by PETER GRACE
AUCKLAND — Twenty-three years ago the life of Vietnamese Community chaplain, Fr Andrew Nguyen, was transformed.
On June 6, 1990, Fr Nguyen arrived in New Zealand to a life of peace and freedom, after a life of war, repression, imprisonment and torture.
Speaking of that day in 1990, he told NZ Catholic: “I was very happy, very happy, because I came to a free country.”
Fr Nguyen was born in South Vietnam in 1943, when the country was under French colonial rule.
The leader of the communists, Ho Chi Minh, presented himself as a patriot against South Vietnam’s French rulers, Fr Nguyen said.
“But after the French left our country, Ho Chi Minh brought the communists to Vietnam,” he said. “He’s worse than the French colonial thugs. He’s a very cunning man.”
In Fr Nguyen’s first year at the seminary, in 1963, a coup d’etat killed the president of South Vietnam. South Vietnam sided with the Americans and North Vietnam with Russia and China.
“Two years later the Americans started to pour troops into Vietnam,” Fr Nguyen said. At the height of the Vietnam War, the United States had half a million troops in the country.
Millions of civilians died, as well as 54,000 American troops and about 35 or so New Zealanders soldiers.
The communists destroyed Buddhist temples and Catholic churches, said Fr Nguyen. But he was lucky, because when he was young, most education was in the Church.
“My family was Catholic and [I] got a very good education from the Church . . . and secondary school was a Church school.”
He was ordained in 1970. War was raging everywhere. “All my life that was war . . . all the time. I witnessed all sorts of crime through war — killings, beheadings.
“And war continued until 1973 — and at that time the Americans, they shook hands with China already and they sacrificed South Vietnam, because it means nothing to the Americans.
“And in 1975, North Vietnam troops took over South Vietnam. That day of April 30, 1975, is a black day for the South Vietnamese people, but victorious for North Vietnam.”
After one year under the communists, as a parish priest, he couldn’t stand their teachings any longer, and he protested, “and they treated me like an enemy that must be destroyed”.
He was arrested and jailed. “I was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment, from 1976 to 1988.”
It was called a “re-education camp”, Fr Nguyen said, which was an attempt to fool Westerners. But it was a jail.
“Everything is up to the will of the jailer. . . . You have no money, you are a number. And everything depends on the whim of the jailer, and if they decide you are going to die, you die.
“And all sorts of things happened, which I describe in my book [I Must Live].”
He was released in 1988, but everywhere he went he was watched. And he had to report regularly to the police. “What were you doing last month? Who were your visitors? What subjects did you discuss?”
He had no passport, he couldn’t say Mass, he couldn’t move freely.
Fr Nguyen lived with his aunty in Saigon for four months and during that time talked to his bishop and got his permission to get out.
“I took to the road from Vietnam. I walk to Cambodia for two weeks. This guy, myself, an old man with fake papers — I describe myself as a father of six and come to Cambodia to look for my son.”
In Cambodia he got in touch with a Thai Frenchman who agreed to carry him from Cambodia to Thailand for about US$2000. “I had nothing in my hands and I said, ‘I will pay you as soon as I get to Thailand’, and so they took me from Cambodia to Thailand.”
A Thailand bishop received him and appointed him to a chaplaincy kind of role to 5000 Vietnamese Catholics in the refugee camp in Panat Ni’khom. He had the care of Catholics there for more than a year.
While that was going on, Bishop Denis Browne in Auckland was welcoming a Vietnamese monsignor from Rome — a monsignor who told Bishop Browne that there were three Vietnamese priests in the Panat Ni’khom camp.
Bishop Browne responded by sending an identical letter to each of those priests, inviting one to come to Auckland diocese.
“The other two they said ‘No’, and I said ‘Yes’, because, to me, I was already prepared to go to America. But as soon as I received Bishop Denis’s letter, I said this is the call . . . if there’s a need anywhere, this is where I am meant to live.”
So his documents changed from America to New Zealand, and he came to New Zealand on June 6, 1990.
“I enjoy very much being with the bishop and the priests [here] and I am happy to be in a community of priests in Auckland diocese and knowing the man who inspired me very much, Bishop Denis.”
Even though Bishop Browne has since moved to Hamilton, they still keep in regular contact.
“I am lucky I have two bishops, Denis Browne and Patrick Dunn, so easy to talk to, and they would listen to me. And it has had a very big impact on my life. Easy men, easy to talk to and glad to help me. Not like the bishop in Vietnam.”
Since the day he arrived in Auckland, he has been chaplain to the Vietnamese community there, he said. But that has been with the understanding that he can go out of Auckland diocese to work with his people, and when his people in Vietnam “really need me”, that he can go back there.
Bishop Browne told him: “Pope John Paul II struggled for his people under the communist domination. . . . You must do something for your people.”
Fr Nguyen has also been a parish priest in Mt Wellington and Ellerslie, and been very happy there. “Now, God has given me some compensation.”
Every now and then, he said, his work takes him to America, Europe, Australia, Canada, “because we are a big [Vietnamese] community, and I am head of the group [Struggle For Democracy and Freedom for Vietnam]”.
Now that he is 70, he is looking for someone else who will be able to take on his role in the future.
The Vietnamese community in Auckland has about 120 people at Mass every Sunday. But most people move to Australia.
“After 10 years they change a lot. . . . That’s the reason why there are still quite a lot of people who don’t have much English,” he said.