by Fran Martens Friesen,
MCC Vietnam Country Representative, 1998-2002
Our energetic, always-smiling office administrator at MCC Việt Nam’s Hà Nội office was a fascinating man whose history unfolded like a movie with surprising plot twists and turns. The more we got to know him in our five years the more many-sided his story became. We grieve his recent loss, at the ripe age of 94, in October 2019.
We knew early on that Mr. Kiệt had worked for years with the Vietnamese government as a loyal Communist party member. When he retired, at age 65, from his job in the Vietnamese foreign service, he was assigned to work at MCC.
Now, one might think that someone with this background would not be serving with a Christian NGO, but in the early 1990s the government was still suspicious of outside agencies. MCC was one of the first NGOs to be invited back—along with the Quakers and Church World Service—after all the foreigners were asked to leave 1975 and 1976. The government wanted a loyal party member to monitor this Christian, and primarily American, NGO.
Mr. Kiệt was their man. But he became our man.
One of the first times we encountered Mr. Kiệt was at his son’s wedding, which was our first foray into the social complexities of Vietnamese culture. We had bought the perfect gift—or so we thought—while we were still preparing to come to Việt Nam: a Chicago cutlery knife set. These knives would come in handy, we reasoned, for chopping all the many vegetables the Vietnamese use in stir-fry dishes.
When we got to the wedding, at a fancy venue in Hà Nội, we noticed that people were not giving gifts. They were giving envelopes with money inside. Then, a few days later, Mr. Kiệt approached us and awkwardly explained that the couple had to give our gift back. It seems that a knife is a bad omen, signifying that the marriage will be split up and end in divorce! However, he continued, if he were to pay us just a small amount, it would no longer be a gift but something he bought from us and that would be OK. So we “sold” the knife set to him for about 50 cents, and all was well.
Over the years we were both amused and frustrated with all of Bác Kiệt’s mannerisms and behavior. For instance, he would buy the cheapest paper possible which would gum up the copy machine on a regular basis, much to the annoyance of the rest of the staff—though this was very in line with our famed Mennonite frugality. He would barge in, unannounced, to the volunteers’ apartment, next door to his own, much to their chagrin, since he did not fully understand American preferences for privacy. On many long train trips with my husband Ken, Bác Kiệt would carry red chilies in his pocket to add to every dish—his craving for spicy food matched Ken’s food preferences, so the two got along well. When we were invited over to his house on special occasions like Tết, we learned to be on guard gastronomically. He delighted in serving us dishes including: half-hatched chickens, still in the egg with soft bones and body; lots of bananas, to which he dedicated a whole bookshelf and credited his health; and rice wine made with snake for Ken and him to share, which he proclaimed was for virility. It was never clear if Bác Kiệt served these particular specialty dishes to show his hospitality and respect, or to see us squirm!
It was not until later in our term, however, that we more fully realized the complicated and almost unbelievable story of Mr. Kiệt. We knew that he had served as Việt Nam’s ambassador to China earlier in his career. We knew he served with PACCOM, the government agency that interfaces with NGOs in Việt Nam. But we only found out well into our terms more details of his earlier, other existence. Mr. Kiệt was actually married to a woman from Central Việt Nam, with whom he had several children. He was working as a schoolteacher, but when he heard the call from North Việt Nam in 1954 to join the fight against the imperialist aggressors—the U.S.—he answered. One day he was teaching, the next he was packing up and buying a train ticket to the North. He believed fervently in the cause, and we believe that he never really lost that belief, even as he worked with MCC. He believed in nationalism, in sharing a country’s wealth, and in being a responsible and loyal citizen.
Details of his work with the Party to win control of the entire country are a bit unclear to us, but what was shocking is what happened next in his life. During the war, as Mr. Kiệt worked from Hà Nội, he received news that his wife had died. He was grief-stricken, but continued his work. He was unable to go back to his home due to the division that cut his country in half. After several years, he decided to remarry—a woman he had met from the North. He had two sons and was well into raising them when the war ended, and he soon heard other news: his first wife was still alive! Now, he had two wives and two separate families. Caught in the middle of the muddle which was the American War, Mr. Kiệt decided he would regularly visit his former wife and children but would remain in his current marriage. None of these worries and cares showed in Mr. Kiệt’s face. He was fond of telling people he was 47 years old, which they believed due to his smooth face and endless energy, and then he would tell them to switch the numbers. He was actually 74! To a person, there was all-around amazement at this regular proclamation.
In our last few months in Việt Nam, we and all the staff held a retirement party for Mr. Kiệt up at a mountainside retreat center. We gave him many tributes and a golden, decorative clock with an engraved plaque as a remembrance of his many years with MCC, which we subsequently saw sitting prominently in his living room. The last time we saw Mr. Kiệt was in 2017. He was over 90 years old. We had lunch together with the current staff at MCC. He sat at the end of the long table, smiling and looking slightly confused, as he had signs of dementia at that point. As we took a picture with him, we knew this was the end of an era and that we would likely never see him again—it was bitter-sweet moment with a gracious co-worker and friend. Uncle Kiệt died in September, 2019.
Đinh Thị Vinh
In Việt Nam, we immediately fell in love with a bright, spunky, petite woman named Đinh Thị Vinh. She was one of two MCC project officers when we arrived, and what astonished us was that she came to us from a very prestigious National Science Research Center in Hà Nội. Her work as a researcher was a plump job, but she feared the impact of dangerous chemicals in her work environment, so she decided to quit. When she applied to MCC, her friends questioned her. Why would she want to join a North American organization? They did not trust the U.S. And why would she give up her generous salary to work for so little? Nevertheless, she persisted and got the job just a few years before we came to Việt Nam.
We could see immediately that Vinh was curious, asked lots of questions, and dedicated her heart and soul to her work, which was clearly more than just another job to her. She genuinely wanted to help her compatriots move out of poverty, and she spent many long hours on the road and in village meetings, doing the work of MCC.
I, Fran, remember two specific times I went out with her, and she taught me a lesson about my own work at MCC. Once we were in a village, trying to get the village leaders to allow a local artist to market his work with us. We wanted to invest in and develop his amazing talent in sculpture. But another artist in town was jealous and wanted us to solely invest in his artwork. I grew angrier and angrier during the meeting with the way the conversation was going and how the more powerful and wealthier artist was getting the ear of the leaders. I gripped my pen and started stabbing at my paper, giving the speakers occasional dirty looks. But I noticed that Vinh kept her cool and responded firmly and calmly to each question thrown her way. She still smiled and kept the door open to continued dialogue, whilst I barely held in my utter frustration. In reflecting back after that incident, I had to acknowledge she chose the better way.
At another village meeting, Vinh and I were discussing, with the local Women’s Union, some issues regarding women’s health and hygiene. The women were asking us what to do about some local problems. I felt ready to lay out some solutions and give them a plan to move forward, but Vinh wanted them to come up with some ideas and patiently waded through a convoluted discussion, at the end of which the local women made their own plan. That was true community development and empowerment.
Vinh and I once took a great trip to Laos to visit the MCC program there. One night, as we were settling down to sleep, Vinh asked about the different strands of Mennonites. Who were the GC Mennonites, Old Mennonites, Mennonite Brethren? What did each of these strands believe and why weren’t they simply one group? We talked and talked half the night, with Vinh asking insightful questions, really desiring to know something we ourselves did not always know!
We loved going to Vinh and her husband’s for dinner and visiting her garden, tended very caringly in a city where land was always at a premium. She had banana trees, various tropical flowers and some cacti—which our young son once got into with disastrous results. For the years she worked with us she was constantly worried about finding a new place to live as the city government had informed her that it needed to bulldoze her property in order to make a ring road around Hà Nội. We knew how life-giving that garden was to Vinh and her family, so we were sad to come back to visit some years later and find that Vinh had had to leave her beloved home. We found her in an apartment twenty floors up in a high-rise, the price of modernization. She had an amazing view of the city, a quite comfortable place, and a balcony where she placed some colorful plants, but she expressed a certain nostalgia for the garden and her communal village-style way of life that she left behind—a good example of what was happening in Việt Nam writ large.
After we left Việt Nam, Vinh had the opportunity to study peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University. Even in her retirement she still helps advise MCC and conducts evaluation tours of MCC’s work in Việt Nam. She is beloved by all who know her. Vinh was a bright light, guide and trusted friend to us all through our nearly five years in Việt Nam. Her lovely smile is always in our memory, as well as her true heartfelt love for her people and for MCC.
All told, we worked with MCC in Việt Nam for nearly five years. Our kids our now grown, and one of them lives and works in Hà Nội. Ken and I both teach at Fresno Pacific University in California; Ken teaches history and international relations, and I teach English. Together, we lead a study abroad trip to Việt Nam every other year, offering us the great chance to meet, once again, with our many friends there.