16 May 2017

Vo Nguyen Giap - Vietnam - UNDP

Back in 1990 I travelled to Hanoi in Vietnam to give a course for UNDP on biochemistry and toxicology. This was in response to MAFTech, my then employer, asking its staff to put themselves out 'there' with the view to making money for the organisation. I was snapped up immediately :-), but I have to say I felt somewhat stretched and had to work harder than I'd ever worked before, preparing the next days work each night and  each dawn running through Hanoi and its surroundings. I occasionally ran over the French Bridge and out into the countryside. It was quite moving running through these hardworking people as they made their way towards the city markets with their goods.

When I flew in to Hanoi over the rice fields I soon realised that the circular patterns about the airfield were in fact bomb pocks and I began wondering if I'd had much conscience about the war, what the hell I was doing there and how I'd be treated. After an amusing processing at immigration I was greeted by Tam Nguyen Duc, a friendly Vietnam veterinarian who was to be my efficient interpreter and helper for the month I was in Hanoi. That afternoon I was taken to a decorated hall where I was introduced and asked to give my (unexpected) introductory lecture. I managed to conjure up an introduction to the subject matter, a background to toxicology, myself and Ruakura. The course itself began in earnest the next morning.

Sitting in the front row during that induction were several administrators for the Vietnam organisation hosting the course. I didn't know it at the time but one of them may have been Vo Nguyen Giap who, at that stage was in charge of science and technology in Vietnam - this was then about 15 years after the end of what they called "The American War".

The course proceeded and I was very well looked after by both UNDP and the Vietnamese, especially Tam who had a difficult job interpreting for me and looking after my day to day needs for the course. He taught me a lot. One of the women on the course had been an anti-aircraft gunner during the American raids on Hanoi.

The Course Group and Ho Chi Min

Part of Course Group

Study Group
Repaired War Damaged French Bridge on Red River


I was very impressed with the Vietnamese, their friendly hospitality and especially their pragmatism.
One story I remember is of an attempt to do a deal with America. "No, this couldn't happen", the American contingent explained, "The American people could never accept this so soon after our war". "Why not?"the Vietnamese explained, "We have been fighting the Chinese for a thousand years. We were only fighting you for ten years - you are our friends!" It said a lot about their attitude of getting on with things.

Anyway, when I returned to New Zealand, someone drew my attention to a General Giap; and hadn't I met him as he was in charge of science at the time. To my shame I said "Who is Giap?"

General Vo Nguyen Giap

Well, I had it explained to me that he was regarded by some as one of the greatest military generals ever. He had been in charge during the defeats of both the French (famously at Dien Bien Phu) in 1954 and the Americans and South Vietnam in 1975. Interestingly one of his last duties after his stellar military career and a post war period of being Deputy Prime-Minister was to be in charge of birth control in Vietnam. What else would you do with one of your great strategic thinkers? He died in 2014 at the age of 102. One morning I was taken to visit Ho Chi Minh in his mausoleum but I don't think I was important enough to meet Giap.