Nuong Nguyen recalls the difference people she met made in her journey.
I was a Buddhist by default. In Vietnam when you are not baptised you are automatically considered a Buddhist.
I grew up in an environment where there was superstition and I was not happy with it. I looked for meaning in philosophy. I read the works of all the French philosophers but I was not happy with their answers. Those answers were not what I was looking for.
Then I met a boy who was Catholic when I was 21. I was attracted to his purity. I thought that he was not like the average person. We became friends and he told me about his family. They were just as beautiful as he was. His father loved his mother and treated her like a queen.
Their children were so lovely. They seemed like the perfect family to me. In my family my mother was very sad because my father was a womaniser. I told myself, “No, I am not going to be like my mother.” I found out Catholics were not allowed to have more than one wife.
That was a good starting point! I asked my friend a lot of questions about being Catholic but he couldn’t answer all of them. He referred me to a priest.
I told the priest, “I want to know about the Catholic faith but I am not baptised.”
He didn’t try to convert me. We met once a week and I asked him questions about being Catholic. This went on for a year. Finally I was satisfied and wanted to be baptised because I loved what I had come to know. My friend’s family was the instrument of my conversion.
When I got baptised I was different from everyone else I knew. My family, neighborhood and society were not Catholic. I would say to my family, “I can’t have dinner now. I will have it when I come back from Mass.” At first they were upset. But then my father said something that made me happy. He said, “She is a better person as a Catholic.” He decided the Catholic faith was not that bad!
The Communists were very against religion. At that time a lot of seminaries were closed by the government. The rich became poor. If you had a small business they classified you as a capitalist. They would confiscate your property and it became nationalised.
People would have to sell their jewelry and furniture to buy food. The army could force you out of your homes at gun point. They controlled us by our stomach and fear.
When I went to Mass my mother would say, “Please don’t go because our family will be in trouble.” I told her I would tell the army that only I was Catholic and whatever they wanted to do to me, let them do it.
They didn’t harm me because I was not a religious, in business or part of the old regime. I was just a student. The government did try to brainwash us but I decided to escape first. The only way was by boat.
Somebody organised the boat. My mother provided the financial assistance for her son and three daughters to escape. We even had to buy the fuel. My parents stayed behind in Vietnam. It was not easy because the waterway was totally controlled 24 hours a day.
You had to pretend things like you were transporting bananas for the government. The boat was not seaworthy. We didn’t know it because we were so inexperienced with sailing. We set out to sea and hit a sandbank. My brother ran into the jungle. My neighbor was with us and she had a one month old baby. She said “Don’t leave me.” She could not run so eventually we got caught.
There were 40 to 50 people in that boat and we got taken to jail. People were handcuffed and put into individual cells made of mud. There was no electricity. When it came to our turn they had ran out of handcuffs and cells. We were put into a large hall.
I got malaria and was very sick. They fed us pig food. I did nothing but pray day and night. In particular I prayed the rosary. God and a devotion to Our Lady was my anchor. I entrusted to them my whole being. Suddenly it dawned on me that I was going to escape. I told my sisters to come 10 minutes after me because if I got shot they would know not to follow.
In the morning they let us go to the river to wash our face and go to the toilet. Although it was tropical somehow that day there was a fog and we could not be seen. I ran into the paddy fields. I do not know how long I was running for. I caught a passing bus and saw my two sisters on the bus.
They had made it safely. Prisoners are not allowed to wear shoes but although people could see that we were barefoot no one spoke out. It was a miracle.
Some time after we decided to escape from Vietnam again. If you paid the Communists they would turn a blind eye and let you go.
We did this and I got to Australia when I was 24 years old. I went to University and studied accountancy. Then I got married, worked for a while and had three children. One of the things that makes me sad is when we are so free [to practise our religion] we don’t value it. When you are persecuted for your faith you find that it is so precious you can risk your property and even your life for it. Nothing else matters but faith.