The Lunar New Year in South-East Asia, (Tết as we say in Vietnamese) celebrated at the end of January or beginning of February, is at the origin of the biggest yearly human migration on the planet. Hundreds of millions of people in China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Hong-Kong or Canton travel back to their hometown to gather with their family. For many of them who work in remote places, it is the unique occasion of the year to pay a visit to their parents. On the roads, the traffic is intense, buses are overloaded (even up to 70 people in a bus with 45 seats); the tickets for trains and planes are sold out weeks before the event, prices are multiplied by four. Traffic accidents reach some peak (around 100.000 accidents in Vietnam on the period of ten days). Definitely, it is not the right time to take the road. No way! That’s what I thought for the last 8 years. However, this year, I changed my mind. I wanted to do something different. Taking into account that the number of our seminarians is increasing year after year, I decided to pay a visit to some of their families. I took the risk! I found a good bargain for flying (a low cost company), heading to the Northern part of the Center of Vietnam, to the province of Nghe An. It took me two hours to reach the city of Vinh. The temperature dropped from 30 to 15 degrees. I rediscovered the benefit of a pull-over and socks; I even used some pajama pants to put inside my trousers to protect me from the cold.
In Vietnam, regardless the temperature outside, people don’t like to close doors and windows. At home, they don’t have heaters nor stoves. Most of the familier have no hot water. The furniture is very modest: a wooden sofa to welcome the guests, a dusty TV set, some wedding pictures or ancestors pictures hang on the bare wall. In the fields, they work with bare feet even if the temperature can drop to 10 degrees during the winter or raise to 40 degrees during the summer.
The harshness of life is compensated by the warmth of the locals. Families have many children: six, eight, ten or even twelve for the most numerous ones. Here, children are raised by everybody: brothers and sisters, cousins, parents, uncles and aunts. They spend their day outdoors. In the village, everybody knows everybody. Young People marry with their neighbors from the same village or the village nearby. So they are all close or remote relatives with one another. Life is tough for the farmers. People marry when they are still very young and when they reach 40, they become grand-parents! When they are sixty, they are regarded as old and wise people!
Religious girls and boys gather in their hometown, sharing the same joy of being consecrated people.
One of the main challenges in this region is the high rate of unemployment. Farming is a demanding job with very little income. Education at school is rudimentary. Many drop out of school when they are 16 years old. Most of the men and even some women leave the village to search for work in the South of Vietnam (1000 km) or even abroad. In many places men have deserted their hometown. They come back home once a month if the distance between their place of work and the village is not too big. Otherwise, they come back two or three times a year or just once a year. It even surprised me to find out that some men go to Europe illegally to work there. They stay there as long as possible until the police catch them and force them to go back to their country of origin. They can be away for several years not having chance to visit their families in the meanwhile. To leave his hometown and his family for material reasons is a tremendous sacrifice. People are away from their beloved ones; they face loneliness and their living conditions are even still precarious. Listening to their stories, looking at their background, I understand better why they miss their families and their countryside so much.
The precariousness and the simplicity of life on the other hand foster a solid Christian life. People are very proud of their Christian faith. On Sunday, the church is packed. The members of the choir are very well dressed and they sing beautifully. The parish priest is one of the most important people in the village. An educated man, he knows how to lead social or pastoral projects for the good of his people. The locals build their own church and chapels; work is done by hand, with no machine! Scaffoldings are made of wood. People take turn to build the church, one or two days a week. It takes more than two years to finish the church, not by lack of manpower by due to the scarcity of finances. But people consent to all those sacrifices for the glory of God. This Christian dynamism at times creates conflicts with the local authorities who would prefer people to engage in other kinds of actions to celebrate the glory of the heroes of the nation. Ho Chi Minh is indeed a native of this region. At times Christians and local authorities fight with one another. Dialogue between people of good will is not yet in the mentality of the people.
During these fourteen days in Nghe An, I had opportunity to visit nine families of our seminarians. When planning my trip, I had told them that I wanted to stay overnight in their own homes if possible and to celebrate mass every day, possibly presiding the celebration or preaching, depending of the agreement of their parish priest. Everywhere, I was welcome so warmly by these families and their parish priests. I realized that those visits are so important in order to understand better the background of my brothers and also for the families themselves to know better what the missionary spirit is. To share the meals, to chat with the women of the family in the kitchen when they prepare the food, to play with the children, to preside the mass and say the homily in Vietnamese, to visit old people or sick people, all of this is a way to show love and gratitude to the people the missionary is sent to. Of course, at first view, the families were a bit intimidated by the foreigner. A big guy with strange accent, a priest entering in their house, that is very unusual. The ice was quickly broken, though. Laughs and joy of meeting each other helped to overcome natural shyness.
After spending 15 days coping with an average temperature below 15 degrees (I did not get sick, how extraordinary!), I went back to Saigon by train. It took thirty hours to reach destination, a good amount of time to continue to relate closely with the Vietnamese and to suffer the length of the trip with them. I am so grateful to my seminarians and their families for this wonderful journey. I wish my brothers to experience the same kind of joys in the future when they will be sent as missionaries in remotes areas. If they love the people they will be sent to, they will also experience that everywhere in the world, there are very welcoming people acting as brothers and sisters towards the missionaries.
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