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.

good morning vietnam: observing the baha’i fast

In 2012, Media Makes Us put out a call for Bahá’ís around the world to film their experience of the Bahá’í Fast, which takes place from March 2–20 every year, for inclusion into the documentary Fast In A Day. I recorded a bunch of footage in March 2012, hoping to send it over, but due to personal circumstances, I couldn’t submit it in time for inclusion. Instead, I gathered it together and presented it here.

The first time I observed the Fast in Vietnam was in 2010—the year Quynh and I were married. In fact, our wedding was during the Fast, because that was the only time one of our witnesses could make it (during the March Break). A lot of our Bahá’í friends joked that we must have been trying to save on food costs by holding a wedding during the Fast—if only! Because so many members of Quynh’s extended family attended—and very few of them are Bahá’ís—we had to provide lunch anyway. After all, getting married is hungry work for all involved. In fact, it was so hot on the day of the ceremony (upwards of 35°C) that I started getting faint, so I decided to break the Fast discreetly with a small bowl of soup. I figured it was either that or falling over during the reception.

As mentioned in the video, sometimes people wonder how Bahá’ís can survive when observing the Fast—abstaining from food and drink during the daylight hours. The fact is, though, it’s not too bad under normal conditions: I usually do fine if I make sure to eat enough oatmeal and drink enough water before sunrise. And for those who are worried that fasting causes harm, there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary—that is, occasional fasting may actually improve your health and help you to live longer. There are some cases where fasting is less than ideal, of course, and the Bahá’í Fast takes these into account. Bahá’u’lláh has exempted those who are ill or who perform strenuous physical labour from fasting, as well as women who are pregnant or menstruating.

Ultimately, it’s up to each person to study the Bahá’í teachings so that they can understand the significance of fasting and how it applies to their life. Fact is, it’s not just about not eating and drinking. During the Fast, we pay special attention to the life of our soul, avoiding doing things that will drag down our spirits and spending more time doing things that will help our souls grow. Bahá’u’lláh calls fasting and obligatory prayer “two wings to man’s life” that enable us to soar to the heights of spirituality. Fasting also helps us remember our blessings, and to better understand “the woes and sufferings of the destitute”—those for whom hunger is a day-to-day thing.

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?

united across the battle lines

flags flyingPrior to going to Vietnam in 2009, I really had little idea about the history of the place. I knew my father had made the choice to come to Canada from America in the 1960s to avoid being drafted into the army and sent to fight the war in Vietnam, but I had little knowledge of that conflict itself, its background, or indeed of any of Vietnam’s thousands-of-years-long history. I suppose until the country and its culture became a part of my life through marriage, I was too lazy to learn much about it. Since then I’ve spent a lot of time reading about the history of Vietnam, and even compiling information about the history of the Bahá’ís of Vietnam. The latter has been really fascinating, as I’ve learned just how active the Bahá’í community was in the 1950s and 1960s, and how far it had been able to develop by the end of the war.

One of the most amazing stories was related to me and Quynh on a trip to Moncton this past summer, about a Bahá’í who had fought as a soldier during the Vietnam War. There seem to be a few versions of the story floating around, but the one we heard was similar to this one related by a Mr. “B. Knott Wildered” on a Yahoo Answers thread:

[…T]here was a young American soldier in Vietnam, experiencing his very first time in an actual battle and scared to death. In an attempt to gain some courage, he yelled the Bahá’í greeting [Allah’u’abhá] and was surprised to hear it returned from the other side of a clearing. But after a bit of hesitation, he went in that direction, saw a Viet Cong soldier who again repeated that greeting. They met, hugged each other and each took off in the opposite directions. While I was not there to see it, I can well believe it actually happened, and probably more than once, and the one I heard it from told it with conviction and with tears in his eyes.

TheMerryOnion, a Bahá’í blogger formerly from Newfoundland, blogged about a similar story last year in a post about her personal heroes, the first of which was the subject of the story, a Vietnam War veteran named Reggie Baskin.

Reggie was the first person I ever interviewed. […] I chose Reggie because I knew he had been to Vietnam as a soldier during the war, and also that he was a Bahá’í and therefore fighting and violence had to have been against his conscience. The interview went well and he told me some fascinating stories that I still remember. One in particular sticks in my mind: he got separated from his group and met up with a group of about twenty Viet Cong soldiers. He figured he was about to be killed, but the CO of that group recognized the symbol on his Bahá’í necklace. This man was also Bahá’í, greeted him with “Allah-u-abhá” (the universal Bahá’í greeting), and took his men on their merry (or not) way. Who says religion always causes conflict? In this case, it saved a man’s life.

Look forward to more of these stories in the future as I continue to dig through the history books. There are just too many amazing things to share.