MISSION WORK AND PERSPECTIVES IN VIETNAM -
CONSIDERATION FOR NEXT GENERATIONS
Thuan Vu, MD

Several months ago, we had a discussion in our medical forum regarding medical mission work in Vietnam. The senior physicians had some reservation while the younger ones insisted that it was a must. A few young physicians in the group expressed surprise and maybe a bit of frustration at the senior members about their reservation. There was a notion among the young ones that the tide has changed, that we should forget about the past and move forward. It is a sensitive topic, and no one wants to sound politically incorrect.

Thus this writing, about mission and charity work in Vietnam. Since 1975, Vietnamese people have gone in different directions. Several millions are now all over the world. Many perished in concentration camps or in prisons, many died on the way to escape Vietnam, in the jungles, in the ocean. Over the last several years, thousands of students from Vietnam have gone abroad for study, mostly at college level. Lots of people visit Vietnam every year. Lots of mission and charity from all over the world, about 7 to 8 billions of dollars every year from the Vietnamese expatriates alone; special aids, loans, investment programs by many countries flow into Vietnam. By world standard, the majority of people in Vietnam are still poor, living in substandard conditions, especially in the rural areas, with poor health and education. On the other hand, many are extremely wealthy and successful. The world changes fast. Information passes by at light speed. Internet changes the way we connect. We are now different from each other, due to age, exposure… We eat different food, hear different stories, listen to different music, read different topics, and even speak different languages.

I am also of different background and exposure, thus my opinion is probably of "circumstantial bias" to a certain extent, thus this disclosure. I was born in the central war zone in Vietnam, and like most of my friends at the time, grew up with common wild idealistic and romantic dreams of the youth. I was in my first year of college in Saigon when North Vietnam communists took over the South in April 1975. Like many, I didn’t know much about Communism. Months later, I learned that communism theory was not what I saw in reality. Vices were exploited and flourished, and goodness suppressed. It was against humanity. I quit school, became a fisherman in the far south, and after several attempts, including one failed attempt when I was imprisoned, beaten and tortured, I was lucky to be on a boat, making its way to Malaysian the Spring of 1978. Nothing smelled better than the salty air of the ocean and freedom. I was full of gratitude. It has been more than 30 years now, lots of change. I have changed. Vietnam has changed. There are now more people, more development, more money…but also more issues. Personally, I have been lucky, got good education, married, now practicing medicine in US, and over the last several years had chance to do some charity work here and there.

Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of political tone and positioning in this writing, even when we just talk about charity work in Vietnam. Don't want to do that, but fate does not allow us to avoid politics when we talk about the past and its relevance to the present and future. Besides, communist regime has its hands in all social activities, including charity, unless you do it secretly. Also, a lot of my opinions here are geared toward the young people like my own children, the generations whom I assume may not have had the advantage of my or the older generation’s exposures; so for those who already knew about the story, please forgive me for wasting your time. For balance, I encourage you to search on line terms such as Vietnamese, Socialism, Communism, Marxism, Leninism, Viet Cong, Vietnam cultural revolution, land reform in Vietnam, Geneva agreements, 1954 and 1975 Vietnam exodus, Vietnam war, South Vietnam regime, the Tet offense in 1968, re-education camp, Vietnamese refugees, boat people, Viet kieu, mission works in Vietnam. Lots of writings these days regarding Vietnam over the past 30 to 40 years, as recalled by people who have been involved. Unfortunately, most of these writings are in Vietnamese, thus not quite accessible to young people who were born and grew up in other countries. A lot of strong opinions, some may be biased. You just have to dig in there, and form your own judgment. One easy and fun to read novel that you may consider is a small volume titled Animal Farm by George Orwell published in 1945, which depicted a story where pigs seized power from humans and governed other animals in a farm, with the goal to create an equalitarian society, later on about how idealism and a dream of utopia were betrayed along the course, poor and exploited animals continued to be poor and exploited. Several movies including cartoons were made out of this novel. You can you-tube online if you don’t have time to read (reading is still the best). Quite entertaining and amazingly still quite true!

First off, I think that charity or mission work is wonderful. Governments cannot do it all, and thus mission work by any group of good will individuals. It satisfies the urge to help, to dedicate. It nourishes the sense of community, glorifies irresistible beauty of idealism. So to my younger generations: if you are of volunteerism spirit, we are proud of you. You have the spirit of the knights, pouring your hearts out for the poor and the underprivileged. While many of your contemporaries are pursuing personal rewards, you venture into things that make life beautiful for yourself and people around you. However, if you decide to do mission work in Vietnam or have done so, there are some cautions and responsibilities that you might want to consider, for the sake of yourself, your political refugee background and stance, and for the future of Vietnam, to make your mission trip even more meaningful and positive.

Sort of similar to Jewish community, we are of a very peculiar background, time and fate that force us to think hard about the steps we take. Let me share with you the first chapter of Vietnamese political refugees. Although it may have been told many times, it is still important to be repeated again and again, so that we will not forget where we are from, who we are, and despite all the differences, we are related by that unique story, by that same root. That story began in 1975 when the North communists invaded the South. There was a large exodus of Vietnamese refugees in the last few days of April 1975. Then for a good 10 years or so after 1975, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people, by one way or another, took chance to escape Vietnam, by various routes, mostly by boats. Many people were imprisoned, killed, or died along the way. Many made it. We were reborn, sort of. Our fate was tied together on those ships and boats. The refugees were not of the same background. Some educated, others not, some from cities, some from the country, some were professors, doctors, engineers, soldiers, farmers, fishermen, students, young and old… Though not the same, there was something in common, and that was the hope and a conviction, deep down inside, invisible, unspoken, but shared by all of them, and that was: though painful, though sad, though the future was unknown, regardless of where we would settle in this world, whether it be America, Europe, Australia…that place was going to be better than living under a communist regime, even in our homeland. That place would be better because that was where human freedom and human rights were protected, opportunities and self-fulfillment allowed, and human dignity preserved. That conviction was so powerful that drove this massive exodus of Vietnamese refugees near the end of the 20thcentury, regardless of all the risks, the exodus of the magnitude unequaled by any other event in our national history. That conviction was our new birth certificate, tying us all together in this adventure into the new land, defining our intensity, our path, and into our future. Thirty some years later, that hope and conviction are still alive, regardless of how difficult life can be in strange land. And I hope someday you will tell your own children about this story. It is good for them to know, it makes them stronger. It was not that long ago, and we can never forget. The first generation has been through hard times. We scrambled to survive, learned new languages, did all kinds of odd jobs. Some were young enough to go back to school. This is our second nation, embracing us with big arms, presenting us with opportunities and challenges, and the Vietnamese hard-working refugees thrived. We started new life, formed new communities. Nevertheless, our bodies and souls were still abscessed from the wounds of war, sadness and bitterness. Some of the older ones not only had a painful recall about what communism was after 1975 but also well before 1954. Some may even recall those days of “Land Reform” in the North from 1953 to 1956, when their parents were persecuted, buried alive in front of their eyes, simply because they were the land owners. It is not a coincidence that Communism fell all over the world map, with only a few still existing: Vietnam, China, Cuba, North Korea...still holding a strong grip on their peoples. The reasons are many but from our standpoint, suffice to say is the fact that in our national history, there has never been any exodus of the huge degree like in 1954 from North to South Vietnam, and 1975 from Vietnam to all over the world, despite the risk of death, not because of poverty, but because of ideology and humanity. You don’t have to do much research. That, right there, is already a solid testament, from your own parents or previous generations.

Because of that unique story, the first generation has the right to take the anti-communist stance, and that stance needs to be respected. With that, I would like to convey an earnest request to the young generation to accept the old generation as they have been, due to the sad, forced political immigrant life in a land that they did not plan to go to during their young years, and left behind the land they grew up and loved, accept them like you accept your parents, that without them you are not here, that you would not have enjoyed the freedom and opportunities you have had here in America. Months and years passed by, and it’s just human nature that we take things for granted. However, just pause for a moment: talk with your parents about those days. I can tell you my own dream during those days, and I am sure your parents will share with that. That dream was simple: to be alive, have a meal or two a day, breathe the air of freedom, able to say love when it means love, to say hate when it means hate, to say disagree when it means disagree. As simple as that: a dream of basic human right and freedom. The first Vietnamese American chapter was created by the first generation, those who themselves or their family members bore the brutal treatment of communists. So if they have any grudge about a regime that drove them out of their homeland, that’s natural; or if they adopted a tone or a background mentality of anti-communism or any reservation about any project, especially when that requires some collaboration with communist officials, that’s understandable. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. Older generation looks on nervously as their children go back to Vietnam to do mission work, especially when they work together with communist officials. It is very hard for old generation of Vietnamese expatriates to be neutral about communism, and for the right reasons. That’s what defined our first chapter here in America, and we have to accept who they are. Not only that, we should be proud of them and what they stand for.

As above, it is hard not to mention politics when we talk about war, refugees, education, or social issues, even mission work in Vietnam. All communist governments impose their ideological values to all aspects of society, be it media, economical, social, educational, religious, cultural… They have their hands on all civil activities, including charity activities. So while the term “politics” may turn one off, it is part of life. And, whether you want it or not, you are, by virtue of being the descendants of the original Vietnamese political refugees, a political entity. Even if you don’t like it, try not to close your eyes or block your ears. For all of us Vietnamese these days, it’s just relevant, responsible, and respectful to keep your mind open. In U.S., you should vote regularly as a dutiful citizen, for president, for local positions. That’s already politics right there!

So with your permission, I would like to share with you some of my basic, general, and relevant socio-political observations as well as my basic understanding of communism, to serve as a supplemental background for your journey back to Vietnam, besides your humanitarian purpose, if you plan to do so. We cannot cover everything about communism in one article. Nevertheless, I still hope that this brief overview will help you form a sense of a bigger picture of, and for Vietnam. I will try my best to be objective, but bias may still be inherent, and I encourage you to keep your mind open, search on your own, be critical; and when appropriate, be involved with the wide variety of issues of the world we live in, besides your career. After all, that is the responsibility of the intellects these days.

Given all historical evidence all over the world, communism damages humanity. It's also my opinion that communism should be regarded as a doctrine, which is fixed, unchangeable; and that is not the same as communists, since communists are humans who follow communism, and humans have the potential to change. Also, Vietnamese communists were Vietnamese first, before they joined communism, and depending on their exposure, life events, educational level, the “Vietnamese” in them may dominate the “Communism” or vice versa. In fact, among millions of Vietnamese communist party members, there are quite a few who, during their young years, were devoted to the cause of communism, but later changed their hearts and now are strong advocates for democracy. Just google a few names, such as Tran Do, Lu Phuong, Nguyen Thanh Giang, Bui Tin, Duong Thu Huong, Dao Hieu, Nguyen Tien Trung, Cu Huy Ha Vu, Pham Hong Son, Tong Van Cong, Le Quoc Quan, Le Thi Cong Nhan, Nguyen van Dai, Huynh Thuc Vy…many more, and the list keeps growing. Many of these people are now in exile, imprisoned, under pressure…by the communist regime. Many more may have perished somewhere. Some of them are quite young, in your generation. I am sure of many more communist party members in Vietnam who are still silent but are on the same page.

So keep in mind that concept, communism vs. communist vs. communist regime. Of those three, communists the humans have the most potential to change, communist regime the engine much harder, and communism the doctrine is unchangeable. Also keep in mind that despite the fact that there are 3 million communist party members, the majority of Vietnamese people are not communists, but victims of communist regime. In a way, in my opinion, Vietnamese communists are, to a certain extent, also victims of communism. For the rest of my writing, I may use these 3 words interchangeably, but for the most part, my critique is mostly against “communism” which I believe is the main scourge on our people. It was just our country’s worst luck that this foreign doctrine, by some fateful twists and turns of world events in the first half of 20th century, found its way into Vietnam. Another bad luck happened again in late 20thcentury, when all Eastern European communist block, along with the Soviet Union, collapsed. Berlin wall was down, whole Germany united… but this wave did not spread to the Far East. Chinese communist leaders made critical change in market reform since late 1970’s, survived and thrived, and Vietnam, due to its historical dependence on China in ideology, economy, and other cultural-geographical factors, followed the suite. Not much luck to our nation during the last century. But opportunities will visit us again. And when we talk about opportunities for Vietnam, it is my conviction that ideological opportunities, not economical or political, are essential for a major breakthrough. A possible scenario is unfolding right now. With the threatening of a stronger China, tension between China and Vietnam in South China Sea territorial dispute, the shift of US focus to Southeast Asia to reinforce traditional and form new alliances, the involvement of a rising India, the recent moves of Burma toward democracy…. It’s rather spectacular to see this unfolding of this Asia-Pacific geopolitical landscape, potentially morphing into new order and balance. That presents opportunities for Vietnam, but like many times in the past, opportunities can only be realized with good intention, vision, and courage from a leadership that cares for the long term future for Vietnam and its people, not a leadership that is mostly concerned about its own power and privileges.

In general, communism is stronger in Asia. One important factor may be that Asian culture, for thousands of years has been under certain influence of Confucius. During the chaotic time in distant Chinese history, Confucius developed a system of values and strict orders, emphasizing obedience relationship between king and subjects, man and wife, father and son…with the main purpose to put human relationship in an order to minimize chaos and social unrest, and politically to help the kings govern more efficiently. King is supposed to behave like king, subject is supposed to behave like subject. Not only did it emphasize obedience, but also gratitude. Typically during that time, eating one grain of rice and you are grateful to the king of that land. King orders you to die, you have to die, if not, you are not loyal. Confucianism, for thousands of years, had dictated people’s code of conduct and political systems of not only China, but also other neighboring nations, including Vietnam. People learned to obey orders and not to question authority. That mentality may have contributed to avoidance of responsibility for community works, healthy confrontation and active participation as members in a democratic society. That mentality is still pervasive. If you happen to travel to the far countries in China or Vietnam these days and talk with common people, you will be surprised that certain things that we regard as basic human rights are treated as luxury items; food and shelter are regarded as privileges handed down from the communist party and supreme leaders, and they are supposed to be grateful for that. Common issues of the community are responsibilities of government, not for them to worry about. That sort of mentality serves as a fertile land for authoritarian regimes to last for a long time, and as long as they are in power, they want to keep being in power, from father to son, generation to generation. Kim Jong Il is one example. Writing these lines, I remember somewhere during the formative years in American history, while working on policy and presidential term, a president (George Washington?) said that a president, even the best, can only be right for a number of years, but not forever. That set the term of 8 years maximum for American presidency, and adopted into laws. A simple vision like that, and it spares America from risk of dictatorship forever. Lucky America!

Let me just mention one important thing, because of its relevance to communist success during their armed revolutionary days and its long term ill effects on humanity. Of several factors that make communism successful in galvanizing energy of people, especially the youth, the most powerful, in my opinion, is this mentality: The End Justifies The Means. This is the most powerful weapon, adopted from Machiavelli by a lot of terrorist movements, including communism. I search on line for its interpretation and here it is: It literally means "At the beginning of an action, I might not be able to determine whether that action is morally right or wrong, but when the morally right goal is successfully achieved, then the steps which led to it must be morally right too." With a little twist, it becomes "I shall do a minor evil to achieve a greater good" or "My aim for greater good makes all the evils I have done right”.

How powerful and dangerous can this be? Put this mentality in a passionate youth who happens to have strong feeling about a cause - even if that cause is still hypothetical or illusory, but that's another issue - combined with low level of education or low moral values, and you can see how destructive it can be. Now if all these youths are put together, in mass, they probably can move mountains, destroy everything on their way, by all means, including terrorism, on behalf of "greater good" at the end. That explains why, during the intense moments of revolution: son persecuted father, grandchildren against grandfather, as happened in “Land Reform” in the North during 1953 to 1956, terrorist crimes, and many killings of innocent people. Thousands of years of traditional values in a nation can be wiped out in a short time! Though those intense moments of the dark past were gone, the footprints of this mentality are still plaguing our society in all forms, this time for money and wealth, by all means, without regard of consequence or conscience. At the higher level, the “greater good” is power and privileges, by all means, and we see suppression and persecution of different ideas, corruption, forced voting, and all sorts of manipulation. Did you know that China is one of the top recipients in world funds despite being the second economic power? Yes, they can cook the book when they need to. The End Justifies The Means!!

Another factor, essential in the perpetuation of dictatorship, in my opinion, is the vicious psychological cycle of bully phenomenon in a police run state. As humans, we are molded by circumstance. Except for a few strong-willed individuals, most of us act out our roles, and the “roles” become part of our personality. Put a nice person into a role of a bully, and after a while that person can become a real mean bully. Many of you who have taken psychology classes in college may remember this famous experiment by professor Zimbardo, the Stanford prison study, conducted in 1971. The result of this study was popular and powerful in all fields of humanity studies, including sociology, politics, psychiatry, especially the psychiatry of human relationship. So popular that it is included in psychology curriculum in college and medical school education. For those of you who haven’t heard of this, just search online for detail. It is really interesting and scary, that we as humans are so vulnerable to social “role” conditioning. In the study, 24 normal college students were randomly assigned to be "prisoners" or "guards" in a mock prison located in the basement of the psychology building at Stanford. The study was designed for 2 weeks, but had to be terminated in 6 days due to the real emotional trauma experience of prison life of the participants. The "guards" became sadistic and "prisoners" showed extreme passivity and depression. Even professor Zimbardo was shocked. Yes, as humans we act out our assigned roles, and after a while it becomes real. It is a peculiar and interesting psychological phenomenon, and quite pervasive in several social events. It can be quite amusing and pathetic at the same time. Thousands of people in North Korea joined the chorus of crying after Kim Jong Il died. We may think that those tears were fake, but they may be real. But for whom those tears were shed is a mystery, probably more so for their own misery.

In a police-run society like Vietnam, people who can "run" other people’s daily life such as policemen, officials… will abuse their power, despite how nice they were before they are assigned those positions. Likewise, the poor people, given the role of the "governed," will become powerless, fearful, and passive. It becomes a vicious cycle: people in power continue to abuse their power whereas the majority of people lose the will to stand up and speak out. It is essential to have a healthy balance and check system to avoid abuse of power in all levels of socio-political activities in any advanced society, and Vietnam does not have that system yet. The way things are in Vietnam, I am not sure the ones in power want to have that; in fact, I think they are afraid of any change.

It is my observation that the communist regime has blocked or slowed down Vietnam progress over the last several decades. Before 1975, South Vietnam, no doubt imperfect with lot of social issues mostly related to the war and the presence of foreign forces, but in a lot of aspects, such as education, health care, human rights, freedom of speech and public demonstration..., was comparable to or even better than our neighbors such as Thailand, Singapore, Philippines. Vietnamese traditions and values were protected. We didn't have a lot of banners on every other corner of the streets telling us how to behave. And that was during the wartime. Now, after more than 30 years in peace, with billions of dollars in aid and many more, Vietnam is far behind those nations, except for Laos and Cambodia. On the scoreboard, that performance has to be voted out. Success of an armed, violent seize of power has not translated into successful reconstruction, prosperity, freedom, dignity, and humanistic society. Millions of young lives sacrificed in the wars, war against France, ideological war, war between brothers, war on behalf of whatever historians and politicians call it. Many others perished due to massive persecution and terrorist acts, including innocent children, women, and old people. Children grew up without fathers, young wives dragged on their lives without husbands. Ironically, liberation and independence from the iron fist of Colonialism/Imperialism was replaced by another iron fist of the foreign doctrine of Communism on our people, only more cruel. Mountains of bone, rivers of blood have fertilized our motherland from North to South, but for whom and on behalf of what? Who justifies that? Where is that "greater good"?

Of course, not everything is bad and Communism cannot destroy everything. People have to manage somehow, and despite loss of many humanistic values, there are still quite several resilient strengths, inherent in the Vietnamese people themselves, including qualities such as hard working, curiosity, love of education, patience, endurance, creativity, intelligence, the instinct to stay together when faced against a common enemy, the will to survive… Those strengths, built up by thousands of years of survival in our national history, cannot be easily wiped out by several decades of a bad doctrine. I personally feel that any progress in Vietnam over the last few decades is due to the Vietnamese people’s inherent strength, absence of war, Vietnamese expatriates’ help, and global impact much more than from the communist regime’s policy and doctrine. The credit should be rightly due to where it belongs under the circumstance. I would go on a limb and say that given the right political leadership, Vietnam would have done much, much better over the last 30 some years, maybe even comparable to South Korea and even Japan.

Let me also update you on a twist and turn of the communist regime during that 30 some years, because it relates to some of the social illness from the sickening "savage capitalism" of the current Vietnam economic landscape. For the period from 1975 to late 1980s, Vietnam communist leaders, reveled in their 1975 victory, insisted on a hard line, absolute state own style, with rationing of food and supplies, and this drove Vietnam from a country as one of the top rice producers in the world into basically starvation. People stood in long lines waiting for their portion of rice, sugar...The economy went into a dead end. To survive, they had to change. Luckily for Vietnamese leaders, they saw the success of market reform by Deng Xiao Ping in China starting in 1978. This market reform was copied from capitalism, allowing individual accumulation of wealth. It goes like this: it is glorious to be rich. In this they were successful, and Vietnam GDP has been growing 6 to 9% annually since then. Keep in mind that Viet expatriates contribute about 10% of that annual GDP, and that's hard cash. But money is not the only factor of a successful society, and you would imagine that in a society where making money is the only dimension allowed to grow, whereas most other humanistic aspects are still suppressed, in the absence of the rule of law: that society is going to be immoral. That's what we are witnessing in modern Vietnam, where young and old, officials to businessmen… are in a frenzy to catch money, by all possible means, including immoral and illegal ways. Dishonesty is rampant, even in education. Chaotic development without consideration for environmental safety, stealing land from people and turning around for immediate cash, all kinds of deals between officials and business people, together exploiting poor labor workers without any regard to their basic safety and rights. A sick hybrid of communism and savage capitalism, at the disposal of its own people! Just like the last episode in Animal Farm novel by George Orwell, when pigs and humans, portrayed as communists and capitalists, joined to exploit on the laboring class of animals!! I am sure there are quite a few communist members who truly care for the people, but they are probably a lonely voice, and maybe they just cannot speak out while in position.
I predict that these social illnesses will be a huge liability for Vietnam for many generations to come, and I don't know when and how these can be undone. Poverty, natural disasters, fighting off enemies...can be overcome; we've done that in our more than 4,000-year history, but this moral and cultural decadence is a huge challenge, and it may take generations under the most optimal conditions to rehab and overcome.

On the other hand, it is also my conviction that Vietnam and its people deserve better. A country blessed with abundant natural resources, key geographically strategic location, pristine natural beauties, hard-working and intelligent people. A nation that has stood up so many times in its more than 4,000-year history against the aggression from its giant neighbor China. Heroes and heroines exist at all times throughout the history. A nation where mothers starve to save food for children, scrape a few cents here and there to send them to school. A nation where young people, given the right opportunities, excel and match up well with other advanced nations in all fields. With all those ingredients, that nation deserves to be successful. If not, who else and what goes wrong?

A tall order is awaiting young generations. Vietnam deserves a lot of things, but currently it has a lot of issues: rampant corruption in all walks of life, a huge discrepancy between the poor and the rich, polluted environment, chaotic development, lack of basic labor laws to protect workers, substandard and unfair health care, privileged and mistreated, issues in education…Billions of dollars pour into Vietnam every year, and how much of it trickles down to the poor is unknown. Vietnam's rural areas are still one of the poorest areas in the world. Cho Ray hospital, the most equipped hospital in Saigon, is still one of the lowest standards, even when compared with South Vietnam before 1975. Remember South Vietnam just received a few hundred million dollars per year in aid before 1975, we had to sustain the war, but public education was free and of better quality, health care better and more affordable, traditional values cherished... Where does all the money go? Don't know? Look at all the properties of the officials that are not accountable based on their salaries alone, their children driving luxury cars, thousands of dollars just for one night party’s liquors, washing money into foreign countries… Going a few miles away from big cities, we see old women toiling all day long catching small shrimps, to sell for less than 1 dollar for a whole day’s work. Don’t let anyone defend this by saying that these problems happen everywhere, not only in Vietnam. Of course that is true, but we are talking about the magnitude of the problems. There is a huge difference between 60% and 40% in all sorts of comparison, in election, sports, economy, crime rate… Regarding several issues in Vietnam, the difference is even more pronounced compared with other countries; and that is not acceptable. Numbers don’t lie, and they demand questioning, explanations, and answers. Did we ever hear of any voluntary resignation among Vietnamese officials, or any mechanism when people can vote them out?

During your mission trip to Vietnam, you will most likely encounter people who need help. They are poor, underprivileged. They are left out. Their plight and hardship may bring tears to your eyes. Make you want to pour all your heart to them. However, while a hot heart and passion are essential, it is important to learn, to be aware, to be critical. Besides giving them food, money, medicine… when possible, spend time to learn about their daily life and hardships as well as their dreams; then ponder about what’s going on. Walk their path, even if it is only for a short moment. A lot of time, caught in the work of the day, we listen but not hear, we look but not see. Don’t readily trust numbers or reports by the officials, or the scenes presented to you, especially when money and officials behind the scenes are involved. Do your due diligence. To successfully control people, communist regime has invested and developed a giant, sophisticate, effective propaganda, and you should not underestimate that. Collaborate if you have to, but do not lose your cause, and when opportunity arises, push for your priorities. The strategy of engagement with the other side to advance our cause over the long term has its merit - as I alluded above, communists are humans, and they can change - but this strategy can be very tricky with the risk of losing yourself. If you have a good reputation then you have to be even more careful not to be trapped in the communist's cause. A few photos and handshakes, some big announcements on their media, and you can be sold. Original cause can be lost along your path among applause, praises, parties, award ceremony. We have seen that many times, even in experienced individuals. Lessons of your past generations cannot be ignored. Don't trust that the regime in Vietnam will treat you like beloved children coming home. If they do, you better believe it’s for display and political manipulation. Another thing to keep in mind: The Vietnamese government has the power to prohibit mission teams from US or other countries. So if they allow, you should know that it is not from their genuine concern for the poor people but is scrutinized, carefully crafted, with all sorts of planning and calculation for their political and economical gain, with protocols in place to guarantee close monitoring of mission teams' activities. Growing up in America, you may have developed a sense of natural trust and treat people with the “benefit of the doubt” mentality, but in dealing with Vietnamese regime, you just have to be careful.

The way things are, we just don’t know where Vietnam will evolve in the next 10 to 30 years. Old people will die off, and young generations will take over. We talked about opportunities, dynamic forces and ingredients both inside and outside. Hopefully we have better luck in this century. But regardless of whatever political regime Vietnam will turn into, Vietnam can only improve if all of its participants - people in Vietnam - be aware and concerned about these common issues, share with each other, and hopefully with time, the fire catches on, then even peasants in the far country start to realize and exercise their basic human rights and civil responsibilities. That is essential, the human process. That process is a challenge and may take a long time, but it is not impossible. The seed needs to be sown somewhere. Internet and young people can be the driving force. The emergence of independence-minded middle class (we have to be careful here: if the way to become middle class in Vietnam is through privileges, then it doesn't help) and a wide range of civil activities are positive factors. Only under that condition and guaranteed by the rule of law, all individuals of a society, like all small vectors of a vector set being aligned in one direction, can contribute their most potential to the country, and Vietnam can sail straight into the open sea. And then, Vietnam's success will be measured not only by GDP growth, revenue from export, how many beauty contests per year, numbers of buildings and plants, luxury cars, PhDs, doctors and engineers, but also and more importantly by humanistic values, universal sets of rights and guaranteed freedom and justice, the right to express oneself, to voice different opinions without fear of imprisonment, to be able to vote in or vote out their government representatives based on performance, a place where a student can comment about the president without fear of being expelled from school, a place where a farmer can have the same access to the same hospital as a highly ranked government official, a place where developments are planned intelligently for the benefit of the majority, not for the pockets of the minority in power, a place of clean air and healthy environment, optimal conditions for individual growth and self-fulfillment, for goodness to thrive and vices be suppressed, good moral and cultural values promoted, a place where people love to live and share with each other.

Vietnam, with its potential and heritage, with its hard-working, intelligent people, under good vision and leadership, can do much better. Vietnamese people deserve it.

While mission and charity works in Vietnam definitely help some poor people in need and that is a noble act, there can be some additional positive effect from your conduct and discipline to advance the cause of democracy and humanistic values for Vietnam, besides just service and donation. Besides food, clothes, shelter, medicine… there is another dimension of poverty: that is the poverty of freedom, and that poverty is not less devastating to human life. That poverty is harder to see, since the people who suffer from it may not have been aware or even heard of it, nor asked for it. But that does not mean that it should be ignored forever, because that is one of the universal rights that our people deserve like everyone else. And although that is not on any specific charity project, we all should be aware of that. That awareness, that keen awareness of poverty of freedom, inside each of us, will create compassion, which in turn will become positive energy, like a little fire, small at first but together will become a big flame leading Vietnam to a bright future. The worst thing that may happen, as cautioned repeatedly above, is that if you are not careful, if you don’t have a cool mind to constantly guide your hot heart, like many idealistic intellectuals in the past who had devoted all their young years to the cause of communism, only to wake up during the last few years of their life living in regret and sorrow, is that your cause and good intention are lost and sold in the process, being taking advantage of, and as a result, they will serve the cause, strength, and perpetuation of the communist regime, the regime that forces its will on the majority of people, the regime that has blocked Vietnam from moving forward, the regime that in the future will be looked upon as one mere dark and sad page of Vietnam history.

Thuan Vu, MD
Texas, Fall 2011