By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
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By Sean Pendergast
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In North Vietnam's misty Halong Bay, a French warship swallowed the children of God. It ferried them in its belly through a maze of towering stone islands and into the South China Sea. The Roman Catholics named the vessel Open Mouth. It was gaping and unpredictable to the Vietnamese penitents, who had never read about bathrooms in the Book of Jonah. They tried using a toilet bowl to wash vegetables, for example, and lost them with a flush.
Still, for Ho Chi Minh's guerrillas, the Catholic villagers were far too westernized. They were converts to the religion of Vietnam's French colonialists, whom the communist fighters had just defeated in a bloody war for national independence. Ho Chi Minh intended to purge Vietnam of colonial sympathizers -- and Catholic priests such as Father John Chinh Tran wondered if they'd be lumped in with the devil.
Strict, charismatic and scarcely over five feet tall, the 35-year-old Chinh had encouraged his congregation of farmers to escape with the French toward the religious freedom of the newly partitioned South. "Most of the people who could go, they went," he says. Chinh may have eagerly clung to the French, yet he wasn't always their pliant servant. He disciplined errant Frenchmen in his parish just as he did the Vietnamese: with floggings.
The year was 1954 and Chinh's followers were disgorged from Open Mouth and shuttled with thousands of migrants up the Mekong River. They slept in a refugee camp under government tents on an infertile, flood-prone strip of malarial delta, eating government rice and five-cent fish. A year passed. Finally, the owner of a French company granted Chinh a swath of jungle hundreds of miles away. It was near Saigon in the Xuan Loc district, and since Chinh's followers were from Thai Binh province, he married the two names and called the new hamlet Thai Xuan. It didn't amount to much. Seventeen families of pilgrims hacked out farms and erected a church of bamboo and palm leaves. At night, tigers prowled the only street.
Even so, Catholic refugees poured in almost daily. Chinh rebuilt the church two years later with wood. The jungle sometimes reasserted itself, as when a herd of elephants crashed a wedding, providing a convenient feast for the reception. Yet word spread of rich harvests of corn and papayas. Chinh was soon standing in the village next to the archbishop of Saigon to dedicate an even bigger, concrete, European-style church with bell towers. "Basically, this was a promised land," says An Nguyen, one of Thai Xuan's original settlers. "If you put anything down, it will grow."
By the time of the American war, Thai Xuan was overflowing. Chinh founded three new villages, the last one in 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive. Catholic war refugees who trickled in were given free room and board. Able-bodied men had to join a Chinh-controlled militia. In 1975, the South's retreating troops dug in a few miles away and clashed with the Vietcong in one of the fiercest battles of the war. When the smoke cleared, South Vietnam was set to fall, and Chinh had disappeared.
Months later, Chinh stepped off an airplane in Houston. Catholic refugees were arriving in droves -- as they once had from Vietnam's North -- just as exhausted and empty-handed. They spoke only Vietnamese and could not even imagine eating a burger or driving on a freeway. They turned to Chinh. And Chinh walked out of his adopted church near the South Loop, looked down Broadway Street and saw an apartment complex for sale. He would build a new promised land, a pilgrim colony in Houston just like his first religious hamlet in Vietnam.
He would call it Thai Xuan Village.
The pitched roofs, fringed with wrought iron, almost evoke French villas. Still, the unmatched shingles and cracked parking lots suggest Houston. The buildings could form almost any decaying and ersatz apartment complex in the city -- if not for the South Vietnamese flag flying in the courtyard and the giant yellow placard that says "Thai Xuan Village." These are, at first glance, the only signs of pride.
But drive through the entrance, past the wary stares of ambling Vietnamese grandmas, and Thai Xuan unfurls like a lotus flower. Any sidewalk between any two buildings leads into a valley of microfarms crammed with herbs and vegetables that would confound most American botanists. Entire front yards are given over to choy greens. Mature papaya trees dangle green fruit overhead, and vines sagging with wrinkled or spiky melons climb trellises up second-story balconies. Perfumed night jasmine stretches for light alongside trees heavy with satsumas, limes and calamondins. Where the soil ends, Vietnamese mints and peppers sprout out of anything that will contain roots: an old U.S. Mail bin, an ice chest, two clawfoot bathtubs.
Despite the major space constraints, farming in the villages has been as much a hobby as an occupation. Until they were asked to stop last month, women squatted outside selling their homegrown wares from wicker baskets, Vietnamese-street-market style. Other vendors joined them to hawk bún cha-- grilled marinated pork on rice noodles -- and whole flounders caught by their relatives.