A Memory and A Hope: Saigon Then and Now

Posted by Ravi Zacharias, on August 30, 2017
Topic: Blog

As I landed in Tan Son Nhat Airport in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (formerly Saigon) two days ago a flood of memories from nearly fifty years ago swept over me. I left Saigon in August of 1971. I was 25 years old then. I had just landed in August of 2017, 46 years later. The last time I was here was during the thick of the Vietnam War. Tens of thousands of lives were lost in that unpopular but very real struggle between ideologies. Vietnam spelled turmoil and at the same time America was rocked by a cultural revolution that changed the course of its history. I happened to be living in Canada at that time, in the midst of my undergraduate studies. The story of how I was invited to go to Vietnam, how it was funded, and how God used those meetings is a memory almost unbelievable.

That was the dawn of my calling and ministry. Now I am in the sunset years of life and concerned with transferring the trust to the next generation. I arrived in 1971 as a young speaker with one small sermon book in my jacket pocket, not knowing what to expect. I left Vietnam knowing what God was calling me to. I spoke through the length of the country all the way to the demilitarized zone. My heart and life were changed and evangelism was in my blood.

As I walked the streets of Ho Chi Minh City during the last two days, I remembered names and faces, but the city has changed with two generations. Those who greeted me at the hotel were not even born until after the war was over. That I remember so many names from 46 years ago, including the full name of the flight attendant who served me when I took off from Toronto and the names of my interpreters here, amazes me.

It was a United Airlines flight. The flight attendant was a young lady named Jocelyn, and seeing me reading my Bible, she came to chat with me. When she found out I was heading to Vietnam, she said she would pray for me. We have never met since but I was so grateful for her promise of prayer.

The missionaries with whom I stayed, the street food I enjoyed, all are like yesterday. In fact, I went out for lunch today to have some Pho’, the delicious Vietnamese noodle soup served now supposedly with Australian beef. I’m not sure Australia would want to lay claim to what I had, but the sauces make up for the extra gristle.

North Vietnam may have won but the American imprint is here. The capitalists rule the street. Gucci, Burger King, and Starbucks are prominently situated. Everyone is trying to sell you something. The young are in their fashionable torn jeans as are young people all over the world. I wonder what the young are taught. Are they told that America is an awful country like the professors back home teach? But if so, the dollar is still the preferred payment. Prices are quoted in the local currency, the “Dong,” but merchants tell you they would prefer the dollar. It’s a little bit like sitting during the national anthem but standing up to receive your paycheck. The human heart is quite the magician, isn’t it? We can monkey with the imagination but still ape the real. The very media that helped shape anti-American sentiments during the war shapes the American tastes on display throughout the city, although I hear it is the showpiece and that the rest of the country still struggles.

I chatted with so many. The manager who welcomed me was curious to hear of what it was like when I was here. He is from Europe and ushered me to my room. (Yes, I have frequent flyer and frequent visitor numbers that get me some privileges to boot for anything from airlines to hotels. It’s the small blessing of being a traveler.) When I told him I had just been to Iraq he wanted to hear more.

There is so much I would like to say, but I shall save it for other times. You will all be reading this after I have left, so let me share one memory from Vietnam that ties me to Iraq on this trip. In the war zone that was Vietnam I experienced nights that were scary and sights that were life-changing. The hospitals were grim and painful to even walk through. Yet, God brought revival to the land through these meetings. Yes, that is the amazing thing.

When I was here last, I traveled by military planes, missionary land rovers, and even by motorbike between cities. The military and the missionaries are gone. So I dared to hire a motorbike taxi to drive me through the city. My family is going to be aghast when they read this. Yes, at times I thought my knee caps would be part of the street litter. At other times I thought I would see the pearly gates. At still other times I questioned my sanity putting my injured back at risk. I may be limping for a few days now but long after the pain has gone, the memory will remain. It was a fearsome ride. This is a city of motorbikes like a swarm of locusts in every direction. No Disney World needed here! Thank God, I lived to tell the tale.

But let me just make one connecting story from then to now. My interpreter in Vietnam for the better part of my journey was a young seventeen-year-old, Hien. We were speaking in a very volatile area for two days. Horrible things had happened there. For those who remember the infamous My Lai incident, we were within a few miles of there. I was in the midst of my message that he was interpreting line by line. All of a sudden, he stretched out his right arm as if to keep me from falling forward. But then he said, “Let’s stop. God is moving right now.” He continued to exhort passionately in Vietnamese and I had no idea what he was saying. But the audience went to their knees and the presence of God was awesome. He later told me that he could sense the audience was deeply moved and that’s why he felt even though the message was not over, the Spirit’s work was done. I will never forget that meeting.

Why do I mention that? Two weeks ago in Erbil, as I was midway through the message, my interpreter Milad Dagher could not continue at one point. The Holy Spirit came upon him as he was trying to get through the story I was sharing. He was overcome with emotion. The audience responded to his tender heart. We had a beautiful closure to the meeting that night. Many gave their lives to the Lord.

Friends, God moves in mysterious ways—and his ways are always perfect. I am so filled with his presence and blessing for giving me the opportunity to return to Vietnam. The dots are connecting with Spirit-anointed reality. If He gives me the chance, I will return again with my teammates and who knows what blessing He has in store if my work is not yet done?

Thank you for your prayers. Thank you for your support. I am ever grateful for your love and encouragement. Pray for Vietnam. They are a lovely people. God can bless this land anew. What a victory that will be, not for a political theory but for the City of God.