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.

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.

grief and the value of community

This post is the fifth in a series on Vietnamese customs relating to death, from a personal and a Baha’i perspective.

neighbours gatherIt’s been several months since Quynh’s father Hai passed away, and the one hundred days—the “tốt khốc” (“end of tears”), marking a resumption of “normal” life after a loved one’s passing—have elapsed long since. Being surrounded by family has helped Quynh’s mother Lam cope with the tragic loss greatly. Quynh commented on her mother’s evident sense of joy at the large turnout for the 100th-day commemoration—sixty people or more arrived to pay their respects and to be with the family, if I recall correctly.

Vietnamese people are tightly interconnected with those around them. When I first came to Vietnam, I often mused about how little “personal space” I enjoyed, chalking it up to a case of high population density. Vietnam’s a small country, right? Long but thin. It must be hard to fit 85 million+ people in here. But more than that, the Vietnamese people aren’t afraid to be close as a community. Since returning from my first trip, I began to note how woefully separate, isolated I felt in Canada—as if every trip back home was like shutting myself into a cell. In Vietnam, there are no such barriers isolating people—or at the very least, they’re much less apparent than in the “developed” West. Sure, it means that people can pop in unannounced for a visit at all hours of the day, but hey, is ten minutes’ worth of tea and chatter so much to ask? Or are those ten minutes really better spent holed up watching TV? (Full disclosure: I tend to hole myself up with my laptop, which isn’t much better. And yes, I reproach myself for it.)
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heheh slight delay

ok, so I said the last post on “Death and Life in Vietnam” would be up before the new year, but I’ve gotten a little sidetracked—not in the least by the arrival of the newest letter from the Universal House of Justice to the Conference of the Counsellors, which, along with the Ridván Message of 2010 (167 B.E.), basically describe the aims of the coming Five Year Plan.

so yeah, look for the final post sometime this week. I’ll be back in Vietnam in about two weeks to celebrate Tet, so I’ll be nice and busy visiting relatives and taking pictures. What a blessing, to be involved in uniting the East and the West so directly.

say a little prayer

This post is the fourth in a series on Vietnamese customs relating to death, from a personal and a Baha’i perspective.

family shrineOn these, the coldest winter mornings when the roads are covered in snow and ice, I roll groggily out of my bed to get ready for work. Shower, brush teeth, shave. Get dressed in long johns, spiffy tailored pants and shirt from Da Nang. Lumber downstairs and feed the cat. Then pull a little piece of black plastic out of my pocket and pin it above my breast pocket, and walk quietly into the den, where the shrine awaits. Gaze with love at the portrait that stands there, and take three sticks of incense, applying a flame until they smoulder. Then holding them before me, I utter a quiet prayer, and bow three times, repeating the Greatest Name of God. Planting the sticks in the handmade ceramic pot in the centre of this small, humble shrine, I bow once more and turn away to start my day.

I used to burn incense, but only because it seemed cool and exotic. It didn’t occur to me that I could ever use it to pray.

Well, not pray. I can’t really use a stick of incense to pray, or can I? Maybe worship is a better word. I’m still not sure where that line is, or if there even is a line. I know how Baha’is pray, and I know the way we were taught to pray in Catholic schools. I know the Lord’s Prayer by heart, and I’m doing my darndest to memorize the Tablet of Ahmad. I even know what Muslim prayers look and sound like. But I still wonder whenever I see people offering incense at shrines, temples and pagodas: What exactly are you thinking? Not in a “wondering about your sanity” way, of course, but genuinely wondering what goes through the minds of the Vietnamese, the Chinese, the Koreans and Japanese when they offer incense. How exactly do you pray?
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