Thirty Years with Vietnam

by  Elizabeth Holdeman and Dan Wessner
MCC Vietnam, Cần Thơ, 1990-1993

We had been married a year and a half when we reached Hà Nội in November 1990. It was a journey that began before we were even engaged. Pat and Earl Martin knew that Liz had just earned her graduate degree in Education & Curriculum Development and had worked with 70 Hmong children in the classrooms she oversaw in Denver, Colorado. Pat asked Liz to consider teaching English and building language curricula in the Mekong Delta. Her answer was “of course!”  

But Liz was then nearly engaged to Dan. What would he say?  He was completing seminary and doing a thesis on the impact of pacifists serving in Việt Nam during the war. His academic advisor was Richard Falk, who negotiated the release of American hostages from the Hà Nội Hilton prison. Dan’s response was, “of course!” 

Once our married life was underway and graduate studies were behind us, we headed to MCC orientation in June, 1990. We anticipated leaving for Cần Thơ right after orientation, but during orientation we learned that Miriam Hershberger, the first MCC worker to reside in Việt Nam after 1976, had had to leave Hà Nội on short notice. With the post-war U.S. embargo on all of Việt Nam now in its fifteenth year, Việt Nam was signaling—yes, it aimed to normalize relations with the West, but still, Việt Nam would limit the activities of foreign educators, development personnel, and businesspeople. 

Our departure for Việt Nam was placed on hold. Indefinitely. Dr. Võ Tòng Xuân, Vice Rector of Cần Thơ University, who had requested of MCC that we work with his young English Language faculty, now asked that we be patient even as “old Việt Nam hands” in the States doubted that our visas would be permitted. Even MCC tamped down our expectations: it pitched us alternative countries and postings. A few other people with Việt Nam experience were optimistic, and we sided with them. So we waited.

Our wait, however, was in turbulent times. In August 1990 Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and the United States geared up for what it calls the First Persian Gulf War. With no idea when we might be allowed to serve in Việt Nam, we immersed ourselves in that very present cause of peace. We researched, authored, and presented in churches a study booklet on the root causes of conflict in the Gulf and the role of diplomats and citizens in challenging another U.S. march to war. Our church sent copies to every Congressional Representative, Senator, and United Nations delegate. More than one hundred people signed each cover letter. There was a sense of urgency. Reply correspondence filled six filing cabinet drawers. At that time, a more bipartisan Congress than the one we have today genuinely deliberated whether or not we should go to war. 

That November, Congress voted to authorize war funding 52-47 in the Senate and 200-183 in the House. By contrast, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution—taken some 26 years earlier—funded US military expansion in Việt Nam by a margin of 88-2 in the Senate and 416-0 in the House. Senators Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening, the two senators who opposed the war, were not re-elected to office.

Just as Congress cast its vote for Operation Desert Shield, we learned that our visas for Việt Nam had been approved. Due to the U.S. embargo on commerce and diplomatic relations with Việt Nam, we had to process our visas in Bangkok. When we arrived there we met Jan and Mark Siemens and Minh and Fred Kauffman, two MCC families committed to reconciliation between our countries. We then flew on to Hà Nội and met Janet and Stan Reedy, the new MCC country representatives, who themselves had just received their visas. Making introductory calls upon the government ministries that signed off on our visas, we learned that Dr. Xuân had personally vouched for our work and behavior. Then, as now and always, we stand on the shoulders of many who have proven the worth of people-to-people diplomacy and development.

Once we reached Cần Thơ University in the southern delta, we settled into an abandoned rowhouse that had been built in 1975 by the Mekong River Commission. The young faculty of English was eager to learn of new linguistic texts and approaches. They gave us just a week to prepare our first teacher-training workshop. In addition, our neighbor, who happened to be the University Rector, Dr. Trần Phươc Dương, arranged for us to teach a class of selected faculty whom the University hoped would later study abroad. At that time, only three of the University faculty held doctorates—one in agronomy, another in microbiology, and a third in economics.

In 1990, 1.5% of graduating Vietnamese high school students could enter university. Post-war poverty and the embargo left many fields severely underfunded, including education. This miniscule entrance rate reflected just how few campuses there were. Still, the country hungered for education. It imagined far greater enrollment and expanded world engagement. The latter goal meant that all university students had to gain some fluency in a second language. From 1975 to 1990, the requirement was that all students acquire Russian. From 1990 onward, they could choose from three languages: Russian, the language of their closest ally on the world stage in the recent past; French, the language of their former colonizer; or English, the new global-business lingua franca, especially popular in ASEAN. 

At Cần Thơ University, nine students stuck with Russian. 40 opted for French. 4,951 chose English. 

Even as people were preparing for post-embargo opportunities, life in Cần Thơ was still quite parochial. Since we were the only two resident foreigners in the delta, we lived within rigid boundaries. There was a 6:00 PM curfew. The mail came just once a month in a sealed packet from the United Nations. We could not reference international news in class. The long-distance phone at the downtown post office cost $10 per minute on account of worldwide transfers needed to circumvent the embargo. There was a single office on campus with a dial-up internet modem.

Biking beyond the gate of our residential campus of teachers, we had two options. To the right, we could wend our way on dirt roads to the teaching campus, an open air market, a phở shop, the bike repairman, the post office, a floating market at the wharf, several temples and churches, or a couple cafes that roasted their own beans and cast a heavenly aroma out to the street. To the left were the rice paddies and fruit orchards. Traveling to the left required permit papers and an accompanying faculty member. 

The teaching campus was very modest. A rusted-out tank marked the entrance. We taught in a one-story row of classrooms with tin roofs. We used homemade chalk on “blackboards” of black paint on plaster walls. Students sat four to a bench. During breaks we all played badminton and volleyball on courts chalked onto the grass between the low-slung buildings. 

Our undergraduate English majors were enthusiastic, diligent, and intelligent. They were all committed to helping each other along. Regardless of whether the course was English language pedagogy, comparative cultures, or conversational English, these youth excelled. 

This presented a serious problem. While eager students rapidly developed their communication skills, most English instructors had no time to grow their own capacity. With the Party Congress proclamation of đổi mới—an open door policy for commerce, science, and communication—many citizens sought opportunities to study English. Our faculty, therefore, were tempted to teach private language classes day and night. If they could minimize on-campus hours, they could maximize time for private language lessons at home. To the faculty, we were a boon. They shunted onto us their undergraduate classes, and they reaped the welcome cashflow that came from independent teaching. We recognized that it was entirely natural to cash in—at that point, the per capita yearly income for a teacher was about $1,000. Quite predictably, with teachers teaching the same lessons time after time and with students exploring and expanding their knowledge, the latter began to surpass the former in terms of fluency. 

Dr. Xuân intervened. He called on the entire English faculty to attend a retreat at Núi Cấm, a mountain on the Cambodian border. For three days we strategized and debated over how to balance this newfound bonanza of income-generating private classes and Dr. Xuân’s expectation that the faculty upgrade their professionalism and their academic department stature. Atop the mountain, Dr. Xuân had everyone commit to two days of advanced studies per week. We sketched out the birth of the University’s new Center of Foreign Languages. Dr. Xuân set the requirement that only professionally advancing teachers could teach at this Center. The bottom line was long-term professionalism over short-term gains. Dr. Xuân then had everyone join hands and sing “We Shall Overcome.”

Ever since, our emotions well up when we hear this civil rights anthem, a chorus of human advance. In the years that followed, this faculty raised the bar in Việt Nam for progressive approaches to Second Language Acquisition. They published hundreds of thousands of language books for dissemination from south to north. We teamed up to design and stock the first open-shelf English Language library in the country since the 1968 Tết Offensive. Student volunteers staffed the library seven days a week. Patrons of the library sat two to a seat. 

For a movement to be sustained, though, there must be inbreaking energy, fresh vision, and knowledge applied to what lies ahead. This human energy did not abate. Critically, the English faculty secured scholarships to pursue advanced degrees abroad. Nearly all of them returned to the university to lift educational standards higher and higher. Another form of incoming energy was the annual Get Together Concert. On the stage of the campus auditorium, amidst a tangle of cords, scratchy microphones, low-amp speakers, a disco ball, one strobe light, and a bust of Ho Chi Minh, students and faculty joined in sharing English and Vietnamese songs and poems. Even the top university administrators got on stage to sing. Vietnamese DNA contains a karaoke gene. 

At our second Get Together Concert, we were coaxed into singing a traditional Vietnamese ballad. Our language teacher assured us that if we could just memorize the words and tune of the first line of the song, everyone in the standing-room-only auditorium would join in and carry it from there. Taking that risk, we did manage one line. Thankfully, the audience joined in and belted out the ballad. People marveled at our ability to acquire Vietnamese so quickly. Year to year, concert to concert, class to class, volleyball match to match, we felt tremendous love and encouragement from a campus and community preparing for immense change.

Today, profound change is evident across the society and state, but most especially in the lives of individual people. On the residential campus where we lived in the 1990s, the rowhouses and apartments generally had no window panes. So, tucked within mosquito nets and lying awake in bed before dawn, we could hear the bullfrogs and a bread boy cycling around the neighborhood, calling out bánh mì nóng giòn đây—hot crispy bread here. This was Hau, who soon stood at our door with bread to sell. Each morning, it was his job to sell 60 French loaves. We agreed that Hau would save the last two for us. 

Dan and Hau swapped impromptu English and Vietnamese lessons every morning. After months of this routine, we realized how much we would value a little extra rest on our only day off. So, Dan explained to Hau that we would forego two loaves on Sundays. Hau understood. No bread on Sundays. 

And yet, after selling his 60 loaves on Sundays, Hau would stop by our front gate at dawn on Sunday, throw pebbles at the door, and wait until Dan dressed and went outside for their daily conversation. Eventually, Hau was “adopted” by the English language faculty. When the new Center of Foreign Languages opened, Hau became a staff member—the night watchman and technology repairman. He still works there today.

Our relationship with the English faculty matured quickly since we were together day-in and day-out. Each May, as a gift to ourselves, our whole faculty rented an old Russian bus and took excursions to Nha Trang, Huế, and Đà Lạt. The bus always broke down, but with humor, laughter, and bits of metal and cardboard, the bus drivers jerry-rigged repairs and got us to our destinations. Our bonds deepened, and we soon forgot the weight of the initial months of curfew and prohibited visits to our colleagues’ homes.

The faculty lived and worked as one large extended family, and eventually, we, too, were family members. There was tons of collective work, and life beyond work as well. Each Tết we received a flood of invitations. So, too, we attended engagement ceremonies, weddings, first birthday celebrations—when children are named—funerals, and death anniversaries.

Communication with our own families back home was difficult due to the embargo. Once a month we received a pouch of mail that was assembled in Bangkok. The MCC Office sent it to the Hà Nội office, and then the United Nations delivered it to us in Cần Thơ. It was like a holiday to receive this pouch. First, there were precious letters. Then, we had a full month’s worth of our International Herald Tribune. We put the papers in chronological order, sat beside each other, and read a month’s news in one ravenous sitting. Since we were not allowed to use current news materials in class, we were instructed to burn our newspapers and then bury the ashes in our garden. 

On only one occasion during our three years did we receive a phone call. In April 1992, Stan Reedy got through to us that it was urgent that we call Liz’s family in Denver. We rode our bikes downtown to the Post Office. After waiting our turn for the long-distance line, we learned that her father, Ivan, had advanced pancreatic cancer. Remarkably, at a time when there were scarcely any flights in and out of Việt Nam, we were able to get tickets out of Ho Chi Minh City for the next day. We were overwhelmed to find that the English faculty booked a bus so that all of them could accompany us on the eight-hour ride to Ho Chi Minh City. We took ferries across the fingers of the Mekong twice, slurped phở, ate kilos of mangoes in a park near the airport, and talked and talked. We assured everyone that it was our intent to return, but our future—and Ivan’s future—was uncertain. Tears flowed among our faculty family, as if we would never return. We were able to be with Ivan for the last six weeks of his life. We spent several more weeks with Liz’s mother as she adjusted to widowhood. 

And then we did return to Cần Thơ. This sealed the bond between the English faculty, the students, and us. We joked that our collaboration was calling on us eight days per week—in pursuit of meaningful curricula, an open library, book publishing, grant-writing, opportunities to study abroad, meaningful communication, and trust. At the end of our MCC term in 1993, we were confident that our work and relationships would continue to mature.

Returning to Denver, we itinerated across Canada and the United States for six months to urge churches, communities, and student bodies to write their political leaders demanding that the U.S. embargo be lifted. Then, Dan began his doctorate in international studies. During his first semester, his father, Wayne, also died. Again, knowing that we stand on the shoulders of those who raised and mentored us, we redoubled our resolve to understand Việt Nam, the cause of peace, and the art of teaching. Two years into his doctoral work, Dan received a MacArthur Fellowship. This supported our family for another three years in Việt Nam—this time in Hà Nội. We lived in a village on the outskirts of Hà Nội from 1996 to 1999 and immersed ourselves in a second Vietnamese culture. Dan taught long hours at the Institute of Việt Nam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. These were fabulous years of new learning, staying in touch with Cần Thơ colleagues, and gaining a comparative appreciation of Việt Nam’s diversity. On one occasion, Dan sat in on meetings with Secretary Robert S. McNamara, his top dozen administrators, and their wartime counterparts in Hà Nội, including Secretary Nguyễn Cơ Thạch and his administrators. These leaders recorded an oral history of their decision making in the 1960s. And, in that record, leaders of the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations admitted that they had given Congress a false narrative. They admitted that the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was all part of the “fog of war.” It was a convenient fabrication used to “legitimize” predetermined U.S. hegemony.

Most significantly, during these years in Hà Nội we adopted Alex Thành Yên, then 23 months old, and Annie Phương Lan, two months old. Students and colleagues at the Ministry supported our fledgling family, sharing meals, culture, lesson planning, and friendship. Moreover, Jake and Louise Buhler, formerly with MCC but now working for Bread for the World and the Canada Fund, shared their home, wisdom, meals, and passion for Scrabble. We joined a very small expat ecumenical International Church that spanned all ages. Bruce and Betsy Hedrick-McCrae, then serving as the MCC country representatives, did their best to get everyone to sing four-part harmony. The Maryknoll priests were allowed to bless and lay the Sacraments before our small group of Catholics and Protestants, though technically they were not allowed to serve Protestants directly. This led to some rather inclusive worship. Jake would hold toddler Alex in his arms as we approached the Eucharistic Table for taking Communion by intinction. Each week, Jake assisted as Alex dipped one of his Cheerios into the wine. 

After three years in Hà Nội, we returned to academic positions in Canada and the United States—but we were just one decade into our life with Việt Nam. Dr. Xuân, now the founding Rector of An Giang University, came knocking again. In 2000, he invited us to facilitate the bilingual and inter-disciplinary competence of another English faculty. Bit by bit the embargo was being lifted and Việt Nam was joining international organizations, and now the country needed to abide by copyright conventions. This raised new challenges and opportunities. How could language curricula be pertinent to Việt Nam’s context, feature original and non-pirated material, and still be affordable? How much discussion of national and regional current affairs and science could be included? Who would take the lead in creating such texts? The most promising Vietnamese educators for such demanding tasks were working on advanced degrees abroad. Yet prescient and engaging curriculum development requires hundreds—no, thousands!—of hours of labor. Moreover, the old challenge of high-paying private lessons continued to pull faculty away from campus-based projects. And for us, this call came when we were establishing ourselves in academia and shoring up family ties in the U.S. 

Most summers, though, we returned to Cần Thơ University and An Giang University with students from Bluffton University and Eastern Mennonite University. We provided annual teaching workshops in the delta. We experimented with writing and delivering a linked Vietnamese and American classroom platform. Critically, Future Generations University, Eastern Mennonite University, the University of Denver, and Bluffton University generously supported 26 of our colleagues from Hà Nội, Cần Thơ, and An Giang in their graduate studies. We continue to work with most of these educators today.

Always under the aegis of Dr. Xuân, our growing team devised a Việt Nam-contextualized linguistic-development pedagogy. Our approach is called iC5 – intercultural communicative competence, confidence, and collaboration. It features Vietnamese profiles of farmers, scholars, vendors, shrimpers, leaders, and students, all applying bilingualism to achieve keen insight for sustainable development. iC5 is a process of continuous teacher-training—of workshops, forums, and graduate studies—that leads to useful products—texts, websites, repositories, global classrooms, community-based tasks, and normative behaviors. It initially tracked the UN’s eight Millennium Development Goals and now equips learners for achieving their seventeen Sustainable Development Goals. Applying knowledge and theories of change, our Vietnamese colleagues generate human energy to power sustainability and resilience. Our work includes relations with Vietnamese authorities, high schools, universities, international organizations—including the UN Development Program based in Hà Nội—non-profits such as IEEE Smart Village and HILL, and corporations including TTC, Intertek, and ON Semiconductor.

Over three decades, our colleagues and we have learned to rely on three principles—regard, reciprocity, and resilience. These are our three Rs. While we are all educators whose time is consumed daily by lesson plans and classes, it is ever necessary to hold in regard the person or the student before us—to love that person. Our development work is sustainable and scalable only so long as we are able to reciprocate—to give and receive, to learn and provide something of value, to encourage each other and to love ourselves. Third, resilience for us is the capacity to face challenges smartly, to bounce back more strongly, and to muster resolve to imagine and achieve lasting solutions. As we stand on the shoulders of others, we learn humble regard for mentors past and present, we feel the weight of reciprocity, and we craft well-wrought resilience. 

The past thirty years with Việt Nam have shaped the arc of our lives. Working with teachers in-country and online now occurs through our co-creation of a curriculum called Bending Bamboo. It equips teachers and students to be “bilingual with purpose to grow the future.” It links rural and urban, rich and poor, and global classrooms for sustainable, equitable, resilient, and inclusive learning. It gives voice to Vietnamese challenges and solutions. It pools American and Vietnamese learning for problem solving. It grows a humble and expectant sense of we, and diminishes any sense of they. It is a model for schools in Việt Nam, for Việt Nam and one other country, for a consortium of countries—countries all facing the challenges of climate crisis, human migration, income disparity, peace, and lack of accessible social opportunities in education, health, and meaningful work. 

At the start of 2020, we celebrated the commencement of six Cần Thơ teaching colleagues—Thư, Tiên, Trức, Mau, Diên, and Duy. Dan’s former student, now our development colleague, Bui Phương Tra, made this celebration possible at The Green One UN Headquarters in Hà Nội. The hooding of our graduates from the Future Generations University Master of Arts in Applied Community Development is a significant milestone for them. They combine linguistics and sustainable development. They keep a process of teacher-training in motion. They encourage scores of educators coming to know about Bending Bamboo. Their process and product are uniquely created by and for Việt Nam’s place in the world. These teachers—and leaders—are the future of Bending Bamboo. They will show us the way forward into our fourth decade of living with Việt Nam.