Friend Hien

Adapted from the book My Vietnam*


Almost immediately [after we returned to Vietnam], we were asked to take part in ministries, even though our language was rusty from our year away. As Woody was invited to preach in one of the dozen or more churches in Danang, he would prepare his message in Vietnamese, and then go over it with a student or someone who could check his vocabulary and grammar. We found a wonderful young man named Hien who was active in the youth group and excellent in English, as well as conversant with theological terms and biblical concepts. It was a great match.

As Woody worked with Hien, we became very close to him. He spent his free time with us and loved playing with our boys. He was a senior high school student from the province center of Tam Ky, south on Route One about halfway to Quang Ngai. He was living in Danang for his schooling and doing well. When he told us his background, we were amazed. He was in junior high and returning home from school one day when he saw two American GIs on the street. Wanting to practice his English, he said to them, “Hello, how are you?” One of them replied with the conventional, “Fine, how are you?” Then the other said, “You speak good English. What religion are you?” Hien, who was a nominal Buddhist, had heard that few Americans were Buddhist, so he thought about his history lessons and said, “I am Pilgrim.” “Pilgrim?” they asked curiously. Sensing this was wrong, he then said, “Oh, I mean I am Puritan.” This seemed to further confuse them, so then he said, “I am Protestant.” This they understood, so they commended the young boy and went on their way.

Hien had gone to the Buddhist pagoda very frequently with his aunt, but he realized he really had no “religion.” One day he went to the Tin Lanh Church and saw a young girl standing in front of the parsonage. “Take me to your Protestant monk,” he said. “We don’t have monks,” she answered. “Well, then, take me to your priest.” “We don’t have priests either,” she said. “Well, take me to whatever you have,” he insisted. “We have my daddy,” said the young girl, who happened to be the pastor’s daughter. She led him inside, where he heard for the first time the good news of how to find peace with God. He prayed with the pastor and made the great transfer from death to eternal life, “born again” as Hien was shown in Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John. From then on, he became active with the church youth and learned the Bible along with his other studies.

When he finished high school a couple of years later, we were able to secure a full scholarship for him at Nyack College in New York, our alma mater. But before he could take advantage of this, Hien was conscripted into the Vietnamese military “for the duration of the war.” We were all crushed at this change of plans. His education and abilities admitted him to officer training, and he rose quickly in rank. About this time we finished our four-year term in Danang and went home for our second furlough.

In 1975, when we were living in Penang, Malaysia, on what we thought would be a temporary two-year assignment, Vietnam fell to the Communists. As things were disintegrating, we knew Hien would be in big trouble due to his military involvement. We sent word to our missionaries still in Vietnam to try to get him out of the country. We promised to bear all expenses, but no one could find him. Over the next few years we used every contact we had to try to discover what had happened to him. News was scarce. Finally, we heard that he had tried to escape on one of the unseaworthy craft used by the “boat people” during those years, but a huge storm sank the boat and all on board were lost. We were devastated.

Imagine our shock two years later when we received word from a refugee camp in Indonesia that Hien was alive and safe. It was like a resurrection. Hien was resettled in California, went to UC Berkeley, graduated with high honors and found a job in the financial field. After his graduation in the late 1980s, we finally met Hien face to face and heard his amazing story.

When Vietnam fell to the Communists in 1975, Hien immediately went to Phu Quoc Island in the Gulf of Siam, trying to get to Thailand by boat, but was arrested and taken to a re-education camp. He was incarcerated in a 20-foot metal shipping container with many others and given a space of about 18 inches on the floor. Later, he and some of the detainees were transferred to the Can Tho regional prison in the Mekong Delta, where they were allowed outside for shower privileges only once or twice a week. Otherwise, they were in their allotted space. They were not allowed to speak in any language other than Vietnamese and had absolutely no literature to read unless the Communist prison authority approved it. Every day loud broadcasts started before dawn and resumed after dusk, extolling the virtues of socialism and the teachings of Lenin, Marx and the Vietnamese hero, Ho Chi Minh. Hien wanted to learn more and began to read all he could about Marx, Engels and Lenin.

Each night Hien would lie face down on his pillow and recite Bible verses he had memorized and then pray and ask for God’s help and release. After time he thought, don’t think God hears me; nothing seems to happen; maybe I have been deluded. As he regurgitated the constant Marxist arguments, he thought that perhaps socialism was right, that he was evolving into greater understanding. Maybe he was first a Buddhist, then had a higher thought and became a Christian and now was being offered an even higher thought—to become a Communist.

He decided to “test God.” He would resist his habit of prayer and recalling Bible verses before bedtime and see if anything was different. It was not. He began to think, If I pray, nothing happens; if I don’t pray, nothing happens. So why pray? God, if there is one, is not listening. He continually pondered statements he had read from the Marxist authors: “Once a thought has dominated your mind it makes you believe in it. It is like a kind of bondage you can never break away from unless you break it against your own heart,” or “A man must have his own head above his shoulders,” or “Don’t jump on the bandwagon just because someone is doing it.” Hien thought the time had come for him to muster the courage and break away from the bandwagon of Christianity.

One day he got a coveted assignment to clean the prison officers’ latrines. This meant he could be outdoors more than usual and feel some sun on his skin. As he was cleaning the latrines, he saw some paper that had actually been used as toilet paper. As he picked it up he noticed that it had English writing on it. Something to read! He wiped it off, tucked it into his shorts and went about his work. That night, he lay on his stomach and secretly pulled the paper from his pocket.

What had he found? It was a portion of Scripture. And not just any Scripture, but the beautiful passage in Romans 8: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (vv. 35, 37-39). Hien understood immediately that God had given Him this personal message in this remarkable way as an answer to his prayers. He did not doubt again.

A few days after this, Hien was taken to the camp office quite roughly. Inside, the secretary offered him a soft drink from the officer’s lunar New Year’s ration and told him, “I have noticed something different about you. I overheard your retelling of the story of the legendary prisoner in the book Papillion and other accounts of escapes from Russian camps during World War II. I was intrigued. I respect you and consider you my older brother, but publicly I still must treat you the same as the others. Your name has been put on the release list, but you must not tell anybody. I have followed the Revolution, and I will stick with it, but when you are released, it’s better for you to go elsewhere. I mean overseas.” Then he sent him out of the office. Within a few months, Hien was released.

Some months later, Hien made clandestine plans to escape on a fishing boat with 38 others. Just as they were approaching the international border, a Vietnamese government patrol boat opened fire. Hien was arrested and thrown into prison again. He was heartsick but did not lose faith in God.

After his release, Hien again devised a plan. He met Phan Thi Huynh Hoa, niece of the late President Phan Khac Suu of South Vietnam, and was able to build a tugboat, with her as the legal registrant. First he used the boat to tow two large barges that took rice from the towns among the vast river system out to mills along the Mekong River. Then he signed contracts to haul gravel for a government unit that was building the main harbor at the mouth of the river. After some time, having established himself well, he made a plan to escape on one of his trips to the river mouth. He had more than 50 people on the barges who were going with him, and on the night determined, they boarded the tugboat and headed for the open sea.

Just as they were about to leave, three members of the shore patrol appeared with guns trained on the vessel. “Halt!” they called. “What are you doing?” Hien explained that he was preparing to take the workers back to the stone quarry.

“Stop!” the men insisted. “Are you trying to escape?” Hien realized that he was not telling them the truth. He bowed his head and quietly said a quick prayer: “Father, you know I have been trying to be self-sufficient and rely on my own wisdom. If you want me to go back to prison again, this time maybe three to five years because I am caught red-handed as the main organizer in this plan, then I will follow Your will. But You know how desperately I want to leave this place. Now all is in Your hands, Father.”

After the prayer, Hien said to the patrol guards, “We are leaving the country. What do you want to do?” Back came the astonishing reply, “We want to go with you!” Two of the men got on board and the third took their guns and went back into the town.

When the boat got into the open sea, a storm blew up. The night was black, and it was impossible to navigate either by compass or stars. The two guards, well trained and experienced, were able to steer the ship safely to Indonesia, where the refugees were taken to a camp. From there Hien and his two brothers were eventually sent to the United States.

Today Hien lives in Southern California, and it is a joy for us to periodically see him and his wife and family and to reminisce about the two angels God planted in the Vietnamese shore patrol one stormy night.


*Adapted from My Vietnam, published by Xulon Press, 2010.

My Vietnam – Stories of the War Years from the Inside Out

To order a copy, e-mail Charlotte Stemple at stemples@aol.com or write her at: Charlotte Stemple 1034 Cellana Court Ft. Myers, FL 33908


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