vietnam at the international baha’i convention, 2013

To follow up on my earlier overview of the 11th International Bahá’í Convention held this year, I’ve put together the following informal translation of an account written by the Vietnamese delegates, which was published on a popular Vietnamese interfaith portal. It gives a good overview of the activities that took place at the Convention, and the joy and love with which the Vietnamese friends were welcomed by their fellow delegates.

The 11th International Bahá’í Convention was held in Haifa/Akka, Israel, from April 25 to May 2, 2013. In document No. 260/TGCP-HTQT, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs approved the application of seven members of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Vietnam to attend the event, including: Nguyễn Thức; Nguyễn Hoàng Lộc; Nguyễn Thị Lâm; Lê Nhất Phương Hồng; Diệp Đình Hữu; Bùi Phước Kỳ Nam; Nguyễn Đình Thỏa.[1] The delegation from the Bahá’í Community of Vietnam travelled to Israel on April 24, and returned to Vietnam today, May 5, via Turkish Airlines.

Participants from 157 countries registered to attend the Convention. The nine members of National Spiritual Assemblies from around the world acted as delegates to elect the Universal House of Justice. Those who could not attend sent their ballots by mail. [...]

The official programme of the Convention lasted four days, from April 29 to May 2. The plan for April 25–27 included registration, orientation, visits to the Holy Places in Haifa and ‘Akká, and prayers in the Mausoleum of the Báb (in Haifa) and the Holy Tomb of Bahá’u’lláh (in ‘Akká), so that delegates might pray and meditate to aid them in casting their ballots to elect the Universal House of Justice in a spiritual atmosphere. [...]

Delegates gathered in front of stage in colourful costumes

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a day at a vietnamese kindergarten

My sister-in-law, Quyên, runs a kindergarten out of her home in Danang, Vietnam. She and her husband had to take a trip to Huế this weekend, so Quỳnh and I came over to help out. Here’s how the day went.

classClass starts early in the day. It’s 7:30 AM, and a table’s worth of children, aged around 4-5 years old, have already arrived and have started studying, dotting their i’s, crossing their t’s, and hooking their ơ’s. Quyên teaches handwriting, which is a bit advanced for kindergarten, but appeals to many Vietnamese parents who want their children to be well-prepared when they get to primary school. That’s her specialty, but it’s not all she teaches. Children learn reading, writing and arithmetic, sing songs and listen to stories. This year, Quỳnh’s brother Nu (who studied architecture in Ho Chi Minh City) has also started teaching art classes after hours, to which parents can send their children separately (although the classes happen in the same place).

Some children start studying as they arrive. Some of them have signed up to have breakfast in the morning, so they sit at the table and eat first. Some of them are playing together in another room, using building blocks to make and break fanciful contraptions. A few others sit and watch children’s programming on television—although they’re restricted to short, intermittent periods of screen time, until the next activity starts. All together, it gives the schoolhouse—Quyên’s home—a playful, varied ambience, as a kindergarten should have.

I get a lot of amazed looks from the kids due to my height (nearly 6″). One of the children gazes at me and mutters quietly, “cao quá… (so tall…)” Another asks why I’m so tall, and one of the teachers insists it’s because I ate all my vegetables when I was young. (I did, too.) I try to kneel down and squat a little more to make them feel a little more comfortable with me. After a while, the children get used to my presence, but I get a lot of attention. Many of them may never have seen another foreigner in their lives, so I try to leave as good an impression as I can. That I can use my (still broken, but sufficient) Vietnamese to communicate with them helps a lot.

classThe morning rolls on, and around 10:30 it’s time for the children to eat. Lunch is served in the dining room, between the classroom and the kitchen; it’s a typical meal of rice, vegetables, and various bits of seafood, all served in the same bowl. When they finish eating, children sit back against the classroom wall to rest and digest, and prepare for what comes next: the several-hours-long naptime that’s common to almost every Vietnamese work day. Wooden pallets are laid out, and upon them, woven bamboo mats. After taking their potty breaks and washing their hands, the children settle in with their pillows, the curtains are drawn, and massive mosquito nets are strung up. Naptime lasts from around 11:30 to 2:30 PM—a bigger lunchtime break than any Canadian worker (barring CEOs) could ever dream of. During the break, the teachers and helpers—five of us in total—hang out in the dining room, watching over the children and having our lunch of bún cá, or fish with rice noodles. Something doesn’t quite sit right in my stomach, though, so I go home to pop some antacids and take a nap myself, returning around 3:00.

The afternoon proceeds much like the morning. Children continue to copy down letter forms in their books, in neat little rows, while others play. They repeat sounds out loud as they write down different combinations of letters, to help them learn proper Vietnamese pronunciation. A few younger children—siblings of the older students—have arrived too. A couple of three-year olds tag along after me, shouting to get my attention and offering me cups. I thank them, pretending to take a drink, and they move away. Then they come back again, offering the same deal. And so it continues for the next half-hour, every twenty seconds or so (I timed them). As in all cases with very young children, you gotta adapt, so we gradually turn it into an opportunity for them to practice addressing their elders politely: “Chú ơi (Uncle)! Please have some water!” instead of shouting. They eventually get sidetracked by other things, and I manage to go back to the classroom where I assist Quyên’s boys, who are off to the side learning English. What’s a table? What’s a chair? What’s an eraser? And how do you spell it? The silent e’s in “make a circle” cause no end of confusion. Oh, English. You crazy, haphazard patchwork of a language. How exactly did you become so universal? Don’t answer that.

classThe afternoon is drawing to a close, and parents will soon come to take their children home. The benches are rearranged to form rows, and Lâm (Quỳnh’s mother) takes center stage for game time. The game is some sort of traffic police game: someone acts as a traffic cop, and the rest are all sitting on their benches, riding motorbikes. As far as I could tell, the traffic cop gives directions (like “turn left”, “stop”, and so on) and the rest of the players have to follow the directions. If the traffic cop catches anyone who misses a command, they have to come up and pay a fine(?), which amounts to singing a song. I’ll have to inquire further to see if we could use this game in our children’s class back home. Anyway, little by little, parents drop in to drive their children home. One by one, boys and girls graciously go to each of their teachers to announce their departure—“thưa bà, con về”, “thưa cô, con về”—as the Vietnamese culture of respect for elders demands. Eventually, only Quyên’s boys remain, along with one more girl whose parents let us know that they would be at work late. We sit down for dinner—bánh canh cua, or thick noodles with crab. By the time I Ieave the schoolhouse, it’s past 6:30 PM, for a work day of eleven hours.

classEleven hours and sometimes more, six days a week. And yet Quyên doesn’t complain. Not only because she enjoys teaching, but because it supports her family quite well. Teachers are generally well-respected and well-paid in Vietnam, but Quyên is particularly respected by parents for her teaching skill, her sense of discipline and her trustworthiness. People simply know she does a good job, and they’re proud to send her their children.

Trustworthiness, I’m coming to believe, is one of the keys to sustaining prosperity. Since the turn of the 21st century, we’ve seen ample evidence of the opposite—untrustworthiness—everywhere around the world, from Enrons and Worldcoms through Fannie Maes and Freddie Macs. How long do you think economies, which are fundamentally based on trust, can keep going when the people and institutions that make up those economies are not worthy of that trust? The alternative, says Bahá’u’lláh, is to “be worthy of the trust of thy neighbor”. This, He says, is “the supreme instrument for the prosperity of the world”, and “the greatest portal leading unto the tranquillity and security of the people”. Beyond her teaching skills, her smiling face, and her beautiful handwriting, that’s what impresses me about Quyên—how trustworthy she is, and the effect that has on the people around her. She may only teach kindergarten, but the whole world has a lot to learn from people like her.

world religion day in vietnam

In reading through the storied past of the Vietnamese Bahá’í community, I’ve been particularly impressed by its interfaith work. It seems evident that no other community worked more tirelessly for interreligious understanding during the war years than did the Bahá’ís. One of the early contributions to this work was the organization of national and local commemorations of World Religion Day, an interfaith observance, initiated in America in 1950 and thereafter celebrated worldwide, on the third Sunday in January each year. Its purpose is now as it was then: to call attention to the essential harmony of the spiritual principles underlying the world’s religions, and to emphasize the role of religion as a unifying force for humanity. Observed for over a decade prior to the end of the Vietnam War, it became, according to observers, “by far the most important inter-faith event in Vietnam”.

The first observance of World Religion Day, or Ngày tôn giáo Hoàn cầu, in Vietnam took place on January 21st, 1962, at the Bahá’í Centre at 193/1C Cong Ly Street, Saigon. “For the first time in Viet Nam,” the papers announced, “representatives of seven of the world’s religions will meet to discuss ‘the fundamental oneness of religion’ on the 13th annual World Religion Day…” Representatives of Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity (Baptist), Islam, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and the Bahá’í Faith were in attendance, and addressed the crowd regarding the fundamental tenets and principles of each of their religions. “We are for a world where every one will see his neighbour as his own brother, and we are working toward the day when affection will make the boundaries between states useless,” the Bahá’í representative, Nguyen Ke Tong, declared. His words must have struck a chord with the listeners, as Vietnam itself was at the time bisected by one of these boundaries, one that had torn families apart and turned brothers, cousins and friends against each other, as they separated into North and South.

The observance of World Religion Day provided a much-needed forum for interreligious dialogue to address the enmity that had developed between the country’s Buddhist and Catholic communities as a result of the prejudicial policies of South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm. Hoping to address this growing conflict, the Bahá’í speaker at World Religion Day in January 1963 publically appealed to the leaders of Vietnam’s faith communities to establish an Interfaith Council that would work towards unity, reconciliation, and the protection of the rights of all religious communities in Vietnam. The need for such an institution was undeniable, but the injustices perpetrated by Diệm’s government against the Buddhist community—forced conversions, looting, shelling and demolition of pagodas—had become too great to bear. When a rarely enforced law was invoked to prohibit Buddhists in the city of Huế from flying flags on Buddha’s birthday in May 1963, protests broke out, which were met with live fire from the police and army. The Buddhist Crisis broke out, which would end six months later in a military coup and Diệm’s assassination.

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flowers and forecasts

Here’s an excerpt from a post that I started writing a while back in Da Nang, in October 2010, and never finished—probably because it was time to take out the garbage.

nine yellow roses

it’s flower arrangement day at hotel Hai Lam (aka, Quynh’s family home). apparently, prevailing conditions allowed for the buildup of flower purchases in our vicinity, which favoured the formation of an active flower system leading straight to our door. Government florists describe the system as cyclical, although this particular system is considered to be stronger than usual for this time of year.

So anyway yeah. Lots of flowers in the house, for Quynh who just came home from a Baha’i Institute training in Malaysia, and for the family shrine too. Pink, red, white, yellow flowers, roses, lilies and (??). I met Quynh at the airport with red roses—and a bouquet of nine roses when she got home. We even got a new set of bed sheets with roses on them!

Rollin’ like the mack, indeed. You can tell the effect it had on the love of my life:

more flowers?

5th baha’i national convention, vietnam

So Quynh and I were so busy with our big trip to Canada this spring (and all the attendant paperwork) that I completely forgot to post anything about the 5th National Convention of the Baha’is of Vietnam, which took place in Hanoi from 28-29 April, 2012. A lot of big things happened this time around, as this year is also the 20th anniversary of the Baha’i Faith in Hanoi. A number of people who helped established the Baha’i community of Hanoi attended, including Mrs. Zabine Van Ness, who was instrumental in enrolling the first Hanoian Baha’i. Blogger Gary Matthews (aka the Astonished Tamale) shares an account of the weekend’s events:

The new National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Vietnam, elected the day before at the annual national convention, was introduced. Among the members is Tahirih Hong Le (the only woman), daughter of Le Loc, a longtime friend of Zabine’s from the Old Days. Le Loc once served as chairman of the National Spiritual Assembly of South Vietnam , and later as chairman of the NSA of unified Vietnam. [...]

Baha’i Counselor George Soraya of Indonesia gave a rousing keynote speech. He emphasized Baha’i principles of obedience to government, peace, education, loyalty to government, the oneness of humanity, Baha’i non-participation in partisan politics, cooperation with government, non-violence, and obedience to government.

Another moving address was from a beautiful lady [Mrs. Tran Thi Bich] who was the second Hanoi Baha’i, having been enrolled 20 years ago by the first believer, Dr. Dao An Son. Sadly, the latter’s whereabouts are currently unknown, although the National Spiritual Assembly made every effort to find her during the lead-up to the celebration.

Mrs. Bich is very dear to Quynh and I; we spent a lot of time visiting with her and her family while we were in Hanoi getting to know each other. She’s very steadfast, strong and sharp. The Baha’is of Hanoi had to endure quite a lot in the past twenty years, especially before the community was officially recognized, so I can imagine her account must have been very moving.

Naturally, the media reported on the event, in their usual telegraphic style. Nhân Dân, the official “Voice of the Party” in Vietnam, had this to say about the proceedings in an English-language article:

More than 300 Baha’i dignitaries and followers across the country attended the fifth National Congress of the Vietnam Baha’i community in Hanoi.

The event was held on the occasion of Ridvan and the 20th anniversary of Hanoi’s Baha’i religion.

The Vietnam Baha’i community, which was recognized as a religious organisation by the Government Committee for Religious Affairs in 2008, has made great contributions to the development of the community and society. In recent years, the organisation has held many charitable activities and educated its followers on healthy spiritual values.

The Congress discussed and approved the directions on the community’s development from now until 2013, as well as elected the Baha’i Religious Spiritual Council in Vietnam for the 2012 – 2013 term.

What really struck me this year, of course, was how foreigners were welcomed into the proceedings. The video below shows Michael and Selena Orona and their three children performing two Baha’i songs at the 20th anniversary celebration for Hanoi’s Baha’i community. Michael is a diplomatic advisor on human rights and religious freedom with the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam.

Read more about past conventions in Vietnam, including last year’s in Phan Thiet, or the 3rd annual convention in Can Tho. I should really write something up about the 2nd annual convention that happened in Da Nang in 2009, but let’s just say I was very busy at the time…

4th baha’i national convention, vietnam

The Bahá’ís of Vietnam have just finished electing their new Spiritual Assembly at the National Convention in Phan Thiet, in the southern province of Binh Thuan. Quynh, Nu and Lam were there, along with 300 other Bahá’í friends. Quynh and Lam travelled on the overnight train from Da Nang, and friends came from as far away as Hanoi, all the way in the country’s north, to be there. Apparently it was amazing and a joy to attend. Quynh got to meet with several Vietnamese government representatives and members of Bahá’í institutions responsible for Southeast Asia. The Vietnamese press dutifully covered the convention too, with an item on the evening news (aired twice) and a number of news articles. I was surprised to see that the news was available online almost immediately after the convention, not only in Vietnamese (2, 3), but also in English and French. It looks as though one article was written by the Vietnam News Agency (VNA) and reprinted in a number of places, like the English press would do with AP or Reuters stories. Here’s the English article:

The Baha’i Community of Vietnam held its fourth National Congress in Phan Thiet city, the southern province of Binh Thuan, on April 23 and 24.

More than 300 Baha’i dignitaries and followers nationwide attended the congress, which also saw the participation of representatives of the Government’s Committee for Religious Affairs and the Baha’i advisory board for Asia and the Board of Trustees of Huququ’llah for Southeast Asia.

The congress elected a nine-member religious council of the Baha’is of Vietnam for the 2011-2012 term.

It also set forth key tasks with the emphasis on mobilising Baha’is to live up to the motto of “living well in one’s life and one’s faith” and strengthening the nation’s great unity and solidarity with other religions.

Introduced into Vietnam in 1954, the Baha’i community now has more than 7,000 followers in 43 cities and provinces, mostly in central and southern regions.

The Baha’i Community of Vietnam has been recognised as a religious organisation by the Government’s Committee for Religious Affairs in July 2008.

This article—a short one to be sure—isn’t a direct translation of the Vietnamese one, nor is the French article. The original reads something more like the article on the Can Tho convention in 2010 I blogged last year, with a lot more references to the Baha’i Faith being completely lawful and being in full accordance with regulations, etc. Despite not saying much, of course, the English article’s at least correct. I’m mostly just surprised they included the word “Huqúqu’lláh”.

Anyway, as soon as I get a little more time, I’ll take a stab at translating the Vietnamese and French articles for a little comparative coverage. Keep your eyes peeled. And if you’re interested in reading more articles like this, then why not follow me on Twitter and let me know?

Read about last year’s Baha’i National Convention in Can Tho.