hue where I taught catechism allowed us to spend the night there. That same evening the priest gave me a ride to the airport. We were lucky. The next morning we could board a C130 of the South Vietnamese army. This aircraft had to fetch equipment in the military camp of Bien Hoa, north of Saigon.
   The women and children sat in hammocks along the fuselage of the aircraft. The men stood in the middle with their luggage. I saw happy faces, but underneath was hidden fear. What would the future hold? Could the South Vietnamese army hold out, now that the Americans were about to leave Vietnam?
   Upon arrival in Bien Hoa, we learned that we had narrowly escaped hell. “The region of La Vang was completely destroyed," announced the radio reporter.
   At first, we stayed temporarily in a tent camp on a soccer field, but later we moved to a small village, but its serenity was unfortunately marred with night raids by the Viet Cong.
   In our search for a definitive solution we came across a site that was owned by the Ministry of Agriculture.
   “Do you know anyone at the Department of  Agriculture?” I asked Nguyen San.
   “I’ll call you back.”
    That same day we had a meeting with a senior official. The man hailed from Quang Tri and he was willing to listen to our request.
   “Five minutes. I will put the question to the minister.”
   We kneeled in silence and began to pray. Every minute seemed like an eternity. Our pastor with his sore knee was gritting his teeth.
   When he came back into the office, the official was scared out of his wits when he saw us kneeling in prayer. But he had good news. We would get the approval in due course with the stamp and signature of the Minister.
   “Our prayer was heard!" the priest triumphed.
   The area on the edge of the jungle was overgrown with trees and bamboo bushes. I drew a map with a checkerboard pattern around the church, the school, and the market. Each family was allocated an equal plot of land. We called our new home Quang Bien—a contraction of the place Quang Tri, the province from which we came, and the city of Bien Hoa. With great enthusiasm and the solidarity of the Catholic parishes in the neighborhood, we created a new village.

   “We have to go now,” Kien said.
   I looked up. “Thanks.” I appreciate that you've allowed me this stop over. La Vang is close to my heart.”
   Kien offered me his arm when we left.
   “Compared to my previous head guards you at least show me some respect,” I told him straight from my heart. “I cannot tell you this in the presence of others, but I appreciate the way you perform your job.”
   Kien looked surprised.
   “Respect. Remember that word. Only mutual respect will ensure that we will grow into a more peaceful society.”


4. 9:00 a.m.

“What is so special about that place?” Ngoc asked curiously.
   “Curiosity is feminine,” I smiled. “La Vang was the most popular Catholic pilgrimage site of Asia. The Blessed Virgin appeared there several times.”
   “Oh, and you believe that?” Kien sneered.
   I looked him straight in the eyes. Mutually, we felt that in this new “war of words,” everyone creeped to his familiar position again.
   “Of course,” I answered self-assured.
  Undaunted by the loud laugh of Phuc and the grunts of the driver I continued, “Many people have doubts in this regard, but my belief does not depend on those appearances. They are not the core of my faith.”
   “So it’s possible they are just fantasies?”
   “There is indeed no scientific evidence.”
   Phuc intervened with his hearty laugh.
   “Err, now you couldn’t convince me at all,” Kien intervened. “Give me an explanation! You always know an answer to every question.”
   “One rather believes with one's heart than with one's mind. I found that many pilgrims find inner peace in La Vang. The visit to La Vang makes them stronger. The attraction of La Vang is illustrated by the fact that Christians from other countries also used to come here. This is a privileged place where the world and the divine touch one another.”
   “I did not feel anything,” Kien said. “I only saw bricks of a church and large mushroom-shaped forms with a statue underneath.”
   “There is a dimension in life that we can't see with our senses.”
   Phuc laughed, “My senses are still working!”
   “Do you know the answer to the important existential questions: Who are we? Where do we come from? Why do we have to suffer so much? And where are we heading to after our death?”
   Phuc turned around and looks in front of him.
   “So you don't know the answers. Knowing that something or somebody transcends us, religions provide an answer to those existential questions. We Christians believe in God. Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, and others put their own interpretation on those issues. But ultimately it's about the same thing: giving sense and meaning to the transcendent, cosmic dimension or that which we cannot grab with both hands or understand with our logical mind.”
   Kien remained impassive while Ngoc was wiggling in her car seat.
   “The belief in ghosts and the cult of the ancestors are other examples of this deep-rooted religious sense in every human being. When I'm talking to people, also to so-called nonbelievers, note that deep in them a religious feeling is present, even without them knowing this because in our society the communist regime uses every available means to suppresses this feeling and it is shrouded by taboos. This explains why nurse Ngoc has never been able to cope with her father's death.”
   The woman blushed a deep red.
   I turned to her. “Do you believe in ghosts and the cult of the ancestors?”
   As if rooted to the spot, Ngoc shyly nodded.
   “Why would you be ashamed about your belief? The belief in spirits and ancestor worship is in the genes of every Vietnamese person. We Catholics also honor our ancestors because we are primarily Vietnamese.”
   I looked Kien straight in the eyes. “Only the Communists, as atheists, reject belief in anything. Is it true what I say?”
   A honking truck startled me when we drove up Main Road Number 1.

For Kien, this was a signal to change the subject once again. “I'll return to the subject of the ancestors later. But I've never understood Catholicism in Vietnam. You don't worship ghosts but a single God. And until recently your celebrations were held in Latin, a language that no one understands. That is still at odds with how we Vietnamese are, isn’t it? Or am I wrong? Explain to me the attraction of Catholicism in Vietnam. Why is one in ten Vietnamese people a Catholic?”
   Kien was so cunning! He never revealed his thoughts. And what was he hiding? However, his question touched the core reason for the Catholic presence in our country. Somewhat surprised, I tried to organize my thought.
   “I'm listening,” Kien said since he had seen my hesitation.
   “It's a long story,” I sighed. “We should start at the beginning when the first Catholic missionaries arrived over here in the seventeenth century. They were successful with the poor fishermen and farmers through their radical application of the love of your fellow men and the principle of solidarity”
   “Yet they lived in isolated enclaves?”
   “That happened much later. But who knows that part of our history? This is not mentioned in the textbooks at school. These textbooks are all steeped in Marxist-Leninist ideology.”
   “What happened?” Ngoc asked. She was listening intently.
   “After the unification of Vietnam in 1802, with French hel,p the emperors curtailed Western influences in fear of foreign domination. They surely feared a French domination of Vietnam. And since many French people were Catholics, the emperors considered the Vietnamese Catholics a “fifth column” of the French government. That was wholly unjustified but the result was that a genocide  took place: Catholics were murdered everywhere. The death toll reached up to a hundred thousand. Whole villages were wiped out, all the inhabitants murdered. People were slaughtered—not for what they had done, but only because they were Catholics.”
   I look Phuc straight in the eyes, but this time he didn't flinch.
   “Hundred thousand?” nurse Ngoc asked, appalled.
   I nodded. “Because of the genocide, Catholics retreated to fortified enclaves in remote areas. My parish, Ba Ngoat, was situated in a region notorious for gangs of robbers. Anyway, the French Emperor Napoleon III ordered the colonization of Vietnam.”
   “And then the Can Vuong took place, the insurgency of the supporters of the Emperor against the French occupying forces?” Kien said.
   “Exactly. And who were their target population?”
   “The French?” Ngoc said.
   “Forget it. They had superior military power. Once again the Vietnamese Catholics were massacred. 40,000 were murdered. In my native village Ba Ngoat alone, 450 people lost their lives. Only old people, women, and children were spared.”
   The driver also was petrified.
   “The history of the Vietnamese Catholics is drenched in blood. But as is usual in history, the blood of the martyrs is the seed for new converts.”

We approach Dong Ha. The city was a hive of activity. I saw new industrial areas and we drove past a railway line under construction. The border with Laos is just eighty kilometers away in the west. This is main gateway to the country that itself has no access to the sea.
   However, I looked; I saw no visible trace of the intense fighting that took place here till 1975. Fifteen kilometers further down we get on a ridge overlooking with vast rice fields and the Ban Hai River at the height of the 17th latitude.
   “It is here that the Americans built one command post next to the other during the war. Look to the right,” pointed Kien. “The post of Doc Mieu, which is still preserved.”
   Because the Main Road runs parallel to the historic Hien Luong Bridge, which is unused today, the traffic slowed down. Buses were lined up at this popular tourist attraction.
   “For twenty years, this was the physical and psychological barrier between North and South,” said Kien. "The original bridge was painted half red and half yellow.”
   A little further down one can visit a huge cemetery for North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong fighters.
   “My two uncles are buried here,” said Ngoc almost in a whisper.
   Kien didn’t stir.
   “Did you lose relatives during the war?” the nurse asked.
   “Err, who didn’t?” Kien was gritting his teeth.
    Ngoc put her hand on his shoulder. “I feel that you're still affected by a tragic event that happened during the war,” she said cautiously. “I'm not keen to know what that is. You can decide when the time is right to talk about this, but I'm sure talking will provide some relief. We don't talk enough about our feelings.”
   Because of the maternal tone in Ngoc's voice, Kien broke down. Tears rolled down his cheeks.
   “My only daughter, Loan,” said Kien with a lump in his throat. “She was a victim of Agent Orange  . . . that dirty defoliant of the Americans  . . . because my wife and child had eaten  . . . contaminated food  . . . her immune system was compromised  . . . Loan is ten years old, but she looks like a child of five  . . . She will never be able to walk  . . . Her nervous system is affected  . . . She lives in an institution in Da Nang.”
   His breath gasped. “As if that was not enough, my wife was diagnosed with cancer a few months ago.” He raised his voice. “Every day I get up and go to sleep with the war  . . . thanks to all the poison that the Americans sprayed over here!” His voice trembled. “150,000 . . . 150,000 children with abnormalities . . . The U.S. war veterans received compensation . . . We only got crumbs . . . I received five dollars after signing a statement in which I renounced any further claim.” He put his right hand in the air. “Five dollars . . . it was that or nothing . . . Where is the justice? . . . What are all these international organizations for?”
   I was deeply impressed by his spontaneous confession. This was the first time Kien had talked to me about that problem. “You're so right,” I stammered. “You’re the victim of unpunished immoral acts that have never been redressed. Nobody can approve of the misdeeds of the United States.”
   “And yet you have the same faith,” said Kien on sharp tone, but still very emotional.
   “Agent Orange has nothing to do with religion, but everything to do with irresponsible abuse of power. This is a crime against humanity that never has been punished. It’s use today would no longer be possible.”
   “What does that change for me?” He swallowed his tears. “Now, my wife is  . . . also  . . . sentenced to death  . . . Every day I 'm obsessed with this one question  . . . What will happen to Loan  . . . when I’m gone ?  . . . Who will take care of her ? Who  . . . ?”
   “Your suffering touches me deeply. I will truly and sincerely pray for your daughter, your wife, and you yourself. I know this does not solve your problem, but when we feel that others help us by carrying our pain, we become stronger.”
   It was awfully quiet in the car.
   “I feel perfectly what you feel,” I continued. “You're just as broken as the nature we are now driving through. Quite the whole region remains infertile because of the use of pesticides and napalm. Look, on the ridges you can only see deformed pine trees. They are the silent witnesses to the horror that is almost unmatched in the history of mankind. They symbolize the suffering that plagues this region, this country and many inhabitants.
   My words were touching to the Lieutenant Colonel, who steadied his breath. “The American War was a war of attrition,” sighed Kien. “General Giap, Chief of the North Vietnamese Forces, was convinced that the Americans, as previously the French, would retreat if the war lasted long enough. He continuously mobilized new soldiers because of the inequality of firepower. Thirteen communist fighters died for every American killed in combat.”
   Kien repeated his words: “Thirteen! What a huge loss of lives! The entire North Vietnamese population was mobilized.”
   Nurse Ngoc agreed. “While my father was in the army, my mother took his place in the factory. And although all my aunties were working in the fields, people in the North were starving. All the food was for the soldiers.”
   “It was indeed a strange war,” I added. “The more hyper modern armaments the Americans supplied, the more the Viet Cong infiltrated South Vietnamese territory.”
   “As a child, I used the secret Ho Chi Minh Trail to go to Cu Chi, forty kilometers from the former capital Saigon. I crawled through the original tunnels that now have been enlarged for tourists. How ridiculous is that!”
   “How did the trip go?” Ngoc wanted to know.
   Probably for the first time ever Kien openly talked about what he had experienced. “I still remember the American bombings. My mother and I survived, but my father did not.” He almost choked. “And,” he continued after a short pause, “Do you now understand my natural aversion for your American friends?”
   “The Americans are not my friends.”
   “Hello? Twice you have made defamatory statements before the American Congress?”
   “I value the fact that Americans worldwide play a leading role in the struggle for enforcing human rights. These are essential for all forms of society. For who today still defends those rights? Certainly not your Chinese friends. Even Liu Xiaobo, who last year received the Nobel Peace Prize, will spend the next ten years in prison.”
   “Don't change the subject!” Kien snapped. “I wasn't talking about the Chinese, but about the Americans.”
   “All my life I have denounced the evils of the American army in Vietnam. However, there are two sides to this coin. Because Vietnam was the line of fire where the USA and the Soviet Union were fighting their Cold War.”
   Kien interrupted me. “I see what you mean. You're going to blame the Soviets.”
   “I didn't say that. This war had nothing to do with Vietnam; it was all about the drive of the former super powers to show who was the strongest. What I find most disgusting is that the Americans immediately continued the Cold War in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Mozambique when they retreated from the Vietnamese impasse.”
   Kien who for the first time agreed with me, immediately interrupted me, “And this without bothering about the mess they left behind—one and a half million deaths and three million wounded. And on top of that, two million victims in the neighboring countries Laos and Cambodia.”
   “This time I thoroughly agree with you,” I said. “I'll never forget the figures in the report I wrote for Monsignor Dien on the social breakdown of the country: ten million refugees, three million unemployed, one million widows, one million orphans, and hundreds of thousands war invalids and disabled people. Vietnam was one big ruin and was one of the poorest countries on earth.”
   Kien beamed. “The communists you despise have nevertheless succeeded in turning things back the right way up.”
   “Sorry,” I interrupted him, “but that is . . . ” 
   “Checkmate,” Phuc triumphed. “Well done! He is in checkmate! Long live the communists!”
   While Ngoc was laughing, the driver incessantly shouted primal noises.
   I shook my head, but I couldn't handle so much verbal aggression.

At a gas station I saw a signpost to Ho Xa. My native village Ba Ngoat was part of that municipality. This is where I was born on Sunday, August, 31, 1947—the youngest son in a family of five children. Although my parents were very poor, my parents adopted two homeless children.
   My earliest childhood memories are marked by civil war against the French colonizer. Following the nocturnal attacks by the Viet Minh, the communist movement that resisted the French colonizers, our village was transformed into a fortress of clay. All men between eighteen and sixty years old were required to serve in the civic guard.
   I was about three years old when gunshots woke me up. As we slept and lived in the same room, I snuggled up in my mother's arms, away from all the screaming and screeching. I dared not move.
   Moments later, our neighbor and my best friend Truc stood crying in front of our door. My father lit a candle and opened the barricaded door. His legs trembling, Truc ran towards me. Panicking, his mother told her story.
   The Viet Minh had abducted her husband and two members of the village council. Two other members who resisted were shot on the spot.
   The next morning on the streets I saw the corpses of three Viet Minh soldiers. The earth around was impregnated with a reddish liquid. The dead were buried the same day. The whole village was in mourning.
   A year later we were playing when we saw Truc’s father limping into the village, leaning on a stick. Truc ran towards him, “Papa is back!” Both cried with happiness. Truc’s father showed the scars of his torture. “Horrible,” was the only word he managed to say. The stay in the camps had broken his health.
   I always saw him lying in bed. When he died six years later, his family only managed to survive thanks to the existing solidarity. As brothers and sisters, we shared what little we had. What brought us together was our faith. Every day we met in the church at five o'clock in the morning for Mass and at six o'clock in the evening for the prayer service.

In our parish there was an ambiguous feeling towards the regular visit of French missionaries. According to my father, they had ties that were too close with the arrogant colonial rulers.
   “He was particularly critical towards landowners and merchants who, without criticism, adopted the French language and culture. “A Vietnamese in a Western suit! What a farce! And what sort of Vietnamese drinks wine, rides a bicycle, and sends his children to a French school?” But his laughter had a bitter undertone as he looked with dismay at how the traditional society was eroding. He refused to accept the French laws because they ignored the local traditions. In family disputes, the paterfamilias and religious leaders no longer had the last word. In his eyes, the French law was just a tool of oppression, because all opponents disappeared behind bars for years without any trial. Dad refused consequently to learn French and did not use quc ng, the modern Vietnamese writing system based on the Roman alphabet.
   But not everyone shared his vision.
   “You'll never change the world by taking radical positions or by turning back the clock,” the priest said when for the umpteenth time he debated with my father. “Look at the positive side. Many French also are Christians. And what would the alternative be? Do you have more confidence in those godless communists?”
   “I'll never be a lackey,” my father replied. “Not of the French and certainly not of the communists. It is essential that our ancient culture, traditions, norms, and values are not lost. But who will defend them?”
   With his common sense, he also denounced economic exploitation. “Our coal is exported to France, while our stores only offer expensive French products. And what justifies the French monopoly on the production and sale of not only alcohol and salt, but also addictive opium that is grown everywhere?”
   Father saw with his own eyes how the farmers had become impoverished because of the marketing of the rice harvest that caused the prices to fall. Many people sold their land and went to work as cheap laborers in mines and rubber plantations. “The imperial ban on rice exports should never have been lifted, because it served to supply the regions where there was a shortage of rice and to build up reserves for the lean years.”

Meter-high panels advertise attractive four-and five-star hotels. Everything must give way for tourism, the fastest growing industry in the country. The burned-out tanks that had still stood along the road last year, were neatly removed.
   A little further along the road is a sign advertising the Vinh Moc tunnels.
   I shake my head. Vinh Moc. As a child I attended the elementary school over there. It was a small, insignificant village. Now each year, hundreds of thousands of tourists visit the tunnel complex that the villagers dug to protect themselves against the American bombing.
   “I've been there once,” Kien said. “It's impressive how hundreds of people survived all the American bombings in tunnels three floors below ground that they had dug with shovels, baskets and their bare hands. Everything was available there. For example seventeen children were born in the makeshift infirmary.”
   “Knowing the Communists, the site will only show the 'good' side of the war, with the Viet Cong as the good and the Americans as the bad guys,” I responded. “I’ve never read a single word about the massacres of the Viet Cong and all the evil that they’ve done. Woe to him who dares to touch this taboo.”
   We could have heard a pin drop in the car. I addressed Nurse Ngoc. “In war, there are no good or bad guys. Whoever takes up arms is guilty, regardless of whose side he is on.”

Half an hour later, we entered Dong Hoi, the capital of the province Quang Binh. Razed to the ground several times during the war, the city has been beautifully rebuilt. Especially the promenade along the river looks beautiful. Here, too, construction is booming. The only visible reminder of the war is the tower of the Tam Toa Church. The rest of the building was destroyed by an American bombing in 1968. Under the tower the faithful celebrated Mass every week until the local authorities banned it. In 2009, after protracted negotiations, fourteen priests with the support of the Bishop of Vinh ignored the ban. When the rumor circulated that the tower would be converted into a tourist office, the parishioners erected a cross and an altar near the tower. But police “cleansed” the area and arrested twelve demonstrators.
   Since then, the atmosphere has been tense. The Party newspaper Nhan Dan recently unveiled the proposed development of a park, which would require demolition of the tower.
   As we were caught in a traffic jam, for the first time I had the opportunity to see the tower up close. Trees are growing on the walls and on the bell tower. Crowd control barriers prevent anyone entering the area.

“I have to get gas,” grumbled the driver, swerving into the gas station next to the church square.
   For a moment I was allowed out of the car. Behind my walker, I hobbled up to the fences around the ruins. Despite the early hour, dozens of believers were already gathered there. Inside, police patrol with dogs. I saw that the cross and the altar had been destroyed and the terrain was overgrown with weeds. Hundreds of novena candles had been lit near the barriers. To my great surprise, these were beside the memorial stone of Han Mac Tu. This famous poet, who died in 1940 at the age of 28, was baptized here.
   “He was ahead of his time,” a bystander told me. “I've always enjoyed reading his poems. I teach in high school and found that many young people are crazy about his writings.” He laughed. “Much more so than the material on Marxism and Leninism that is imposed on them and that many teachers don’t want to teach anymore.”
   I remember the poetry of Han Mac Tu from my time in the seminary and know some of his tormented verses by heart.
   “How is it, that seventy years after his death, this man still inspires so many people?”
   “He was a Catholic but he also incorporated Buddhist thoughts and images in his poems. He symbolizes the resistance to any form of religious oppression. And that resonates with young people.”
   In the distance I heard at my surprise a group of young people singing the Song of Peace by Kim Long.
Lord, teach me to love and to serve God.
Make me an instrument of Your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love
and learn to forgive

and endure disease and oppression.  
   I hobbled towards them. The priest who accompanied the group noticed my cross and greeted me warmly.
   “We come from Vinh.”
   Arms outstretched, he excitedly addressed the people at the crowd barrier. “Today, we make a pilgrimage to Dong Hoi. Why? Because it is the cradle of Catholicism in our country. It was here that in the seventeenth-century missionaries founded one of the first parishes. The Communists intend to transform this tower into a symbol of the American barbaric behavior during the war. To us, however, a church tower serves to call the faithful to worship. That’s its only possible purpose. Therefore, we continue to peacefully demonstrate for the return of the tower and all confiscated church properties. In this time of Advent, we hope, as Christians, that justice will finally prevail in this country.”
   I heard someone calling my name. The young people were booing when Phuc grabbed me by the collar.
   “Our weapons are candles and prayer,” said the priest who saw that Kien and Phuc were about to escort me back to the car.
   Using my walker, I held them back.
   “One more minute!”
   Kien motioned Phuc to release me.
   I looked the priest right in the eyes.
   “As religious people, we must speak on behalf of those who have no right to speak,” the priest said. “We must proclaim the truth as Christ has always done, even if we are persecuted because of it.”
   The pastor turned to me. “I don’t know the priest that you want to take away by force. However, I see in his eyes that he is a righteous man who defends the truth. Let's show him what love for fellow men means and kneel down in prayer for this persecuted priest.”
   I gratefully bowed and meekly followed Kien and Phuc who dragged me to the ambulance. Adrenaline raged through my body. Since the events of two years ago, I had heard nothing more about the tower of Dong Hoi, not even in the foreign newspapers that I read in Hue on the Internet. But one thing is certain: over here, the hatchet is not yet buried.
   I looked one last time at the young people and their enthusiastic priest. I have to reconsider my opinion. There are still, indeed, priests and Christians who protest against the communist regime. They are the future of the Church and the country.

5. Noon

As we left the city of Dong Hoi in bumper-to-bumper traffic, the feeling of excitement that had overwhelmed me did not disappear. However, the excitement turned into a sensation of paralysis; it was as if I had lost all feeling in the right part of my body—face, arm, and leg—and I heard myself spouting gibberish.
   “Nurse Ngoc!” Kien panicked. “Something serious is going on.”
   She dropped her magazine and slapped my face. “Show me your teeth!”
   I hardly reacted.
   “The right corner of his mouth doesn’t hang down. I don’t think he has suffered a stroke, but he seems to be confused.” She took my blood pressure. “16 over 8. Much too high.”
   Meanwhile, untroubled by the events, Phuc and the driver were chatting.
   “Shut up!” Kien gruffly ordered.
   “You too, you better calm down," said Ngoc sternly. “Panic gets you nowhere. If his condition doesn’t improve, we must return to the hospital in Dong Hoi immediately. But for now, we need to wait and see.”
   A few minutes later the oppressive feeling ebbed away. I breathed more calmly again. “I think  . . . that  . . . the danger has passed.” My voice was still weak. “At my age  . . . I don’t seem  . . . to be able to deal with  . . . emotions.”
   Ngoc again took my blood pressure .
   “14 over 7. Much better. You didn’t suffer a stroke, so keep yourself calm,” she ordered.
   A relieved Kien wiped his forehead with his handkerchief.

Moments later, I felt better and asked, "Could you give me the small package that’s in my bag?”
   I’m curious to know what gift Van Loi gave me. The shape of the package reveals that there were two objects in it. Out came a CD of the Ninth Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Claudio Abbado. “Music forges a bond beyond all borders,” was written on a piece of paper. “You’ll probably never be able to listen this CD, but when reading the text, the melody will sound automatic in your ears. We share the same dream—that all men will be brothers one day.”
   Touched, I wiped away a few tears.
   “One can count real friends on one hand,” I thought to myself. I closed my eyes and thought back to our joint fight of the past thirty years. That struggle was almost ended by my umpteenth stroke.
   “Let's not give up now,” I encourage myself. “To my last breath I will continue to fight peacefully, even though I'm paralyzed.”
   I turned to the lieutenant-colonel. “Can I have my breviary?”
   I reread the prophetic words of Isaiah:  
Comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her

that her hard service has been completed.
   There was in the package also a red hardcover book on which was written in golden letters Cong Dong Cung Hat. A hymn book! Where did that come from? For years, the Vietnamese bishops had asked in vain to be allowed to publish a hymn book.
   “I dedicate this inspiring book to you," Van Loi had written on the first page. "Friends from the United States gave it to me. Be careful, because the ink isn’t dry yet. I hope it will bring you much joy. Isn’t singing like praying twice?”
   My mouth dropped open when on the first page I saw the Song of Peace by Kim Long. I hummed the melody while browsing the book. The whole liturgical cycle is covered in the book. As happy as a child I pressed the book against my heart. I haven’t often received gifts in my life, but the ones I got were all very dear to me. I was reminded of the toy car I got from my brother Nguyen San when I was a child.

Ngoc was absorbed in a tabloid. My stomach turned at the sight of garish photos and headlines on the cover.
   “News from the front?” I asked teasingly. “Which Famous Vietnamese hopped into bed with another man or woman this week? Who is divorced or married for the umpteenth time? And what does the headline ‘He did it with my best friend’ mean? What has this guy been up to?”
   My comments didn’t amuse Ngoc. “It relaxes me to read this.”
   “I’m surprised that details about the sex lives of Vietnamese people can relax you.”
   “Are you lecturing me?” she said indignantly. “I read what I want. This is, indeed, no reading for priests. Because sex is taboo for you guys.
   “But are you sure that no priest would buy this tabloid?” Kien intervened in the debate. “In how many countries is your Church ravaged by pedophilia scandals?”
   What could I say to that? As if it was my fault that some of my colleagues are abusing their position of power to rape children.
   “Pedophilia is a shameful crime, and when priests are guilty, they deserve double punishment because of their duty to set an example. But don’t worry, I've never bought your rag, and I would put my hand in the fire first, and this also applies to all priests I know.”
   “What bothers you in this tabloid?” Kien interjected.
   “The total lack of morality. For purely commercial reasons, one shamelessly exploits the most intimate feelings of humankind. Are we going to educate our children in such a climate? Of course, the Communists can’t be bothered, because they don’t attach any importance to family values.”
   “Stop moralizing, preacher!” Ngoc exclaimed angry. “Do you really think I 'm going to leave my husband and children because I read this magazine?” She made a dismissive gesture. “Don’t exaggerate!”
Still 165 kilometers to Vinh and 490 to Hanoi, I read on a sign along the road. We were driving inland through the jungle. The exits mentioned places that I've never heard of.
   “Are those the New Economic Zones?” I asked Kien.
   He nodded.
   How many millions of South Vietnamese were deported to these remote areas after 1975? I once wrote a little manual for the deported Catholics. From my childhood, I knew how hard it was to turn a piece of jungle into fertile farmland. Moreover, the people had to cede forty percent of the harvest to the authorities and thirty percent to the area managers.
   I remember the stories of some people who fled these areas. They could barely survive there and discipline was similar to that in the re-education camps.
   “I wonder what has happened to the millions of South Vietnamese who have been deported to this region,” I confronted Kien. “And what has happened to the children who were born over here.”
   He didn’t immediately react.
   “Do you know more?” I further challenged Kien.
   But he remains silent.
   “It is indeed difficult to talk about one of the great ignominies of the communist regime. How many have died over here or languished in those dungeons of society?”
   Kien became more brave. “Once again you are exaggerating. Millions of people?” He laughed. “You don't know what that means.”
   I wanted to react, but the lieutenant colonel spoke first. “You are partly right. Not all New Economic Zones were successful. But don't worry. In many places, they still exist.”
   We now approached the first mountains of the central highlands. That is the home of the indigenous people of Vietnam. The French called those destitute hill tribes the Montagnards. I am thinking about the Bahnar, the Jarai, and the Bru. These tribes are the oldest original inhabitants of Southeast Asia. Today they remain faithful to their customs, religion, language, culture, and traditional costumes. But more than eighty percent live below the poverty line. They slowly but surely become extinct.

We drove past a military area where all access roads were barricaded by the army.
   “Do you know why no one is allowed to enter this area?”
   “How would I know?” said Ngoc. “Because of the danger of the shooting exercises of the army?”
   “No. Because there are concentration camps. And the government doesn’t want any prying eyes. As the cornerstone of the regime, the army contributes to the oppression of anyone who stands up for more freedom and change.”
   Kien tried to challenge me. “Feel free to talk to the nurse about your political activities,” he smiled.
   “I don't have anything to hide. Yes, on the eve of the Tenth Congress of the Communist Party in 2006, I signed the Democratic Manifesto of the Bloc 8406 movement. And later, I stood at the cradle of the Vietnamese Progress Party, the VNPP. I’m not at all ashamed about that; quite the contrary.”
   “That manifesto and this new party were a provocation!”
   “Since when is defending freedom peacefully provocative? Do you remember the main topic of discussion at the five-yearly Congress of the Communist Party that took place a few weeks after the founding of Bloc 8406? The scandal involving corrupt politicians and party officials who had used millions of dollars of development aid to buy luxury cars and bet on football matches in England and Spain.”
   “Corruption is indeed a bottleneck, but the government takes firm action against it,” emphasized Kien. “At that time, the Minister of Transport, who was a compulsive gambler, was arrested.”
   “Indeed, but he was released at the end of the congress.”
   “Why?” asked Ngoc amazed.
   I didn’t give Kien time to react. “Because in our country the politicians decide who will be prosecuted by the court. And any investigation into a senior person’s activities is automatically stopped when his network is set in motion. Do you know that the journalist who has reported on the betting scandal in the newspapers was sentenced to two years in prison while the minister who is addicted to gambling walked free? Even worse, the next day he took his old job again. Who knows, maybe that man is gambling again with money from the government.”
   “What would you know about that? When you accuse people you must provide proof. And in this case, you are completely mistaken. The man has been given a different job. He is no longer allowed to handle money.”
   “I can't remember the fine points exactly, but you must have heard that he was  promoted to a higher position with the mere objective of getting rid of him. Now he earns even more than before. Do you, sister, now understand what kind of country we live in?” I turned to Kien. “I respect you as a person, but how can you continue to defend this corrupt system?”
   Ngoc looked bewildered, but I continued. “For years, the communist regime tries to prevent all contacts of members of the Vietnamese opposition with foreign journalists. That happened also during the visit of U.S. President Bush to Hanoi in late 2006. Streets were sealed off, phone connections cut off and my email blocked.”
   “I still remember the picture of the U.S. President under a bust of Ho Chi Minh," said Ngoc.
   “You’ve got a good memory!”
   She blushed.
   “What is still needed is the cultivation of critical sense. You are an intelligent woman, sister. But you should learn to analyze the propaganda that the regime dishes up every day. What a farce was that image of President Bush at the bust of Ho Chi Minh! Just imagine! Thanks to her arch-enemy, the United States, Vietnam became a member of the World Trade Organization. Both the communist regime and Bush only counted the money and the interests of the multinationals and the banks. Like Pontius Pilate, Bush washed his hands of responsibility while I was once again the first to disappear behind bars. And then the lieutenant colonel alleges that I am a puppet of the Americans! Only if you take a critical look at the world, sister, you will see through the propaganda.”
   But Kien also wanted to convince nurse Ngoc that he was right. “Don't be misled! The real reason for the arrest of the reverend was his attempt to topple the regime!”
   “How then?”
   “Paper is testimony. Just a moment.” He looks in his file again. “Somewhere here I have something called the text of the Lac Hong Coalition that you cosigned.”
   “Don’t bother. One sentence sums up everything: ‘through free elections allowing Vietnam to develop and flourish in a societal system based on virtue, democracy, freedom, and respect for the law.’”
   I turned to nurse Ngoc. “You heard well: free elections with several parties and not only the communist party as is the case today. But also the participation of a broad range of democratic parties that defend the real needs of the population and that want to put a end to the Chinese dominance that increases each day. Who would you vote for? The communists? Or would you vote for the Vietnamese Populist Party, the VPP, the Action Party of the Vietnamese People, the PAP, the Vietnamese Reform Party, the VRP, the Democratic Party Vietnam, the DVP or our Vietnamese Progress Party, the VNPP?”
   The sister was startled. I felt I had touched her conscience, but above all that, I suppose she was thinking about the privileges of her children.
   “I won’t force you to choose,” I smiled. “Free elections are unfortunately not going to happen in the near future, because all the leaders of these new political parties have been, in recent years, imprisoned in concentration camps. In this country, anyone who raises his or her voice is silenced. In my case, this literally happened.”
   “Oh, that was you!” Ngoc reacted with surprise. “I remember the TV news of that time.”
   She turned to Kien. “Why was the Reverend treated like this?”
   “You just heard it yourself—because of his political actions and his attempt to topple the regime.”
   “Why was he gagged?”
   “The Reverend further acted violently by slandering our country in the presence of international observers.”
   “What did he say?”
   I intervened immediately. “I shouted, ‘Down with Communism!’ and ‘The Communists apply the law of the jungle.’ Didn’t I have the right to shout these words at the end of a showcase trial? When you appear in court for the fourth time, you have learned that this country’s justice system does not aspire for justice but oppression. Such a regime should disappear.”

Traffic slowed down as the road increasingly narrowed. There was a police check point, but our ambulance was waved through. Colleagues of the government services always wave at one another. However, the woman whose papers were checked was less fortunate. She even had to open the trunk of her car. She apparently refused to pay a bribe, because the officers were now looking for violations of the law so that they could give her a fine. These days, only those who pay are not bothered.
   A little further on we were approaching the Kim Lien exit. A sign in English and Vietnamese invites passersby to visit the birthplace of Ho Chi Minh. “As the region has few cultural or natural sights or landmarks, they have fabricated one for the benefit of the local tourism industry,” I observed knowingly.
   Despite my intention to deal a little less harshly with the Lieutenant Colonel, I couldn’t help but ask: “Did you already go on a pilgrimage to that place?” I grinned. “I'm sure you know all the songs that praise Ho Chi Minh by heart, right? Is that still compulsory teaching material in order to make progress in your career in the Party ranks?” 
   He remained silent at first since he knew that I despise the historic communist leader. But a moment later he reacted. “I barely see any difference with the songs that glorify Our Lady of  La Vang. You know those songs by heart.”
   I heard Phuc's sardonic laugh and the approving noises the driver made.
   “You'd love to declare Ho Chi Minh a saint. But he can't even come close to the Mother of God who really was a holy woman. The whole artificially created cult around Ho Chi Minh is fake. And you know that only too well. The house where he was born is not the original, but it was specially built.”
   I waited a few moments, but got no response.
   “It is said that there is even a family altar, an altar where his ancestors are honored. Isn’t that strange for a Communist and an atheist?”
   Still nothing. But I didn’t give up.
   “Do you remember my article that I gave you six months ago about the mythologizing of the figure of Ho Chi Minh? Do you agree that this ordinary opportunist is at the root of all the  problems our country faces?”
   Kien remained silent.
   “Or have you been banned from reading that article by your superiors?”
   His face turned as red as a tomato.
   “That so-called ascetic who was primarily a womanizer. That nationalist who only used Communism to free Vietnam from foreign invaders. The man who . . . ”
   “Stop mocking the father of the nation immediately!” shouted Phuc.
   “It's incredible how the fable of ‘holy’ Ho Chi Minh is still imprinted on minds,” I said unperturbed.
   Phuc turned around and pointed his gun at me.
   Only now Kien intervened.
   “Everybody shut up!”
   “But . . . ”
   “I don’t want to hear another word about Ho Chi Minh.”

We approached Vinh, the capital of Nghe An province. This port city is located on the banks of the Blue River and has a population of a quarter of a million people. The mountain at the city entrance is mostly covered in pine trees. The forest still hasn't recovered from the bombing during the war. Never before I had seen such a drab environment. Striking in that endless row of concrete cubicles are dark brown apartment blocks, a donation of "comrades" from former East Germany. These apartments with their large windows are completely unsuited to the climatic conditions in Vietnam.
   “Is there always so much wind?” I asked nurse Ngoc.
   She smiled. “We are used to that. Typhoons regularly sweep through the city. Therefore, a folk saying goes that the typhoon was born in Vinh. Flooding also regularly occurs since the sea is indeed close by.”
   Trucks moved bumper to bumper, accelerated and slowed down after a few meters, then braked again, emitting tons of CO². The whole city stinks of pollution. Half an hour later, we had barely moved a kilometer.
   “I know the way," said Ngoc. “Unfortunately, the Main Road runs through the city centre. You best take the next road left, the Dao Tang, towards the museum. And then go right. This parallel route avoids the traffic around the bus station.”
   We were not alone in choosing this detour around the Museum of the Nghe Tinh.
   “Is that museum named after two provinces?”
   “You're much smarter than I thought,” Kien joked. He obviously was in a better mood now. This is obviously a showcase of which the regime is still proud. In front of us, schoolchildren in their red uniforms board a bus.
   “On May 1, 1930, farmers in the provinces of Nghe An and Ha Tinh, the two poorest in the country, revolted against the French. They established local soviets that took over the government, and they created village militias. A column of thousands of farmers who marched to the provincial capital of Vinh was bombed, and the rebellion was brutally suppressed by the foreign legion in 1931,” Kien proudly said.
The loudspeakers bellowed out communist militant songs in an effort to keep the “sacred fire” of the revolution burning within the population. What a contrast with the resignation of the hundreds of Party officials and civil servants that are sauntering about in their suits around noon.
   “Are we going to eat?” Ngoc asked. “I’m hungry.”
   Kien opened the wicker basket with provisions. He was startled. “One drink, two sandwiches per person and a small dessert. For five people! And this is supposed to be our food for the whole day?”
   “It’s all they have given me. I phoned the hospital kitchen yesterday.”
   “Is that man deaf? Or doesn’t he know how to write?”
   “We’ll share whatever we have,” I said. “We won’t really starve from hunger.”
   “What about all that traffic? Who knows at what time we’ll arrive this evening in the camp Nam Ha?”
   Kien turned to Ngoc. “Do you know a restaurant in this neighborhood that gives fast service?”
   “Further down, near the station you'll find one after another. But they're probably full at this hour.”
   “Stop!” Kien ordered the driver. “Park in the second row and stay in the car. Phuc and I will get the food quickly.” He ordered Ngoc and me to wait on the sidewalk.
   In the crowded restaurant Kien and Phuc showed their identification. The waitress called the big boss. Meanwhile, I had a chat with a woman in traditional costume. I recognized the striped dress with the dominant red color. She belonged to the tribe of the Bahnar.
   “Made by my own hands!” she said promoting her products.
   “Why do you live in Vinh?”
   “Coffee. The establishment of coffee plantations on our ancestral lands. Twenty years ago, we were forced to leave the central highlands. The move to the city was a nightmare. We had no choice. My husband is partially disabled. And I suffer with back pain, I can’t possibly work on a plantation. Over here I hope to give a better future to our children. Thank God my son and daughter are good students. I have to feed four with the sale of this homemade craftwork.”
   Ngoc looked interested.
   “That's far better quality than the industrial fabric that you see everywhere. Also better than in the so-called ‘traditional villages’ visited by Western tourists,” the woman said, giving a big smile. “I’ll give you a special price.”
   “Those two napkins?”
   “200,000 dong.”
   “That’s expensive.”
   “Normally you will pay 200,000 for one of these. Here I offer you two for the price of one. Look at the quality,” she tried to convince Ngoc.
   “I can’t sell these for less than 150,000.”
   “130,000. And not a dong more.”
   I looked on, amused. Bargaining is not my thing. The women made a deal. They were both happy.
   “Do you dream of returning to your homeland?”
   “Of course. Maybe in a few years when my children graduate.” But she hesitated. “But, hey, how can we make a living over there?” I heard resignation in her voice. “I’m afraid that . . . I will have to stay here. The highlands are still isolated from the rest of the world. During the demonstrations ten years ago, many hundreds of my tribe were arrested, including some family members. I haven’t heard from them since. What happened to them? Are they still alive?”
   The woman sighed. “It's so hard to live here in Vinh according to our old traditions and values. However, I will live and die as a member of the Bahnar.”
   “I appreciate the determination with which you keep the tradition alive,” said I. “Keep your spirits up and persevere in what you do.” 
   However, I fear that her culture will only be appreciated for its true value when her generation is gone, but I didn’t tell her that.
   The woman was delighted, but she is a realist. “It hurts a lot that it can be so difficult to pass on that tradition and our values to my children. The influence of their circle of friends is great. Not to be bullied my son wears a baseball cap and a T-shirt with the logo of an American university. He is afraid to show who he really is.”
   She suddenly noticed the cross on my collar. “Are you a Catholic priest?”
   I nodded. “But en route to a concentration camp.”
   The woman made a little bow out of respect and pulled a book from under her apron. “This will surely interest you.”
The Struggle Continues. I stood transfixed. It was picture book about the Catholic mass demonstration of two years before.
   “Preceded by the bishop, we were hundreds of thousands of believers who walked peacefully in the streets,” she said. “At the end of the demonstration, the police charged. A priest was seriously injured in the confrontation. Another priest who visited him in the hospital was thrown from the first floor of the building. He is still in a coma.”
   “I was here when that happened. I was visiting my brother,” Ngoc said. “I had never seen a demonstration of praying people. I also remember the sirens blaring. We were so scared that evening we were afraid to leave my brother's apartment.”
   “This book was printed illegally," the woman whispered. "The CD at the back contains a short amateur film that records the brutal behavior of the police. 100,000 dong.”
   I sighed. “Only five U.S. dollars. If I could, I would even give you ten dollars, but I don’t even have one dong. But I have an idea. I have a book of Vietnamese hymns, which was published in the United States. You could sell it or use it in your parish. Can’t we swap.”
   The woman leafed through the book and immediately agreed. She even gave me a hand woven small cross for free.

“Come and eat!” shouted Phuc. I stuffed the book and the cross in the bag and took leave from the woman with a small bow. I looked Ngoc straight in the eye. I was sure that she wouldn’t betray me.
   In the restaurant, the waiters ran to and fro. In the background, I could faintly hear Communist fight songs, but they were drowned out by the hustle and bustle. Some bottles of water were placed on the table, and we were immediately served eel soup, followed by a plate of banh beo, a typical dish of Hue. I enjoyed the pieces of shrimp and pork on rice flour dough with herbs.
   A little over ten minutes later Kien ordered us to leave the restaurant.
   “What about coffee and dessert?” I teasingly asked. “I’m sure that nurse Ngoc would like that.”
   Kien looked sour. “Be happy that we’ve given you some food.”
   When I got into the car, I looked at the Bahnar woman. Around her neck hung a ribbon with woven crosses. We understood each other without words. Faith is the most invisible, but also the strongest, language that exists on earth.