By Linda Spangler I had wanted to go to Vietnam for a long time. I grew up with the Vietnam War on TV and watched the fighting and the nightly list of American dead. Escaping the draft was a frequent topic of conversation in my high school. I could not understand how anyone could condone this war, when just witnessing it from my living room was enough to bring me to tears. I was incapable of imagining how horrible it would be to actually be there.
Vietnam stayed in my psyche more as a war than a country for a long time. Later, I learned of the beauty of the land and the people. I read books by Thich Nhat Hanh and Sister Chan Khong and was deeply moved by their wisdom, dedication, and compassion. I met Vietnamese in the United States and was drawn to their kindness and lack of bitterness. I decided to visit Vietnam before the anticipated changes took place.
As part of planning my trip to Vietnam, I contacted Sister Chan Khong to see if I could be of any service. I thought that my skills as a physician might be of use in one of the many projects her work helps support. She asked me to carry some books and tapes of Dharma teachings by Thich Nhat Hanh into Vietnam.
I hid several tapes and books in my luggage. Passing through customs was a scary experience, although the most I was probably risking was to have the tapes and books confiscated. The other passengers passed through without incident, but I was directed to a side station and asked to show the cassettes I had claimed on the custom form. Luckily, I had concealed them to look like music tapes and I passed without difficulty. Later I was told the customs agents were looking for smuggled pornographic videotapes from the West that had recently found a big market in Vietnam.
Sister Chan Khong instructed me to bring the tapes and books to an orphanage in Saigon from which they would be copied and distributed. Because of the possibility that I, as a foreigner, could be followed to the orphanage and precipitate a search afterwards, I first visited the orphanage but did not bring the materials. Later a nun went to a designated house to pick them up without my presence. People told me that just a little over a year ago you could be interrogated by the police and possibly arrested for just talking to a foreigner. Rules against connections with foreigners had obviously loosened. However, fear still predominated when something as politically sensitive as Thich Nhat Hanh's work was involved. I have never lived under a system with such blatant censorship. It made me appreciate what a gift it is to have free access to the teachings and wisdom of people such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Sister Chan Khong. It is something I take for granted which the Vietnamese cannot.
I found the Vietnamese extremely warm and kind. Many of the South Vietnamese I met perceived Americans as allies in the war and were less resentful than I expected. Even the North Vietnamese greeted me warmly and welcomed me as an American. The "American War" seemed more in the past to the Vietnamese than it is for many Americans, even though they suffered much more. Many of the Vietnamese I spoke with seemed to have perfected the teaching that you could forgive the actors even if you could not forgive the action. They could continue to condemn the war even while they opened their hearts to the Americans. They also understood the difference between a government and its people. I wonder how forgiving Americans would be to a people whose undeclared war had left two million people dead.
I worked in a clinic funded by the East Meets West Foundation, which includes an orphanage, a medical clinic, and a school that serves the poor agricultural community. I worked in the medical clinic helping to train two Vietnamese female doctors in gynecology. They had come out of medical school with almost no experience in women's health. Working with them was extremely satisfying. They were eager to learn and we found we had a lot to teach each other. The level of disease was something I had never seen in the United States, even among the poor. I was happy to be able to make a small offering.
Vietnam is a beautiful country, filled with flowing green rice paddies, mountains, and a long, lovely coastline. It is also changing rapidly. As an outsider, it is scary to watch the rush toward industrialization and the modern world. There are more and more foreigners every day, coming both as tourists and business representatives. I fear that their simple, quiet life will be replaced by technology, low-wage factory jobs, and a homogeneity that makes cities everywhere seem the same. But there is also a good side to these changes. Some people will gain access to products that will make their lives easier.
The Vietnamese were still reluctant to talk about current repression, but everyone agreed the situation is getting better. Buddhists are still in jail for simply living and teaching their Buddhist beliefs, but the Vietnamese can now speak openly with foreigners and there is more and more access to outside material. I pray that Thich Nhat Hanh and many other exiled Vietnamese will someday feel safe to return to their own country.
Linda Spangler is a medical doctor in the San Francisco Bay Area.