Being in Vietnam for eight years now, I have visited most of its famous spots many times. When I travel, I don’t worry about the practical aspects of my trip, since I normally go around with Vietnamese people. But this time, I thought it would be different. I had to go to Hanoi to renew my passport and I wanted to seize this opportunity to visit a place well-known to the tourists but still unknown for me, Sapa, in the mountains. Sapa is famous for its landscape and for its ethnic Minority people. I hadn’t made any plan, I just surfed the internet and intended to be a simple tourist, a Tay Balo (a Western backpacker), as they said. Even if I would not be in touch with an authentic local experience, it should not prevent me to go there, in the middle of foreigners, equipped with their camera and their wallet full of dollars. I forgot that, thanks to the amazing network of the Catholic Church, God always cares ! I experienced it repeated times but I have a short memory.
On the day I left for Hanoi, I gave a phone call to the archbishop’s office in Hanoi and introduced myself (in Vietnamese) as a missionary working in Vietnam for quite a long time and wondering if I could stay in the bishop house during my stay in the capital. I was told that I am welcome and indeed as soon as I arrive there, the father bursar of the house, Father Dung, welcomed me warmly. He told me that, he returned from Belgium four years ago after a few years of pastoral studies in the Jesuits institute of Brussels. We find out that we have several friends in common! At supper, I take the meal with the bishop (now Cardinal) and three priests. As often in Vietnam, I am touched by the simplicity of the bishop. He inquires about my mission here, we talk in Vietnamese and in French; his French is much better than my Vietnamese! On the following day, I visited the capital (I have been here already several times) and decided to go to the suburbs to visit the ethnographic museum. Surprisingly, it is actually the most beautiful museum I have seen in Vietnam!
The Ethnographic museum of Hanoi, for me the most beautiful museum of the Country. Don't miss it !
At night, I left Hanoi by train heading to the North, to Lao Cai. Father Dung had arranged for me to meet the parish priest of this city at the border of China. A seminarian came to the station to pick me. I had talked to him by phone and he was expecting a Vietnamese. When I asked him if he was the one who comes to pick me, he was confused; he did not expect to meet a foreigner! We walked to the border of China. The two countries are separated by a bridge, but for those who want to cross it, they have to go on foot. The trains do not cross the border, nor the cars. We are in Asia, not in Europe!
Here we are, the Seminarian who welcame me at the station and myself, a few meters from China, where in the future we hope the Congregation will start a community !
Once arrived in the parish house, I met the parish priest, Fr. Thanh who told me that he goes to the mountains this afternoon, to Sapa, to attend a mass with the bishop of Huong Hoa, Bishop Long, and to join him in his pastoral visit of the diocese. He says that I can attend the mass with them, but I won’t be allowed to participate to the pastoral visit of the bishop, since I am a foreign priest. The local authorities may not tolerate it. I know the rule: always follow the opinion of the local people.
Beautiful landscape in the North, near Sapa, once the fog is gone, of course !
Once arrived in Sapa, I met the bishop and Fr. Trinh. Father Trinh tells us that there is actually no problem, I can join them for the trip; they will make sure that I won’t be in trouble! Great, I can join them, the pastoral visit started with a mass presided by the bishop in a village in the mountain. It is very cold, six degrees, and the fog is dense. In the church, it is crowded and colorful. The ethnic minorities were dressed according to their tradition. The bishop presided the wedding of three couples. The mass should warm our heart, despite the cold temperature, but there was no real sense of joy and I felt quite sad. The reason is that people are extremely poor; the children wore very light clothes. The three couples are quite serious, they are terribly young, sixteen or seventeen years old for the girls, eighteen for the boys, and one of the girls is pregnant. They don’t wear special clothes for the wedding, and the mass is not followed by a banquet. This is the tough reality of Vietnam. In the museums and in the official speech, people praise the Minorities, and their peculiar cultures. However, in reality, they are very poor people, their level of education is very low and the prospective of a better future is very remote. Beside the Church, very few people care and try to improve their social condition.
The ethnic minorities, a courageous and welcoming people but with hard living conditions; apart from the Church, very few people care and want to improve their situation.
After the mass, we left the village and took a magnificent road in the mountains, from Sapa to Lai Chau, around 100km. The fog was gone and the landscape is beautiful. In the car, the bishop and I have a long and deep conversation regarding pastoral topics. I am impressed by his simplicity and deep insight. Once we arrived in Lai Chau, the people welcomed us with the sound of trumpets and drums. They were so happy to welcome their bishop. In this quite big parish, there is no parish priest. It is not allowed by the local authorities. The bishop says to the parishioners that he is aware of the problem and that it hopes it will be solved as soon as possible. Tensions between State and Church in the North still exist. To solve it, patience and mutual trust is needed. At the end of the mass, the bishop says that the foreign priest will do the homily on the following day, the day of the confirmations of twenty children and teenagers. It is a promise, so I have to carry it out! It is actually a significant day for me as well, this Sunday is the third Sunday of Advent and it is the anniversary of my ordination, nine years ago. The parishioners offer me flowers and the bishop a special blessing, I am deeply touched!
Beautiful mass in Lai Chau, well attended and with a nice choir ! Twelve children received the sacrement of confirmation from the hands of their bishop.
After the mass, we came back to Lao Cai and to Hanoi. I said goodbye to the bishop and the two priests. I am so grateful for these beautiful days in their company. To be a missionary in Vietnam is to be accepted by a welcoming people. I spent one week in the North of Vietnam, but I never slept in any hotel. I am definitively not a tourist here. I am a local and it is feels good!