Jean and I arrived in Hanoi in July, 1998, for what would be four great years in Viet Nam. In this blog I want to share a bit about those years; I’ll go into more detail about my work there in future posts.
I’ve been writing in this series about climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall. And, each time, I’m also reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 33 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.
I climbed Mt Hancock (4420ft, 1347m) on 30 August 2016, the 17th of the 48 peaks that I would summit in this series. Eric says that he and I had climbed Mt Hancock in March of 1991… I don’t have any recollection of that hike, but it must have been very chilly!
In August 2016, I had a very pleasant, solo, late-summer climb. The Hancocks are located just west south-west of Mt Carrigain, which I had climbed about 6 weeks earlier:
Hancock Notch Trail begins at the parking lot at the hair-pin turn on the Kangamagus Highway, 4.7 miles east of the Lincoln Woods ski resort. I left the Hancock Overlook parking area at about 10:15am, having driven up from Durham that morning.
After a pleasant walk through forest for about 45 minutes on the Hancock Notch Trail, I reached the junction with Cedar Brook Trail just before 11am. It was a typical White-Mountains forest walk, moving gently uphill along the North Fork of the Hancock Branch river.
Then after another hour or so of forest walking, just before noon, I reached a fork in the Hancock Loop Trail where I turned left to go up Mt Hancock. There, lying on the trail, was a small pink backpack, dropped by a tired child? (I left it there, figuring that the owners would retrace their steps…)
From there, it was a fairly long and steep slog up to the summit of Mt Hancock. I neared the top, hot and sweaty, at around 12:30pm.
There is a nice outlook, looking north-west from the top of Mt Hancock, and I had hoped to have lunch there, looking over toward Franconia Notch. Sadly, there was a hiker there with a dog that was quite aggressive. Even though the hiker assured me that the dog was “nice”, it was barking and snarling and trying to run at me, snapping its leash as it lunged – luckily it was leashed! It felt like I shouldn’t stick around, so I left the top of Mt Hancock quickly, and hiked on towards South Hancock, with an empty stomach!
I can understand why hikers want to take their dogs on these hikes, but some obedience training is in order.
After reaching the top of Mt Hancock, I continued along the Hancock Loop Trail, over South Hancock; I’ll describe that part of the day next time…
After leaving Plan’s International Headquarters (“IH”) in May of 1997, Jean and I spent a year on sabbatical in Durham, New Hampshire. In those days, Plan was very generous in allowing staff with certain levels of tenure to take up to a year off, without pay, to reflect and recharge. So that’s what I did, spending the year taking courses at our local university, writing a couple of papers for “Nonprofit Management & Leadership” on the work I’d done at IH (both papers have been used earlier in this blog series), and taking the first three of many Vipassana meditation retreats that I would continue through the subsequent years.
It was a great year. I did also do a bit of work for Plan during those months: I prepared a feasibility study for Plan to open in Madagascar, which involved a trip to that fascinating place. Later that sabbatical year I applied to become Plan’s first Country Director for Eritrea, and travelled to Asmara to begin laying the groundwork to open an office there. Sadly, conflict with Ethiopia soon erupted, and Eritrea began to evolve towards repression. Even during my visit it was apparent that what had been an open environment for international NGOs was becoming much more hostile.
So Plan postponed opening in Eritrea, wisely. Later, nearing the end of my sabbatical year, I applied for the post of Country Director in Viet Nam. Jean and I flew from Boston to Hanoi in early July, 1998, for what would be over 4 years in that amazing country.
I’m planning to write four or five blogs on my four years in Viet Nam. I want to share what it was like working with the amazing Vietnamese people, what Plan did in those years, and how we restructured the operation to increase grant income. I’ll finish with reflections on living and working there in those years.
But in this brief first entry, I want to describe what it was like arriving in Hanoi in mid-1998, beginning a long and very happy association with that country.
Jean and I arrived in Hanoi in mid-July, 1998, having transited for a day and night in Hong Kong. We were picked up by a Plan car, and took the long ride into the center of the city, still jet-lagged but excited.
The next morning, despite having travelled all over the world with Plan, across Latin America, Africa and most of Asia, we were completely unprepared for the assault on the senses that awaited us in Hanoi: unbelievable heat and humidity, and unending rivers of bicycles and motorbikes on most roads in the city.
After just a few blocks walking towards the Hoan Kiem Lake, were were drenched with sweat and traumatized at having negotiated our way across the city streets at what seemed to be mortal peril. I vividly recall Jean and I taking refuge at a small restaurant near the lake, sitting in air-conditioning and drinking cold Coca-Cola with shocked looks on our faces.
We would come to love Hanoi – the people, the timeless character of the city – and we became proficient at crossing the streets: just visualize yourself at the other side, and walk slowly, predictably, across… But we never adjusted to the heat of that country, and even friends and colleagues who visited during those four years, people who had lived in the toughest climates in Africa and Latin America, were gob-smacked when they arrived in Hanoi. Except for Hanoi’s winter, roughly late-October through March, the heat was unending and the humidity simply dissolved our clothes and shoes.
Some landmarks from our time in Hanoi are shown on this (present-day) Google Map:
Our first home was on Tong Duy Tan street, famous for having been the first area of private restaurants, as the socialist time began to evolve into a “socialist-oriented market economy.” Right on the edge of Hanoi’s “Old Quarter”, it was a great place to live – lively and incredibly picturesque and unspeakably unsanitary. A great place, except for the railway that ran right in back of our apartment! On our first morning after moving in, we went to the building reception to ask about the overpowering blaring through the night, and the caretaker indicated, with a smile, that the trains “only ran at night”! Sounding their horns at top volume, of course, because Hanoi is very crowded, even with small homes right on the edge of the railway tracks, so running trains through there was dangerous.
We loved living at Tong Duy Tan, but the noise at night was unbearable, so after a year we moved to To Hien Thanh, which was more modern and a bit nearer to the Plan office. I could bicycle (carefully!) to work from To Hien Thanh, and was able to jog many times per week around Lenin Park, which was an oasis of green (but with pungent water) in the city. We lived at To Hien Thanh for three years.
Plan’s office was on Tran Nhan Tong, right across from the city circus (which became a tongue-in-cheek metaphor, funny but Plan Viet Nam was never that crazy) and next to the newish Nikko Hotel. We had two floors at the top of a fairly modern building.
Later, working with ChildFund Australia, I would return many times to Hanoi, so I will update this map with landmarks from that time, later on in this blog series…
Jean ended up having some very interesting jobs in Hanoi – teaching English at the Hanoi International School, helping in the HR section of the new Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel, and doing some training as a consultant.
As I began working as Country Director for Plan in Viet Nam, one very special connection was renewed. Loyal readers of this blog series will remember a reference to my fellow Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador, Chris Gilson. Chris had been a water promoter in the same group (“Omnibus 44”), assigned to Guaranda in Bolivar Province. Here are Chris and I during Peace Corps training:
After finishing Peace Corps, Chris had gotten a masters degree at the Fletcher School of Tufts University, married Jean, and had two children (Katie and Tommy.) Chris had joined Catholic Relief Services (CRS), having a few roles in their Baltimore headquarters, including overseeing their Cuba work. Chris had visited Quito when Jean and I were living there, on a work trip, and we got together then.
Chris and I had occasionally stayed in touch over the years.
So imagine my surprise when, after just a couple of months in Hanoi, I received a memo from CRS announcing the arrival of their new Country Director for Viet Nam, the one-and-only Chris Gilson! I showed up at his welcome reception, to his shock.
Chris and Jean stayed in Viet Nam longer than Jean and I did, around six years I think. It was great having my old friend there, learning about the country together and building our connection. While Chris ably ran CRS’s work in-country (and in Laos), his wife Jean played the key role in establishing the first post-war USAID presence in Viet Nam.
I will describe Plan’s work in Viet Nam, and the team I worked with, in the next few blog entries. For now, I just want to note how strong my affinity with Viet Nam, and the Vietnamese people, became. Of course, as an American living and working there, it was impossible to escape the shadow of my country’s tragic involvement with the country but I came to find that, unlike the US, in many ways the Vietnamese people had moved forward and were thriving, optimistic, and full of energy.
So, for example, aside from one encounter on the street in Hanoi, early in our time there, I never felt anything but welcome and appreciated. Just the opposite, in fact. Which struck me, and strikes me still, as a miracle, given that we killed 3 million of their people in a proxy Cold-War conflict in which we fought on the wrong side.
But there were other echoes of that history of conflict. For example, all of the partners what Plan worked with during my time there, from central-government level all the way to our project work at commune level was with government or “less-governmental organizations” (such as the Youth Union, the Women’s Union, etc.) whose leaders had often fought on the other side of the “American” War.
Three anecdotes that I always go back to when I think about having been an American working in Viet Nam during those years. Plan’s work was overseen, at central level, by the “People’s Aid Coordinating Committee,” known as “PACCOM.” Initially, my counterpart there was a middle-aged man whose English-language skills were quite amazing. One day, at lunch, I asked him how he became so fluent, and his answer was a bit chilling: as a young man he had been a translator at the Hanoi prison (which became know in the West as the “Hanoi Hilton”), assisting the interrogation of American POWs. That explained it! But it led me to imagine the scenes that he had witnessed as a very young man.
One of my closer relationships with local officials was with a great guy, Mr Truong Si Tien, who was the Vice Chairman of the Quang Tri People’s Committee. For some reason, we really hit it off, which was very productive for Plan of course. He had fought for the Viet Cong forces, which took control over Quang Tri in 1972 and never relinquished it.
There came a time that we had a vacancy in our leadership in Quang Tri province, and one day I received a resume from Mr. Tien. He had never suggested any candidates for Plan before that, so I took the resume that he sent me very seriously. The candidate had worked for USAID during the war, and there was a long gap in his resume after 1975 until fairly soon before our vacancy came up – he was working for the UN office in the central region of Viet Nam. My sense was that this person was very special – he would have been marginalized after the war, having worked with the American government, but now I had a very senior government official, who I had faith in, recommending him to me. I had to interview this guy!
And what a story he had! He walked into the interview with a serious limp, which he later explained to me was caused by stepping on a land mine just after the war ended. Apparently, many people who had worked with the Americans in the war were put to work clearing landmines with bamboo poles… After that, he spent a decade or more repairing raincoats in the Dong Ha market. Imagine the loss of human potential! Highly educated, fluent English – repairing raincoats. But he worked his way out of his predicament, even having lost a foot, and ended up with a very good job and the backing of a senior government official. An amazing guy, a heartbreaking story.
I wish we could have hired him, but (for other reasons) he wasn’t the most suitable candidate… That experience made me reflect on the sorrow of that war. And I often felt very privileged to work in Viet Nam, as an American, to be able to do my small bit to help restore a little bit of the harm done in my country’s fundamentally wrong and corrupt war.
Finally, an anecdote from September 11, 2001. I ended up serving on the “Steering Committee” for the NGO Resource Center, which was a joint government/INGO body that supported foreign NGOs working in Viet Ham. There were four elected INGO representatives on the Steering Committee, and four government representatives. Because PACCOM was a committee under the umbrella “Viet Nam Union of Friendship Organizations” (“VUFO”), the NGO Resource Center Steering Committee related indirectly to the chairman of VUFO, Mr Vu Xuan Hong (who I would encounter again later, when I was working from Australia, and come to like and respect.) Mr Hong was a very senior member of the government, holding rank equivalent to a Minister.
One day, in late September, 2001, the four foreign members of the Steering Committee received invitations to have lunch with Mr Hong. This had never happened before. Given his seniority in the government, we were all very curious and interested, and looked forward to the meeting. He booked a private room right on the Hoan Kiem Lake, at a restaurant known for traditional Vietnamese food.
After lunch, Mr Hong got down to business. He wanted to share something with us that had just happened. He had just received the text of a speech given by Colin Powell, then US Secretary of State. The speech had been delivered in Washington, to an invited group comprising the heads of US-based international NGOs.
“We’ve never received anything like this before,” Mr Hong said, “and so we paid attention.” Plus, he went on to explain, the speech had just been given a few days before, and was accompanied by a Vietnamese-language translation, parallel to the English-language text.
“That has certainly never happened before, so we paid very close attention,” he said.
In that speech, given just a few days after September 11th, Colin Powell had outlined the US government’s response to the attacks, and went on to refer to international NGOs as “our government’s boots on the ground.”
“So, we get it,” said Mr Hong. “It’s clear to us. We get the message.” Colin Powell, an ex-General, ex-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, referring to American NGOs working in Viet Nam as “boots on the ground” – this was an unfortunate message being given to a high official in the Vietnamese government!
Even though he was fluent in English, and had plenty of experience working with American agencies, I don’t think that Mr Hong understood that Colin Powell was using “boots on the ground” as a metaphor, and didn’t mean to say that American NGOs were part of a US military force. But decades of history got in the way, and that message didn’t make it any easier for US-based NGOs to build trust with the Vietnamese government. The shared, and tragic, history of relations between our nations got in the way of understanding each other.
Even though I am American, Plan was based in the UK and was supported through PACCOM’s European Desk. So, at least partially, I was shielded from the little blip in mistrust that Colin Powell’s speech, and the way it was communicated to the Vietnamese government, caused.
But Viet Nam is a country, not a war. Stay tuned for upcoming blogs on what it was like working with the amazing Vietnamese people, what Plan did in those years, and how we restructured our operation to increase grant income.
Before closing, here is a ten-minute video collage, taken from many hours of film that I took during those years. It’ll give you a flavor for the country, and Plan’s great team.
Here are links to earlier blogs in this series – climbing 48 New Hampshire peaks and reflecting on a career in international development:
- Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
- Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
- Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
- Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
- Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
- Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
- East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
- Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
- Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!;
- North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International;
- Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
- North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
- South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
- Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
- Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
- Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters.