Out of the Tiger’s Den

By Cong Ton Nu Tuong-Vy

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    A Vietnamese convert spent years hiding in an abandoned animal den dreaming of the temple across the sea.

    Fourteen years have passed since the day Latter-day Saint branches in Viet Nam were disbanded 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 because I am descended from the royal Vietnamese family. My ancestors ruled Viet Nam for about 300 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 good 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 eventually started to manage and then own an information center and travel agency.

    In 1967, Robert Lewis, a member of the Church, came to my office. He wanted a Church 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 to 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 the translation in my own words. I translated according to the thoughts and feelings that were 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 some missionaries to me. He sent two American servicemen. They taught me for three months, and I was baptized. My oldest son, Le Phuc-Hung, was also baptized a few months later.

    In the early 1970s, I was extended a call to translate the Book of Mormon. I wondered how I would be able to do this because I was still manager of the travel agency, my office was noisy, it was on the busiest street in Saigon, and I had to supervise a large staff. I had a big house, but my six children and their families lived there. So I could neither translate at my office nor my home. I was also serving as Relief Society president in my branch. I needed a private place where I could think and study. I prayed to my Heavenly Father, “How can I find the time and the place to translate this book and still earn a living?”

    Soon after, my son Le Viet Hung, who had just joined the military, came to me early one morning. To my great surprise, he gave me a gift of 400,000 piasters that the had just won in a government contest. When I got the money, I gathered my children and told them, “I will give you my home and all that I own. I will leave my job, take a portion of the contest money, 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.

    In my new home I prayed, “How can I translate; my English is not good enough?” I secluded myself and studied extensively. I read many books on the life of the Savior, and, because my French was better than my English, I studied a French Book of Mormon. I read the English Book of Mormon many times. When I came to sections that I found difficult to translate, I would often dream about them and see where I could find help in other books I owned. And as I translated, I pondered. I forgot myself. It was almost as if someone else was helping me write. I know that Heavenly Father blessed me that the translation might be 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, in 1975, I started on some more books but was not able to finish because North Viet Nam took over South Viet Nam.

    A few weeks before the North Vietnamese came, the full-time missionaries left, taking with them my translation of the Book of Mormon which was printed in Salt Lake City, and my work on the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. Both of these latter translations served as a major source for the final printed versions. But it was to be many years before I had the opportunity to see them. I was asked to move into the chapel to take care of it, but a week later, I received a call from the American embassy giving instructions on when and where the Vietnamese members could leave the country. I was given the privilege of being the first to board the airplane taking us to freedom. 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 leaving. My Heavenly Father had given me great blessings in that land, so I felt loyal to it and decided to stay.

    When the North Vietnamese took over Saigon, 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 preparing 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 to this day.

    For five years I stayed close to the coast and 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.

    One attempt I remember well. About eighty men, women, and children escaped in a small boat. Within two days, we reached international waters, but the boat’s engine failed. 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 and the North Vietnamese. We wept openly. Many men, unable to accept such a fate, jumped into the sea and sank beneath the waves. 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 I began to climb a hill fearfully. After about an hour, we came to a small deserted enclosure and remained there until morning.

    When the sun rose, we could see we were in a cave that had been converted into a shelter complete with doors that were still in good condition. The floor was concrete, and the cave contained some used cooking utensils and pieces of broken furniture. We felt hungry, so we went out to search for food. To our surprise, we found that we were in a large, deserted orchard with trees filled with mangoes, apples, and other fruits. 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 with particular challenges, 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 visit or receive visits from 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 identification card on the desk; it was the only document I had with my real name on it. A woman close by saw it and asked, “Are you Mrs. Cong Ton Nu Tuong-Vy?”

    I backed away and said, “Why do you ask?” She gestured for me to follow her to where she had her bag. From it she took out a letter, 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.

    Christmas that year was a memorable one. I took the bus to Saigon, where 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 exit visa. My oldest son living in Toronto, Ontario, 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 the United States, 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.

    Photography by Jerry Garns

    Illustrated by Diane Pierce

    Show References

    • Cong Ton Nu Tuong-Vy attends the Long Beach Ninth Ward, Long Beach California Stake. She works as a private nurse.