Green Bean Ice Cream

by  Bruce and Betsy Headrick McCrae,

MCC Vietnam Country Representatives, 1993-1998

We were living in Belgium when we decided we would like to do another term of service with MCC. Betsy was previously with MCC in Akron and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Bruce had served in the DRC with Habitat for Humanity. We spoke French. We could get by in Spanish. Bruce spoke German. We would be happy to return to Africa or stay in Europe. We said so to MCC. 


MCC’s response was “how about Việt Nam? They speak French there.” We laughed. Việt Nam was not on our radar screen. But our radar screen was about to be expanded. We eventually said yes.


We and our two daughters—Rita and Ellen, nine and six at the time—arrived in Hà Nội in June 1993. Mr. Kiệt, an MCC employee, met us at the airport. He was amazed at the amount of luggage we had. We were amazed by the incredible heat and humidity. And the smells, the noise, the number of bicycles—everything. We settled into our new home on Hàng Lược street in the middle of the old city. It was like living in surround sound. We had to shout our bedtime stories for the girls. And then there were the pigs being slaughtered out back—it was quite the overload on the senses.


Fortunately, we were soon able to move—but this was not an easy thing to arrange. At that time there were only certain places where foreigners could live, but resourceful Mr. Kiệt managed to find two houses side-by-side on a side street in Đống Đa which we could rent. One house became the new MCC office, and we lived in the other. It was quiet—or relatively so. There was a bit of a front courtyard with greenery. It felt like paradise compared to Hàng Lược. Around the time we moved, our daughters began to adjust to new foods—bún was not spaghetti, but that became okay. Green bean ice cream—a flavor and texture once as far off our radar screen as Việt Nam used to be—became a favorite treat. 

We had much to learn and to adjust to:

 

  • The language. Enough said.
     

  • Việt Nam was still just beginning to open up to foreigners, other than Swedes and Russians, when we arrived. The U.S. embargo was still in place. Things were very tightly controlled.
     

  • There were virtually no local NGOs with whom MCC would typically work. Our partners were, instead, government organizations. 
     

  • Though there are Vietnamese Mennonites and Vietnamese Christians of other denominations, we were not permitted to do anything with them. Instead, we worshipped with a wonderful ecumenical group of foreigners. 

  • International NGOs were very suspect. We learned to tread carefully. We INGOs were drawn to each other. At first there were only a few of us, and we knew everyone. The number grew, and we were involved in setting up sector groups and strengthening the NGO Resource Center. MCC enjoyed a kind of special status among NGOs: government officials remembered that we had stayed after the end of the war in 1975.  This meant a lot to them, and to us.

Life progressed and began to feel somewhat normal. Our girls settled into attending the United Nations International School (UNIS), which was struggling to find stability—Rita had four different teachers during fourth-grade. At MCC, we hired Vietnamese staff and placed Western service workers. We visited projects, ate lots of good—though sometimes very new—food, and learned to fend off the trăm phần trăm—literally translated 100%, but meaning bottoms up—drinking game. We wore gloves and coats in the office as winter came—who knew we would need to do that?—and got used to being wet in the constant drizzle, at least when it wasn’t smotheringly hot. We experienced the last deafening Tết in Hà Nội before firecrackers were banned.


It was a rare privilege to be present during this time of major change. English had recently replaced Russian as the foreign language of choice. The centrally planned economy began to make way for free(r) markets. We saw entrepreneurial energy, bottled up for years, begin to break loose. The U.S. embargo came to an end in 1994, and the door that had cracked open in 1986 opened wider still. Though people our age—we were in our 40s—were physically much smaller than us because of years of malnutrition, their children were growing as tall as ours. There were constantly new products and possibilities. We and our daughters were delighted when Vina Milk ice cream bars—made with real milk!—covered in waxy chocolate appeared. What a treat! This was progress!


It felt good to be part of these changes. MCC supported community development projects with farmer’s unions, women’s unions, and people’s committees. We supplied English teachers to schools and an occupational therapist to a local hospital. We supported the development and marketing of handicrafts. We provided emergency aid after devastating storms. 


Some projects and placements failed. Others were quite successful. It was a normal, complicated, at times frustrating, but mostly quite satisfying, MCC country program life.


Once toward the end of our five years we were visiting Ho Chi Minh City. What a modern metropolis it was! We were hanging out with some foreigners we knew who were relatively newly arrived. We stopped along the street to buy ice cream. “Thank goodness we can now buy Wall’s Ice Cream bars,” they said. “Those Vina Milk bars are awful!” 


Our family looked at each other and sighed. We still remembered our green bean ice cream and we thought the Vina Milk bars were great. We were living in the past—apparently. Things really had changed. Life had moved on. It helped us realize that perhaps it was time for us to go home.


Our five years in Việt Nam were truly a gift—a gift of a whole previously unknown world opening up to us. A gift of a seeing, close-up, a very different, very old, very intricate and established worldview, a gift of disequilibrium and new understandings. We are grateful to Earl and Pat Hostetter Martin, then MCC East Asia Area Directors, who saw this possibility for us in 1992 and asked, seemingly out of the blue, what about Việt Nam?


We left Việt Nam in 1998 but continued to work for MCC. We moved to Akron, Pennsylvania—home of MCC’s American offices. Bruce worked as Director of Administration and Resources from 1998-2007. Betsy was East Asia Area Director from 1998-2004. In 2007, we moved to Colorado, where Betsy was pastor of Glennon Heights Mennonite Church in Lakewood for 10 years, while Bruce worked for International Development Enterprises (iDE). 


Now we are in our mid-60s and we’re back with MCC, living in Kigali, Rwanda, and working together as Area Directors for Central and West Africa, where our knowledge of French actually comes in handy unlike in Việt Nam. Our daughters are grown, married, and have kids of their own. They treasure their years in Việt Nam and would still enjoy a good Vina Milk ice cream bar if given the chance. They still enjoy phở for breakfast.