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Writing history in Vietnam

I arrived in Hanoi for the first time on 2nd December 1978 to replace Chris Ray as an English-language specialist at the Vietnam News Agency (VNA) working on the daily English news bulletin.

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Thousands of Cambodian citizens in Phnom Penh gather on May 2, 1983, to bid farewell to Vietnamese volunteer soldiers of the Military Unit 4 -- Cuu Long Military Corps after they completed their mission in Cambodia. — VNA File Photo


I flew into what did not look like an international airport. The plane passed over numerous bomb craters before landing a good walk from a warehouse-type structure that served as a terminal near the bombed makeshift airport buildings.

I was greatly moved as I was visually confronted by the consequences of the war I had read about and seen on TV.

It took 45 minutes to successfully connect to VNA by radio telephone and a lot longer for a Soviet-style jeep to pick me up. It bounced around the narrow road dodging bikes, ox-carts and buffaloes, not to mention pedestrians, for about two hours before reaching the centre of town. It was barely possible to go faster than the throngs of bikes and ox-carts.

The telegram I sent to Chris from Vientiane that announced my arrival details a couple of days before arrived about 8 days after me.

Thus began a most extraordinary three-year period in my life in which I always had the feeling that I was like a fly on the wall watching history unfold first-hand. The main bridge between me and this amazing country was the wonderful people I worked with at VNA and the Voice of Vietnam Radio.

Chris remained on the job for a couple of weeks or so and was a wonderful mentor. My job was to polish the English translations of Vietnamese newspaper reports and whatever else needed translation.

The translators had varying English abilities. The sub-editor, Nguyen Cong Khuyen, was easily the most proficient.

Part of my role was to give feedback to the translators on the best way to express something in English. This might involve a conversation to discover the intended meaning and avoid ambiguity. The translation of idioms was often a challenge as was the need to get away from the idea that Vietnamese words had precise English equivalents regardless of context.

How to highlight interesting content obscured by the turgid or drab style of much Vietnamese political reporting was another challenge. Khuyen was a great supporter of a more lively style.

About three weeks after my arrival, Vietnamese forces, along with Cambodian rebels from among the 350,000 refugees in Vietnam, intervened to overthrow the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia and put an end to many months of cross-border raids. The News Agency was kept busy reporting on, not only military progress, but more interestingly, on the stories of Cambodians who had been liberated. They included stories of shocking atrocities.

During the next several weeks, VNA reported on numerous incidents along the Sino-Vietnamese border which were building up to the eventual Chinese invasion in mid-February 1979. There was a month of intense fighting until Chinese troops were forced to withdraw.

The atmosphere in Hanoi during the invasion became a little tense. Many people went about their daily business with rifles slung over their shoulders. A couple of explosions in the city, later explained as soldiers’ hand-grenade accidents, were, at first, associated with a suspected Chinese fifth column and my boss tried to persuade me not to ride my bike around at night as Chinese might think I looked Soviet and, therefore, a good target. The Australian Embassy was making contingency evacuation plans and offered to include me.

One of my work colleagues, at one point, asked almost incredulously, “Is this your first war?” Another said, “We always knew we would defeat the Americans - we just didn’t know which generation would do it. But China is always right there.”

I wanted to travel to the front and finally got the chance. My preference was to go to the nearest affected area, Lang Son, about 150km from Hanoi. Instead, fortunately as it turned out, I was allocated to a Soviet-style jeep going to Hoang Lien Son, while my dear friend, Khuyen, headed for Lang Son at the same time. A Japanese journalist with Khuyen was killed by a Chinese sniper in a lengthy shoot-out in Lang Son. I was with his friend, another Japanese journalist, when he heard the news on short-wave radio. Khuyen returned to Hanoi with blood all over his jacket but, in a country where clothes were repeatedly patched rather than thrown away, he continued to wear it.

It was, if I remember correctly, the 17th Chinese invasion of Vietnam and I was fascinated to read post-war analysis in the media of the traditional invasion routes and means used by China and the various strategies to repel them and how these had informed Vietnamese planning in 1979.

In June that year, I walked along a narrow path through a minefield to witness an exchange of prisoners arranged by the International Red Cross. Chinese troops occupied Vietnamese peaks and fired several shots - to create atmosphere, I assume, rather than to hit a target.

Although VNA continued to report lower intensity Chinese attacks in border areas and news from Cambodia continued to come in, other general news got more of an airing.

There were many articles featuring production statistics. Many listed the percentage over-fulfilment of production targets. They looked impressive till someone told me that targets were often revised downwards to ensure there would be an over-fulfilment.

During my period at VNA, the economic situation was deteriorating. Rice production, in particular, was stagnant or worse and inflation was soaring. Increasingly, shops had empty shelves or goods for display only. As the gap between official State prices and the black market increased, the dominant State sector started to crumble.

With rice production declining, the government took particular interest in an area where the opposite was happening. It was found that local authorities were illegally allowing farmers much greater opportunity to sell a proportion of their produce at market prices. There was much concern as to what should be done. Should theory be adjusted to reflect known facts or should established ideological purity be upheld at all costs? A prolonged debate preceded the inevitable change and this was reflected to some extent in the newspapers.

VNA also transmitted interesting stories about various aspects of Vietnamese culture, lifestyle and history which contributed to my understanding of the country. These were fleshed out for me by my workmates.

On one occasion, Khuyen told me he was recruiting a new translator and asked for my assessment of the English competence of two or three young women on the shortlist. After checking their writing, I interviewed them and gave him my opinion. The strongest candidate was from a family with a private business and parents of the weakest were State employees and, therefore, very poorly paid at a time when the economy was weakening. I recommended the one with the best English but Khuyen felt an obligation to give the job to the neediest, arguing that her skills would improve in time. Following an interesting conversation, he decided to employ both.

One of the odd features of life in Vietnam at that time was that Vietnamese were forbidden to have unauthorised contact with foreigners, but I was repeatedly assured that I was perfectly free in that regard. As we began riding our bikes home after work one day, Khuyen quickly put an end to our conversation by saying that we could not be seen together. We could talk freely at work but not outside. This bureaucratic paranoia was a hangover from security concerns arising from decades of war. It gave rise to a number of interesting incidents but didn’t stop me eventually getting married to a wonderful Vietnamese woman.

After my first year in Vietnam, I concluded that it takes that long to get a good understanding of the country. At the end of my three-year stint, I realised how wrong that was. With very rudimentary language skills, I was just scratching the surface. There was much more to explore but my time was up. I owe so much to my colleagues at VNA and at the Voice of Vietnam Radio, where I filled in my spare time doing similar work, for their friendship, kindness and insights. At those workplaces, I met some of the most wonderful people in my life - including my friend of forty years, Khuyen.

George Campbell, former copy-editor at VNA



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