MCC and Vietnam in the 1980s
by Louise Buhler
MCC Country Representative for Vietnam, 1981-1987
Some Brief Background
MCC appointed me its representative for Việt Nam in the fall of 1981. I was 36 years old. Until our departure for Asia, I worked as a lecturer at the University of Saskatchewan. Like many students and faculty at Canadian universities, I had joined anti-Việt Nam War protests and was aware, at least to some extent, of MCCs engagement in South Việt Nam during the war.
I was a somewhat unlikely choice for this position. MCC had sent personnel to Việt Nam starting in 1954 and continued to do so throughout the war. Hence, there was a large pool of north American Mennonites who had worked in Việt Nam — people who knew the culture, language, and had Vietnamese contacts. For me, Việt Nam was completely new.
In retrospect, the lack of pre-1975 Việt Nam experience may have been an advantage — no contacts, no agenda, and less baggage that could be seen as suspect. Maybe it was also an advantage that I was Canadian, as opposed to American. The U.S. government was bitter in defeat, whereas the initial stance of the Canadian government to the new Việt Nam was somewhat sympathetic. Canada had established formal diplomatic relations with North Việt Nam in 1973 and extended that recognition to the government of the united Việt Nam in 1975. Canada had also generated some good will in Việt Nam as a member of the International Control Commission (ICC), which was tasked to oversee the implementation of the 1954 Geneva Accords.
Despite the U.S.-led embargo, Canada and some other western countries provided a significant amount of humanitarian and reconstruction assistance to Việt Nam immediately after the war ended. Bill Janzen, the head of the MCC office in Ottawa, developed a good working relationship with officials in the Vietnamese Embassy and played an active role in advocating for Canadian Government assistance to Việt Nam. He negotiated several MCC material aid shipments between 1975 and 1980 and helped, together with Albert Lobe, who was serving as MCC Asia Secretary at the time, to organize a number of MCC delegations to Việt Nam to follow-up on these shipments and to explore possibilities for further engagement.
Unfortunately, these MCC moves toward building relations were seriously challenged in 1979 when Việt Nam invaded Cambodia. The Canadian Government stopped its aid program; however, unlike the U.S., Canada did not oppose Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) like MCC giving aid to Việt Nam, provided they used their own funds (1). The Vietnamese Embassy in Ottawa was closed. Thousands of “boat people” fleeing Việt Nam were starting to arrive in Canada. Việt Nam found itself seriously isolated and a “pariah” among western donors.
Although the Canadian Government had cut off its relations with Việt Nam, interestingly, during my early trips to Việt Nam, officials often asked about Pierre Trudeau, Canadian Prime Minster from 1981 to 1984, as they respected his intelligence, liked his flair, and were intrigued by his much younger wife, Margaret (2). Surprising, also, was an occasion in July, 1985, when I was on a project visit to central Việt Nam with Canadian water engineers Herb Wiebe and Vic Galley, and the Chairman of the People’s Committee of Bình Trị Thiên Province (3) — Mr. Phạm Bá Diễn — hosted a reception for us to celebrate Canada’s National Day on July 1st. I don’t think he realized that our level of patriotism did not in any way match that of the Vietnamese. Nevertheless, it was a touching event.
(1) The U.S.-led embargo ended in 1990. Throughout my tenure (1981 to 1987), funding for MCC assistance to Việt Nam came largely via MCC Canada; however, because MCC was one of very few NGOs with access to Việt Nam, other agencies offered us grants. By 1987, more than half of the money for MCC projects in Việt Nam came from Brot fur die Welt, Christoffel Blindenmission (both German organizations), the U.S./Việt Nam Friendship Association, the Christopher Reynolds Foundation, John McAuliff’s Group from Harvard University, and others.
(2) The fascination with the Trudeaus was still there when I visited Việt Nam shortly after Justin Trudeau became Prime Minister in 2015. Vietnamese friends I met had photos of Trudeau and his wife on their cell phones, and Vietnamese women very much liked Trudeau’s quote regarding gender balance — because it's 2015.
(3) Bình Trị Thiên was later divided into three Provinces.
(4) MCC also supported the resettlement of refugees in the U.S., but it was coordinated domestically.
Left to right: Herb Wiebe, Louise Buhler, Mr. Doanh (Chairman of Bình Trị Thiên People’s Committee), Vic Galley, Mr. Diễn and other BTT officials. A celebration for Canada Day organized by the Provincial People’s Committee. July 1, 1985.
My husband Jake, myself, and our two young daughters, Elizabeth and Sarah, moved to Thailand in August of 1981. Our MCC term was for three years. As there was no possibility of setting up an office in Việt Nam, I worked out of the MCC office in Bangkok — an office that was at the same time supporting programs for the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees to Canada (4).
The MCC Bangkok office in many ways reflected a conflicted MCC. The debate centered around whether our efforts to resettle refugees fleeing a communist regime contradicted, or even countered, our attempts to provide assistance to the same communist regime they were fleeing. Should MCC invest time and money in resettling refugees? Or should we use our resources to better the conditions in Việt Nam, thus decreasing the immigration pull factor? Many of the Vietnamese who settled in Canada and the U.S., as well as some of MCC’s constituents, were opposed to the Hà Nội Government and opposed MCC supporting any projects inside Việt Nam. Giving aid was seen as a sign of alliance with the communist regime. Others wanted MCC to support and act in solidarity with the new united Việt Nam. This debate pointed to some differences in perspective between MCC Canada and MCC Akron.
Priorities for MCC’s engagement in post-war Việt Nam also raised questions. Should the focus be on reconciliation — acknowledging guilt, harm done, the need for healing, and putting pressure on North American politicians to lift the embargo, aka a mostly-political agenda? Or should it be on meeting basic needs and rebuilding what had been destroyed, aka a more economic focus? Should we focus on presence, or praxis? Could we do both with integrity? What was MCC hoping to accomplish? What did Việt Nam want? And what would be possible?
(4) MCC also supported the resettlement of refugees in the U.S., but it was coordinated domestically.
My First Trip to Việt Nam
My first trip to Việt Nam took place in May, 1982. I was accompanied by MCC Asia Secretary Bert Lobe, MCC Laos Representative Titus Peachey, and technical expert Al Geiser. We were hosted by the Committee for Aid Management and Reception (Aidrecep), the organization designated by the Vietnamese Government to deal with foreign non-government assistance. Not only were we hosted, we were guests, with all our meals, accommodation, and internal transportation provided for by the government. Mr. Lê Văn, Vice-President of Aidrecep — a gentle, sophisticated man who spoke Russian, French, and English in addition to Vietnamese — Mr. Kỳ, an interpreter, and a number of other officials accompanied us throughout our entire time in Việt Nam.
Few foreigners were allowed to enter Việt Nam in the early 1980s. Visas were extremely hard to get, and flights into Việt Nam were very limited. Upon arrival at the small Nội Bài Airport, stern-looking uniformed officers sitting in wooden cubicles took our passports. The airport procedures were onerous: many forms had to be filled out, photos presented, all luggage was thoroughly examined, and all money was counted. Once inside the country, travel was seriously restricted and visitors were carefully monitored. Security was tight! Communication with Thailand, Canada or anywhere was almost impossible, even in cases of emergency (5). Other than neighborhood public loud-speaker announcements in the early morning, information seemed limited and restricted.
The reasons for this first trip were to 1) introduce me as MCC’s Representative for Việt Nam based in Bangkok, 2) explore possible areas of humanitarian and development assistance, and 3) establish relationships in the post-war environment — obviously an environment very different from the one MCC volunteers worked in pre-1975 in South Việt Nam.
Our itinerary consisted of meetings with numerous government officials, including a very cordial high-level meeting with the Honorable Hà Văn Lầu, Vice-Secretary of Foreign Affairs. Mr. Lầu gave an emotional appeal for Canada and the U.S. to change their policy toward Việt Nam. We met with the Union of Peace, Solidarity, and Friendship (Mr. Đỗ Xuân Oanh), leaders in the Evangelical Church (at MCC’s request), and made visits to several hospitals in Hà Nam Ninh Province (6). Of course, we were also taken to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and to see the small humble abode where the much revered Ho Chi Minh (Uncle Ho) had lived.
A Russian-made Antanov, likely with a military-trained pilot — the landings always left me rather breathless — took us to Ho Chi Minh City. The mood in Ho Chi Minh was markedly different than Hà Nội — streets were much busier and people seemed more open. A cyclo driver who took us around was cursing the communist government and lamenting for the “good-old-days.” We met officials from the People’s Committee, visited the National Science Centre, and met Dr. Dương Quỳnh Hoa, a famous French-trained pediatrician. Dr. Hoa had been part of the resistance movement fighting against the U.S. but had become quite critical of the way the government was mismanaging the economy and alienating southerners, especially intellectuals, whose expertise was badly needed after the war.
We then traveled on to the Mekong Delta, one of the two rice baskets of Việt Nam. To get there we crossed two channels of the mighty Mekong River on seriously overloaded and crowded ferries. Upon arrival at Cần Thơ University we were greeted warmly by Rector Khai, an old-time revolutionary, Dr. Trần Phước Dương, Dr. Võ Tòng Xuân (7), and others. This first visit was the beginning of a long and productive partnership between MCC and Cần Thơ University.
(5) On my return to Bangkok from one of my early MCC trips to Việt Nam, I learned that my father had had a heart attack. There had been no way for my family to contact me with this news.
(6) Hà Nam Ninh Province later was divided into three provinces: Hà Đông, Nam Định, Ninh Bình. The Vietnamese after consolidating many provinces post 1975, reversed this policy in the late 1980s and returned to using a French-era map of the provinces.
(7) Dr. Xuân had visited our MCC office in Bangkok some months earlier, so I already knew him.
L to R: Mr. Kỳ, Dr. Xuân, Louise Buhler, Titus Peachy, Mr. Lê Văn, Bert Lobe. May 1982.
Working Visits to Việt Nam
Many trips to Việt Nam followed in the next six years (1982-1987). Sometimes I traveled with MCC administrative staff, MCC delegations, consultants, and journalists. I often, however, traveled by myself. Well, not really — I was always accompanied by at least three or more other people — interpreter, guide, and security. The interpreters and officials who accompanied me on these different trips and arranged all the meetings — including Mr. Lê Văn, Mdme. Tài, Mr. Lưu, Mr. Thi, Mr. Hoàng, Mr. Kỳ, Mr. Phi, Mr. Vũ, Ms. Tính, Ms. Mỹ Tiên, Mr. Thọ, to name a few — were respectful, good humoured, and always helpful. The visits lasted anywhere from one week to three weeks. The itineraries were heavy. Decision-making was opaque — at least to my eyes — and often slow. I was told that Aidrecep had to go through many layers of approval, sometimes even up to the Council of Ministers for approvals of visas, projects, and other activities.
In some cases, I had to negotiate directly with the ministries. For example, for the MCC Bangladesh-Cần Thơ University personnel exchange in 1983, I met with Mr. Hoàng Xuân Tuy, Vice Minister of Higher Education, to discuss the proposal. The approval had to come from that high level, but it succeeded, and Lee Brockmueller, an MCC volunteer working in Bangladesh, went to Việt Nam to work together with Cần Thơ University staff on soybean production. In exchange, several scientists from Cần Thơ University visited MCC projects in Bangladesh. Of course, it may have helped that Minister Tuy had his own request for some technical information on the processing of agricultural waste, specifically coconut husks, which I was able to send to him from Thailand.
On a few occasions, Aidrecep arranged for me to meet Madame Nguyễn Thị Hội from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Madame Nguyễn Thị Bình, Vice-President of Việt Nam. I do not recall the exact nature of these meetings — maybe they were a matter of protocol, as there were very few westerners visiting Việt Nam during those years. In Bangkok, I was in regular contact with Ambassador Lê Mai and other officials in the Vietnamese Embassy. They issued the necessary visas for travel to Việt Nam.
Things happened to me, and around me, that were perplexing and for which explanations were not always forthcoming. Of course, I was significantly puzzling to Vietnamese people as well. Why would I have left my job at the University in Canada to do volunteer work in Việt Nam? I tried to skip over the term volunteer as I was well aware that MCC provided our family with adequate housing, food, and a small monthly stipend that was considerably more than the monthly salaries of the Vietnamese who were traveling with me. I was questioned about my connection to the Canadian government. When I said that the Canadian government did not know, or even care, that I was working in Việt Nam, there was skepticism. A foreigner working in Việt Nam with an agency outside of its own country’s state control — totally implausible to 1980s Vietnamese eyes.
As MCC was a bi-national agency, I was asked about what links I had with the U.S. government. In one of our evening guest house conversations, I asked Mr. Lê Văn if he thought I was a spy — although he did not answer directly, he assured me that I was very welcome in Việt Nam. NGOs were not well understood in North Việt Nam. I think, over time, I was able to explain, at least to some extent, how NGOs, and particularly MCC, tended to operate. Regarding my motivations, I am not sure if I was ever able to give them a satisfying answer.
Over six years, these often lengthy, intense, and controlled visits gave me a chance to see much of Việt Nam — cities, provinces, communes, and institutions. I think I visited nearly all the major universities and hospitals in the country (8). Most impactful to me was that these visits gave me the opportunity to get to know my Vietnamese colleagues and companions as well as the people responsible for implementing MCC-funded projects. We spent long days together in meetings, on bumpy roads, and in sparse, government-operated guest houses that frequently lacked electricity or running water.
Initially, I ate my meals alone. I think it was on my third trip to Việt Nam when the officials traveling with me asked me if the food I was served was not to my liking — they noticed I had lost weight. I told them I liked Vietnamese food, but that I came from a large family and was not used to eating alone. To borrow a phrase from a Japanese friend, the power of the dinner table kicked in, and after that, when traveling, we ate our meals together. My bowl was always overflowing! Conversations were initially circumspect, but with time and trust, we talked about many things, including the sensitive topics of politics, culture, and religion. In one of my 1983 letters to my family, I wrote: people in North Việt Nam have been cut off from the West for more than 30 years, so naturally they know little about what life is really like in North America — they are curious — but in turn I am intrigued by how they live, their perspectives on their government, society, country, and the world — so it makes for many fascinating conversations. Mr. Lê Văn frequently accompanied me. On a few occasions he joked that he was trying to influence me toward communism, and in turn, he thought that I was urging him to become a Mennonite. On a philosophical level there were some commonalities, and we found them.
In the early 1980s, Vietnamese were not allowed to bring foreigners to their homes and could only associate with them if it was work-related. It was a very tight system, with people watching and reporting on each other and also on me (9). This, of course, created anxiety, fear and distrust among the Vietnamese and it was unsettling for me. I did not want to get anyone into trouble. An unwritten rule, or at least so it seemed to me, was that foreigners should not engage in one-on-one conversations of any length with a Vietnamese — a witness was needed for nearly every encounter. On occasion, of course, I found myself in a one-on-one situation, and it could be rather disconcerting.
One such incident happened in 1983. I was sitting at a dimly-lit desk in my room in the Hoàn Kiếm Hotel in central Hà Nội. There was a knock on the door, and a young man who worked in the hotel entered the room; he was there to arrange my mosquito net for the night. He did that. But, before he left the room, he handed me a note on a small piece of paper — it read they are watching you. I knew every hotel at the time had staff designated to watch the comings and goings of its guests. Nevertheless, this startled me and on the same scrap of paper I quickly wrote who are they? He replied, again in writing, the police. He then walked into the bathroom, burned the piece of paper and left the room. I had difficulty falling asleep that night. Some ten days later, when I returned to the same hotel in Hà Nội from an up-country MCC water project, the same young man came to my room to bring the famous flask of boiled hot water, common in every hotel and guest room in North Việt Nam at the time. This time he requested — again in writing on a small piece of paper — if I would change $10 U.S. into Vietnamese đồngfor him. At the time, and until 1989, there was a huge gap between the official and the black-market currency exchange rate. After bouncing along pot-holed roads for more than a week all my nervousness was gone. I replied to him in bold writing NO — they are watching me.
Fear and distrust went both ways. In early 1987, I accompanied Mr. Herman Neff, Director of MCC Self Help Crafts Canada (10), to meet producers in a number of handicraft cooperatives in Ho Chi Minh City. Herman, a business man in his mid-60s, was utterly frightened of communists. The very first cooperative we visited was housed in a Catholic Church compound and was managed by a priest. Wandering around the compound were several elderly nuns in long, traditional black habits who gave us friendly greetings. Herman’s conversion was almost immediate. By the next day he was ready to do business — buying a shipment of lacquer ware, ceramics, and rattan products for the MCC Self-Help shops in Canada. After visiting several more cooperatives, his question to me: are these friendly artisans really communists?
(9) There were always note takers in all the meetings I participated in. I don’t know what they recorded and where those notes ended up.
(10) MCC Self Help Crafts went on to become 10,000 Villages, one of the worlds’ oldest and largest fair-trade associations. Today, Vietnamese artisans still sell goods in the west through 10,000 Villages.
Left: Elmer Neufeld, Chairman of the MCC Board, with Aidrecep officials Mr. Bằng, Mdme. Tài, and Mr. Lê Văn, and Louise Buhler. Circa 1984.
Right: Louise Buhler and Mr. Phi working on MCC project documents. Circa 1984.
Bottom: I had many meetings in rooms just like this — always a bust of Ho Chi Minh and a flag with a star and photos of Lenin and Karl Marx.
Hà Nội As I First Experienced It
In a letter to my family in 1983, I described Hà Nội as follows:
Hà Nội is rather dark and dreary in the evening. The few state shops have limited, low-quality products and people queue for basic foodstuffs like rice, cooking oil, and other rations. Hà Nội’s three million people live in crowded, dilapidated government housing. With temperatures at 37 degrees and 90% humidity, I don’t know how they survive — many homes don’t have fans and even those that do often can’t use them because electricity is erratic, especially in the outer edges of the city. Extended families live in one or two small rooms. A thirty-year-old man who was travelling with me today lamented the fact that he cannot get married because there is no space for another person in his home — there are already a total of ten people, including parents, siblings and in-laws, living in one ten-metre square room.
There are few eating places outside the state hotels (11). People get around by bicycle or walking. Hà Nội still has a tram running around the lake and on several of the main streets — it is a free service. Although not many grand buildings, there is a charming mixture of French colonial and feudal Vietnamese architecture — decayed elegance all its own. The streets are beautifully tree-lined. The city is relatively quiet, unpolluted and for me a welcome retreat from the bustle, noise, and dirty air of Bangkok. It feels very safe.
Hà Nội in the early 1980s had little in the way of entertainment. On some occasions, when I was hosted by senior government officials, musicians on amazing traditional bamboo instruments performed after dinner. On one of my 1983 visits, Aidrecep took me to see a troop from the Russian Bolshoi at the Hà Nội Opera House — a replica of the Paris Opera House, but smaller in size. Built in 1911, the theatre had not seen much, or any, maintenance in the previous 50 years — I think the seats and faded curtains were still the originals. It was a wonderful performance. I was surrounded by a very appreciative and sophisticated audience — women in beautiful traditional áo dài and men in suits from another era, perhaps dating back to 1954. There were several older women sitting on the opera house steps, with small flickering oil lamps, selling single cigarettes — men were smoking in the theatre during the performance. In the early 1980s, my guess is that at least 80% of Vietnamese men smoked.
Some years later, in May, 1986, I noted in a letter:
It is Monday night and I am in the Hoàn Kiếm Hotel in Hà Nội. There is a dance going on downstairs. These dances are a new thing — they are held every Monday night for Vietnamese tourists who come from the provinces to Hà Nội. But it surely also includes the young people of Hà Nội. I see young couples ride up to the hotel on their bicycles all dressed-up: high heeled shoes, tight pants, lipstick — the works. I went down to watch them for some minutes — they dance well, western style disco, jazz, and waltzes. Smooth, graceful — the men seem less self-conscious than the women. The room is packed with dancers in the middle and crowds of onlookers on the side. Everyone seems quite intent on the dancing with not too much talking by the onlookers. It started at 7:30 and is to end at 10pm. Outside — in the front of the hotel — some four or five policemen in their oversized Russian style uniforms are keeping order — whistling away curious children and urging other interested passers-by who stop to listen and peer into the window to move along. An old lady is sitting on a low stool on the sidewalk guarding the bicycles. New and interesting — Hà Nội is changing!
(11) There was one very special fish restaurant — Chả Cá La Vong — located in an old building on the second floor which you could only reach by climbing up a very narrow set of rickety stairs. It was still operating when we left Hà Nội in 2002 and I hope it is still there. The fish dish they served was absolutely delicious!
Tram in central Hà Nội, 1982.
The Hardships of Peace
To westerners, Việt Nam in 1982 conjured up several negative images:
1) War: the long, brutal conflict with the U.S., Vietnamese troops in Cambodia, and tension on Việt Nam's border with China.
2) Boat people: thousands of Vietnamese people, risking their lives on flimsy boats, fleeing Việt Nam.
The U.S.-Việt Nam war lasted for 20 years, ending in 1975. Physical wounds of the war were still very much in evidence in the early 1980s — bomb craters (many were turned into fish ponds), deforestation caused by Agent Orange, destroyed infrastructure, shrapnel, and massive cemeteries all over the country. Not infrequently, I saw spent shell casings made into school bells and other useful items.
MCC workers in Việt Nam before 1975 saw the horrors of war first-hand. I witnessed what comes after a war is officially over and the rest of the world moves on. The hardships of peace in Việt Nam had many dimensions. The U.S. led a punishing embargo against Việt Nam until 1990, some 15 years after the peace agreement had been signed. Intensive bombing over many years had left damaged roads, bridges, irrigation systems, hospitals, and schools. The embargo essentially cut Việt Nam off from much needed funds for reconstruction, from new knowledge and technology, and from markets.
Then there were the enormous individual and family losses, physical and psychological, that Vietnamese had to confront as they moved past the war. Several million Vietnamese people, many of them civilians, had died. Vietnamese in large numbers, many of whom had sided with the Americans, fled their homeland as refugees. Many families who stayed were scattered and would forever be separated. There were Amerasian children wandering the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, the children born of Vietnamese mothers and American military fathers who had returned to the United States. These children had a tough time fitting into Vietnamese communities. Many people lost their status, jobs, and in some cases were put into re-education camps. Việt Nam was united, but not unified. There were still scores to settle as the government tried to establish its authority over the whole country. During my six years as MCC Representative, I met hundreds of people — high-ranking Government officials, farmers, professionals — in all regions of the country. I don’t think I ever met a Vietnamese who did not have a story to tell of hardship, loss, separation, injury, and death. But conversations about the war were often short. I sensed there was a reluctance to look back. Better to look to the future. The lack of resentment and bitterness truly amazed me.
Unexploded shells and landmines left thousands of hectares of land unusable. I remember well the grief of a commune in central Việt Nam. I arrived the day after Teacher’s Day — a day which honors teachers everywhere in the country. A group of children on their way to school with flowers and special sweet cakes to give to their teachers came upon a piece of metal which looked like a ball. They picked it up and played with it. It exploded, killing three children. It was a bomb, one of the thousands of unexploded bombs scattered in the Vietnamese countryside.
Heavy and extensive use of chemical warfare by the American military, especially the spraying of a deadly chemical called Agent Orange, destroyed huge tracts of forest and contaminated the soil and water. One of my early contacts in Hà Nội was Dr. Lê Cầu Đại, head of the 10-80 Committee, which was tasked with documenting the effects of Agent Orange on the health of people who lived in areas that were exposed to the chemical (12). Dr. Đại collaborated with Dr. Edward Cooperman and Dr. Judy Ladinsky, members of the U.S. Committee for Scientific Cooperation, in fostering scientific exchanges with Việt Nam. Because of their limited access, our MCC Office in Bangkok facilitated their efforts to connect with Vietnamese counterparts to deliver scientific documents and small items of equipment. Very sadly, Dr. Cooperman was murdered by a Vietnamese refugee in his office at the University of California in San Francisco in 1984. This came as a great shock to me. Although the exact motive for the murder was never revealed, it was clear that Vietnamese refugees were threatening and harassing people involved in providing assistance to Việt Nam — a rather chilling thought.
The tremendous cost in lives, the destroyed infrastructure, the damage to the environment, the refugees, were the obvious losses. These were documented by international media. But as I became immersed in Việt Nam, what impressed me deeply were the many losses that were less obvious and less talked about, the ones that sank deep into the lives of individuals, families, and communities. Many Vietnamese women were unable to give birth to healthy children, or even have children at all.
I cannot forget my visit with Dr. Nguyễn Thị Ngọc Phượng to Ho Chi Minh City’s Từ Dũ Hospital ward for women and children, where I saw many young women who suffered from a cancer called hydatidiform mole — a very rare condition in which a pregnancy, usually within the first three months, turns into a tumor. The only treatment at the time was to remove the uterus. These women all came from villages that had been sprayed with Agent Orange during the war. Other women who lived in villages that were sprayed gave birth to children with serious physical and mental deformities — tragically, this continued for many years after peace came to these villages. I doubt if these young women, or their families, had any idea of what caused this hardship.
The reintegration of military men into civilian life after years of war was obviously not easy. Vietnamese soldiers, as a reward for their services, were sometimes given jobs and positions of authority for which they were not prepared at all — they became rectors of universities, directors of hospitals, and managers of factories. This caused conflict and led to some poor policies. This became especially obvious to me once MCC started to provide sponsorships for international training sessions. In order for a number of individual doctors, engineers, and scientists involved in MCC projects to get permission to participate in short courses in the region, we also at times had to sponsor their leaders and bosses who sometimes had no expertise in the particular area relevant to the course. I frequently consulted Dr. Võ Tòng Xuân from Cần Thơ University on such matters — he told me early on that such compromises would be necessary if we wanted to move forward.
Because of the long-drawn out war, a whole generation of Vietnamese men and women lost opportunities for education and a normal life involving entertainment and play. I became aware of this much later when we lived in Hà Nội, after I had left MCC. At that time, I was working for Brot fur die Welt and my husband, Jake, was working at the Canadian Embassy. Jake was invited by a group of middle-aged Vietnamese men to play tennis weekly in a court near our apartment at the La Thành Hotel on Đội Cấn Street. Having been part of the Buhler family for years, I thought I had a good idea of how it looks and sounds when a group of grown men play. Well, this was even crazier…intense, loud, full of made-on-the-spot rules, competitive, hilarious. In recalling their lives, these men said that at a very young age they were all involved in the war effort. They spent their prime years fighting, losing their chance for education. Finally, the war ended, and peace came when they were in their mid-thirties, but with the devastated country and extreme poverty every effort had to go into survival. Then, in the 1990s, some 20 years later, when they were in their mid-fifties, they finally had some time and some spare Vietnamese đồng to buy a tennis racket and running shoes, and nothing was to stop them from enjoying play, and in some sense, trying to recapture their lost youth. There was also always enough money for the group to sit around after the match to enjoy roasted peanuts, barbecued dog meat, and local Vietnamese beer.
(12) MCC purchased a camera for Dr. Đại to help in his documentation project. He was forever grateful.
Left: A School bell made out of a spent shell casing.
Top Right: Louise Buhler with Director and staff at Từ Dũ Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. Mr Lưu, interpreter, at far right, circa 1985.
Bottom Right: Louise Buhler and a young doctor at a rural health clinic in Vĩnh Phú Province, 1984.
The Context for MCC’s Program in 1980s
MCC’s program in Việt Nam pre-1975 involved material aid (food, clothing, blankets, medicine) to internal refugees, poverty alleviation, assistance to agriculture, health, training projects (e.g. English language classes), peace-making projects, and advocacy. These efforts are well documented. In many ways, the same type of initiatives framed the MCC program in the years when I was the MCC Việt Nam Representative. Initially, MCC mainly sent material aid shipments, but the program evolved quite rapidly, and by the time I left in mid-1987, MCC’s program supported projects in agriculture, health care, handicraft production, capacity-building, emergency relief, peace-making (specifically relationship-building), and advocacy on many levels. MCC had a refugee program, but, of course, not for internally displaced people, but for Vietnamese fleeing the country.
Although the program themes pre-1975 and post-1975 were similar, what was starkly different was the context in which MCC’s engagement in Việt Nam took place. Pre-1975, MCC was situated in South Việt Nam. There was war and a war economy — lots of U.S. dollars, equipment, influence, and corruption. There were thousands of westerners living and working there — American military, NGO workers, and journalists. MCC had its own offices, staff, and a substantial number of North American volunteers based in the country who moved about freely. MCC collaborated with several other international Christian agencies and partnered closely with the Vietnamese Evangelical Church in establishing and running projects. They worked outside of government structures and in some cases set up their own alternate structures: health clinics, language and social programs, and student and daycare centers.
None of those conditions existed in the Việt Nam that I stepped into in the early 1980s. The US-Việt Nam War was over. The harm caused by that prolonged conflict was everywhere. A punishing United States-led embargo was in full force. The Americans had all left, and other than a few diplomats and some European experts — mainly Swedes — there were no westerners living in Việt Nam. There was no NGO presence. The church was under a cloud of suspicion. The international press was long gone, and communication with the outside world was basically non-existent. Travel anywhere in the country required permits from the Ministry of the Interior. Any outside humanitarian or development assistance had to be approved and implemented by the government or by government-controlled institutions, cooperatives, or mass organizations (13). Setting up and implementing our own MCC projects or partnering with the church were completely off the table. We were there as not-fully-trusted guests.
On one of my early visits, Mr. Lê Văn initiated a conversation on the topic of MCC’s relationship to the church in Việt Nam. He told me that our requests to meet with church leaders (other than Pastor Thu in Hà Nội) were problematic. He explained that in the past the church had been a reactionary force: Catholicism and French colonialism came to Việt Nam hand-in-hand, and a similar relationship of collusion existed between Protestants and the American involvement. According to Mr. Lê Văn, the government believes that the CIA uses religious groups to gather information about the economic and military situation in Việt Nam. His message to me was that by asking to meet religious leaders, such as Pastor Miềng in Ho Chi Minh City, MCC was opening itself up to suspicion and visa refusals.
Intriguingly, on different occasions, but not at my request, I was taken to meet church people. In 1983, on a visit to see typhoon damage in Thanh Hóa Province, I was introduced to a group of parishioners standing on the rubble of their church. They wanted help. Another time, I was invited to visit a health clinic in a commune on a small island off the coast of central Việt Nam. The families, I was told, were all Christians, were very poor, and had many children. In fact, looking at their situation I can say the small island seemed packed, and it hardly seemed an exaggeration to say people were literally falling off the island — house boats crowded the water along the shore. The families mainly survived on fishing. The local government officials who were with me were not happy because there was no evidence of the villagers following Việt Nam's family planning program of one or two children per family (14). When I asked a group of women who had gathered about family planning, they said they were following the teachings of the priest — no birth control. The women said they did not want so many children, as they were too poor to feed them, and they requested that I speak to the priest. I sympathised with their situation, but I really didn’t want to get into a dialogue about theology with villagers and the government watching!
On one occasion I was asked about a religious broadcast from the Philippines that had reached some ethnic minority communities in Yên Bái Province. Apparently, the villagers had stopped working because they were following some Bible verses that say there is no need for us to toil, as God will look after our needs (15). The local government officials did not know what to make of that or what to do about it. They wanted my advice. I don’t remember how I responded, but I think I agreed with them that this was a rather strange biblical interpretation!
(13) Mass organizations like the Women’s Union (WU) extended to the grassroots level. A figure I sometimes heard is that the WU had 11 million members. I believed it once I visited remote areas — every commune, no matter how remote and inaccessible, had a WU. The WU played a very significant role in all aspects of the social life of the commune and in conflict resolution, especially in cases of domestic violence.
(14) Việt Nam's family planning program was never as strict as China's, but it was certainly pushed. There were few billboards in Việt Nam at the time — the only ones I recall seeing promoted family planning.
(15) Matthew, Chapter 6, Verses 26 to 33 were the verses they cited.
Louise Buhler, Mr. Hoàng from Aidrecep, and local people at a church destroyed by a typhoon in Thanh Hóa Province, 1982
What did Việt Nam want from MCC?
Due to the embargo, Việt Nam received little outside aid. The United Nations’ work was limited. The Soviet Union, East Germany, and Sweden provided aid for some large infrastructure projects. In the early 1980s, MCC was one of a very few NGO agencies engaged in Việt Nam. The agenda of the Vietnamese government was very clear: they wanted humanitarian and development assistance; however, MCC’s capabilities and limitations were not well understood, at least not in the beginning. Because of the pressing needs, some of the initial requests for assistance came from government institutions, like hospitals, universities, and provincial authorities and were far too large to be feasible for MCC. Also, some of their proposals, often consisting of little more than a few written sentences, were ill-conceived and unrealistic. Because of the system of government and their disconnect from the rest of the world, it was hard for them to come up with realistic budgets and with information as to where to get what they wanted. Tamping down expectations, while at the same time making a credible case for the small-scale international support that MCC could provide to benefit those in need, was a challenge. It took time, reserves of patience, and many compromises.
In a letter written to a fellow MCC worker (17) in October 1983, I described the project selection dilemma as follows:
Over the past several days I have visited seven different cooperatives who have requested MCC assistance. Fascinating! Yesterday I visited a cooperative that makes farm tools and bicycles. Everything is done by hand with only the crudest of tools. The members work extremely hard and very long days, but the production is low and the products are of low quality. I also visited cooperatives that make bricks, tiles, cloth, and glass. All of the places made me think and feel like I was in a different time of history. But I had the wonderful opportunity to meet many Vietnamese villagers and see how people really live — something one never sees when you visit a country as a tourist. Everywhere I went people were friendly and crowded around me. In spite of the obvious poverty, I received gifts of fruit, peanuts, and honey. I accepted graciously, but it is hard, as I wish they would keep these products for their families. Now my dilemma is, how can MCC assist them? Naturally every cooperative wants new electrical equipment — but they have no source of electricity. They want trucks — but they have nearly non-existent roads and no fuel. They want to increase production, but they have little raw material. There is only one of the seven cooperatives that I visited, a bee-keeping cooperative, where I think MCC can be of assistance by providing raw materials to build simple beehives so that farmers can keep bees — they have fruit trees so the bees can look after their own source of food.
How disappointed the six cooperatives that we could not support were, I don’t know. What I do know is that the apiculture project MCC did support was much appreciated. In a 1984 follow-up visit to the Lam Sơn Commune in Hải Hưng Province, more than 300 families had received iron screening and beeswax and set up successful beehives. Most of the honey produced was sold to clinics, hospitals, and creches in the province as an important nutritional supplement. The farmers were also free to sell some of the honey in the market.
Unfortunately, not all projects MCC supported were successful. In the early 1980s, Việt Nam was still a predominantly agricultural country. Collectivization of agriculture in the Mekong Delta after 1975 was never really very successful. In 1981, MCC was involved in setting up an MCC pilot project for the utilization of simple, low-cost solar dryers with the aim of helping to reduce post-harvest losses in the Mekong Delta. Stu Clark, an MCC agricultural worker based in Nepal, traveled to Việt Nam to initiate and guide this project. The intent was good: to dry rice so that it wouldn’t spoil. The technology was available and seemed useful, but it became somewhat clear in my follow-up conversations with the project partners that there was little interest on behalf of the potential recipients, i.e., the farmers. The explanation that finally came to me in an indirect way was simple: the farmers didn’t mind having some of their rice remain wet, as it weighed more. At the time, the agricultural cooperatives had to give a large percentage of their harvest to the government based on weight. Giving the wet, heavy rice to the government represented a saving to the farmer and at the same time was a form of objection to the agricultural policies. After đổi mới (18), Việt Nam went from a food deficit country to a large exporter of rice in a matter of a few years.
(17) I communicated quite regularly with Minh Kauffman, who at the time was working for MCC in Cambodia. I greatly valued her insights. One of the very good pieces of advice she gave me early on was “what Vietnamese want these days is a response to the need — concrete assistance that does come through — they don’t want to be analyzed by experts.”
(18) The term đổi mới means renovation. It was the term the Vietnamese used to describe economic reforms and policy changes.
Stu Clark and staff from National Science Centre with a solar dryer, 1981.
MCC's Response to Natural Disasters
During my six years MCC responded to a series of natural disasters — typhoons, and the resulting floods, happened almost every year. Việt Nam, like many other countries in Asia and elsewhere in the world, once had a rich forest cover. Wartime defoliation and uncontrolled logging left many of the hills and mountains, especially in central Việt Nam, barren. Without forest cover, the storms that hit the long Việt Nam coast were often hugely destructive. To compound the problem, American forces had destroyed sea dikes and widened some rivers to accommodate their gunboats, resulting in a problem with saltwater intrusion into rice fields.
Responding to requests for emergency assistance was one of the toughest parts of my job, but also the most heartening: each time I visited an area that experienced a natural calamity, I was struck by the people’s readiness to help each other. This is probably not unique, and can likely be said of people in many parts of the world, but I stand in awe of the Vietnamese people’s ingenuity and resilience in the face of adversity, as well as their sense of humor even in tough times.
In a 1983 letter to family, I described one visit to a hard-hit area as follows:
Yesterday, members of the Bình Trị Thiên Provincial People’s Committee, Aidrecep officials, and I drove out about 160 km north of Huế to the villages that had been hardest hit by a typhoon. We were in a Russian-made jeep. The road was incredibly bumpy — at the end of it I really felt like I’d been horse-back riding for a couple of days. We met people from the local district who took us to the villages — to some of the places we couldn’t drive, so we walked for some kilometers. Of the 600 people living in the area, some 36 had died during the storm and some were still missing — maybe swept away. There was so much raw grief — they had almost all lost their simple homes and their crops, gardens and few chickens. How can MCC help? I know we can really do so little in the face of the enormous need.
The drive from Huế to the villages was most interesting — we crossed the line (DMZ) that before 1975 divided North and South Việt Nam. During the war with the U.S. this part of Việt Nam was heavily bombed. The small town where we spent the night, I was told, was completely flattened by bombs. I was shown the one-and-only building in the town which survived the bombing. We traveled through some areas where the forest and all vegetation had been completely destroyed with chemicals — the white zone. It is still barren, although some small scrubs and trees are beginning to grow. Although the war has been over for eight years, the people here talk about it — they suffered tremendously then and still now. I am sure I am the first westerner to travel in this area in the past decade or more (19) — I am treated very well — too well!
I had one middle-of-a-typhoon experience. I was traveling by car from Hà Nội to Huế, the old imperial capital and home to Việt Nam's last royal dynasty, when heavy rain and strong winds started. Being on the road seemed dangerous, and I felt great relief to arrive in a room on the second floor of a government guest house in Huế. I had heard about flash floods, but couldn’t quite believe it when the normally romantic and peaceful Perfume River which flows through Huế broke its banks, and, in a matter of hours, the whole city was flooded on all sides as far as one could see. In some areas only the roof tops were visible. Many people had to flee for their lives to higher ground. One 64-year-old woman spent 24 hours up in a tree while watching her house being swept away. The floods subsided nearly as quickly as they came.
Two days later, people everywhere were repairing damaged roofs, rebuilding collapsed walls, and drying out all manner of soaked goods. Young boys cheerfully staked out the roadways that were covered with water and guided vehicles and people walking so they would not fall off the road. Amazingly enough, the Chairman of the Bình Trị Thiên Province People’s Committee, Mr. Diễn, whose office had waist-deep water in it for two days, was able to pass along an impressive amount of information about the devastation caused by the storm. Six people had died. More were missing. The losses were enormous.
Initially, MCC emergency responses consisted of shipments from Canada of milk powder, wheat flour, canned beef, soap, clothes, and blankets. It became apparent quite quickly that some of this aid, although appreciated, was not appropriate. Also, it did not get to the affected areas fast enough. Vietnamese wanted rice, medicines, mosquito nets, and steel rebar to reconstruct collapsed buildings. In future cases, MCC adjusted its response, and, through our office in Bangkok, purchased rice and other supplies through a company in Singapore. This was more appropriate, timely, and much appreciated.
MCC’s material aid, however, was always highly valued in hospitals. When shipments arrived, distribution usually took place quite quickly. For monitoring purposes, sometimes a small amount of the aid was held back so that on a future visit I could personally make token presentations to the beneficiaries on behalf of MCC. I really did not like to do this. In a 1984 letter to my mother, I wrote:
I was taken to a district hospital in Thanh Hóa Province today to meet some health workers and patients and to distribute some MCC material aid items. The hospital is in need of everything — patients huddle two or three to a bed with no blankets. I felt awful — I hate to be a Santa Claus. The only good feeling I had was that I think I maybe distributed some of the blankets that you spent many hours making — they looked like your blankets, so beautiful and perfectly made.
(18) It may be a visit like this that led me, on some occasions, to be mistaken for an MIA (Missing in Action). Once, at some international reception in Bangkok, I was introduced to an official from the American Embassy. He remarked that he knew my name, as they had files on me as being sighted and reported as a possible MIA. The American Government used the MIA issue as a major bargaining chip — very unfairly in my view — in their talks with the Vietnamese on normalizing relations.
Top Left: Provincial official and Louise Buhler at the site of a damaged school in Bình Trị Thiên Province, 1985.
Top Right: Hospital in Thanh Hóa Province that received MCC blankets, 1983. Perhaps my mother made that blanket — I don’t know.
Bottom: I spent many hours in a jeep traveling to remote areas. Sometimes, of course, we had to walk.
Việt Nam's Request for Disaster Mitigation and Preventive Measures
Emergency relief aid was often requested, and very much welcomed. But the Vietnamese were looking for longer-term infrastructure type-solutions to the serious flooding and other damages caused by typhoons along the coastline. To deal with these requests, MCC brought in several hydrology experts — Herb Wiebe and Vic Galley — to meet with Vietnamese engineers to assess their proposed projects. Herb Wiebe had served as an MCC volunteer in Bangladesh. Based on these assessments, MCC agreed to support a number of drainage projects in Bình Trị Thiên, Hà Bắc, and Vĩnh Phú Provinces, the reconstruction of a spillway in Quảng Nam-Đà Nẵng Province, and the repair of several pumping stations. Materials for these projects had to be ordered from Singapore. All earth work, digging, and excavating was done by hand. I saw hundreds of young people on one project moving earth by spade and baskets. Work with the Vietnamese engineers went well, and as a follow-up the government requested that Herb and Vic give a training course to water engineers at the Hydrology University in Hà Nội.
A further response to the serious flooding situation was a Vietnamese request to look at tree planting projects. It was recognized that the flash flooding could be mitigated, at least to some extent, if there was more forest cover on the mountain sides near the coastline. Paul Paetkau, an ecologist from Edmonton, came to Việt Nam in February 1987 to assess a number of proposals in the forestry sector. The project that seemed best suited to MCC’s ability was to assist the Ba Vì Vocational Forestry Center in rural Hà Nội. As my term with MCC finished shortly after that, I am not sure of the outcome of that proposal.
Also, through the MCC Bangkok office, we were able to arrange for, and sponsor, many Vietnamese to participate in a number of different short-term courses at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) in Bangkok on rural water supply and sanitation, as well as on disaster preparedness and management. The course on disaster preparedness was taught by Everett Ressler, a Mennonite and former MCC volunteer from Pennsylvania, who was very familiar with MCC and paid special attention to the Vietnamese participants of the course.
Herb Wiebe with engineers in Bình Trị Thiên Province, 1984.
MCC involvement in the health sector
Assistance to the health sector was a priority for the Vietnamese. In my early trips to Việt Nam, I was taken to visit some of the large central-level hospitals including St Paul’s and Bach Mai in Hà Nội and Từ Dũ Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, as well as large provincial-level hospitals. These were discouraging visits, as all these hospitals were in very poor condition, seriously overcrowded, and lacking in everything — medicines, equipment, beds, and blankets.
In my notes, I described a visit to the pediatric ward of the 600-bed Thanh Hóa Provincial Hospital as follows:
In one small dingy room there were twelve children, all suffering from meningitis or encephalitis — they had high fevers and several were delirious. There were two children in each bed. The hospital had no electricity, thus, no fans and no ice. They had no IV solution and no antibiotics. Several of the children appeared seriously malnourished. The relatives who are looking after the children tried to make the patients more comfortable by putting wet cloths on their foreheads and fanning them with hand fans. There was utter despair and weariness in their expressions — several mothers were crying.
Addressing even the very essential needs in these large hospitals was well beyond what MCC could do. MCC did send a number of material aid and medicine shipments to some of these hospitals, but in discussions with Aidrecep, I think I was able to convey early on that MCC’s capacity was limited and that assisting in primary health care was more within our scope. Aidrecep was receptive to this idea, and on future trips invited me to visit rural commune clinics. What surprised me was that Việt Nam's state-run, centralized health care system actually extended right down to the grassroots. There were clinics and health personnel in the remotest communities. Under this system, after graduation young doctors were assigned to these remote posts — not always to their liking, but as an obligation to the state. Of course, the services these clinics could offer were limited, certainly in terms of quality, but it did speak to Việt Nam's goal of health equity. I did see some amazing medical interventions — on one occasion I saw a tonsillectomy performed using only acupuncture in a rural clinic in Hà Nam Ninh Province.
Starting in 1983, MCC purchased, through UNICEF, basic medical equipment for a considerable number of commune clinics. We developed a partnerships with the Ho Chi Minh City Health Education Centre (Dr. Đỗ Hồng Ngọc) and the Ho Chi Minh City Nutrition Centre (Dr. Dương Quỳnh Hoa), where we provided basic supplies and materials for their public health education efforts, including the publication of a Vietnamese edition of the book Where There is No Doctor and other documents.
Some of MCC’s assistance to the health sector was a result of grants from other agencies with less access to Việt Nam than MCC — for example, eyeglasses production was funded by the Christoffel Blindenmission of Germany. Food for the Rehabilitation Centre for Undernourished Orphans was funded by John McAuliff’s Group from Harvard University. Artificial limbs and raw materials for the production of antibiotics came from Brot fur die Welt Germany. Other agencies also provided grants to MCC for the purchase of medicines and equipment for specific clinics and hospitals.
Left: Bert Lobe and Louise Buhler with the staff of St Paul’s Hospital in Hà Nội, which received an MCC shipment of material aid, including soap
Right: Hospital ward in Hà Nam Ninh Province, 1982.
MCC’s Peacemaking Agenda
Peacemaking is core to the MCC ethos. The form it was to take in the context of Việt Nam of the 1980s was not always clearly articulated. Terms like reconciliation, solidarity, restorative presence, and relationship-building were all used. But how would we do these things, and to what end? Việt Nam was still viewed as an “enemy.” There was the embargo and the isolation. There were the refugees. There was the larger Cold War political climate, with Việt Nam being under the Soviet Union’s umbrella. Could MCC peacemaking efforts in any way influence these issues?
MCC Ottawa, led by Bill Janzen, MCC Akron, now led by Bert Lobe, and MCC Washington took various steps to build relations with Vietnamese officials in embassies and also at the United Nations in New York. Bill Janzen persistently engaged Canadian members of parliament in efforts to persuade the Canadian Government to provide much needed humanitarian and development aid to Việt Nam. He invited MCCers, myself included, and others who had visited Việt Nam to give first-hand reports to the Canadian Government.
As MCC had sent around five delegations to Việt Nam between 1975 and 1983, it was felt that we should reciprocate and invite a Vietnamese delegation to Canada — inviting them to the U.S. was not an option. To my surprise, Vietnamese officials were quick to welcome the invitation and in May, 1983 a four-person delegation lead by Mr. Đỗ Xuân Oanh of the Việt Nam Union of Peace, Solidarity, and Friendship traveled to Canada, via Bangkok. It was the first post-1975 Vietnamese delegation of any kind to visit Canada. As part of the itinerary, Bill Janzen set up a time for the delegation to meet a number of Canadian NGO representatives in a church in Ottawa. Unfortunately, this meeting was aborted when a crowd of placard-carrying, recently arrived Vietnamese refugees showed up and loudly denounced the Vietnamese Government. There was some irony, in that these protesters had likely received orientation classes at the MCC centre at the Panat Nikhom refugee camp in Thailand. Many MCC Canada constituents were involved in refugee sponsorship, and for most of them, providing assistance to united Việt Nam clearly remained a very sensitive issue.
In the U.S., MCC collaborated with other agencies to lobby Washington to drop the embargo and to allow MCC to support projects in Việt Nam. Persons involved in this effort included MCC Asia Secretary Bert Lobe and his successor Pat Martin, Chairman of the MCC Board Elmer Neufeld, Executive Director of MCC John Lapp, MCC Self Help leaders Paul Leatherman, Al Sauder, and Herman Neff, Willard Krabill, and former MCCer’s with Việt Nam experience including Murray Hiebert, Max Ediger, Titus Peachey, and Earl Martin. They all visited Việt Nam during my tenure. I joined a group that met with Vietnamese officials at the United Nations offices in New York and also with American lawmakers on Capitol Hill in Washington. All these visits contributed to a better understanding of post-war Việt Nam. Numerous articles — published as Indochina Issues — and various presentations were made to try to inform politicians, the public, and MCC constituents about the situation in Việt Nam and to push for lifting the embargo and improving relations with Việt Nam.
Inside Việt Nam, our efforts followed one of Peter Dyck’s suggestions on peace-making: don’t be vague — start with specific action, do it, and then keep on going. MCC’s initial actions were specific, concrete, and in direct response to requests from Việt Nam for disaster relief, material inputs for repairing and constructing water projects, and for providing basic equipment and supplies for primary health care services. These were labour-intensive actions, in that the needed materials had to come from outside Việt Nam. Making shipments to embargoed Việt Nam was complex. Our MCC office in Bangkok was well positioned to make these orders, but making sure there was timely delivery was often challenging, as communication with Việt Nam was not easy. Follow-up inside Việt Nam was very important, and much effort was put into that. The Vietnamese always appreciated these efforts.
As I made more contacts in Việt Nam and the Vietnamese understood MCC better, we engaged in more people-to-people exchanges. We received an increasing number of requests, especially from professionals — scientists, doctors, and teachers — for equipment, journals, and books. There were requests for opportunities to go abroad for conferences and training and for MCC to bring experts to Việt Nam. We provided small items of equipment and scientific journals and documents to various universities, hospitals, and to the Việt Nam National Science Center in Ho Chi Minh City, where we established relationships with Dr. Hỗ Sĩ Thoảng (20), Dr. Uyên, and other scientists. MCC started a program for the sponsorship of Vietnamese for short courses in health, agriculture, and other areas, such as water resource management and disaster preparedness in Thailand and the Philippines.
Additionally, MCC, at the request of the Vietnamese, brought in a number of experts to work with Vietnamese partners on MCC-funded projects: Herb Wiebe and Vic Galley on irrigation and water projects, Al Geiser on pumps, Lee Brockmueller on the soybean project, Paul Paetkau on forestry, Stu Clark on the solar dryer project. In 1986, Cần Thơ University requested assistance with their library. Frieda Wiebe, a Canadian librarian, received a six-week visa. According to Dr. Võ Tòng Xuân, this was the first visa of that length for any westerner visiting southern Việt Nam since 1975. Her visit was very well received and she was invited back the following year — again for six weeks — to give a training course for Cần Thơ librarians and to help in the design of a new library for the campus (21).
In terms of relationship-building, the most significant program was probably the MCC office in Bangkok. The office was located only about a 10-minute walk from the Vietnamese Embassy, and it became somewhat of a hub for Vietnamese traveling abroad. Of course the Vietnamese that MCC sponsored spent time in our Bangkok office, but many other Vietnamese who were going abroad also came to the office to ask for information and assistance with travel logistics and in making purchases (22). Sometimes they just came to talk. Dr. Võ Tòng Xuân occasionally stayed in our guest bedroom. By the mid-1980s, quite a number of Vietnamese with scholarships from Europe were studying at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) in Bangkok. We hosted these students on different occasions. Because the MCC office and our house were connected, Vietnamese guests got to meet my husband, our two daughters (23), and our two very-capable Thai staff, Nop and Malinee. These visits were informal and helped to build trust and some deep friendships (24). Staff from the Vietnamese Embassy also came by on occasion to ask for information, or just to chat. On a few occasions, I was asked if I knew certain NGOs that were applying for visas, like CAMA, World Vision, or World Concern — this was awkward! One of the Embassy staff that we got to know, Mr. Kiệt, later worked for MCC’s office in Hà Nội for almost a decade.
(20) Dr. Hỗ Sĩ Thoảng later became the head of Petro Việt Nam, the biggest state-owned company in Việt Nam. In the late 1990s, when we resided in Hà Nội, he occasionally came to our apartment for dinner. Despite travelling all over the world, he never forgot MCC assistance in a time when Việt Nam was isolated. I received a greeting note from him recently. He is now in his 80s.
(21) When I visited Cần Thơ University in 2017 and met a group of the faculty members, many of them retired, they asked about Frieda and recalled her time at Cần Thơ and the very important contribution she made to their campus.
(22) In the two month period from November 1986 to February 1987, I noted the following visitors to MCC office in my calendar: Dr. Phương & Dr. Chung from Từ Dũ Hospital on route to Japan, Dr. Xuân from Cần Thơ University in Bangkok for conference on soils, Ms. Mai from Women’s Union in Bangkok for ESCAP meeting, Dr. Nga and Dr. Lũy on their way to an eye-care conference in Indonesia, Professor Anh on his way to Utah, U.S., for a conference, Dr. Dương and Mr. Hiệp from Cần Thơ returning from a trip to Holland, Dr. Hà and Mr. Diệt studying a medical course in Bangkok.
(23) Jake, Elizabeth, and Sarah were invited to travel with me and received the necessary visas to Việt Nam in 1984. Elizabeth, who was six years old at the time, was very impressed with Ho Chi Minh’s small, simple house. She had seen the Marcos palace in Manila and thought Ho Chi Minh should have taught Marcos how to be a good leader.
(24) When my father died suddenly in April, 1987, the Vietnamese Embassy and other Vietnamese sent condolences. I was especially touched by a letter I received via telex some weeks later from Aidrecep.
Top Left: Frieda Wiebe with Cần Thơ University Library Staff, 1987.
Top Right: Dr. Xuân, Ms. Oanh, with Jake at our office/home in Bangkok, having a good social time.
Bottom Left: Left to right: Mr. Phi (interpreter), Alice Lapp, child, John Lapp (Executive Director of MCC), Mr. Hoàng (Aidrecep), 1983.
Bottom Right: MCC Canada sponsored a Vietnamese delegation to Canada in 1983, including Mr. Đỗ Xuân Oanh from the Việt Nam Union of Peace Solidarity & Friendship (far R) and Dr. Nguyễn Thị Ngọc Phượng (woman) from Từ Dũ Hospital in HCM City. The MCC office in Bangkok hosted the delegation for a few days. Photo taken at Grand Palace in Bangkok.
Change in Việt Nam, 1987
In 1986, the situation in Việt Nam reached a crisis point. There had been devastating typhoons and floods in 1985. There was a serious food shortage. Vietnamese officials still tended to try to hide this reality from foreign visitors, although for those few foreigners like myself who traveled in the countryside the situation was quite clear. An infestation of the brown rice hopper was destroying the rice crops in the Red River Delta, and peasants were described as on the edge of starvation. My respect for the tenacity and hard work of the farmers was further elevated during this infestation. Because pesticides were not available, thousands of farmers and their children took to the fields and literally gathered the tiny bugs by hand. It was the first time that I fully understood the term mobilizing the masses that Vietnamese officials had sometimes mentioned to me.
Grave economic difficulties, including food shortages, and the failure of the 1985 policy changes to prices, wages, and currency (25) had resulted in growing popular discontent. Those working in government-supported jobs had extremely low wages, averaging the equivalent of $10-$20 a month. With the removal of some of the state subsidies on food and essential commodities, together with inflation, it was very difficult for most people to make ends meet. This forced everyone to take on second and third jobs. A standard Vietnamese joke at the time was the government pretends to pay us, and we pretend to work. The best energy of many was given to their informal, unofficial work, thus leaving output in public service jobs very low in quality and quantity — evident in schools, hospitals, universities, and factories.
The sixth Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party, held in December, 1986, ushered in đổi mới. This was the start of major economic changes that were readily visible, but also set-off rearrangements at many levels within Vietnamese society, within institutions and within people’s heads. The changes for outsiders came rapidly — more flights into the country, easier-to-obtain visas, relaxed airport procedures, the popping up of hotels, restaurants, and vendors nearly everywhere. Tourism was on the rise, including by overseas Vietnamese and U.S. Army veterans. Asian countries, especially Japan, no longer followed the embargo, and companies from Sweden, Germany, and Singapore were quietly setting up shop in Việt Nam. There was a new energy and openness. After working in a restricted, oppressive Việt Nam, this new environment was exciting. It created new opportunities and was certainly a significant factor in my decision to continue to work in Việt Nam after I finished my time with MCC in July, 1987 (26).
(25) The currency exchange went crazy in 1985, and for a time the Vietnamese đồng became almost worthless.
(26) After completing my MCC assignment, I went on to work for the World Council of Churches and Brot fur die Welt (a German NGO), eventually moving to Hà Nội and setting up an office for BFDW there. Following that, I worked for several years as a consultant to various programs, including the Canadian Government’s Việt Nam poverty reduction program, the Centre for Educational Exchange for Vietnam (CEEVN), and for a World Bank-funded project in the Việt Nam Ministry of Rural Development and Planning. My husband and I left Hà Nội in 2002 to return to our home in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, in Canada. Once home, I worked in the College of Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan where I helped to set up international practicums for medical students, including placements in Hà Nội which are still on-going. In a few days we will be celebrating Tết with several Vietnamese who live in Saskatoon.
Top Left: Dr. Võ Tòng Xuân and Louise Buhler visiting farmers in the Mekong Delta.
Top Right: Louise Buhler and Dr. Xuân, Cần Thơ University. Shipment of seeds from MCC for farmers in the Mekong delta, 1983.
Bottom: I loved the Vietnamese countryside and its beauty; however, it always seemed a bit perverse to derive any pleasure from seeing such back-breaking work.
Proposal for Establishing an MCC Office in Hà Nội
With đổi mới, the international NGO interest in working in Việt Nam surged. Shortly before my term with MCC was completed, I chaired a half-day meeting of NGOs working, or interested in working, in Việt Nam. The meeting was attended by representatives from CIDSE, World Vision, Save the Children UK, Catholic Relief Services, Christoffel Blindenmission, CAMA, Southern Baptists, Heifer International, and others. Most of these agencies had at one time or another been in touch with our MCC office regarding our program in Việt Nam and requesting assistance in making connections in Việt Nam. Our office kept in close contact with Church World Service (CWS) and the Quakers, who also had involvement in Việt Nam during the 1980s.
For MCC, the goal of having a continuous on-the-ground presence in Việt Nam was there from the beginning. In February 1987, MCC Asia Secretary Pat Martin and I met with Madame Phạm Thị Minh, Director of the International Organization Department in the Foreign Ministry, to talk about establishing an MCC office. Madame Minh indicated to us that Việt Nam was now encouraging NGO activity. She indicated that MCC was well respected and recommended that we open an NGO office, not an MCC office. This NGO office would coordinate and act on behalf of all the international NGOs that wanted to assist Việt Nam. She urged us to prepare a proposal based on that concept.
I knew that there would be little or no uptake on such an arrangement by other NGOs — they were all very eager to get into Việt Nam on their own due to the new openness. Also, NGOs have their own mandates and agendas that would vary from that of MCC. So, I drafted a proposal to set up an MCC Việt Nam office and sent it to Akron before my departure in June, 1987.
Eventually, MCC did establish an office in Hà Nội, in 1990. Just after MCC opened its office in Hà Nội, a considerable number of European NGOs did so as well, including Oxfam UK, Save the Children UK, CIDSE, Action Aid, and others.
Mdme. Phạm Thị Minh, Director of International Organization Department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Pat Hostetter Martin, and myself, discussing the possibility of opening an MCC Office in Hà Nội, 1987.
In many ways, Charles Dickens’s famous quote at the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities — “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times…it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair” — describes the Việt Nam I experienced in the 1980s. The war was over, but the devastation and losses were everywhere. The country was united, but not fully unified. There was new-found independence, but at the same time, oppression from the inside and isolation from the outside remained. There was a desire to move forward, but many constraints held things back.
1981 to 1987 was a time for MCC to unconditionally give a cup of water and make peace with the enemy. We could not work in our traditional ways, with an in-country-office, our own personnel, and our own program agenda: we had to engage on the terms presented to us by our Vietnamese hosts. Because MCC was one of very few NGOs involved in Việt Nam, we experienced considerable pressure to respond to requests from many places and many sectors. This was not the best in terms of focus, but it provided us with the opportunity to establish a wide network of significant relationships: in north, central, and south Việt Nam, in urban and rural areas, with those in power, and with the powerless.
In my view, MCC worked with caution and good sense. Perhaps our approaches could have been more daring and innovative, but I think we responded to requests from our hosts in a caring and positive way, made compromises when we needed to, and did what was possible within MCC’s capacity and the constraints of the 1980s Việt Nam-Canada-U.S. context and climate.
What difference MCC made in the big scheme of things I don’t know. Our humanitarian and development assistance barely touched the immense needs of post-war Việt Nam. What effect our peace-making efforts had on Canada, and later the United States, in terms of normalizing relations with Việt Nam is also not easy to evaluate. Certainly, the MCC Ottawa office influenced the Canadian Government in a positive way. What factors eventually led the U.S. Government to drop its punishing policies toward Việt Nam, I don’t know. I do know we had a significant impact on Vietnamese leaders — they told me so.
I also know that over many cups of green tea, bowls of rice, and long trips over bumpy roads I had innumerable unforgettable conversations. I am richer for the many life-long friends I made and I am richer for what I learned — how people value their history and independence, how people can make a living on a very small parcel of land, how people pull together in tough times, how poverty does not equate to unhappiness and certainly does not lead to selfishness. I was touched many times by the generosity, the fulsome expressions of gratitude, and the sense of purpose I saw in the Vietnamese that I had the good fortune to get to know. I am deeply humbled and honored by the recognition I received for my efforts (27).
The Vietnamese have a saying: a bowl of rice when you are hungry means more than a banquet when you have plenty. The time between 1981-1987 was a hungry time in Việt Nam. And MCC was there.
(27) Medal for Contribution to Educational Development presented by Minister of Education and Training, Mr. Trần Hồng Quân, 1996.
Government of Việt Nam Friendship Medal presented by Madame Nguyễn Thị Bình, Vice-President of the Socialist Republic of Việt Nam, 1998.
Medal for the Contribution to Agriculture and Rural Development presented by Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Mr. Lê Huy Ngô, 999. Awards for Contributions to Development from the People’s Committees of Bình Trị Thiên, Lào Cai and Yên Bái Provinces.