by Janet Umble Reedy,
MCC Thailand Country Representative, 1987-1990
MCC Vietnam Country Representative, 1990-1992
When I was growing up, Hà Nội was the capital of a faraway foreign country. A Communist country at that. If I thought about it at all, it evoked images of an alien, even sinister, place. Later, when I was a young adult, my government and Hà Nội were enemies. As portrayed by the American press, the “Việt Công” were evil killers. On the other hand, I also knew people who had visited Hà Nội in the pursuit of peace.
Our family moved to Bangkok with MCC in 1987. I worked as MCC representative to Thailand, while Stan began working as MCC Việt Nam representative, making trips to Việt Nam about four times a year. In January, 1990, MCC was allowed to open an office in Việt Nam and we moved to Hà Nội. The war was already fifteen years in the past, but the U.S. continued to enforce a trade embargo, meaning aid from institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank was not available. Opportunities for foreign trade were severely limited; not just trade with the U.S. was affected, but also with U.S. allies, who were almost all unwilling to risk repercussions from the U.S. by challenging the embargo. Most imported products were from the Soviet Union or China. There were no diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Việt Nam. Only four years earlier, in 1986, the government had officially begun to allow, and even encourage, private enterprise.
When we arrived, public buildings and private homes were crumbling. Almost everyone was poor. If people had money, they needed to be sure they didn’t appear to be rich. There were no functioning traffic lights in Hà Nội. The few cars were mostly black or white Soviet Volgas or Ladas. Traffic mainly consisted of bicycles, complemented by a growing number of motorcycles. There was no internet access. It was impossible to make a phone call from the U.S. to Việt Nam, not because the technology was lacking—we could call from Hà Nội to the States—but because of the embargo. In the absence of diplomatic relations with the U.S., we dealt directly the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education. It was our perception that MOFA was eager to cultivate a relationship with Americans, but the Ministry of the Interior was more cautious. At least in some quarters we were assumed to represent the CIA. There were no Việt Namese NGOs, and the concept of an NGO was not well understood, so MCC mainly partnered with universities, health departments, and provincial and local Peoples’ Committees.
When we first arrived, most westerners in Việt Nam were from the Soviet Union. When we walked down the street, children would chant, “Liên Xô, Liên Xô!”—soviet, soviet! People began conversations by asking us “are you French or Soviet?” Usually they were incredulous, but mainly positive, when we replied that we were Americans.
One day I was sitting on a tiny stool on the sidewalk at the edge of Ba Đình Square, watching a man repair my bicycle tire. Stan and I had a pair of identical blue Chinese bicycles that were our means of transportation around the city, and it seemed that the tires were always going flat and needing repair. The repairman said to me, “are you Soviet or French?” When I said that I was an American, he clearly didn’t believe me. When he was finally persuaded, his response was, “very good! America is better than China.” By the time we left Hà Nội, the Soviet Union had fallen apart and most of the Soviets had left. On the street, children’s chants changed to “Hallo. Hallo. What you name?”
Before living in Hà Nội, we had been in Bangkok for two and a half years. We had been waiting for MCC to get permission to open an office in Hà Nội, and we moved to Hà Nội, upon the government’s instructions, with visas for language study while they worked out the guidelines for international NGOs. We first lived at the La Thành Hotel. People who came to visit us were questioned at the front entrance and were not always allowed in. Eventually we received permission to look for a space where we could both live and have an office. There was a relatively small supply of buildings whose owners had renovated and were authorized to rent to foreigners. We chose a small building—where we lived in a two-room apartment on the second floor and had our office on the first floor—in a compound occupied by an extended family: an elderly widow and some of her adult children and their children. A daughter-in-law served as our landlady. They soon became our extended family. One of the granddaughters was our cook, as well as an informal language and cultural “coach.” Another granddaughter was studying English, and we spent time with her in English conversation in exchange for her speaking Vietnamese with us. The family is now scattered throughout Canada and the U.S. as well as Việt Nam, and we still exchange visits with them.
This house and office was on Cao Bá Quát Street, not far from the city center, and just a few years ago it was sold, torn down, and replaced by a fish restaurant. I still have fond memories of our time in that house.
While looking out our upstairs window, I wrote this in my journal:
Early in the morning and late at night are my favorite times to look down on the street from our balcony to watch the tiny piece of Hà Nội that is below. Across the street there is a daycare center where parents drop off their children. Some kids hop off the back of the bicycle and run inside with never a backward glance. Others are clingy and cry long after the parent, pedaling guiltily down the street, is gone. There is also a sign advertising a traditional medicine and acupuncture practice, and I see many people walking in and out. Early in the morning the motorcycle washing establishments—there are 16 of them—open for business, creating a noisy din with their air hoses drying off the bikes. Customers drink tea while they wait. The tea stall in the alley opens early, and some mornings there are noodles for breakfast. Then there are the assorted people just passing by: bread, fruit, and sticky rice venders with their wares on their heads or suspended from shoulder poles. Small tractors pull loads of sand or brick or lime, and assorted bikes and motorcycles take shortcuts via this street. One morning, the apprehending and roughing-up of a would-be bicycle thief added a lot of excitement to the street in front of the daycare center.
We were not the only MCC workers in Việt Nam in 1990: Miriam Hershberger was the first MCC worker to reside in Việt Nam after 1976. She had moved to Hà Nội about six months before we did, in the fall of 1989, and she was teaching at what was then called the Hà Nội Foreign Language College (it is now known as the University of Languages and International Studies). At the request of the College, Miriam taught a course called “Newspaper Reading.” She was asked to teach this class because she had access to foreign English language newspapers, which were not generally available in Việt Nam at the time.
At the end of the school year in spring 1990, on the one-year anniversary of the end of Chinese student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, one day after Miriam’s final day of classes for the year, there was a knock on her door early in the morning. Her apartment was searched by police. She was detained, questioned for a day, and then put on a plane to Bangkok.
During the 24 hours that she was detained, she was questioned intensely about two articles: one from the Manchester Guardian, written by a journalist considered friendly to Việt Nam, and one from the Asia Yearbook. She was also questioned about things she had written in her journal—which was primarily a personal spiritual record—and notes she had taken at a lecture by a western ambassador she had attended as part of her orientation to Việt Nam. Her questioners insisted that since she had “only” 20 hours of classroom instruction per week she was therefore a part-time instructor, insinuating that she must be filling another secret role, likely an illegal one. They lifted sentences out of context from letters she had received to try to support this claim. Miriam felt that things she wrote and said were either not understood due to poor translation or were deliberately distorted. One example of this: a friend who wrote to her asked her to check the postmark of the letter to see how long it had taken to reach her. This was interpreted as sending a secret spy message through the postmark.
Miriam was not allowed to contact us or the Foreign Language College administration before she was deported. Although we subsequently met with officials from various ministries and departments, we were never able to speak with anyone who claimed to have any information about the charges against Miriam. Everyone suggested that we speak with Ministry of Interior officials who actually carried out the questioning and the deportation, but our requests for such a meeting were never answered. The most specific information we received came from articles in Vietnamese newspapers, charging her with “espionage” and “promoting anti-socialist propaganda.”
We were told repeatedly that the action taken against Miriam should not be seen as an action against MCC or against foreign NGOs. Several weeks after the deportation, PACCOM arranged a ceremony for the formal reception of a shipment of MCC relief supplies. Several high-ranking officials, as well as news media representatives, were present. This was explained to us, unofficially, as an attempt to make things right with MCC.
Shortly after this difficult episode, MCC hired its first Vietnamese staff person. PACCOM, the government organization that had oversight over international NGOs, sent us three candidates, and Lê Anh Kiệt was clearly the best fit. He had previously worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and had earlier served in the foreign ministry of the People’s Revolutionary Government. He was originally from Quảng Ngãi, where he had been a school teacher, and he had gone north in 1954 on behalf of the revolution (it’s estimated that about 500,000 Việt Namese moved north in 1954 at the end of the war for independence against France as a part of ‘regrouping;’ at the same time, about 1.5 million people moved south).
Bác Kiệt, as we came to call him—bác is an honorific meaning ‘uncle’—was very well connected. Given the political climate of the time, we were initially unsure of his loyalties. Was he monitoring us, or was he working for us? We soon realized that he was an enthusiastic advocate for MCC’s work, and he did a better job of introducing us and explaining MCC to his fellow Vietnamese than we could do ourselves. We became good friends and were often invited to his home. Bác Kiệt loved to tell jokes and play with words. Our Vietnamese wasn’t good enough to understand many of the jokes, and we quickly learned that translated jokes don’t pack the same punch as they do in their original language. Bác Kiệt, though, would continue to try to explain jokes to us, thinking that if he explained often enough surely we would finally understand the humor. We were very sorry to hear of Bác Kiệt’s passing in 2019.
Our work in Việt Nam at that time diverged from the typical MCC pattern, where MCC would work directly with local NGOs and church organizations. Instead, we worked through PACCOM, which put us in contact with People’s Committees or mass organizations such as Women’s Unions or universities. We were always a little uncomfortable, thinking that perhaps too much of our time was spent with officials and educated people and not enough with “the people,” especially the rural and poor people MCC strives to help. We had to get permission to travel to visit projects, and it was unusual for us to be allowed to spend more than a few hours in a village. One time, after many attempts of asking, we were given permission to stay the night in a village where MCC had a project—but all the local people, and even Bác Kiệt, were doubtful that we could handle the village conditions. We slept on a wide and beautifully-finished wooden slab with mosquito netting. The next morning it was the talk of the village that the Americans, accustomed to a luxurious life, could sleep on a village bed and eat village food. We joked that sleeping there may have been the most significant thing we ever did for U.S.-Việt Nam reconciliation.
One evening, early in our time in Hà Nội, we were invited to dinner by a group of beekeepers MCC was assisting. I wrote about that evening that
we had a very interesting conversation about lots of things, including the changes in the economic policies and relations with the U.S. When it was all over, we learned that the president of the board that oversees this project whom we had been talking with all evening was the former vice-chairman of the Hà Nội People’s Committee. How can we worry about working with the ‘people,’ as contrasted to ‘government officials,’ when the very same officials turn out to be very warm and open people?”
At the time of our first Thanksgiving in Hà Nội, there were a total of 24 Americans in the whole city. We decided to gather at a hotel for a potluck turkey dinner. The mother of the Vietnamese wife of an American UN employee found some turkeys, which were roasted by several of us who had ovens. Permission for this gathering had been arranged with the owner of the hotel and cleared with the staff, but during the evening the shift changed and the new shift hadn’t been informed about our event. This gathering of foreigners seemed suspicious to them, and they quickly called the police. Our Vietnamese friends attending the holiday party had to explain that we were celebrating a holiday, like our version of Tết, and eventually the authorities were persuaded that we were not up to anything subversive. They allowed the party to continue.
People were curious about us and incredibly hospitable. A typical experience once happened when we were visiting a project in the south and were taken to the home of a family that lived near the Củ Chi Tunnels. They hadn’t been told that we were Americans, and when they found out, they were very excited. The hostess sat down with us and made an impromptu speech about Vietnamese-American friendship. Then she showered us with gifts of mangoes and cashews from her own trees.
Another time I was in the market with my college-age daughter, who was visiting from the U.S.; she was in search of a pair of plastic sandals. As usual, the vendor asked if we were Soviet or French. Then she asked if we were tourists. I said that we worked for an aid organization. The vendor called out to a friend who had asked about us from across the way, saying “They are here to repair war damage.” And then, as if to let me know that it was only right that I should be doing that, she said, “The Americans dropped lots of bombs on Việt Nam, and lots of people died because of those bombs.” She was friendly and polite, but clearly wanted to make sure that I understood the suffering that my country had caused. When people made reference to the suffering of the war like this, they usually were quick to add that it was time to put the bitterness of the war behind us.
Once on a project visit Stan was taken to the home of a poor fisherman in a fishing village. Though the visit had not been expected, the fisherman immediately sent his son out to the crab traps when Stan arrived. While his wife was boiling the crabs, he toasted strips of eel over a small alcohol burner and proudly offered this delicious meal to his American guest.
On the other hand, we were once visiting a village where a shipment of MCC quilts had been distributed. We were taken to the home of a widow whose husband had died in the war. Apparently, she hadn’t been informed that we would be coming, and when she opened the door and saw us she burst into tears. Our hosts talked with her, and we learned that she was frightened to see western faces at her door, fearing that we had come to harm her.
In those days, the Metropole Hotel was called Thống Nhất—reunification—and it had become quite shabby in comparison to its former glory during French times. The plumbing was unreliable, and in one of the lobby bathrooms the water ran continuously. One of the first times we ate in the dining room a rat ran over the table next to our. The serving staff were usually busy talking to each other and often made us feel that we were intruding when we interrupted their conversations to order food. Despite these challenges, it remained a gathering place for international visitors. We often parked our bicycles there and went in to see if there might be people we wanted to talk to. After it was renovated and became the Metropole again, we stopped in to look it over. When we told Vietnamese friends that we had been there, they jokingly asked us “how much did they charge you for admission?” They assured us that the prices there were way beyond their capability to pay, and that they would not have been allowed to enter even if they had wanted to.
One year during Advent we gathered with a Catholic couple who worked for another NGO each Sunday evening to light the candles on our Advent wreath. A few other folks heard about this and joined us, and we continued meeting on Sunday evenings for informal worship, discussion, and a meal even after Advent ended. The group slowly grew over time, and when a priest came to town he joined us and began to celebrate the Eucharist. This drew a much larger group. This happened just before we finished our term and returned to the U.S., but subsequent MCC workers provided various forms of informal leadership as the group continued to grow. The still-active Hà Nội International Church traces its origin to this small group.
October was my favorite month in north Việt Nam. I wrote in my journal that
“October is the best time of year in north Việt Nam. It is warm and sunny, but not too hot. The damp chill of winter still seems far away. The farmers are busy harvesting rice. The roads are covered with stalks of newly harvested rice, threshed by the cars that drive over it. Recently we arrived in a village in the late afternoon, a mellow time of day when people are coming home and relaxing before dark. The smell of straw was pungent, the light was soft, the children were playing, and neighbors were visiting. In January, I sometimes wonder if anything can be more harsh than life in a north Vietnamese village. In October, I think no place is more idyllic.”
Our time in Việt Nam was a time of many changes: the introduction of stoplights and increasing motorcycle and car traffic, the renovation of old buildings and construction of many new ones, the increasing numbers of western tourists and businesspeople willing to challenge the trade embargo, the growing openness to the West, and eventually the ability to make a telephone call to Việt Nam from the U.S. Toward the end of our time, friends who were eating dinner at our house commented that if they had come over for dinner a few years earlier the police would have questioned them as to why they were there. "Việt Nam is now an ordinary country,” one of them said. When we visited Việt Nam a few years later, we found our friends enjoying a much-improved standard of living as foreign trade and investment increased.
During our time in Việt Nam, when we were returning to the U.S. for a short visit, we asked people what message they would like to send to our friends in America. We heard things such as “It is time to put the past behind us. We have no bitterness to Americans.” “We don’t have any POWs now. We can’t feed all our own people. Why would we want to try to feed Americans?” “We need your help to rebuild our country.” “Your country is so powerful and ours is so small and poor. Why does your government treat us so badly?”
Working in Việt Nam was not always easy. People did not always understand that we were there as private individuals, rather than representatives of the U.S. government. Heightened tensions in relations between the two governments resulted in people distrusting us. We dealt with new-to-us cultural expectations. Though these cultural differences were often enriching and one of the pleasures of working in Việt Nam, they could also lead to misunderstandings. We sometimes talked about “peeling the onion”—the longer we were there, and the more we understood, the more we realized we didn’t understand. People didn’t always realize that what seemed so clear to them about their culture could be puzzling to us. If we didn’t know the questions to ask, we didn’t get any answers. Some people were reluctant to share information with us, fearing that we might somehow use it against them.
We would often sit on our rooftop in the evenings, listening to the sounds of the city and reflecting on the incredible opportunity it was for us to be present in Việt Nam during that time. We left with images of a people who were working hard to overcome the difficulties of the war and the economy. We left with memories of friends and the warm hospitality they offered. We learned to see the perspective of people whose life experiences had been so different from our own, and yet with whom we shared values and hopes for the future. We left with hope for their future.
One of the common evening sounds in our neighborhood on Cao Bá Quát Street was a neighbor playing a recording of Stevie Wonder singing the song “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” This poem grew out of hearing that song.
I Wonder, Stevie Wonder
I wonder, Stevie Wonder, if you know that every night
you call to say you love me
along with all the other people in this neighborhood.
Someone down the street puts on the tape
and you sing out in the darkness
though few people here can understand the words.
This is no typical American neighborhood.
It’s not America at all, in fact.
It’s Hà Nội, Việt Nam, where sixteen years ago we won a war
and for our trouble got a trade embargo going against us.
The Việt Nam Syndrome was buried in the desert sand we’ve heard.
Well, if that’s true, why can we only hear you on that tape,
pirated, who knows how many times,
throughout the width and length of Việt Nam?
You don’t owe my neighborhood a thing.
You might say we owe you for all the times we’ve heard you sing
for which you didn’t get a cent,
but you’re the one who’s calling and you can’t touch our money
(not that we have enough to make it worth your while).
That’s one thing a trade embargo means.
So, Stevie Wonder, the war’s been over sixteen years
but that wretched trade embargo still keeps us beyond the reach
of the good life we’ve heard is over there.
People here still laugh and cry
even though we’re busy working at three jobs,
trying to ignore the dingy walls and broken shutters,
the inconvenience of potholes on the roads
and carrying water up three flights of stairs,
as long as our children have enough to eat
and the bicycle tires are reasonably intact so we can get to work.
And we are touched when someone far away professes love.
We just wish you could be more tangible.
Another song writer, whose name I’ve long forgotten,
said that it’s a sin to tell a lie.
About saying you love someone when you don’t, he meant.
It wasn’t original with him, of course.
He got it from the Ten Commandments
(you’re not the only one whose work was plagiarized).
I can’t hold you responsible for everything your country does.
One day years ago you stood up and sang a song
and you never knew that you were calling up a bunch of Việt Namese.
But every time I hear your voice,
I wonder, Stevie Wonder, what you would do
if you really knew
the problems of the people in my neighborhood.