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Reaching the unreached in Vietnam

Eternity #68 April 2016

Morning brings the mist in the northern mountains of Vietnam. Low clouds hide the towering peaks and the air is cool. We’re visiting a Tay village today, on a trip with two of Bible Society Vietnam’s workers. It’s about five hours north of Hanoi, close to the Chinese border and the village is only accessible by boat: long, narrow blue boats that float gracefully over Ba Be Lake, Vietnam’s largest natural lake.

"Christians don't hold a monopoly on hospitality."

“Christians don’t hold a monopoly on hospitality.”

The region is speckled with small tribal villages, mostly belonging to the Tay people, one of Vietnam’s largest minority groups. Tay villages are generally found at the foot of the mountains, where they can be near water to fish and grow wet rice.

The lake narrows into a deep stream, and ahead of us a line of water buffalo slow us down as we watch them scramble up the riverbank. A Tay woman in a low wooden boat is washing clothes as we drift by.

The Tay village we’re visiting aren’t expecting us, my Bible Society colleague tells me. But they’re friendly and it’s the week before Tết – Vietnamese New Year – so families are at home preparing a feast and a grand celebration. Visitors are expected and welcome.

This woman is exactly the type of person that Bible Society in Vietnam is praying will be able to hear the gospel when the Bible translation into the Tay language is complete.

Because the Tay people live in some of the most remote parts of Vietnam, they are relatively untouched by modern Vietnam. Farming is still done manually, with water buffalo, and slash-and-burn techniques. It’s a tribal group also relatively untouched by the gospel.

Traditionally, the Tay people worship multiple gods. Ancestor worship is commonplace, praying to the deceased for protection and guidance. The tribe is also animistic, believing non-human entities have spirits they can worship. The Tay alphabet was developed by Tay people themselves in the mid-20th century, but written materials are scarce. There is no Tay Bible.

As we walk from our boat into the village – just three or four scattered thatched houses connected by a dirt road – we come across a man wearing a large robe back to front, sitting on a plastic chair in the middle of the track. Another man joins him with a pair of scissors – it’s time for a haircut. Our guide greets them and after some initial translation problems between Tay and Vietnamese, the men offer us enormous smiles and beckon us towards the house.


A typical Tay house.

This family, which we’ve descended upon unannounced, welcomes us with open arms. The mother is warm and friendly and invites us inside. The house is dark and sparse, just one room with an annex-style kitchen that’s open to the elements. My guide tells me there is limited electricity, and only at night.
There’s a naked bulb hanging in the corner of the large room. The only furniture is three plastic chairs and a makeshift crate table. This family doesn’t own much. But we’re offered tea and sweets. A little girl is curious to see my camera. She’s shy but lets me take her photo. She giggles, face in her hand, when I show it to her.

Christians don’t hold a monopoly on hospitality. We are welcome here. But a family like this is exactly the type of people that Bible Society in Vietnam is praying for. They will be able to hear the gospel when their work is done in translating a Bible into the Tay language.

There are about 1.9 million Tay people scattered across northern Vietnam. It’s a huge number of people who have never heard about Jesus.

Kan*, a Bible translator working as a volunteer on the Tay translation, tells us there are many similarities between the creation story in the history and tradition of the Tay people and the biblical account. Other biblical stories like Noah and the flood, and some of the gospel parables, are similar to stories the Tay tell among themselves. The familiarity of some of the stories, says Kan, would make the Bible particularly interesting for the Tay people, if only they could hear it in their own language.

“I believe there is a big opportunity to get the Bible into the hands of Tay people as one of the first books they might ever see written in their own language,” says Kan.

* Name changed for security reasons.

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