HANOI, Vietnam – The 25,000 people at the soccer stadium and the millions more watching at home waited 90 minutes before the Australian evangelical preacher got to the message he had come to Communist-ruled Vietnam to deliver.
"Do you know why I love God?" Nick Vujicic asked a young girl on stage who, like him, was born without arms and legs. "Because heaven is real. And one day when we get to heaven, we are going to have arms and legs. And we are going to run, and we are going play, and we are going to race."
The remark was Vujicic's only direct reference to his faith in a night that was otherwise motivational. Most people in the audience were not Christians, but were attracted to Vujicic as a living example of overcoming adversity.
Yet Vujicic's appearance is a sign of how a government that once severely restricted religion as a challenge to its authoritarian one-party rule is now taking a slightly more relaxed attitude. Those associated with Vujicic's Vietnam tour said it was the first by a foreign Christian — and the largest gathering to be addressed by a foreigner in the country's recent history.
For Vujicic (VOOY-CHEECH) and the 12 members of "Team Nick," the mostly Californian crew organizing his Asian tour, it was another country to add to the long list in which he has spread the Gospel. His charity had revenues of more than $1.6 million last year, his YouTube videos have been watched millions of times and he has authored three bestselling books.
"We are a unique ministry. We can go on national TV where other Christians cannot," Vujicic said backstage Thursday, his face and hair wet from a tropical downpour that almost cut short his appearance on a hot Hanoi evening. "Of course, in Vietnam there are limitations in how you can and can't talk about your faith, but with wisdom we come in. Some places we go we have to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves."
Nguyen Dat An, a Christian who organized the trip, said he was surprised the state broadcaster didn't cut off Vujicic's speech when he brought up God and heaven.
Vujicic's translator appeared to be caught unawares, and stumbled. "Come on man," said the Australian, urging him to translate his words.
"This was a miracle in Vietnam," said An. "God is the general director of this event."
Vietnam is about 8 percent Christian and 16 percent Buddhist, while about 45 percent of Vietnamese belong to indigenous religions, according to the 2010 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Vietnam's constitutions provide for religious freedom, but in practice it is regulated and in some cases restricted. Followers who speak up in favor of democracy face abuse, arrest and long sentences.
The U.S. State Department's 2012 report on international religious freedom noted the restrictions but said there "were signs of progress." The country is often compared favorably to China, its giant authoritarian neighbor, in discussions on religious freedom.
Vujicic was born with tetra-amelia syndrome, a rare disorder characterized by the absence of all four limbs. Amid childhood bullying, he once tried to drown himself.
He credits Christianity with giving him the will to continue, and founded a California-based religious charitable organization when he was 19. Now 30 and married with one son, he has visited 47 countries as part of his global outreach.
Vujicic's trip to Vietnam was organized by local Christians but sponsored by a large construction company headed by a Buddhist. The company said it had spent $1.7 million staging his eight events in two cities, recognizing the value of having its brand associated with a good-looking foreigner with a compelling tale of success and family values, not to mention eye-catching images of him surfing, skateboarding and playing golf.
Shares for the company, the Hoa Sen group, rose nearly 10 percent over the last four days, with Vujicic its only major recent publicity.
Hoa Sen's sponsorship paid for a huge marketing campaign: billboards around major cities, social media buzz and his appearance on the front pages of most state-run newspapers when he arrived on Wednesday. It created a lot of the attention around his visit, but it was also clear his story struck a chord among many in Vietnam.
Tickets, given away by sponsors to those who registered, were being sold by touts for $10 outside the stadium, while young girls with "Love Nick" stickers on their cheeks checked pink cellphones and waited for friends to arrive. The crowd was larger than when the Vietnamese national soccer played regional rival Indonesia in the same stadium last year.
"I just want to see him in real life," said 19-year-old student Tong Thi Nhung, who found out about Vujicic on Facebook. "He is amazing."
None of the marketing or media coverage mentioned Vujicic's faith, though it is clear from a glance at his website that it is his central purpose in life. Of eight people asked at the concert, which was preceded by a local rock band, lucky draws and bubbling TV presenters, none were Christians or even aware of Vujicic's religion.
Vujicic, who is able to stand up and move around on his pelvis, shuffled round on a small table set up on a stage on corner of the field. In a talk laced with jokes, platitudes and attempts at Vietnamese, he spoke out against bullying and drinking; on the need for forgiveness and hope; and respect for family. All those themes resonate with Vietnamese and their leaders, one of whom — the vice president — was watching from the VIP area.
Vujicic took the speech into potential sensitive territory with vague remarks about Ho Chi Minh, the founder of the country.
"Uncle Ho believed in Vietnam and here we are, but we must keep moving forward in liberty," he said.
Many disabled people attended; some joined him on stage and embraced him. His message on the need to help and respect those with disabilities had extra resonance in a country where birth defects linked to Agent Orange defoliant sprayed by the U.S. during the Vietnam War are widespread.
The Rev. Peter Kham, the Roman Catholic deputy bishop of Ho Chi Minh City, welcomed the trip, saying he was "personally so happy to see a Christian preaching what he believes."
In recent years, Vietnam has generally allowed large congregations to gather, churches and temples to be built and made it easier to register new denominations.
But Kham also said the country, which doesn't celebrate any religious holidays as national holidays and has no televised religious programs, still has far to go.
"Even though our churches are filled with people, we can't be involved in health care or in education. Everything belongs to the government. There is a political monopoly," said Kham. "There is still friction, but there have been developments."