KBAL TAOL, Cambodia
— For a moment, Josh Nguyen thought he was back in Vietnam.
Rubbing the wooden floor of a floating home in a remote village on Cambodia’s
Tonle Sap Lake,
the 44-year-old physician from Texas
remembered the country he left as a refugee in 1975.
Nguyen joined a team of nine other medical and dental volunteers working with
the Vietnamese living in floating villages on Cambodia’s
Tonle Sap Lake,
the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. He and
three nurses divided into two groups and visited from boat to boat, assessing
medical needs and sharing the gospel. Nguyen, who speaks Vietnamese, also
translated for the nurse who assisted him.
The trip was revealing to Nguyen, who saw himself not only in the floorboards
but also in the faces and experiences of those he met on the lake.
“I thought we were back,” said Nguyen, a member of Second
in Houston. “I thought we were boat
While the trip spawned memories for the doctor, it was a wake-up call for Gina
Nguyen, 30, a pharmacist from Plano, Texas
(no relation to Josh Nguyen).
Gina left Vietnam
in 1991 under less difficult circumstances. Although she returned to Southeast
Asia two years ago on a trip with her father, this was her first
The member of Plano Vietnamese
admitted she reluctantly signed up for the trip, which included medical and
dental personnel from seven Baptist churches, four states and four different
ethnic groups. She struggled initially with how best to contribute to the team.
“I can’t diagnose. I’m not trained. I didn’t think I knew the Bible well
enough. I’ve never been a translator,” Gina said. “Until this trip, I thought
my apartment in Texas was the
center of the universe.”
Once on the lake, Gina also experienced the full force of the difficulty
villagers experience every day.
There was no air conditioning, nor any electric fans. The toilet and shower
facilities were rudimentary. Sleeping arrangements were uncomfortable, cramped
and hot. Python was the main course for dinner. The nearby karaoke bar ran
until all hours of the night.
Gina’s culture shock was obvious.
“We look at these people and ask, ‘Why would they swim in this water? Why would
they eat and drink in this water?” Gina said.
When Gina shared these complaints with Josh, he said simply, “Gina, this could
have been us.”
Once the team began its work, however, Gina, who speaks Vietnamese, realized
she could serve not only as translator for the two nurses on her team, but she
also could share the gospel with villagers in their heart language.
“I was afraid,” Gina said. “What do I do? What do I say? But I knew God was
speaking through me. So I kept praying inside, ‘God, just tell me what to say.’”
By visiting in their homes and sharing the gospel, Gina came to understand that
the physical challenges facing the villagers are nothing compared to the
“They’re lost,” Gina said. “They worship different kinds of gods. They don’t
know anything else.”
She also realized God was giving her a chance to “give back” — using the
material blessings she gained in America
to share the spiritual blessings of her faith in Christ with the people on the
“God chose us,” Gina said, referring to the salvation she and other
Vietnamese-Americans have found in Jesus Christ while living in America.
“He brought us to America
and gave us the opportunity to live in nice conditions. This is our chance to
spread the gospel to the Vietnamese.”
In fact, Gina hopes to come back to the lake, noting, “I know that the weather
and the living conditions have been tough on me, but I see what we’re doing
here. I know it goes beyond medical needs.”
In spite of the difficulties, she encourages other Vietnamese-Americans to come
as well because of their ethnic credibility with villagers and the Vietnamese
language skills they provide to volunteer teams.
“We (Vietnamese-Americans) have a great opportunity to reach
the Vietnamese in Cambodia,”
Gina said. “We can speak the language. We can approach them better than
“You don’t have to be a doctor or a nurse,” Gina said. “You
can be the voice.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Rivers is a writer for the International Mission Board based
in Southeast Asia. For more stories about Cambodia’s