Making Good on a Promise to God

Times Staff Writer

Adrift in a rickety boat on the South China Sea, 10-year-old Bich Vu had gone nearly three weeks with no food and little water during his escape from Vietnam.

Now a storm threatened to capsize the vessel and dump the boy and 125 fellow refugees into the sea.

With tears streaming down his face, Vu held a rosary and pleaded, "God, I love my family. I'm so young; I do not want to die. If you save me and my family, I will give my whole life to you."

On Saturday, 28 years later, Vu will make good on his promise. He will be one of three men ordained as priests in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange.

"I want to give myself to God as a way to thank him for all the blessings for my family," Vu said. "We would not be here today" if not for the Lord.

Vu was well into adulthood — delivering newspapers, dating and studying computer science in college — before he remembered his vow.

He had come home from a party and felt "something missing in my life." Vu went into his bedroom and opened the Bible. His said his eyes landed on the verse that warned about keeping "your covenants with God."

"It struck me," he said. "I remembered I promised God in the ocean. I had a good life, and I forgot it completely."

He said his decision to sacrifice his worldly ambitions was met with skepticism by his friends and family.

"I thought something was wrong with him," said Son Nguyen, 48, a Fountain Valley resident who had known Vu for 16 years. "I was shocked. I told him if God is calling him, then go for it, but I never thought he would make it."

At the time, Vu "enjoyed life too much to give it up," said Nguyen. He recalled Vu as a good dancer who had a knack for attracting female admirers.

Vu's mother was just as surprised.

"He liked to eat good food; he liked to dress nice," said his mother, Hong Tran, 77, of Huntington Beach. "He liked pretty girls, and he was mischievous, then all of a sudden, he told me he wanted to be a priest.

"I would love for it to be true, but I didn't think he could do it. The whole family didn't think he could either."

Vu, 38, concedes that he gave up a lot but gained more by becoming a priest.

"I wanted to be a medical doctor and get married, have a beautiful wife and three beautiful children," said Vu, who speaks English, Vietnamese, French, Spanish and Japanese. "But now I am proud to be a doctor of the soul."

Born in Bao Loc, a small town north of Saigon, Vu was raised in an upper-class Catholic family. His father was a jewelry store owner who also worked as an interpreter for the French government.

Shortly after the fall of Saigon — now known as Ho Chi Minh City — in 1975, Vu's Catholic school and parish were closed by the new Communist government. His family decided to flee, like hundreds of thousands of others.

In 1978, his parents bought a 25-foot boat and packed enough food and water for a three-day journey to the Philippines. They set sail in the darkness from Vung Tau, a coastal town near Saigon, with 125 people aboard.

But the engine broke on the third day, and the boat drifted for 2½ weeks.

"We had no hope," Vu said. "We didn't know where we were going. We thought we were going to die. I kept asking my mother: 'What are we going to do? What should we do?' "

She told him to pray. With his eyes closed, he asked God to save him and his family.

Three hours later, a Japanese commercial ship plucked them from the sea and took them to Japan. The family lived in a refugee camp for five years before moving to France, where Vu attended high school.

Relatives sponsored the family's relocation to Orange in 1990. Vu attended Golden West College and delivered newspapers to make money. He spent weekends with friends, attending parties and going to the movies.

"I came here and I had a good life," Vu said.

In 1993, after he remembered his promise, Vu entered Divine Word seminary in Iowa. Three years later, he attended Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, where he received a master of divinity degree in 2002.

Vu moved to Orange County in 2004 to be closer to his parents, four brothers who are software engineers and three sisters who are pharmacists. In November, he was ordained as the deacon at Holy Family Cathedral in Orange.

Diane Greenberg, office manager at Holy Family, said Vu would make an excellent priest.

"He is sincere," Greenberg said.

"His homilies are very succinct and meaningful. His lessons touch the heart, and he has a tremendous love of people."

On Saturday, more than 700 of Vu's relatives and friends, who have traveled from as far as Texas, North Carolina and Washington, D.C., will attend the ordination. At that time, Benjamin Tran and Brendan Mason will also enter the priesthood.

Vu, who will use the religious name Augustin, will celebrate his first Mass on Sunday at St. Bonaventure Church in Huntington Beach.

Vu said the biggest sacrifice of becoming a priest was the loneliness that came from not having a family of his own. When he is down, Vu said, he prays or visits the sick at hospitals, the elderly at nursing homes or inmates in prison.

"It keeps me going," Vu said. "I don't live life for myself; I live for others. I gave up one good thing for a better thing. I have a bigger family now. That is my happiness."

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