Decades after a devastating war, trailblazing Mormon mission president delights in his return to Vietnam, armed with a gospel of peace

(Mike Stack for The Salt Lake Tribune) Street scenes central Old Quarter in Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi, Vietnam • It was 1974, and a lanky young Mormon missionary from Salt Lake City was sent into the heart of what had been America’s biggest nightmare: Vietnam.

For decades, an unpopular war in Southeast Asia had taken the lives of tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, while protests against continued U.S. involvement raged on college campuses and city streets.

By the time 19-year-old Lewis Hassell arrived in Saigon, the war was winding down. The U.S. military had withdrawn, leaving behind mostly American expatriates and contractors. Still, he recalls hearing — and feeling — pops of artillery nearby.

Hassell, who at 6-foot-5 towered over the locals, was called to serve in a tiny Vietnamese district of the LDS Church’s Hong Kong Mission. With his missionary partner, or companion, he spent his first two months being schooled in the language by a non-Mormon tutor, then walking the streets to seek converts.

Hassell, his companion and six other LDS evangelizers from across the globe were fairly successful, baptizing one or two families a month, swelling the church’s ranks to more than 300 members.

By the spring of 1975, that all changed.

The eight missionaries were ordered to leave the country just one month before the evacuation of all Americans as communist troops seized Saigon.

The young men were devastated, heartbroken. (“Our mission president was worried we wouldn’t obey the order,” he recalls.)

“I had a tremendous sense of loss,” says Hassell, “like I didn’t finish.”

The feeling lingered. The country called to him, even as he returned home, married, fathered children, earned a medical degree, practiced medicine, and worked as a professor of anatomic pathology.

Starting in 1989, the soft-spoken physician went back at least 15 times to Vietnam, on medical missions, humanitarian trips, and, in 2015, with his wife, Mary Bliss Hassell, as “senior missionaries.”

Then, last year, Vietnam recognized Mormonism as its 14th official religion. With that, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints created its first mission in the country and Hassell became its first mission president.

Finally, he could finish what he began more than four decades earlier.

It felt good.

‘Children of the diaspora’

Just days before Saigon fell, the last official LDS service was held there April 27, 1975, according to Colorado-based independent Mormon demographer Matt Martinich.

After the Americans pulled out, some 100 Latter-day Saints departed as well. Those left behind mostly dispersed. They were not allowed to meet as a group or cluster in houses.

Given the increasingly harsh political and economic realities, many South Vietnamese of all faiths fled as refugees, starting over in nearby nations as well as Europe and the United States. Some encountered Mormonism in those places, while maintaining their language and cultures.

In recent decades, the LDS Church assigned proselytizers to serve Vietnamese-speaking missions in Texas, Washington, California, Pennsylvania, Florida, Virginia, Georgia, New York and Louisiana — and they found some eager converts.

Now the children and grandchildren of those Vietnamese American members are prime candidates to serve in the newly formed Hanoi LDS Mission.

“The vast majority of our missionaries [called ‘branch builders’] have some Asian connection,” Hassell says. “A dozen of them spoke Vietnamese. Some are locally produced. Others come from abroad.”

The “children of the diaspora are coming back,” he says. “They are reconnecting with their culture and their heritage. They’re learning the language. They’re connecting with grandparents.”

They bring, Hassell adds, an important “cultural sensitivity.”

One determined Mormon is seeking members who have returned to this Southeast Asian country after joining the Utah-based faith while in neighboring Cambodia.

They came back when Vietnamese economic conditions improved, but there was no church structure for them so they disappeared into their local communities.

A woman in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, spent hours sorting through the stack of membership records from Cambodia, looking up photos and birth records and visiting villages to find the once-Mormon believers.

And she has discovered dozens, says Mary Bliss Hassell. “It’s painstaking work, but she keeps at it.”

LDS membership across Vietnam now numbers around 2,000 — and it’s growing.

Common familial bonds

Buddhism remains the predominant religion in Vietnam, with sizable Catholic and Protestant minorities. Many also are secular or atheistic, though most believe in the continuity of an individual soul and the linking of generations after death.

That last point echoes Mormon teachings about binding families together into the eternities, Lewis Hassell says. Potential converts don’t “come looking for the church of ancestor worship. But our beliefs about family history do make them more comfortable. They feel there’s a similar vocabulary.”

Such parallels help reduce some natural antagonisms toward family members who become Mormons.

But not all.

Some would-be members face parents who lock them in their houses, who kick them out of their homes, who weep and scream and beg and use every tool they can to keep their kids from joining a little-known American faith.

(Mike Stack for The Salt Lake Tribune) Sister Thuy Ahn in Primary room in Hanoi LDS branch.

When Thuy Anh began attending LDS worship services, her mother was horrified.

“She cried and cried for a month,” the daughter says. “She tried to do everything to stop me.”

Anh, a convert of four years who is serving as a full-time missionary in Vietnam, was impressed by LDS senior couples she encountered and their mutual love.

“My family had many trials,” Anh says. “I saw couples at church who loved each other. They were good examples.”

Beyond that, she was drawn to the idea of a divine parent.

“In my life, I needed someone who would never, never leave me alone. I received love from Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.”

That love “saved my life,” she says. “I wanted to go on a mission to help others feel that love.”

Before her baptism, Anh says, she felt “sorrow and pain” and had “lost all hope.”

On that day, however, she felt washed clean of past sins and ready to start again, she says, “with a rich feeling of love.”

Members, and a number of nonmembers, attend Mormon services in any of three Hanoi branches.

The Long Bien Branch meets in a narrow four-story building with a modern facade on a bustling street. Outside, motor bikes whiz by, careening through traffic. Inside, on the third floor, Primary kids sing lyrics like “As I have loved you” and “The wise man built his house upon the rock” in English.

One story up, the chapel boasts white walls and fluorescent lighting with gray plastic chairs lined in tidy rows. There, the sacrament (or communion) is offered and Mormon sermons are delivered, sometimes in English with simultaneous renderings into Vietnamese, thanks to translation devices stowed in a cupboard in the back. The faith‘s foundational scripture, the Book of Mormon, has been available in Vietnamese since the early 1980s.

Missionaries also teach English classes at the branch, a free service that has blossomed into a productive way to introduce Mormonism to interested attendees.

(Mike Stack for The Salt Lake Tribune) Pham Ngoc Canh, Tran Thi Minh Tan and their 5-year-old daughter, Tao "Apple" Pham, in the Long Bien Branch, Hanoi Vietnam.

That’s how Tran Thi Minh Tan found her way into the faith. She came to Mormonism to learn English and became converted to the doctrines.

She then converted her boyfriend, who is now her husband. He was secretly baptized without telling his parents, with whom the couple lived.

“His parents were very angry,” Tan says.

The parents nearly threw their kids and their grandchild out of the house after some years, but the new apartment fell through so they had to take back their wayward offspring.

Finally, after five or so years, the parents — especially the father, who eventually died of cancer — softened.

“They saw that we were serious about our religion,” says Tan’s husband, Pham Ngoc Canh, who is now the branch president and works as a translator for the church.

And that they wouldn’t give it up.

War and peace

More than 40 years after the brutal Vietnamese War, few in the nation remain bitter about the role the United States played as the enemy.

Nor do they take it out on the American-born faith.

“I have never felt any anti-American sentiments,” says Reagan Moss, a missionary from Washington, “or heard any negative comments about it on the street or to me personally.”

The mission president agrees.

More and more, Mormonism is seen “as an international church,” Hassell says. “Our branch builders come from many different backgrounds.”

For most Vietnamese, the war is a piece of their history, the doctor says, “and, given the postwar baby boom, it’s ancient history.”

By and large, they view the West positively, even admiring several recent U.S. presidents “and the steps they have taken to normalize relations,” he says. “There seems to be little antipathy or resentment toward America.”

On one occasion, the Mormon leader sat in a Vietnamese family’s home, where the living room wall showcased the photo of a relative killed by a bomb during the war. But there was no hint of resentment toward the guest nor toward his country that had caused such pain.

“They’ve moved past that,” Hassell says.

And so has the optimistic LDS mission president, who gazes fondly into the future of his Mormon mission in his cherished Vietnam — fulfilled at last.

(Mike Stack for The Salt Lake Tribune) Sister missionaries Thuy Anh and Reagan Moss teach Primary song in sign language in Hanoi LDS branch.