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Vietnam’s ethnic Hmongs are starting to embrace religious life

The nomadic people are mostly laborers known to marry early to ensure families are never short of toiling hands
Mary Giang Thi Ga has two daughters studying in a convent in Vietnam. The mother of five children said her Hmong community considers staying away from home and not having children as unlucky

Mary Giang Thi Ga has two daughters studying in a convent in Vietnam. The mother of five children said her Hmong community considers staying away from home and not having children as unlucky. (Photo: UCA News)

Published: October 04, 2023 05:57 AM GMT

Joseph Sung A Vua did not dare to dream of becoming a Catholic priest over a decade ago because higher education was rare among his nomadic Hmong community.

Also, higher education was beyond the reach of his 12-member family because of poverty.

Vua was clueless about his future. All his friends were heading towards the farms to support their families and were thinking of a married life as is the established norm among his indigenous community in Vietnam.

However, an encounter with Father Michael Le Van Hong changed Vua’s life forever. 

Father Hong used to provide pastoral care for parishes in Nghia Lo, Van Chan, and Tram Tau under the Hung Hoa diocese in the northwestern mountainous province of Yen Bai. 

The priest allowed Vua from Giang La Pan parish with 2,400 Hmong Catholics to work at his parish house.

Subsequently, Vua was sent to attend the pre-seminary course at Hung Hoa Bishop’s House for three years to join St. Joseph Major Seminary in Hanoi. Vau completed his studies last year and got ordained on Aug. 17 at Son Loc Cathedral in Hanoi. 

Giving 46-year-old Vua company on his priestly journey were Fathers Joseph Giang A Senh, 34, and Joseph Song A Tong, 31, from Son La province, born into poor and large families like Vua.

“I would like to express my special thanks to Father Hong, who offered me material and spiritual support during my studies at the seminary,” the priest told the 1,000 Catholics who attended his thanksgiving Mass at Tang Ghenh church at Giang La Pan parish in Yen Bai province on Aug. 18.

“I am delighted to become a priest to serve my ethnic villagers.”

Father Vua and 17 priests ordained by Bishop Dominic Hoang Minh Tien of Hung Hoa on Aug. 17 will start serving the Hmong-dominated parishes this month.

With the addition of new priests, Vietnam’s largest diocese in terms of territory has four priests from the Hmong community who live predominantly in the northwestern provinces of Dien Bien, Lai Chau, Lao Cai, Son La, and Yen Bai.

Nearly 13 seminarians and a dozen religious are already there from 20,000 Hmong Catholics who received Catholicism from foreign missionaries 100 years ago. The community produced its first priest — Father Joseph Ma A Ca —  in 2021.

Indigenous people account for about 14.1 million or around 14.7 percent of Vietnam’s total population of about 96 million. Vietnam has 54 recognized ethnic groups.

The Hmong people lived a nomadic life — hunting animals and collecting fruits and roots from forests. With the forests thinning out, they abandoned cultivation and became laborers.

The Hmong people get married when they are teenagers so that the community is never short of hands to work for a living.

Hmong Catholics said there has been a considerable increase in the number of religious vocations from the community, which they attributed to the support of local priests and religious.

The local churches run hostels offering free accommodation and education to ethnic students so that they can pursue their priestly vocation.

Mary Giang Thi Ga from Vinh Quang Parish said seven of her relatives and her two daughters follow the religious life. Her daughters are with the Lovers of the Holy Cross of Kien Lao, a congregation based in northern Nam Dinh province. 

Wearing traditional colorful costumes, Ga said the parish priest sent her children to a Church-run hostel in 2012 to finish high school studies. Later, they joined convents. One of them is expected to take her first vows next year.

“The priest paid all their school fees because we had no money to support them at that time,” the 44-year-old mother of five said. Her family lives by growing cassava, corn and rice.

Vinh Quang parish houses 100 Hmong people who moved to the area 30 years ago. Most of their children only study up to elementary or secondary school.

The parish had no resident priest for four decades until 2003 when Father Hong came to serve it. Later, other priests and religious followed suit to sow the seeds of vocation among the youth.

Ga, who speaks national Vietnamese fluently besides her Hmong ethnic language, said entering religious life is considered going against the Hmong tradition.

Hmong women are expected to get married when they reach 13 years old and become mothers of as many children as possible. Sons are preferred over daughters due to their toiling capacity.

“Our children are our greatest inheritance. So, the more children we have, the more blessed we are,” she said.

Initially, Ga was reluctant to allow her children to live far away and follow religious life.

“Our family was treated unlucky because our daughters pursued religious life,” she said.

Ga, who married at the age of 15, said many girls who followed religious life for years have to return as they could not resist the strong family pressure.

She appreciated local priests and religious for fostering vocations among the ethnic youths.

Mary Cu Thi Phuong from Giang La Pan parish said she joined the Dominican sisters in Bac Ninh province, 400 kilometers away from her home, three years ago.

Phuong has 13 siblings, all married and settled in life. She said her aunt, a Dominican nun, serves as her mentor to follow her religious vocation.

“Honestly, I really miss my home, my relatives, and my village. I don't know what the future holds but I try to become a nun to serve my people in the future,” Phuong, an 11th grader, said after attending Father Vua’s Thanksgiving Mass.

“May God bless my intention.”

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