In Vietnam, freedom of religion is technically protected by the constitution. However, followers of faiths not sanctioned by the Government are subject to persecution. One such faith is Protestant Christianity. As a result, nearly all evangelical Christians must operate their ministries and churches “underground” in Vietnam.
Steve and I first became involved in ministry in Vietnam in 2006 after Steve met an American couple that had retired and moved to Saigon to assist the underground church. Our friends and the people who serve with them have been persecuted – some even imprisoned multiple times — because of their practice of Christianity.
When Steve and I planned this journey, we wanted to spend significant time in Vietnam. We planned to visit our friends and their ministries in Saigon. We also hoped to make new relationships in the underground church. In addition, we wanted to explore Vietnam and learn more about its history, people, and culture. Although there were some challenges along the way, we left Vietnam on April 28th with a sense that we had accomplished each of these objectives.
During our journey through Vietnam, we experienced dramatically different regions, climates, and people groups. We moved slowly through the country from North to South, spending time in Ha Noi, Ha Long Bay, Sa Pa, Da Nang, Nga Trang and Saigon. We travelled by planes, rickety old trains, and a variety of boats, buses and vans. We hiked the mountains, walked the busy streets of the old walled cities, visited former war sites, swam at the beaches, road “cyclos” through the French Quarter, and clandestinely visited ministries on a rented “moto.” We even spent a day at the Cu Chi tunnels used by the Viet Minh during the “American War,” as the Vietnamese commonly refer to it.
We started our journey in Ha Noi. Ha Noi is a blend of the exotic charm of old Asia, the developing face of a contemporary Asia, and the remnants of the French and Catholic influence. In 2010, Ha Noi turned 1,000 years old. Its Old Quarter still consists of the same 36 specialized trade streets which surrounded the ancient palace. One street is dedicated to china, one to fish, one to silver, one to shoes, etc. In addition to the established storefronts, there are hundreds of sidewalk vendors selling everything under the sun, and hawkers who walk the streets trying to get you to buy goods or services from them. Ha Noi has a population of 6 million people, most of whom ride motos, and it seemed as though they all converge on the streets of Ha Noi simultaneously every day.
While in Ha Noi, we spent time with several young professionals who freely voiced the view that their country’s Government was not good for the people. Trying to build a bridge with them, I too complained about my country’s Government. However, as soon as the words left my mouth, I knew it was not a fair comparison. We also had a chance to interact with the older generation, and we were constantly amazed at how well we were received by them. America heavily bombed Ha Noi, the capital of North Vietnam, during the war, yet we encountered no hostility from either generation.
From Ha Noi, we took a trip to Ha Long Bay. Ha Long Bay is an enchanting natural wonder. We listened with fascination as our guide shared stories about the Vietnamese. Our guide told us that the Vietnamese believe their deceased ancestors have power to bring good fortune and to protect the family. As a result, almost every Vietnamese household maintains an altar to worship or commemorate his or her ancestors. Many merchants sell votive papers that represent various gifts such as motorbikes, cars, houses, clothes, and money. The paper is purchased and then burned in the form of an offering to the dead ancestors.
We also learned that many of the Vietnamese do not have a single religion. Instead, their belief system seems to be a mix of fate, luck, Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, and mythology. Remarkably, the Catholicism brought in by the French who conquered and harshly ruled Vietnam for almost 100 years is accepted by the Government. At the same time, the Government “teaches” that Jesus Christ is America’s God and, thus, the Vietnamese are not allowed to follow Him. Of course, this makes you wonder who the Government thinks the Vietnamese Catholics are worshipping.
We were also confronted with a significant disparity in the social and economic status and rights of the people despite Vietnam’s professed socialist state. Seeing the black Rolls Royce in the driveway of a beach front home with private security reminded us of George Orwell’s book, “Animal Farm,” and the ultimate result of a corrupt Government. All are equal, but, some are more equal than others. Capitalism is indeed alive and well in Vietnam, but, only those in power are prospering from it.
We explored the beautiful mountains and countryside of Sa Pa that several indigenous tribes have called home for 1,000 years. In Sa Pa, we met several of Vietnam’s ethnic minority groups. Chief among these tribes are the Black Hmong, so named primarily because of their black dress. They live simply, farming the steep mountainous region. However, with the advent of tourism, some members of these tribes have reinvented themselves as hawkers of handmade trinkets and textile goods.
They are the genuine “native’” inhabitants of the area, and they clearly regard all of the political nonsense that has been going on in Vietnam for the past 1,000 years as background noise. People invade and leave; governments come and go. Our guide told us that many of the Hmong Tribe, of which he was a part, believed in Jesus, but they have no church and no one to teach them the bible.
Before we left Cambodia for Vietnam, a large team led by North Coast Calvary Chapel came to Poipet to serve with Mercy Ministries Foundation. The entire team encouraged and refreshed us in so many ways. Two of the team members were Vietnamese, one from Da Nang and the other from Saigon. While we were in Vietnam, we had the chance to spend more time with these men and their families, and to learn about their ministries. One of the two men was formerly a petroleum engineer and his wife was formerly a university professor. These young professionals gave up their careers to serve as full-time missionaries in Vietnam. The other man was a 10 time national body building champion. He too has laid down this pursuit to serve the Lord.
These men now lead a flourishing sports ministry, which has reached hundreds of youth and adults not only in Vietnam, but throughout several closed countries in S.E. Asia. This unique approach to ministry combines the coaching of various sports with the teaching of biblical truths. The team members not only attend practice, they participate in devotions and bible studies. While in Da Nang, we attended one of the practice sessions and met one of the soccer teams. About half of the soccer team has accepted Jesus.
While in Saigon, we were also able to visit our dear friends who support and care for over 500 children. They are affiliated with a multitude of underground churches of various denominations, and they stand in the gap for little ones who have been orphaned, abandoned, or physically abused. They ensure that these children are fed, clothed, housed, loved, educated, and raised to know the love of Jesus.
We also had the opportunity to visit one housemother and some of her 20 children supported by our friends. She is 62 years old, so she asked us to pray for the Lord to raise up a younger mom to continue the ministry and for the Lord to give her the strength and health necessary to raise these little ones.
Another of our friends’ ministries rescues unborn children by offering moms an alternative to abortion. Our friends explain the origin of life and teach these moms the truth about their unborn babies. They offer the moms free medical care and room and board until the child is born. If the mom does not want to keep her baby after he or she is born, our friends assume responsibility for the child. We had the privilege of visiting one of the several babies homes, and buying ice cream and visiting with some of kids cared for by our friends.
For security reasons, we have not disclosed the names of these fellow servants. If you have a desire to learn more about any of their ministries, please contact us. Please also pray for their continued physical and spiritual needs.
For America, the Vietnam War is over. For Vietnam, it is not. Its people are still involved in a struggle for political, economic and religious freedom. For me, Vietnam has been forever changed from the black and white images of my youth into a country of living color in desperate need of Jesus.
Pastor Gary Kusunoki
Calvary Chapel San Juan Capistrano
31612 El Camino Real
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
Church Phone: (949)443-2572