A Trip of Faith: Vietnam, Singapore, Laos, and Cambodia

by Tim Busch
Published In March 22, 2024

Sometimes you find faith where you least expect it.

That’s my takeaway after visiting Southeast Asia in recent weeks. I spent time in Vietnam, Singapore, Laos, and Cambodia. The faithful find themselves in different and often difficult situations in each place, yet even so, I was impressed by what I saw.

Consider Vietnam, once synonymous with communist oppression and even torture. In the capital, Hanoi, I visited the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” where the North Vietnamese brutally imprisoned American airmen. Much of it has been torn down, but the sense of evil is still palpable.

In the broader country, however, the Catholic Church is flourishing—even though the Vatican has no diplomatic relations with them. The communist government still must approve the construction of churches and the appointment of bishops, and programs. Yet the masses are packed, the parishioners hungry.

I spent the most time at Hanoi’s St. Joseph’s Cathedral, dedicated to the patron saint of Vietnam. On Friday night, adoration lasted two hours before the Mass. When I arrived the next morning at 5:15 am for daily Mass, the Cathedral already had a hundred people singing chants. During the Mass, the response to the prayers had an incredible cadence, almost like music. And later that day, at the Sunday Vigil, there wasn’t an open seat to found—in a church that holds over 1,200 people. Outside of Mass, there seemed to be services and worship going on throughout the day. Like Europe, they incorporated the liturgy of the hours into the evening daily Mass.

There are seven million Catholics in Vietnam, which is the fifth largest population in Asia. That’s about 7.4% of the total population. Vietnam has 2,700 priests and 2,200 parishes—but what’s really impressive are the country’s more than 2,700 seminarians, including 400 in South Vietnam’s seminary.  I don’t think I’ve ever been to a country with as many seminarians as priests. The Church’s future is bright in Vietnam.

Singapore was impressive, too. All Masses were in English, which certainly helped, and there are daily Masses all over the places, often within blocks of each other. Opus Dei runs the St. Joseph Parish which was a Portuguese-based church from the 1800s. The Good Shepherd Cathedral two blocks away had a 1:15 p.m. Mass located downtown. It’s next to the Singapore Management University, and at least 500 people were at daily Mass, mostly students. The liturgy was amazing. I had a daily Mass with the Opus Dei Center with the Vicar Fr. Ralph Valdez, who was introduced to me by the West Coast Vicar of Opus Dei and Napa Institute friend Fr. Luke Mata. All told, there are 400,000 Catholics in the Singapore, which has about 5 million people overall.

But the story is much different in Laos, a communist country that’s still a dictatorship. We were in a town called Luang Prabang, and from what I could tell there were no churches there. The government has oppressed the church so completely. There were 100,000 Catholics in Laos as of 2022, up nearly 100% since 2015. But just 1.7% of the population is Christian, and they appear to keep their heads down. I couldn’t find a Mass for three days—the first time in 35 years that I’ve missed in-person daily Mass for three days straight. Even during COVID I didn’t miss a physical daily Mass. In Laos, however, I had to go virtual.

The religious atmosphere in Laos was chaotic and unnerving, with widespread worship of pagan gods and spirits. Our excursion offered many chances to pray with the Buddhist monks. I understood then how St. Paul felt when he arrived in Athens and saw the people there worshiping so many false gods. I wanted to tell them: “I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.” I prayed that the people in this land will come to believe in Jesus Christ.

The final stop on my trip was Cambodia, where I once again found Daily Mass on Friday night, followed by the Saturday vigil. That’s saying something, considering that just 0.13% of the population is Catholics—about 20,000 people total. The country is still a one-party dictatorship, so the faith still faces many challenges. Christianity is irreconcilable with a government that replaces God as the focus of veneration.

There’s an urgent need to evangelize those countries, especially Cambodia and Laos. But even in Singapore and Vietnam, where the French brought Catholicism long ago, there is fertile ground for the faith. Let’s not forget these countries in our prayers, even as we pray for the re-evangelization of our own.

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