Thursday, February 5, 2009
Monday January 19th 2009
With gifts in hand, we entered the lobby of La Residence Hotel and Spa and asked the doorman to hail us a cab. He asked where we were going and not knowing that Kim Long was also a street name he seemed confused. I said “Kim Long Orphanage” please and still got a confused look. But, when I put down my bag and he saw the two huge bags of candy, he said “Oh – Kim Long !” I guess that we are not the only visitors bearing gifts that visit this Hue Orphanage.
We entered the taxi and the driver drove through the gate of the hotel and proceeded to make a left, no signal, no yield, he just went out into oncoming traffic of scooters, motorbikes and other cars and taxis. It is amazing that we never witnessed one accident of any kind while driving around in the many taxis that we did. We saw hundreds of close calls, but never a hit. I am really going to miss this chaos.
We crossed the bridge and made a left past all of the sights that we had just visited earlier this morning. The Citadel on our right still flew its flag as tourists entered its gates to view the inside of the former Imperial City. Just a mile or so further down the road, we came to Number 42. I was back, after 38 years and 3 months. It was all so very familiar. We made a right into the courtyard and the taxi stopped. Two girls who were sitting on the porch ran away, probably to find Sister Chantal to tell us we had arrived.
After paying the driver, we began to walk towards the first building in the complex. We were greeted by a young Vietnamese girl, dressed in black. He name was Trang and she was the girl who Christian had told us about. Christian, who lives in Belgium has been a part of Kim Long since he first found it in 2004. It is because of Christian that I found Kim Long again. Trang, who is learning with Christian’s help greeted us and escorted us to a room with heavy wooden furniture and tables.
Trang had left us to go and summon Sister Chantal. The good Sister arrived and greeted us with a smile, the same smile seen on the Kim Long website. We were quickly served glasses of the sister’s wine, something I had been told about by a previous visitor, a nurse who had served nearby in Phu Bai around the same time I did. We were also offered a glass with a gelatin like substance in it.
After a few minutes, Sister Xavier entered the room. She was 91 years old and she was at Kim Long in 1970 when I used to visit. Although, we didn’t remember each other, it did not matter. Sister Xavier greeted us with the same cheer and smile that Sister Chantal did.
We chatted for a while. I gave Sister Chantal the gift of candy that I carried from the states and also about 40 pens that Christian had told me that they were always in need of. I also handed her an envelope with donations from friends and family.
Several other nuns of the fourteen religious who serve at Kim Long, including Sister Linh, joined us while we talked. They are all Vietnamese and speak little English but they are all dedicated to their mission.
I had carried my new IPod with me and started showing pictures to the sisters. I started with the family portrait showing Mary Ellen, Stacy and Mary Anne at Mary Ellen and Jon’s wedding. I then showed a picture of me in 1970 at Camp Eagle. Sister Xavier looked at it and uttered, “Ooh La La.” We all laughed. She is the happiest person I have ever met, always smiling.
We then started our tour of Kim Long. Starting at Son Ca I, where we entered, Trang and Sister Chantal guided us to the many classrooms. It was nap time for some of the rooms, so we captured pictures of the children sleeping or pretending to sleep. In some classrooms, we were greeted with smiles and treated to a song, either in Vietnamese or the French song – “Frère Jacques".
In one classroom, it was nap time but right in the middle of the room was a little one sitting on a plastic bucket, a makeshift toilet. It was a very cute scene.
Every classroom was spotless. All had ceramic tile floors and each had a place outside for the children to keep their shoes and book bags. Since this was a cold winter for Hue -- 70 was cold – there were many coats and gloves outside the rooms as well. Since all of the children are not orphans, the children who attended the school on a daily basis, were prepared for the potentially cool weather that the evening may bring. The population of the school with these outside children grows to about 400 during the day from the regular orphan population of about 90.
We went to another room to find an assistant changing the diaper of a one year old. Lin had come to the orphanage at the age of one day. When the diaper was on, she was handed to Stacy who walked the rest of the tour with her. Lin was expressionless, it was somewhat sad to see this beautiful child and no smile.
Sister Xavier had now joined us on the tour – laughing at each comment any of us would make -- but as we moved on, she lagged behind and Trang and Sister Chantal did not seem to feel obligated to wait for her.
During the tour, we met Christian’s sponsored Godchild who was as cute as any of the others. We would certainly meet up with her later in the day.
We continued our tour up to the third floor to see the new chapel. Sister Chantal knelt in silence for a minute or so and then returned to us. We chatted for a few minutes and went to leave the chapel. As we did, Sister Xavier appeared. I have no idea how she climbed those stairs, 28 steps on each flight, but she was there. She was not out of breath, she was amazing. She met us with her smiling face and pointed to several areas in the courtyard down stairs and the Perfume River across the rooftops. Although I could not understand her, I seemed to know what she was saying.
We started down the stairs and Sister Xavier started to follow. As we entered the second floor, Sister X was just getting to the second step from the top. No one seemed to care or give any attention to her as she slowly descended the polished marble steps. She disappeared from view but only a few minutes after we had arrived in the room we first arrived in, she appeared – still laughing, talking and never losing the smile on her face.
We were now going to move on to the newer section of the orphanage – Son Ca II. But before we left, I was about to meet two very special people. On one of my visits to Kim Long in 1970, I took a random picture of two boys playing in the garden. I had sent this picture to Christian who shared it with Sisters Chantal and Xavier. The day before we arrived at Kim Long, the orphanage was celebrating its 120th Anniversary. At that celebration were the two boys, now men, who were in that picture. In terms of randomness and coincidence, who could have ever imagined that after almost 39 years, I would be meeting these two men. It was an awesome reunion that no one could ever realize.
Tu and Lân and I spoke for a few minutes with the help of Trang. I had my picture taken with them and then they were gone. I was to later find out that I would meet the daughters of these two men. Their teenage girls were also students at Kim Long.
With the reunion accomplished, we were off to Son Ca II. We had to traverse small alleys and narrow streets to get there. We passed many small homes and business and out of some came young children, anxious to say hello to the two Westerners passing by. On the way, we met a friend of Sister Chantal who was tending to his garden. He invited us in to show us the altars and tombs that he was preparing for the Tet Celebration. The Vietnamese New Year was less than a week away and the many preparations for it could be witnessed all over the country.
The new orphanage’s entrance is about a five minute walk from Son Ca I, the former orphanage. The new complex is actually built on the former cemetery of the orphanage. We had to get there via a small street perpendicular to the Perfume River. We finally arrived at Son Ca II where we saw a huge courtyard with trees and fountains. It had several buildings and was immaculately clean. It housed more class rooms, vegetable gardens and a kitchen and dining areas.
One of the classrooms that we visited was a special needs class. The children here had all types of disabilities. There was a 22-year old Down Syndrome girl who was very high functioning, another younger Down Syndrome girl and a boy with Cornelius DeLange Syndrome. There were also several others and they were all so happy to see us. We talked with them, played a little and they all wanted to sit with us. They all seemed so well adjusted and well behaved, but this had been true for all of the children we met this day. We spent about 30 minutes with them before moving on.
We headed back to Son Ca I, it was almost time for school to let out and the transient children would be picked up by their parents.
It was snack time and Sister Chantal was distributing cookies to the children. Again, there was no chaos or ruckus of any kind as each child received their treat.
I was pushed into taking about five children on a cyclo ride.
This bike with a huge seat on the front - sort of a rickshaw – held the children as I whisked around the courtyard a few times. It was a real treat for them.
Stacy had a little girl latched on to her – Mai Ahn
who was extremely cute. Stacy said she had a few Angelina Jolie moments that day and now understood why it is so difficult to leave any of them behind.
I had my own little girl who sat with me – Christian’s Godchild, Anh Xuan.
She had taken a cookie from Sister Chantal and found me standing close by. She came over to me and took my hand and led me to a place across the courtyard and sat with me. It was as if she didn’t want to share me with anyone. She, as well as Stacy’s little one, joined us that evening for the special performance given by the girls of Kim Long and sat on our laps all night.
Later, the children – all the permanent residents - filed into the dining room where they all had their assigned seats. The little ones sat on lower chairs and tables, while the older ones sat on bar height type tables and chairs. The special needs children also joined in. There was no chaos, no noise, no misbehavior as Sister Chantal led them in prayer. They then sang a short song that we did not recognize, in Vietnamese.
The staff, both nuns and lay people, served the children a meal of rice and shredded meat. It is amazing how much energy these workers have. I learned later that their day starts at 4 AM and sometimes does not end until after 10 PM. It is truly a labor of love for all of them.
After dinner was done, the children were led back to their respective bed rooms to prepare for the show that some of them would be performing in that evening.
We then headed back to the area that we first entered earlier this afternoon where we met Sister Julienne Loan. Sister Julienne took over the responsibility of the orphanage in 2007. She is supported by Sister Chantal who guides her in this tough task. Sister Julienne replaced Sister Marie Kim who is currently in charge of a school for poor children in Tuy Hoa, in the South of Vietnam.
Sister Julienne repeated the thanks for the gifts we had brought and also for the previous donation sent in 2008.
We spoke for a long time about previous visits of the O’Neills and others who had also given large donations to Kim Long. When I mentioned the O’Neills, she smiled.
Sister Chantal then read from a script that Christian had prepared for her telling us that although this is the first time we meet, we Are already friends. She told us that when the good sisters returned to Kim Long in 1991, the place was surrounded by barbed wire and it was simply just a slum of hen houses and dirty stables. With the help of God and many others, everything and more has been rebuilt. She spoke of the war and Sister Xavier’s longevity at Kim Long. She thanked us for the Washer and stove the first donation had bought and she told us that we would always have a place at Kim Long.
We then were taken to the dining room where we were sat and started with a bit more of the home made wine and then a can of Saigon 333 (ba ba ba) Beer. Sister Lihn then brought the first course of Pho ( a great Vietnamese soup with vegetables and noodles). She then brought in a platter full of a great fried chicken (breaded with panco) and a whole fish. Everything was cooked to perfection. The company and conversation was great. We felt very special as we were served by the staff; it was something we did not expect.
After dinner we were lead to the courtyard where the children were waiting. We sat in 2 padded chairs while the others all had wooden or steel chairs. We felt like royalty.
Trang read to us, again from a script that Christian had prepared,.
She addressed Stacy and I telling us what a great honor it was to have us at Kim Long and to me to return after all of these years. She told me that because I had sent a picture of the church to Christian (called Bac Ki, by the staff and children) back in May of 2008, that verified Kim Long was the orphanage I had known, she had renamed the church as “Bob’s Church”. She was happy that the church was the link in my return.
The church had been returned to Kim Long by the government just a few short weeks ago. Sister Chantal continued, telling us that it will be necessary to build a wall around the church soon to bring it back to Son Ca I.
She thanked us for our previous gifts and new gifts and asked me to take thanks back to all who contributed. She felt that we would leave a piece of our heart in Kim Long, and I know we have. She told us that she and the staff would never forget us and we would always remain as one of their best friends. She ended with another thank you and sadness that Bac Ki could not be here with us today. She invited us to come back at any time and we would always be welcome.
Trang then introduced the first act and each subsequent performance. There was singing and dancing and all was done rather well. All of the outfits worn by the children were made by the older girls in their seamstress class. Some were very ornately decorated and many were silk.
Our companions for the evening were Anh Xuan and Mai Anh. They sat with us through the entire show, holding our hands, snuggling, just sharing their love. When the show was over it was difficult to let them go. It was difficult to say good-bye to all the children.
We returned to the reception room where we were given gifts by the good sisters. Two bottles of home made wine and 4 bags of Vietnamese coffee. A taxi was summoned and we were soon to end our visit of more than seven heart-warming hours. It all went too quickly and it was definitely not enough time to spend at this great place. Sisters Julienne, Xavier and Chantal said good-bye to us in the traditional European manner of a kiss on both cheeks. We then got into our taxi as Sister Chantal gave directions to the driver and we were off.
This day was one of the most rewarding days I have ever spent anywhere. I am, and will be, eternally grateful that I had Stacy there to share it with me. It will take something great to top this day. I don’t think that I have ever felt as good about anything I have ever done in a charitable way that I did today. I felt pretty good the day I first wired money to the orphanage, but it will be difficult to top today’s experience.
I am absolutely positive that neither Stacy or I will ever forget our day at Kim Long. We rode back to the La residence just talking about what had occurred today. The memories will always remain with us.