By 1992 my diaries had begun to reflect the complexity of the development situations I encountered. Every conversation was a chance to get a new insight into cross-cultural communications. Every project activity became the signal for another question or observation.
At first I had only understood things as they were presented to me. "Here is the dam, Mr Hunt" and I would see a dam of water. Now I would wonder how the dam changed the power balance in the community, whether it caused environmental damage by changing the grazing patterns of the cattle, how it might change the role of women and children who used to see themselves as water carriers.
Vietnam in 1992 was a rich place to make such explorations. It was exploding into the world, and struggling to come to grips with the rigidity of a Communist system against the freedom of markets.
Some Fly Business Class
Welcome to Economy Class again. World Vision Australia had an enlightened travel policy which predated my leadership. Most people travelled Economy Class. All flights within Australia, and international flights under ten hours, were taken in Economy Class.
However, the organisation had learned that there was a trade-off when longer flights were involved. Someone who travelled twenty hours in a plane was going to be very tired at the end and all the more so if squeezed into a small seat, and surrounded by the West Los Angeles Baton Twirlers Club making their first visit to Australia. That happened to me once. One pre-teen girl was cute. Twenty-five of them were a cacophony.
With lack of sleep and jetlag, long distance travellers were usually unproductive when they arrived. Some wallowed in a daze for days. Our experience was that the extra investment in a Business Class seat (never in First Class, unless some generous airline offered a free upgrade), often made our people more productive more quickly. If it was going to cost money to get people overseas for a conference or project evaluation, we wanted to get the best out of that investment.
I had been delighted over the years to discover how many World Vision people flew Economy anyway, even when the policy entitled them to the extra comfort.
No Extra Charge For The Mice
On this journey Thai Airlines brought us safely to Hanoi. With me were colleagues Roger Walker and Boyne Alley and World Vision Australia Board member, Noel Vose. Our Vietnamese colleagues, Mrs Lan, Esther and Victor, were at the airport to meet us and see us safely into the Lotus Hotel in town.
This was a pleasant dive with a black and white TV, working fridge, hot water, flush toilet and clean linen. Apart from the eight flights of steps up to the room in thirty-five degree heat, it was fine. The simple 'Guide for Visitors' produced by the local World Vision office recommended that one not leave one's shirts on the floor as friendly mice would eat small holes in them. 'The mouse', said the Guide, 'comes with the room (no extra charge)'.
The Guide also said that there was no need to tip in Vietnam. Yet the porter stood still when he dropped my suitcase and said the only English that sprang to mind: 'One dollar'. Since many Vietnamese would not earn one dollar a day, I felt that price was a bit steep. But what could I do? I gave him a dollar, thus contributing to the distortion of the local economic order.
Roger threatened Noel and Boyne with his 'special gift for first-time visitors to Vietnam'. Snake liquor. This is the vile concoction that has the full body of a snake curled up in the bottle.
The drive in from the airport was a non-stop interrogation. Boyne and Noel asked questions about everything that moved and most things that didn't. Why is that there? Who built that? Why? How big? When? Why? These were questions that, for the most part, the local people had never thought to ask. (How would you answer someone who asked, as you passed the Melbourne Cricket Ground, 'Why did they build it there?')
The Embassy Heard We Were Coming
At four we went to the Australian Embassy. The last time I was there we had lunch with some people from Son La province. This had been an utter surprise to me as I had been totally unaware of any of our project work in the province. Yet here were these people thanking me and giving me gifts for something World Vision Australia had done for them. I graciously accepted their thanks, praising God for colleagues who didn't need to ask my permission to help the poor.
This time I was better prepared. No-one turned up to shower gifts upon us. Indeed, the Ambassador had heard we were coming and left town. The First Secretary had suddenly found reasons to be out too. We were met by an AIDAB project officer who had been in Hanoi a mere week.
Ice Cream for Mrs Lan
We stopped by the Metropole Hotel for refreshment. The afternoon was hot but not unbearable. Rain seemed close by. Bob Seiple, president of World Vision US, had stayed at the Metropole in the early days. Roger thought Bob may have had the original bed; it had such a sag in the middle that he and his wife Margaret rolled together and the mattress touched the floor. How Roger knew this, decency prevented me from asking.
The Metropole had been transformed since then. It was very French in the best colonial style, right down to a chef named Didier. As we walked in Boyne looked at me accusingly and said, 'Were you the one who chose that other hotel? This seems more like it'. Of course, he protested, he was only joking. A room here cost US$265 a night. More than the average Vietnamese earned in a year.
Mrs Lan walked us around like a tour guide showing off a local historical site. Then she directed us to the lounge bar where we sank down into a rich black leather Chesterfield.
'What would you like?' asked the waiter.
Mrs Lan said quickly (as if she had been preparing all day), 'Ice cream.'
Now there was something you couldn't get in Hanoi last time.
Begging Is A Business
Roger wanted to buy some water so we decided to go for a walk in the city centre. Hanoi was still a place where you could walk free from badgering. The same could not be said of Saigon, where hordes of street kids were likely to descend on you en masse, emptying your pockets with such daring that you were left gasping at their audacity.
Regrettably, the begging industry was beginning to take hold.
And it was an industry. Equally regrettable was the fact that it was, comparatively speaking, lucrative. A few dollars a day earned from foreigners was more than a worker might earn from more productive enterprise. Two or three beggars encountered us but they were not persistent in their advances.
More insistent were the newspaper boys anxious to sell me a copy of Vietnam Investment Adviser. This was not a newspaper for which I had much fascination. I asked one newspaper boy if it had a girl on page three and he showed me instead a magazine with a dull faced naked woman on the cover. Served me right for trying to be funny. I didn't buy it, either.
A man sat on a corner with two air pumps, a hand pump and a foot pump, providing a service to cyclo owners and other bicyclists. Dozens of people were set up with two square feet of groceries for sale. Bigger shops were only a metre or two long. A jewellery store also sold lacquerware and ancient fob watches with names like Omega, Longines and Skuda. Skuda?
Noel decided to buy a four-section lacquerware set with intricate inlays of duck egg shell for just $15. A silver bracelet was only $10, but I wasn't sure whether it would go over my daughters' hands. 'Too big for me', said the shop assistant, sliding the bracelet over the slimmest hand in the Orient. My signet ring would slide over that hand, I thought to myself.
As we walked along women rushed over to greet Roger. Former paramours or his Vietnamese wife's cousins? 'They remember me because I bought some maps from them', he explained. 'Sure, Roger. And I bought some chewing gum once at a shop in Knox City, and the owner remembers my children's birthdays now.' Pull the other one.
Beating Down The Prices
The ladies did try to sell us maps. We bought postcards instead. Ten thousand dong for ten. About ten cents each. The 'Hanoi' set was 15,000 dong. To a finance man like Boyne, 15,000 anything is a number to be decimated. He steadfastly refused to purchase the set at 15,000, trying to beat the shopkeeper down to ten. She was already offering her 'best price'.
The impasse was resolved in the usual fashion. Boyne walked away. She didn't call out. At the next shop, another cousin greeted Roger and offered the same postcards for 14,000. 'A veritable bargain', pronounced Boyne. He'd saved himself ten cents.
No Safety Net In A Free Market
We drove around Hanoi the next morning. Many women wore conical cane hats tied under the chin with colourful silk. Boyne was later to discover that such hats were scratchy if worn by bald men. Many men wore green pith helmets.
We were on the way to meet Dr Ngo Van Hop, Director of International Cooperation in the Ministry of Health, and Dr Vin, who travelled with our film team last time I was here and was head of the government department that related to foreign aid agencies.
Dr Hop's top priority was community health centres. Thirty per cent were good, he said; forty per cent were OK; thirty per cent were bad.
'Why?' I asked.
'The salary from the community is low. It has not kept pace with other incomes and local costs, so it is hard to get people to staff the centres. The State has agreed to pay two-thirds of salaries at clinics in remote mountainous regions. Local district committees have the control now. So about half have adequate salaries.'
Another of the unintended consequences of the move to a free market.
I found myself wondering, Where is the safety net for the poor? The changes in the economy were the right ones. Many of the formerly poor had now entered the economy as entrepreneurs and small business operators. They had moved from poverty into the new middle classes. This was good. But many others were still unable to make the leap into the middle classes. Their capacity to contribute was not utilised. For them, conditions were getting worse.
Private medical services were growing rapidly. For the poor, who could not afford the new private doctors, the State-run medical system was deteriorating further from already impossibly low levels. Unless something was done to provide a safety net, life would become increasingly intolerable at the bottom of society. As the average level of wealth rose, and as the average quality of life improved, the gap between rich and poor would grow. Not merely because the rich would be getting richer (that would be tolerable) but also because the poor would be getting poorer. And their ability to participate in the benefits of an increasingly vigorous economy would diminish. This was intolerable.
There were 4,000 private pharmacies already and they were growing fast. Pharmacists were opening chains of stores with the only link being the name of the qualified pharmacist. The rich could have any medicine they liked now. Not so the poor.
Dickens With Lasers
We left Dr Hop and drove through the bicycle-infested streets to visit the Cancer Institute. An Australian cobalt radiotherapy machine, superseded at home, was to be installed.
The whole place was full of incongruity. Dickens with lasers.
We were shown the existing radiotherapy machine in a concrete bunker out the back. Czechoslovakian technology from 1973. The machine was so old, we were told, that treatments which should take forty seconds, took four minutes. I found it hard to tell how well they were dealing with this technology, but then I was totally untrained. I trusted the experts we had sent to ensure they did it right. But my intuition was flashing 'Danger!'
Vietnamese Fast Food
With confused feelings about the quality and direction of health care in Vietnam, we motored across town. We were going to have 'Kentucky Fried Fish' for lunch.
We stopped in a narrow street, climbed a thin staircase and squeezed in with half of Hanoi. The whole front of the house was open to the street below. The buildings opposite were close and the branches of huge trees between filled the view. It was noisy but comparatively cool.
The menu consisted of just one dish: Yellow Fish. And an amazing (and secret) collection of herbs and spices.
A frying pan was placed on a terra cotta flower pot with a charcoal fire in it. Some greens were thrown into the pan; it looked like some kind of aromatic grass. Special oil. Fish sauce. Spring onions. Peanuts. Sticky noodles on the side. Deee-licious.
Library In Your Hand
After lunch we visited the School of Pharmacy. We met Professor Do. He was very enthusiastic about the Drug Information System from Iowa University. One CD ROM disc held all references from 1/85 to 4/92. A complete library he could hold in his hand.
This was an American product, and American companies could not trade with Vietnam. It was still the enemy in 1992. But it was 'sanitised' by coming from Curtin University in Perth.
'The help from World Vision is very precious', said Professor Do.
We had misgivings. Not about the quality or importance of the work there. It was excellent. However, whereas two years before we were training pharmacists to go into the health system to help the poor, now the graduates were going into private practice. I admit that in their position I would have done the same.
Doubtless Vietnam needed more private pharmacists. They would be good for the economy. But the only system available to the poor was the State health system. We questioned whether providing this training was World Vision work anymore.
Moreover, the new free market in pharmaceuticals meant that hospitals had to compete with the private pharmacies and the many unqualified people selling drugs. And many expatriate Vietnamese in other countries were sending drugs home as well. 'Free market has a good and a bad side', said the Professor. In the market there were even blind people selling drugs. God knows what you got when you asked for Paracetamol.
Everywhere we went we were offered tea and lychees. The lychees were deliciously sweet and juicy. It was impolite to refuse a drink although it was not impolite to leave it untouched.
Like To Build A Church?
Next we visited an Evangelical church and Bible school. We met the seventy-nine-year-old pastor, Dr Thu.
Pastor Thu liked to tell the story of how Roger came with the first cheque of $8,000 to rebuild the church. Twenty-five churches had been destroyed. Now they were rebuilding eight. But there had been no help from World Vision since Roger handed over the cheque.
It was tempting to authorise $40,000 to rebuild a church. It would have been a monument to my generosity. I could visit it. 'I made this possible'. But it would be a bad idea, and not just for my soul. Noel said the rebuilding of a church with outside money often created jealousy within the community which inhibited the effectiveness of the church. I wanted them to have their church buildings, but there were better things to do with World Vision's money.
Pastor Thu said, 'Soon we shall have our first graduates from the Bible school. They must have churches to go to.' But what's a church?
Real Fun Is Shopping
The going was getting tough, so the tough went shopping. The market streets of Hanoi were marvellous. In those days it was safe to walk. No thief picked our pockets. No shop-keeper charged outrageous prices (just two to three times more than normal). Beggars didn't follow you for blocks saying, 'Father, father, father ... 'like a cracked record.
It was pure joy for all your senses. The shops spilled onto the footpath in a panoply of packaging. Every nook was a shop, every cranny a kiosk.
In the silver shop I mentioned 'bracelets'. Three women thrust dozens of bracelets at me. I put one down. They picked it up and showed it to me again. Soon I was not sure what I'd seen already and what I hadn't. It was an effective sales technique. Did they have 300 bracelets, or ten bracelets which they showed me thirty times?
Boyne succumbed to temptation and bought one of those ludicrous conical hats. He put it on. His appearance had all the elegance of a human lamp shade.
Later at dinner, Noel tried again to find out how the changes in the economy were affecting the poor. 'How can the poorest of the poor be protected?' he asked a professor. Again he got no answers.
Da Nang Next
On the flight down to Da Nang, Roger discovered a sticker in his box of Uncle Toby's Muesli Bars. It was a mug shot of Susan O'Neill, a member of the Australian Olympic Swimming Team bound for Barcelona. Roger stuck it on the aircraft bulkhead. I wondered if Susan ever imagined, when she took up swimming, that her visage would one day adorn a Vietnam Airlines Tupolev aeroplane flying between Hanoi and Da Nang.
In Da Nang, Roman Garcia (ex-Philippines) met us with the rest of the World Vision team. Dr Anne Mattam from India had been there a month.
We checked into the much-improved Bach Dang hotel overlooking the river. Last time I was there we checked in then checked out thirty minutes later. This time everything worked, although when you showered, the whole bathroom got wet (even the toilet roll).
Crossed Phone Lines
Roger tried the phones next morning. 'Use that one', said the receptionist, pointing to one of two phones on the counter. She looked away, distracted by an American guest who was flirting with her.
Roger dialled the number we wanted in Bangkok. As he waited, the hotel phone rang and the receptionist answered in Vietnamese.
'Hello', said Roger into his phone, 'may I speak to Bryan Truman?'
'Hello?' said the receptionist into her phone. Roger looked up at her and said, 'It's me.'
The receptionist looked confused, then looked at the phone Roger was holding in his hand. 'Oh, sorry', she said, lifting another phone from under the counter. 'Wrong phone.'
Empire Building In The Small Empires
Later that day our cars bounced along a rural road to a local health clinic. The clinic chief told Dr Anne that he needed a new birthing table. 'But you have three already', she observed.
'Yes, but only two are working.'
'And how many births do you have a month here?'
'Twelve?' said Anne. 'Sounds to me like you already have more birthing tables than you need. You're not likely to ever use more than one at a time.'
'He also wanted a dozen iron beds', she told us later. 'It's just empire building.' Tin generals exist everywhere.
Learn To Be Humble
Wherever we went, we endured set pieces of speech making. Everyone was 'so honoured' to have us here. And for our part we were 'so humbled' to be permitted to be in partnership with such a dynamic people as the Vietnamese. Repetition undermines sincerity. It seemed that it was impossible to be too glad to receive us, and it was equally impossible to be too humble in response. You could not overdo humility in this society.
Uncle Ho And Jesus
Over dinner that night with Mr Nguyen Dinh An, the Vice Chairman of the People's Committee of the Quang Nam/Da Nang Province, our hosts waxed lyrical about Ho Chi Minh. He was portrayed, in turn, as the best in the world in the following categories: teaching, cooking, soldiering, managing, as a kitchen hand, philosophy, economics, politics. The myths have created a legendary figure.
On the present changes in economic logic our hosts reminded us that Uncle Ho said, 'If socialism doesn't help the poor, it's not worth persevering with'. 'Jesus would agree with that', I offered. 'No ism is just if it fails to bring justice to the poor.' This proved a bit hard to translate.
Tunnels Under Vietnam
We caught the early flight next morning to Saigon. Roger arranged for a driver and guide to take us to Cu Chi then left to visit the family of his wife, Lien.
At Cu Chi was Saigon's best tourist attraction: part of a network of 200 kilometres of tunnels and underground rooms built during the various wars. A short video presentation prepared us for a tour of the network. The video was a propagandised introduction to the greatness of the people of Cu Chi, who single-handedly drove off, in turn, the French, the Americans, the malaria and the common cold.
Heroes and heroines abounded. Here was Lam, who dug four kilometres of tunnels, on three levels, despite arthritis and a crippled left foot. And here was Truong, who at thirteen was already competent with rifle and rocket grenade launcher, yet too small to stand in the trenches. So she balanced across the chasm, ruining the prospects of hundreds of American young men every day. She was credited with thousands of enemy dead, many destroyed by antitank mines she whipped up in her backyard kitchen along with the rice and chocolate cake she made for her fellow soldiers.
Well, not quite. But you get the idea.
Despite the propaganda, the true story was incredible enough. The tunnels were fascinating and showed quietly and clearly the amazing endurance of these people. They indicated the extent to which they suffered and the privations they accepted. They presented the indomitable spirit of people who wanted freedom and self-determination. They still deserved better than they had got.