We pulled up to curb on a tree-lined road in Danang, a narrow road with mottled-colored buildings and dozens of school children in their white and blue uniforms standing on the broken sidewalk.
Across the road, a dirty wall rose 10 feet high, with spikes of fencing at the top, split by flat metal gates about 20 feet wide. Behind it we could see tall buildings, three and four stories high.
Our guide , a gangling man who was sort of a mix of Arnold from “Happy Days” and a used car salesman, clambered down the stairs of the bus. One of the most unusual points of his time with us was at the end, on the way to the airport, when he sang us his version of “Let It Be,” thickly accented and a capella. I can still hear it. That’s not necessarily a good thing.
But this morning he was trying to see if we would be welcome behind these tall walls. This was the Sacred Heart convent, school and orphanage. This was where one of our group, Laura Levy, may have lived for several months of her life.
Laura likes to say this was where her father saved her life – and where she saved his. She wanted to see inside, to see if her name or his was in their records.
But a high gate stood in our way.
Loan, our guide, went up to a door in the gate and spoke to someone through the slot. Only a few moments passed before he turned and gave us a thumbs up. He took a few steps and motioned for us to come. A few of us got up to start to exit the bus but we sat down again as the large gates started to open and the bus move forward into a different realm.
A rare site greeted us behind those walls – peace. Certainly, Vietnam is no longer at war. But it is awfully noisy and busy, always motorbikes going every where, or construction, or people talking from 4 a.m. to midnight. But the heart of Sacred Heart was quiet.
That is, until you started talking with Sister Catherine, the dynamo who ran the convent. It wasn’t that she was loud. She just rarely stood still.
She greeted us as we got of the bus, most of us just staring at the large statue surrounded by flowers and grass in front of us. A large church painted pale pink flanked us to the right while wings of buildings three stories high stretch to our left.
One wing, we were told, was home to the girls studying to be nuns at the convent. The other held classrooms for orphans, who were all sleeping because it was nap time. The orphanage used to be much larger, Sister Catherine said, until the Communists came and took their buildings. They said, back 30 years ago, that the sisters could keep some of their property but had to give the government other parts. Sister Catherine still wasn’t too happy about it.
A cool breeze fluttered the white curtains of the novices’ rooms. Birds sang in the trees and it seemed that war time was quite far away.
Laura Levy tried to picture that time when she walked into the alcove near the entrance of Sacred Heart. The nuns pulled out a large battered notebook and quickly started peering down columns and lists of names and dates, searching for Laura’s birth name.
She knew a few things. Her date of birth, and when she left the country for America. But the nuns weren’t too hopeful. At the end of the war, the Communists took their records, they said. They had to painfully restore these records by memory, one person going to see the book and then returning to the convent to write down what they remembered.
Fire and weather also damaged the records at times so while the nuns searched, they didn’t succeed in finding Laura. So they wrote down her name and her information, to add to the book, their adoption bible.
After talking with Sister Catherine and a few other nuns, it became clear Laura didn’t live there but at an affiliate building on the other side of Danang, on the waterfront. This was one of the buildings taken over by the government after the war and it was now apparently a home for retired government officials.
Maybe we could visit that building. But it was unlikely at this point.
We wouldn’t focus on that now, though. As a couple of sisters helped Laura go through their much-copied records, Sister Catherine took the rest of us on a tour of the place. It was remarkable in its cleanliness and, I don’t know, happy air, so different from some of the orphanages we saw in Saigon. We passed through a yard with dozens of toys and games, all in good condition. The rooms were clear and didn’t smell of disinfectant or urine. Most of the children we saw were sleeping on mats on the floor for naptime, although the toddlers and infants were in cribs.
What I noticed was the rows of racks with embroidered towels and the like hanging from the sticks. Each had a different symbol, a flower or sunburst or moon, for each individual child. I thought that was kind of classy, each child had his or her own possession.
Sister Catherine spoke of the difficulties of maintaining a Catholic complex in a Communist country. Unlike almost every other Vietnamese person we’d spoken to, Sister Catherine referred to them as the Communists and had something negative to say. She related how difficult it is for anyone to join the church as a novice. They face great challenge from the government and sometimes from their families because of possible repercussions.
We’d noticed that many of the sisters who were in charge of the orphanages we’d visited were getting near retirement age. Her concerns raise question about who will lead these orphanages in the future.