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.
Vietnamese in Houston
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.
The cultural norms of Thai Xuan's yeomen often trump the complex's old building codes, written when the structures were known as the Cavalier Apartments. One condo dweller has plastered the entire outside of his unit in shiny black, white, green and burgundy tiles, each affixed with a colorful sticker shaped like a flower. Red paper lanterns dangle above the turquoise door. Another unit sports a statue of the Virgin Mary encased in Plexiglas. And outdoor shrines mounted on numerous walls offer fruit and incense.
Religion is literally at the center of daily life in the village -- just as it was in Vietnam. Nestled behind a central courtyard, the small Thai Xuan chapel hosts a daily prayer hour and two weekly masses delivered in Vietnamese. On a recent Friday, men in the congregation occupied one side of the aisle, near a tinsel-decked Christmas tree, and women sat on the other. Standing behind the pulpit in a silk robe, the 87-year-old Chinh lifted a golden goblet with trembling hands, took a sip of wine and winced at the shock of swallowing it. His catechisms were faint. Still, the worshipers beamed smiles. "Peace be with you!" they said, turning to each other at the end of the service. "And also with you!"
These days Chinh gets around with the help of a wheeled walker, but when he first came to Houston in 1975, he did a great deal of legwork. Vietnamese refugees at the time were spread all over the city in government-appointed housing. It took Chinh nearly a decade to organize them. In 1985, with Thai Xuan still years away, he convinced Vietnamese investor Trung Anh Pham to purchase a broken-down apartment complex near Chinh's St. Christopher's Church in South Houston. Chinh, whose name in Vietnamese means "the one who fixes things," named the new community St. Mary's. It was his first Houston village.
St. Mary's was popular with new refugees who needed a place to live, with veteran immigrants who wanted to return to a Vietnamese community and with anybody looking for a fixer-upper (two-bedroom condos sold for $10,000). Chinh and Pham bought another complex down the road and named it St. Joseph's. The good fortune of the pair led to the birth of Hue, Saigon, Dalat and Thanh Tam -- all within walking distance of St. Christopher's Church. "In Vietnam, I saw that I was successful," Chinh says, "so I knew that I would find success here, too."
Like Chinh's villages back in Vietnam, and later Thai Xuan, each Houston village was installed with a chapel. The Thanh Tam village even sported a courtyard garden with a larger-than-life Virgin Mary surrounded by stalagmites, which are common in the caves of Halong Bay. Chinh held mass in each of the seven chapels on a different day of the week.
Taking another cue from Vietnam's villages, Chinh put the complexes under the control of village chiefs. "The chief in each village is supposed to take care of the people and is the contact for the government," he explains. On paper the elected chiefs served as heads of each village's condominium association. But their duties often extend well beyond calling the plumber. The St. Joseph's chief, Chau Hoang, collects a small annual fee from condo owners for an emergency fund; he gives $30 to the sick and $300 to families of the deceased. Hung Phem, the chief of Thai Xuan, spends hours explaining America to the uninitiated. "They will get more problems if they go directly to the American community," he says.
Of course, avoiding the perils of an unfamiliar city is much easier for Vietnamese immigrants than it used to be. Houston's 32,000-strong Vietnamese community is the largest in the United States outside of San Jose, California. New Asian-oriented shops in Bellaire and Alief dominate strip malls for miles.
Even so, many village residents, especially the mounting ranks of the elderly, rarely venture into what they call the outside world. Instead, they fill their needs in the villages. Encouraged by Houston's trademark lack of zoning, residents of Dalat knocked out walls between street-level condos to build a commercial district: Com Phat Food Mart now sells produce and Asian cooking supplies; Hair Beauty styles new coiffures with Vavoom; Atom Video offers hundreds of Vietnamese-language movies such as Love of a Swordsman and A Remote Borderland; and Cao Thang Sandwich makes an excellent banh mi with two kinds of pork for $2.
Still, no village is more self-contained than Thai Xuan. Purchased and resold in 1993 by a development company owned by another Vietnamese immigrant, its 380 units nearly outnumber all of the other village condos combined. It is the only village blessed with an underground reserve of oil, an estimated $40,000 of it per condo, which sparked a rancorous 1995 legal dispute. Thai Xuan is also well supplied with books from its decomposing, one-room Mayor Lee Brown Library and with fish sauce and pickled leeks from its Tan Hiep Food Market.
The owners of Tan Hiep have traveled from one Thai Xuan to the other. They asked that their real names be withheld, so they'll be called Nuoc and Phong. Phong served near Thai Xuan as a lieutenant in the South Vietnamese army. In 1980, he and Nuoc attempted to escape the country by boat, but the Vietnamese navy sank it on the high seas, killing Nuoc's two brothers and hundreds of passengers. More than a decade later, a visa program for former soldiers helped Phong reach Thai Xuan in Houston. "We were just happy to be out of the country," Nuoc says from her stoop behind the cash register. Her husband is wearing a GAP shirt subtitled "God Answers Prayers."
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."
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.
Frustrated with the authorities, some villagers slipped away. Father Vuong was only 15 and better known as a saxophone player than a religious figure when he fled Thai Xuan in 1982 for an Indonesian refugee camp. Chinh sponsored him to come to Houston and convinced him to join the priesthood. Pictures of the young father in his frock now hang prominently in his brother's two-story concrete house. Money sent by Vuong helped build a tiled shrine to the Virgin next door. The family stands out in the village, his sister says, because Vuong is "a priest recognized in the United States."
Those who stayed in Thai Xuan after the war labored to scrape by. Thu studied to be a priest but wasn't accepted by the church, possibly because Chinh was his uncle-in-law. College wasn't an option; it was reserved for city dwellers and the politically well connected. So Thu worked as a tailor and pulled all-nighters to make ends meet. He finally saved enough money to buy his own farmland, but it was sucked into a collective. The politics embittered him. "The one who did nothing got the same result as the one who worked very hard," he says. The collective soon collapsed.
Yet as Vietnam's economy slowly opened up to the world, Thu's fortunes improved. He returned to farming most of his old land and gradually bought more. Falling taxes and rising international demand raised profits on his papayas, durians and coffee. Now in his mid-sixties, he's wealthy enough to hire someone to work his fields.
Up and down the narrow streets, Thai Xuan flourishes once again. Next to the unpainted wood-plank houses built by early settlers, workers construct colorful three-story concrete towers with balconies. The small downtown of tightly packed buildings offers a florist shop, a jewelry store and Viet Pop, a trendy record shop that could be straight out of Saigon. Even the business of religion is booming: Thu's house is adorned with shrines and a local artist's wall-length rendering of the Last Supper.
Still, religious life there can look deceptively placid. A visit to the village under a tourist visa required government permits. The local priest didn't want to be named in this story. A short drive away, at least six Catholic priests were serving terms of ten or more years in Xuan Loc's Z30A prison camp, according to a 2000 report by Human Rights Watch. An activist familiar with the prison testified before the U.S. House International Relations Committee this year that many religious captives are still detained there. Citing new arrests of worshipers, the U.S. State Department this year listed Vietnam among the world's eight countries "of particular concern" for religious freedom.
The Thai Xuan villagers in Houston have been no less immune to persecution, though it has taken different forms.
The first Vietnamese immigrants to move into the complex found it occupied by territorial Mexican-Americans. "Immediately, we had problems," says Houston police officer Louis Ballesteros, who is based in a storefront a few blocks away. The Hispanics called Ballesteros to complain that the Vietnamese were running the complex "the way they wanted to live." They were, for example, building a temple in the parking lot. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese were calling Ballesteros, complaining of theft and vandalism. He brought in a federal mediator in an attempt to ease the tensions.
In 1996 a new conflict in Thai Xuan nearly ended in a mass eviction. Paragon Trading, the company that had sold the villagers the property, hadn't replatted the buildings as condos or transferred the deeds. When it filed for bankruptcy that year, the complex was handed over to a court-appointed lawyer. Hearings revealed that the villagers had renovated the buildings without permits and that bringing them up to city code would cost more than $1 million. Paragon also owed $500,000 in back taxes on the property. The villagers organized a protest and won deed to the complex on condition of making payments.
An entirely different set of problems sprouted in 2003 behind St. Joseph's Village, where residents were tending to a garden of Eden-like proportions along the banks of Sims Bayou. A nearby landowner threatened to sue the village for trespassing onto the waterway's public easement, says Niem Nguyen, a 70-year-old resident, and the greens, mints and banana trees had to be plowed under. "There's no land to grow the vegetables that I want," she says.
Even now, legal assaults on the villages continue. City health inspectors informed Thai Xuan's ten vegetable ladies this year that selling homegrown produce out of baskets on the parking lot isn't allowed. "The city say it is not healthful food this way," recalls Duke Pham, the village secretary. The fish vendor received a $650 ticket. Still, the village market persisted until last month, when the police told the fish lady they'd arrest her if she didn't pay the fine.
Until recently, the villagers' only allies seemed to be either Vietnamese or Christian. St. Luke's Episcopal Health Charities last year published the first ever community health assessment of the villages. The report benefited immensely from the help of the Harris County Hospital District's Lan Trinh, a Vietnam-born outreach counselor who had worked in the villages for a decade. "Deep down in the community, there is a big need of medical care," she says. Mayor Bill White responded to the findings by creating a task force to be led by Rogene Gee Calvert, the head of an Asian-oriented political action committee. The group has met once to hear villagers' concerns, Calvert says, but hasn't been active.
Some of the village's most serious problems may be beyond the city's control. Trinh is particularly alarmed by the breakdown of tightly knit Vietnamese families. Vuong Nguyen, a tile layer who lives in St. Joseph's, left a wife and three children in Vietnam. The father of Vuong's new wife left his own wife behind and has likewise moved into a Houston village with another woman. Some relatives feel spurned. Nhin Thi Vu, the owner of a small lettuce farm near Thai Xuan in Vietnam, complains that her sister in Thai Xuan in Houston doesn't send her enough money to support her two children, who suffer from birth defects caused by Agent Orange. "I'm not very lucky," she says. "All of my sisters are wealthy but me."
Even villagers who maintain ties with their overseas families are often abandoned by their children, who assimilate into U.S. culture and move away. A large portion of the villagers are older couples who live alone. The elderly Niem and her friends make daily rounds to visit their aging neighbors and sometimes work for them as caretakers -- an enjoyable diversion. "We just hang out and chat and joke around," she says. But the upshot of the graying of the villages is that they are still deeply isolated from the rest of the city and hungry for help in understanding U.S. culture. Even younger villagers, who tend to be new immigrants, rarely speak English. Translators who visited the villages were asked to decipher an energy bill, a Medicare pamphlet and a middle school English assignment. One man desperately handed over his health documents and asked where to find a dentist.
HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM -- Just like Thai Xuan's children in the United States, Truc Dang makes her home in the city. On a recent Monday, Chinh's 23-year-old grandniece slipped out of her office building in the metropolis still commonly known as Saigon and met a taxi near her apartment, a tall, skinny building surrounded by rivers of honking motorbikes. The driver carried her through the traffic, past the red glow of a towering Hitachi sign, past endless billboards advertising Pond's skin cream and Sanyo cell phones, past a landscaped industrial park where "Welcome You" was spelled out in shrubbery and toward her parents' house two hours away in Thai Xuan.
Truc talked along the way in fluent English about her new life in the fashionable city of five million. In 2001, she moved to Saigon to attend a four-year university -- a break that was unheard of for villagers a decade ago. She now works in the sales department of a German company that ensures electronics meet international quality standards. For fun, she goes to Vietnamese rock concerts and watches MTV. "When you are used to city life," says the smartly dressed lit major, "you go to the village and you feel very bored."
Truc's idea of entertainment in Saigon doesn't include waking up at 3:30 a.m. every day to pray. "Of course, we cannot go to church very regularly like people in the village," she says. But she attends services on Sundays most of the time. And every month she makes a trip home that resembles a pilgrimage.
Down the highway, the billboards swishing alongside Truc's taxi soon faded away, yielding their prime roadside spots to the increasingly powerful Kingdom of Heaven. Churches whizzed by every five minutes, every two minutes, sometimes every few seconds. The car had entered the Dong Nai province, home to Thai Xuan and the nation's greatest concentration of Catholic refugees from the north. God passed by: as a figure in a neon halo; as the concrete letters JHC; as statues of Jesus and Mary reaching out to the road from atop houses, stores and steeples -- an endless blur.
Despite reports of persecution against Catholics, the religious fervor in Dong Nai shows no signs of flagging. Truc's journey ended at the walls of the Thai Xuan church, where workers were in the process of plastering almost every surface of the complex in a new patchwork of polished red, green and yellow granite. They were all volunteers. Other men were putting the finishing touches on the Penance of Maria, a chapel made to look like a cave, complete with stalactites on the roof and two dragons. They had only recently finished a nearby statue of a larger-than-life Jesus carrying the cross -- part of a 14-statue series depicting the stages of the Passion of the Christ.
God had blessed the congregation with more than wealth and labor. The Thai Xuan priest led the way into the rectory. He pulled out a scrapbook full of certified miracles. He showed photos of the man whose prayers cured his liver cancer and the woman whose faith bore her a child after nine years of infertility. But works of God weren't solely the stuff of the villages. Just one week earlier, a statue of the Virgin Mary in a Saigon cathedral had begun to cry. The news spread around the world, even to Houston.
Of course, nobody knew why the Virgin was inspired to tears, but they could speculate that it was due to the government's treatment of Catholics. The state-run newspaper went to great lengths to tamp down any such theories, running an op-ed the following week on Vietnam's inclusion in the U.S. State Department's new list of religious-rights violators. "[H]ostile forces had tried to sling mud against Vietnam," the paper wrote, "despite all of the progress the country has made to ensure the right to religious freedom."
True or not, the story omitted a key point: Catholics in Thai Xuan and other parts of Vietnam have flourished even without religious freedom, yet the Catholic population in Houston's Thai Xuan and most of the United States is in steep decline. Maybe the Virgin was grieving not for the oppression of the Vietnamese, but for the freedom of the Americans.
From downtown Houston, the drive down Interstate 45 toward the villages and Chinh's nearby house offers plenty of lanes for passing and exits for sinning. An Adult Video placard beckons, a billboard hawks Jack Daniel's, and a sign trumpets Coushatta Casino, "Houston's Playground." Images of the saints, if they exist at all among the sales pitches, concrete and sprawl, are hidden until the trip ends at Chinh's house, where statues of Joseph and Mary stand guard.
Shouting through a metal door rouses Chinh from a couch. He hoists himself with difficulty, slowly shuffles down a hallway and invites a visitor to sit. His body fills a chair like a loose sack, but his eyes are sharp. A plaque on a wall commemorates his tenure with the church; the second of two dates awaits inscription.
Like his health, Chinh's congregation is dwindling. His most recent mass in Thai Xuan attracted a flock of 20. He knows that the church in Vietnam's Thai Xuan is exponentially larger. "In Vietnam, people go to church every day because there are strict rules; they never miss it," he says. "In America, people have freedom. They can do whatever they want."
Freedom in Thai Xuan in Houston has gotten out of hand, Chinh says. "I just wish it would be more like Vietnam, because it was stricter and there were more rules."
But didn't he flee Vietnam to escape the rules? Didn't he come to America seeking freedom?
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He pauses. "Well, of course," he says, "but there is a difference between imposing a law and following a set of morals."
Morals in the Houston villages these days are whatever the villagers make them. They no longer ask Chinh to tell them what is right and wrong. "With rules, it is easier to lead people," he says. Without them, there can still be vegetable stands and dragon dances and rice noodles, but there will be tabloids in the supermarkets and monsters on the streets and greasy burger wrappers in the parking lots. Anything goes. "Here, the first thing you ask is 'How many husbands and wives have you had?' " he says. "And that is why a lot of the kids are losing their morals."
And so Chinh sits in his bare house, where he almost never runs the heat or the air conditioning, and reads the Bible. It's an uncommon activity these days, but there's no doubt that anybody who wanted to try it could. Does that assurance make Thai Xuan in Houston preferable, or would he just as soon take his chances with the shards of his homeland's repression?
He scarcely hesitates. "I prefer Vietnam," he says, knowing just as clearly that he'll have to make do with his imperfect outpost in Houston -- the modern Nineveh. Whether in the belly of a whale or a 747, there's no going back.