“Out of the Tiger’s Den,” Ensign, June 1989, 44
Out of the Tiger’s Den
A Vietnamese convert spent years hiding in an abandoned animal den, dreaming of the temple across the sea.
Time goes by—fourteen years have passed since the day LDS branches in Viet Nam were dissolved and I began my long struggle to leave my beloved homeland.
I was born 27 December 1923 in Hue, the ancient capital and royal city of Viet Nam. My family lived in a large palace, like those in Beijing. That is because I am descended from the royal Vietnamese family. My ancestors ruled Viet Nam for about three hundred years.
My last name, Cong Ton Nu, is actually a title meaning countess. My first name, Tuong-Vy, means rose. My father, Huong-de, was prime minister to the last king, Bao Dai, who ruled until 1945. Huong-de is also a title. If you showed it or my name to a Vietnamese, he would know right away that we are descendants of the royal family.
When I was twenty years old, I graduated from Viet-Anh Lyceum in Hue. A few months later, I married Le-Van Luong, one of my high school teachers. We had a very smooth life. The wars did not affect us much. I stayed home and took care of our four daughters and two sons while my husband taught school. We had plenty of money and employed servants to help us. We moved to Saigon in 1950.
Unfortunately, my husband and I divorced in 1965. After that, I had to work, so I became a high school teacher. I taught until 1970. I eventually came to own an information and travel service business called SVP, short for S’il Vous Plait.
In 1967, before I became the owner of the company, Robert J. Lewis, a member of the Church, came to my office. I was manager at that time. He wanted the pamphlet The Testimony of Joseph Smith translated into Vietnamese, so I took it to a translator. When he finished, I gave the translation to Brother Lewis. He took it to church for the Vietnamese members to read. But they did not like it; it did not mean anything to them.
Brother Lewis brought it back to me, and when the translator said he couldn’t do any better, I decided to try myself. I was not very good at speaking English and worried about how I would translate it. I took the pamphlet home and stayed up all night reading it. As I read, something strange happened to me. It was as if someone unseen was helping me understand. The first translator translated word for word; but as I finally understood part of the testimony, I put it aside and wrote my translation in my own words. I translated according to the thoughts and feelings impressed upon me. I did not know it at the time, but I was translating by the Spirit.
I gave the translation to Brother Lewis and said that I would refund his money if he didn’t like it. But the members read it and said they understood what it meant. They said, “It communicates feelings—it affects us.”
Brother Lewis told me he would bring some more material to translate. So then I translated four or five pamphlets. They were all accepted.
As I worked on those pamphlets, I began to love the Church and the doctrines and teachings of the gospel. I asked Brother Lewis to send me some missionaries. He sent two American servicemen. They taught me for three months, and I was baptized. My oldest son, Le Phuc-Hung, also joined a few months later. A short time after, I was called as Relief Society president and served in that calling until 1975.
In 1970 or 1971, I was extended a calling to translate the Book of Mormon. I wondered how to do this because I was still manager of SVP. That night I prayed, “How can I translate this book and still earn a living?” My office was noisy and busy. It was on Tu-Do Street, the busiest street in Saigon, and I had ten secretaries, drivers, and helpers. I could not translate there. I needed a private place where I could think and study. I had a five-story home, but my six children and their families lived there. I could not translate at home, either.
Soon after, my son Le Viet Hung, who had just joined the military and moved to a base, came to me early one morning. To my great surprise, he gave me a gift of 400,000 piasters that he had just won in a government contest. When I got the money, I gathered my children and told them, “I give to you my home and all that I own. I take only this amount from the contest. I will quit my job and buy some land in a remote area.”
My children agreed—the property was worth about six million piasters—and I found a quiet place about one acre in size fifteen kilometers from Saigon. There I built a cottage and planted a garden. I took one nanny to cook.
I secluded myself and studied extensively. I borrowed many books on Jesus Christ and, because my French was better than my English, studied a French Book of Mormon. I read the English Book of Mormon many times. When I came to difficult parts, I asked one of my relatives, a priest in the Catholic church, to help. He understood a lot about the Bible.
When trying to translate the difficult parts, I pondered and prayed. I would often dream at night about the parts and see where I could find help in my library. So I began to write. And as I translated, I pondered. I forgot myself. It was almost as if someone else was helping me write.
If you cannot believe that a young man like Joseph Smith, uneducated as he was, could translate the Book of Mormon, then consider my experience. I don’t know how I was able to translate the book, but Heavenly Father helped me. The translation is a good one—many have studied it and said so. It took me two years to finish.
After the Book of Mormon, I translated the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. Then I started on some more books but was not able to finish because South Viet Nam fell to North Viet Nam. That was in 1975. When all the missionaries left Viet Nam, they took my translations of the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price to Salt Lake City. My translation of the Book of Mormon was printed there, and my work on the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price was the major source for the printed translations of those books. I was not able to see the printed books until 1985.
A few weeks before the North Vietnamese came, the missionaries left, and I was asked to move into the chapel to take care of it. A week later, I received a call from the American embassy giving instructions on when and where the Vietnamese members could depart. I was given the privilege of being the first to board the plane. I felt humble and grateful, but my heart was confused. Most Vietnamese are attached to their motherland. The idea of leaving home forever hurt so much that many could not think of going. My Heavenly Father had given me great blessings in that land, so I felt loyal to it and decided to stay behind.
The North Vietnamese took over Saigon in April 1975. As usually happens after a war, they imprisoned all South Viet Nam’s government officials and military, including Brother The, the president of our branch, and all my brothers, a son, and a son-in-law. At the end of 1975, they confiscated my property. They also wanted to put me in jail because of my past contact with Americans.
And so I tried to escape from Viet Nam. I went to an island, Phu-Quoc, close to Cambodia. I took all my scriptures, translations, and books and buried them in the beach; then I bought a boat to escape. But I was not successful. The police put me in prison for three days, but because I was an old woman, they let me go. I was not able to go back to get the books and translations. They remain there today.
For five years, I used all my resources and strength trying to escape. I used a different name each time I tried because people would recognize my last name. I tried many different disguises—a merchant, a nun, a peddler. I stayed close to the seashore so I could go by boat.
One attempt I remember well. About eighty men, women, and children escaped in a small boat. Within two days, we reached international waters, but then the engine gave out. We drifted for fifteen days. We ran out of food and drinking water and just lay motionless on the boat’s deck awaiting death.
Finally we heard the noise of a ship’s engine. We waved for help. It was a ship from Europe. After giving us food and water, they towed our boat back to Vung-Tau harbor. We wept openly. Many men, unable to accept the disaster, jumped into the sea and disappeared underwater. The police imprisoned us. Luckily, I spent only a few months in jail.
On my last attempt in 1981, I was with about twenty people, waiting at the Vung-Tau beach at night for a boat. The security guards saw us and gave chase. Two women and myself began to climb a hill fearfully. After a few hours, we came to a small deserted enclosure and remained there until morning.
When the sun rose, we could see we were in a cave. The floor was cement, and the cave contained some used cooking utensils and pieces of broken furniture. The cave doors were still in good condition. We felt hungry, so we went out to search for food. To our surprise, we found that we were in a large, deserted garden with fruit trees filled with mangoes, longans, apples, and jackfruit. It was a still, quiet place, with a small pagoda nearby.
In the evening, the two women prepared to leave, but I was so weary from the fears of the past years and so despairing that I didn’t want to move anymore. I chose to stay.
The first night alone, I became afraid of my lonely, deserted situation. I left the cave and knelt down on a rock to pray. Through my tears and my loneliness, I asked Father in Heaven to give me the courage and strength to survive this ordeal. A peace and calm came upon me, and I knew that I could remain there.
This is my testimony of prayer. Whenever I have been upset or have struggled, I have prayed. Heavenly Father always hears and answers my prayers. He always listens to his children.
My life as a hermit began. Shaving my head, I disguised myself as an old, poor Buddhist nun. Occasionally, I went to the market down the hill to exchange ripened fruit for things I needed. I learned that the cave was called the Tiger Den because a tiger used to live there before the villagers drove it out and made the cave into a shelter.
Each day at sunset, I sat on a rock looking out over the Pacific Ocean. I often imagined that on the other side of the water was our Heavenly Father’s temple, near which many of my brothers and sisters were living in happiness. I couldn’t help but weep, remembering the wonderful times I had had with my fellow Saints in the Saigon chapel.
Four years passed by slowly. I pondered and prayed. I wrote songs, poems, and books and tended a garden. No one knew who I was. Two of my children were still in Viet Nam, and I was able to send them letters. But I could not receive any—I didn’t have an address. Besides, I could not see anyone because I felt I would bring trouble to them.
One morning, after working very hard in the garden, I felt unusually tired and decided to go to the hospital. In the office, I put my health card on the table. It was the only document I had with my real name on it, and a woman close by saw it. She asked, “Are you Mrs. Cong Ton Nu Tuong-Vy?”
I backed away and said, “Why are you asking me this?” She gestured for me to follow. In the large lobby, she took a wrinkled letter from her bag. She removed one page and allowed me to read this paragraph: “My dear Sister Thuy, you should try to find Mrs. Cong Ton Nu Tuong-Vy, who we think is living somewhere near the Vung-Tau seashore. The Church of Jesus Christ at Salt Lake City wants to contact her. Signed Quoc-Phong.”
When I saw the name of the Church, I burst into tears. Through my new-found friend, I was able to contact the remaining members in Saigon. It was 1985, ten years since I had lost contact with the Church.
That Christmas was a memorable one. I took the bus to Saigon, and the members met together for the first time in ten years in Viet Nam. The meeting was in a park. There were nearly one hundred people there. We had ice cream and cake. Later, at our table, brethren holding the priesthood broke bread and poured water into small glasses for the sacrament. We bowed our heads and prayed silently. Our joy was full.
From that day forth, our small branch awakened as if from a deep sleep. A presiding elder was chosen to lead us. We were able to communicate sometimes with the Church and other members through VASAA (Veterans Assisting Saints Abroad Association).
I was finally given permission to leave Viet Nam. VASAA had helped to arrange with the Canadian and Vietnamese governments for my immigration. My oldest son, who lived in Toronto, sponsored me.
Less than a year later, in March and April 1988, I was finally able to visit Salt Lake City for ten days and attend general conference. I met many friends, missionaries, and General Authorities. The first time I saw Temple Square I could not help but weep for my blessings. In the Tiger’s Den, it had been my greatest wish to see the temple. At last, I was able to receive my endowment in the Lord’s house.
Although I am now in America, the memory of my experiences in Viet Nam stays with me. I pray that our Lord will bless all my brothers and sisters who remain in Viet Nam. I know by personal experience that nothing can destroy the gospel our Heavenly Father has given us.