Father Thinh

Father Thinh Tran says Christmas in the United States is much like holiday in Vietnam.

News Report Staff

When the Rev. Thinh Tran thinks of a Christmas meal, he remembers eating bowls of spicy pho soup.

In Vietnam, Father Thinh recalls how his family ate the soup at Christmas. They savored the broth, rice, sliced beef and all the spices, including cinnamon peppers. Raised in a Catholic community in southern Vietnam, Tran finds many similarities between Christmas in his home village of Vinh Trung and Teutopolis.

“The traditions here and in Vietnam are very similar. Teutopolis and my village in Vietnam are much the same by being about 99 percent Catholic. You have the cribs for Jesus and the stars in my country just like here,” said Tran, who came to the United States about 16 years ago and has served as a priest in Teutopolis since 2013.

But there are some differences in the depiction of the Christian decorations in December. There can be elaborate paper creations in the form of mountains with figures placed at different points.

Another big difference between his Christmases in Vietnam and in America regarded the exchange of gifts.

“There is no exchange of gifts there. But a family will prepare a meal for getting together. And people travel to different locations to see Christmas decorations at churches and villages,” Tran said.

Like many cases of Christianity across the world, there are different ways people celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. But there are so many similarities as well.

Tran’s family has traveled far for their faith and freedom over the past 60 years. His family moved to South Vietnam in 1954 when the former French colony was split in half after the Communists were victorious over French forces. A group of Catholic refugees from northern Vietnam formed a community much like the ancestors of Teutopolis residents came to Illinois in the 1830s.

Tran’s family were farmers working with water buffalo and oxen through the rice fields. They formed a parish and worked hard through the years. Then came the Vietnam War. Tran pointed to a photograph from 50 years ago showing an American medic treating a woman from his village. In coming years, the American military would withdraw from the war and South Vietnam’s military had to fight on its own.

Tran was part of a large family with several brothers. He was born in 1974 in the Republic of South Vietnam. In a year, soldiers from North Vietnam overran South Vietnam and Saigon, the capital of the South, was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, in memory of the Communist leader of the North who refused to back down to the French and American military.

Tran sometimes will say Saigon when he refers to that city. Then after a pause, he will add the name from the Communist victors.

Tran’s church and village remained devout to their faith despite the Communist takeover. But the Communist government tried to keep an eye on them to root out disloyalty.

“They would send people to the church sometimes. But we knew they were not one of us. We were very tight in the community because we were all Catholics,” Tran recalled.

The long war in Vietnam that lasted more than 30 years was over. But the country was devastated. There were shortages of everything, especially food. If you spoke out against the government, you were jailed or sent to a re-education camp, a prison with mandatory lessons in Communist doctrine.

“We could grow our own food as farmers. But the people in the cities couldn’t do that so it was harder on them,” Tran recalled.

Many Vietnamese wanted to get out of the country. Some loaded into small boats and tried to travel to non-Communist countries, like the Philippines. Tran’s older brother joined with about eight other people on a trip to that country in a 12-foot wooden fishing boat. It was slow going and the threat of storms was ever present during the journey that took almost two weeks.

His brother made it in 1983, but Tran was not successful when he joined a similar group when he was 10. He was arrested and put in jail for about a week. Vietnamese officials would put adults in prison, which is what happened to Tran’s uncle, for illegally exiting the country. The unforgiving ocean was the equivalent to the Berlin Wall for

“I was young, so they didn’t send me to prison. I tried again at 12 and didn’t make it then, either,” Tran said.

Tran became interested in joining the priesthood as he grew older. He was fortunate that some of his brothers, including John, made it to the United States at different times. That allowed for sponsorships of other family members so they could also come to America.

“My father sponsored me to come to America,” Tran said. It was months after the September 11 attacks, but his application was forwarded before that tragic day.

He came to Chicago and finished his studies for the priesthood. At 43, Tran feels fortunate to be in America, but he is proud of his religious heritage from Vietnam. Faith won out.

In January, the Tran family will get together for a celebration. Undoubtedly, there will be steaming hot pho soup for the celebration.