A nun (let’s call her SIster Mary Catherine) smiles sweetly. With delicate hands she removes the outer covering from the cashew and then, cleanly plucked, hands it to me, one at a time.
We are seated in a sitting room of the Sisters of St. Paul de Chartres early on Saturday morning. Jet lagged, my friend and I had set out on a walk to District 1 and decided to explore this Catholic complex on Ton Duc Thang Street, not far from our apartment. After several false starts we located the gates which opened onto a min-Vatican, replete with gardens and 19th century origins sequestered amid the high rises of modern Ho Chi Minh City.
Startled by our post-dawn arrival a novice jumps up from her seat and speaks rapid French to my fluent friend. Once our provenance as Americans is established she whips out her cell phone (novices, nuns, monks all have them) and makes a call. She then points to the gardens and invites us to walk through them, as we admire the loving care with which a lone nun is watering the tropical flowers and plants.
We enter a simple church, devoide of stained glass as an older nun appears in the doorway and, returning to French, guides us down a hallway to what appears to be an infirmary. The room is sparse but clean and each cot occupied by an octogenarian nun being tended to by a nun not much younger. It is a poignat site as we stop at each bed and are struck by the loving care the patients receive from their sisters.
Our novice tour guide reappears and sensing that our morning could be spent in the infirmary (I suspect visitors here are few) and intercedes and takes us to Sister Mary Cathering. While fluent in French Mary Catherine prefers English (a relief for me) and explains the history of the order; from its roots in France and arrival in Indochina, to its exile from the North of Vietnam in 1954 to the present. When asked about the infirmary her inflection changes slightly. “Before 1975 we ran the biggest hospitals and excellent schools in Vietnam”, adding “but now, we just take care of our own – its better for the nuns”.
I do no detect bitterness in her voice but perhaps resignation,acceptance. She is proud of the several dozen new novices that have joined the order this year and the new construction of a
church. As I note the presence of a slide and swing set she perks up and adds “and our elementary school is growing, even some top Party officials send their children here”
“Things are better now” she adds “better than 1975 for sure but still there….”. Her voice trails off and then there is silence. She smiles that Vietnamese smile I am still unable to decipher; hope, nostalgia, melancholia, who knows – and returns to the cashews. As we leave we offer to return. “If you like, that would be nice” she says walking us to the gate. “And, if you do, you can speak English to the nuns; we may be a French order but no one wants to learn French anymore”.