Tale of Two Cities

Catholic priest John Chinh Tran re-created Vietnam's Thai Xuan Village in Houston with an iron hand. These days his control is slipping away.

After a few years, Phong and Nuoc tried leaving Houston's Thai Xuan for a house in Bellaire. But they missed the village's tightly knit community and moved back a few months later. "It's warmhearted here," Nuoc says. "The people here come in and out. It's the same as my old village. It reminds me of when I was little."

Sometimes the two villages can seem almost indistinguishable. At Thai Xuan's recent Mid-Autumn Festival, dragon dancers slinked and pranced around a courtyard filled with children. Kids in yellow karate robes dazzled the crowd with airborne flips. A three-year-old took to a mike to sing a Vietnamese song called "Peacock." And ten-year-old beauty queens posed for photos in silk caftans and sculpted bangs. As night fell, the plaza glowed red with paper lanterns. "I like the villages because they have the same culture as in Vietnam," said Hoa Nguyen, a mother of three, as her son played nearby. "If we lived in a house, we wouldn't see our neighbors."

Of course, the easiest way to meet Thai Xuan's neighbors is through God. The outside of the small chapel is under massive renovation: Sidewalks are being laid, palm ferns have been planted, and light posts point to the spot where a large statue of the Virgin will soon rest. The shrines are meant to create community. "It's not only spiritual, but it's a social connection, to make sure the villagers are comfortable," says Father Vincent Vuong Nguyen, a Houston priest who was born in the Thai Xuan in Vietnam. "They don't feel like they are isolated or being threatened."

In Houston, Chinh still conducts two weekly masses in 
Thai Xuan Village's small chapel.
Courtesy of John Chinh
In Houston, Chinh still conducts two weekly masses in Thai Xuan Village's small chapel.
Chau Hoang, the chief of St. Joseph's Village, collects 
a small fee from condo owners to help villagers who 
are down on their luck.
Daniel Kramer
Chau Hoang, the chief of St. Joseph's Village, collects a small fee from condo owners to help villagers who are down on their luck.

Yet many villagers today are more comfortable with shrines to a different sort of god. In addition to the Virgin shrine, Thai Xuan's chief is building the village's first stone Buddha. Despite Chinh's best efforts, his Christian stamp on the villages is fading. Thai Xuan is the only village where he still conducts mass. And even there, fewer than a third of the villagers are Catholic.

THAI XUAN, VIETNAM, November 15 -- At 4:15 a.m. in this town of 5,000, the sky is pitch-black but the church is packed. An illuminated cross emits a red neon glow above hundreds of farmers. Segregated groups of men and women kneel on unpadded prayer rests and stare up at towering concrete statues of Joseph and Mary. Every morning, before taking to the fields, they sing hymns over the calls of roosters. They ignore giant moths that flutter through the pews and today eye a straggling reporter with disdain. In Chinh's era, latecomers who peeked into the mass were smacked.

Religion in the original Thai Xuan, where 99 percent of residents are still Catholic, has always permeated the village like stinging antiseptic in a wound. Chinh didn't wait for sinners to confess. When an informant tipped him off that villagers were gambling, he sneaked into their house carrying a metal rod and caught them in the act; the next day in church he ordered them flogged. A young altar girl who had stolen wine was locked in a closet without food for two days. If Chinh saw young men and women on a date, he beat them. "He would not allow these love affairs," says his nephew-in-law Thu Dang. "So thanks to him, the security in Thai Xuan Village was very good, and the farmers were more afraid of him than the government."

Chinh's reputation for inclemency only grew during the war. He fenced the village and managed it as a fortress. This was a common practice under President Ngo Dinh Diem's "strategic villages" program. Yet it was at the suggestion of a local general that Chinh took the idea to the next level with his Christian militia. Villagers who joined could opt out of the regular military. Vietcong patrols feared Thai Xuan's crusaders and asked for an informal truce. The village was more peaceful than 12th-century Jerusalem under King Baldwin IV.

To this day, Thai Xuan's villagers have no idea how or why Chinh decamped. "If you can't live with the communists, you are going to have to leave," he explains simply. In the heat of the war's final clashes, Chinh traveled to the port town of Vung Tao. He leaped into a skiff and motored beneath the spray of machine-gun fire onto a fishing vessel bound for Singapore.

Other Thai Xuan residents also tried to escape. Thu, Chinh's nephew-in-law, clung to the skid of a departing helicopter but fell off ten yards up and injured his leg. He headed for Vung Tao by motorbike but was turned back by troops. Some villagers were simply arrested. Father Bui Chu, a friend of Chinh's from the north who had started a village near Thai Xuan, was shackled in a windowless cell for eight years.

The new government told villagers that Chinh had been a covert CIA operative. Fearing arrest, he has never returned.

Catholicism in Thai Xuan after the war was a touchy business. Erecting religious buildings sometimes meant a long wait for a permit. The government required a new church in the village to be much smaller than proposed. New priests couldn't be appointed to the clergy without government approval. Nor could they travel freely, even within the country. Father Giuse Le Vinh Hien, a priest in the nearby Kim Thuong parish, saw the villages neglected for years. "The Catholics of Vietnam, the government doesn't like us," he says.

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