The Scent of an Apple: Reflections of a Vietnamese Orphan
By Matthew Do
So much food was on my plate—and it was all just for me! A bowl of soup, meat, rice, vegetables, and a special item too—an apple! It was so pretty and smelled so good. Saliva leaked from the corners of my mouth, and I had to wipe it away with my hand.
The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines an “orphan” as a child deprived by death of one or both parents, or one deprived of some protection or advantage. This definition describes the situations of the orphans who came to take refuge in Cam Ranh City Christian Orphanage during the Vietnam War. I am one of them.
When I was about 7 years old and my youngest brother was only a month old, my dad was captured and killed by the communists, leaving my mother with four children. In 1969, when I was about 11 years old, we moved from Quang Ngai province to Cam Ranh City, Khanh Hoa province, through the government’s refugee relocation program. My mom’s workday started at 5 AM and ended at 9 PM every day. She would go to the local open markets to buy fresh fish, live chickens, pork, beef, vegetables, firewood, etc. She put her merchandise in two baskets and hung them on each end of a 4-foot yoke. Balancing the yoke on her shoulder, she jogged slowly to other markets about 8 miles away to sell her goods. Mom borrowed money with a daily high interest rate from our neighbors, and with the profit she made, she paid interest, and bought food for us. Often the fish or meat she brought home already had an odor, but we’d wash it well and cook it. Sometimes, she lost money, and in such a case, she would wait until midnight to come home, to avoid being verbally abused by the lenders. But Mom faithfully paid them back, so they continued to loan her their money.
Because of Mom’s work schedule, we went to bed early every night. Sometimes during the day my brother and I would dig up sweet potatoes from our neighbors’ fields for food. If we were caught, we were beaten up. We attempted to go to school but were sent home because we didn’t have money to pay for school fees and uniforms. Without completing elementary grades, we had no hope of attending high school.
My mom was the only one who had two changes of clothes; the rest of us had one pair of shorts and a t-shirt or a shirt. At a distance, my mom’s clothes looked decent among the street vendors, but at a closer look, one could see patches on them. When the clothes no longer could be patched, she would buy second- hand clothes from the open markets and alter them to fit her. She made our clothes from the jute sacks that bagged the wheat given as aid to Vietnam. On them was the phrase: “Gift from America.” At first, the clothes caused a lot of itchiness, but after a few washes, they were fine.
Our house was small, about 700 square feet, with a thin metal roof, dirt floor, and walls made of wood plastered with carbon paper salvaged from the dump of the nearby American base. The roof leaked badly, and on rainy days, we had to cover ourselves with pieces of plastic to sleep. It was very hot in summer and cold during some seasons. The smoke from embers of firewood left burning at night and the spiders nearby did a good job keeping the mosquitoes off of us.
In spite of being dirt poor, my mom would not let my younger brother and me become livestock caretakers. We could have earned a few dollars per month and received food, but Mother wanted to protect us from the mistreatment of livestock owners. She told us, “We are not going to be servants of anyone. We must raise ourselves up, regardless of our situation.” Mom was always nostalgic about the past. She told us that we had come from a respected family, one that was educated and owned acres of farmland and livestock. But things had changed when the communists took over our land and we had to move to different places. Now, we were penniless. Mom’s words, when she recounted her past, always stayed in my head.
One day something unexpected happened. It was like it dropped from the sky—really, like it was from heaven! The pastor from Ba Ngoi Christian Missionary Alliance church came to pray for our family. Later, I learned that Mom had become a Christian while we were in Quang Ngai province. So, word had reached the pastor in Cam Ranh, and he came to pay a visit and to talk about sending me and my younger brother to the orphanage. From what I’ve learned of my family history, my mother was the first person to become a Christian in my father’s extended family.
A few days later, Mr. Ha Xuan Nguyen, the founder of the orphanage, and Pastor Walter Routh, Jr., a Southern Baptist missionary, came to my house in a van. They talked with Mom and then stepped outside. With tears rolling down my mother’s wrinkled cheeks, she told us, “Both of you are going to the orphanage. There you will have clothes to wear, food to eat, a decent place to sleep, and an opportunity to complete high school. Stay with me, and we will face a dark future. I don’t know if there is a future for us, but I will have a better chance to raise your sister and youngest brother…” With that, she embraced us tightly and Mr. Routh prayed for us. As the van drove us away, I peered through the window and saw my mom with her arms up covering her face, hiding her crying.
At Home, at the Orphanage
At the orphanage I was given four sets of clothes, two of which were school uniforms, a pair of tennis shoes for school, and a pair of sandals. For the first time in my life, I took a shower with water spraying down on my head. At eleven years old, I had to be trained to use an in-house toilet. A bed was assigned to me with a pillow and pillowcase, a blanket, a mosquito net, and a sheet for the mattress. The room was bigger than my mom’s house and had wooden walls with windows. There were two rows of army beds with mattresses and a few of them were already taken. A kid helped me to settle in. Lying on my comfortable bed, feeling happy and safe, I fell asleep until someone woke me for dinner.
I couldn’t believe that there was so much food to eat. An apple was a luxury item because it was an imported fruit that only rich people could afford. The piece of beef was fresh and juicy and big enough to feed all my family. Our meals at home consisted of rice mixed with sweet potatoes or cassava, fish sauce or salt, and vegetables—but rarely meat or fish. Now, I was enjoying a rich Vietnamese family meal. I almost cried. As I was about to begin eating, Mr. Ha gently tapped on my shoulder and instructed, “Wait for us to pray together before we eat.” After the prayer, I devoured my meal, but I saved the apple—to enjoy the scent and taste later.
Family devotions were a must at the orphanage. Mrs. Ha usually led it. She was a gentle mother to us. A Bible and a hymn book were given to me. We sat around a rectangular table, sang hymns, and took turns reading the Bible. Praying before meals and family devotions were all new rituals to me. The kid next to me helped me find the hymns and the book, chapter, and verses in the Bible. My reading skill was not up to my age level, and my pronunciation was bad because I had been born in Central Vietnam. Mrs. Ha’s family came from North Vietnam, so her pronunciation was perfect. Besides, she was a teacher. So, I got a professional reading tutor for free every evening. Mrs. Ha always repeated this prayer for us, “Oh Lord! Help the children grow in their love for You daily…and help them to grow up strong and wise.”
The Cam Ranh Christian Orphanage had been started by the men of the Protestant Chapel on the American base, and every Saturday or Sunday servicemen and servicewomen from the base came to work at the orphanage. They built and repaired houses, built fences, cleared land, and brought with them household items such as utensils, building materials, second-hand clothes, and food—pork, chicken, beef, eggs, cheese, butter, and canned food of all kinds. They’d usually come around one o’clock. At noon, we were ready for them. We boys used the tall rocks near the front gate as watchout posts. When we saw an army jeep leading two army trucks full of GIs, we’d roar with joy and run to open the gate. They brought with them treats for us—soft drinks, ice cream, oranges, apples, and cookies.
In the summer the servicemen would take us to the base for picnics. We swam in the cold ocean water and ate hamburgers and hot dogs for lunch. At Christmas, they would take us to the base for a Christmas worship service. The orphans had learned Christian carols, so we sang for those in attendance. We were always given gifts of new clothes and candy.
During my years at the orphanage, I grew in my knowledge of God and in my love for Christ. After lunch we usually had an hour of rest time. When I couldn’t sleep, I would read my Bible. The Bible stories fascinated me, and I read and reread them. On Sundays the entire orphanage attended the church that Missionary Routh pastored. After receiving instruction in the gospel, when I was 12, I professed faith in Christ and was baptized by Pastor Routh.
Under the fostering of Mr. and Mrs. Ha, my education improved notably. The words my mom had told me came back to me, and they motivated me to work and study diligently. I ranked 103 out of more than 2,500 participants in the entrance exam to enter Cam Ranh High School. As a result, I was one of the top 500 students who were accepted by the school. It is the same motivation that helped me raise myself up to be an educated, middle-class American today.
At Home in a New Land
Now, as I sit in my lovely home in a middle-class neighborhood in Federal Way, Washington, I reflect on the six years of my life in the Cam Ranh City Christian Orphanage. The story of Commander Naaman in the Bible (2 Kings 5) makes me think of my own life. He was a powerful, rich, strong man, and a warrior. On the other hand, I was more like the young Jewish girl in the story—fatherless, poor, captured in poverty, and oppressed by society. However, we both sought for God to heal our physical needs. He sought to be healed from the disease of leprosy; I sought to be healed from the disease of poverty and illiteracy. We both got healed—and more. God revealed Himself to us, redeemed us, and took us as His children to inherit His Kingdom. The Prophet Elisha acted as the hands of God in Commander Naaman’s life, but the hands of God in my life and the lives of the orphans at Cam Ranh Christian Orphanage were many Christian soldiers.
The family of Mr. and Mrs. Ha had a big influence on our daily lives. The missionaries Walter and Pauline Routh and later Mr. and Mrs. Jim Gayle not only taught us the gospel but endeavored to meet the physical needs of the suffering Vietnamese people. Pastor Gayle, after learning that my mom’s house had burned down, visited her and gave her an amount of money to rebuild. These servants of God were front-line foot soldiers. And there were servicemen like John Cope who, after his tour in Vietnam, came back to live and work at the orphanage for two years. Jim Warner, another GI, fostered a few orphans, including me, after the orphanage relocated to America as refugees in 1975. And churches in America donated money and supplies to people they had never seen or met. All these Christian soldiers carried out the Lord’s commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 12:31).
We, the orphans from the Cam Ranh City Christian Orphanage, owe a great debt of gratitude to many people for their lovingkindness. Their labor has not been in vain, at least in my mom’s family. In 2005, I sponsored my mom and my younger brother’s family to immigrate to the United States. In August 2009, I sat with Mom to plan her funeral service. She was afraid to die, but after I explained that for believers dying was stepping more fully into the Kingdom of God, she smiled and said, “I believe, and I am ready to meet Christ Jesus, the Lord.” She passed away in 2011. Today there are at least 30 Christians in my mom’s family, and the same is true for other orphans’ families.
During the Vietnam War, there were thousands of families like my mom’s, and there were thousands of kids who had similar situations as ours. But why did God choose to care so richly for the orphans at Cam Ranh City Christian Orphanage? This is the mystery no one has the answer to; only God knows. He is sovereign and His purposes are sure. For me, I want to live my life serving others like the people who contributed so much to mine. With God’s help, I’m committed to doing that.