My husband and I, both veterans, returned in 1999 to Viet Nam with a bike tour. In Hue, we hired two cyclos, bicycles with big seats welded on front, and set off for the Kim Long district.

Thirty years ago, I was stationed in nearby Phu Bai, and spent days off at an orphanage in Kim Long run by Vietnamese nuns from a French missionary order. It was surely long gone, flattened by bombings or disbanded by the government, but I wanted to walk the area, to revisit the ghost of a place I remembered too well.

Paul’s driver spoke only Vietnamese. Mine, Sing, had learned English as a South Vietnamese Army soldier; after two years of “re-education,” cyclo-pedaling was one of the few jobs the government permitted him to hold.

We jogged and lurched over the broken street and, after some time, into a dog-eared neighborhood, past dusty slap-up stores selling cigarettes and silk paintings, past cowed and threadbare dogs, past ragged children squatting in dirt dooryards, to a blue-painted metal gate.

Inside was a tidy courtyard. Healthy-looking children darted about, laughing. A fat dog trotted by, obviously a pet. Everything looked new, clean: bright blue slides, swing sets, climbing bars, a pink plastic ball.

A private school?

It was certainly not my orphanage, with its naked, peeling walls and hoards of hungry Amerasian children. Where I’d fed babies who were little more than living skeletons; where a gaggle of white-habited nuns held hundreds of precarious lives together against the war. Where donated toys didn’t last because the kids had no idea what to do with them.

Only the main building looked vaguely familiar. I snapped a picture and turned to leave, when Paul spotted a Vietnamese nun.

He flagged her down, and Sing told her that I’d been here thirty years ago. She smiled and corralled us all into a small room, insisting in French that we sit–assez, assez!–at a table. Before we could demur, she’d summoned a second, older sister, who produced cups of home-made yogurt and little glasses of a caramel-colored, very tasty home brew.

The sisters assured me, through Sing, that this was indeed my orphanage. The buildings I had known in 1969 were gone, except for the nuns’ home and that main house, now a hospital for handicapped youngsters.

I glanced outside at the kids playing in the sunlight. The very feel of the place was so profoundly different now. It was like a breath held too long had been released; there was joy and play, and time for more than survival.

There are many orphans, and many children at the hospital, said the older Sister, Soeur Chantal. The government gives no support, so her missionary order begs help from overseas–from France, Australia, the US, Canada—

From us.

Nothing was said. Not directly. But Paul and I were sipping wine at 10 in the morning with two cyclo drivers and a pair of nuns, and those nuns were–I have no doubt at all–thinking what nuns so often think:

God Works in Mysterious Ways.

They toured us through a new building, where a young woman cheerfully fed children who appeared to have cerebral palsy; they sat in hand-built chairs with attached tables and headboards to help them hold their heads erect. It did not escape me that the chemicals we Americans had left in the soil very likely made these chairs, this care, this entire hospital necessary.

The sisters led us out again into the sunlight, and posed with us for pictures in a yard full of the most beautiful children I’d seen in 30 years. I told myself that, if I sell my book, I’ll donate a percentage of the profit to the place.

And that was how I became a supporter.

They have a website that explains much more than I can in this brief column:

http://www.st-paul-hue.com/ . I also published a story about the orphanage in its earlier days for AmazonShorts; it will cost you a mean 49 cents, unfortunately, to read it:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000HOJGZY/ref=dp_shrt_new_0/002-4837825-5777617?ie=UTF8