WHEN GARETH EVANS visited Saigon on his way to London in 1968, it wasn’t exactly a common travel route, given Vietnam was in the midst of a raging civil war. The country had only just shaken off the yoke of French colonial rule and was being plunged back into conflict, and once again foreign intervention was leading to unanticipated consequences.
Now chancellor of the Australian National University, Evans shared an anecdote from that visit at the opening of a conference called Connected and Disconnected in Vietnam, held in December 2014:
Out of some crazy spirit of adventure, I found myself in Saigon at the height of the Vietnam War. There was no tourist infrastructure whatever, even for a down-market backpacker. I hitched a ride into the city and finally found a cheap hotel, where it became immediately clear from the condition of my room that it had recently had a lot of short-time occupants with not much cleaning in between. As I was wondering what I had got myself into, I heard a commotion on the landing outside. Opening the door I confronted the dreadful sight of a drunken GI beating a young Vietnamese woman with a broom as she fled screaming downstairs.
The whole sickening cameo – the squalor of the place combined with the brutality of the conduct – seemed to me to summarise in an instant, in a way that I’d never fully grasped in my previous years of university campus demonstrating, everything that was wrong about that war: not least the inability of the West to comprehend that it was much more about a struggle for human dignity than anything to do with ideology or great power realpolitik. It made me deeply reluctant to accept that any great power had the right to lord it over anyone else, outside the framework of a UN rule-based international order. In this way, my initial contact with Vietnam and its people was one of a handful of moments that profoundly shaped the outlook I brought to my later roles both in government and with global NGOs.
Evans’ trip was a transformative moment on a path that eventually included being Australia’s foreign minister for both the Hawke and Keating governments (1988–96). What might have otherwise been a metaphorically distant country became embedded in his consciousness, a demonstration of how a crazy spark of curiosity can lead one on a long, meandering journey.
During his tenure in Cabinet, Evans took an active interest in Vietnam, more than he would have if not for such a formative experience there in his youth – a cultural exchange of sorts. It was partly this early interest that enabled him to take a long view of the country while witnessing its remarkable changes.
Gareth Evans’ personal story formed part of the twentieth Vietnam Update, the world’s longest-running conference series on Vietnam. When he launched the first Vietnam Update in 1990, he had spoken as the foreign minister for the Hawke government. This occurred only a handful of years after the enactment of the communist government’s Doi Moi policy in 1986, the reform that aimed to ‘renovate’ the Vietnamese economy. Almost a quarter century later, Evans situated the conference squarely in the present after daring to mention the war at the start. In fact, over the coming days the war would be somewhat glossed over, but that was fair given the number of other topics that hadn’t received enough oxygen.
Thousands of academic conferences occur every year, many of them obscure and mostly uninteresting to everyone but the communities of scholars dedicated to the research area in question. The online meeting of minds hasn’t completely replicated the alchemy of face-to-face meetings. Conversations spark new ideas and directions for inquiry and such conferences contribute to understanding the world as defined in human terms. Each person holds a few pieces of the puzzle, and meeting others may provide an opportunity to click the pieces into place. Scientific and technological advances can perhaps be made by people working on their own, building on the work of others without communicating directly; but social progress is inherently about direct communication and collaboration. And if academia is not striving towards social progress in some broad sense, what is the point of the endeavour?
The theme for the latest Vietnam Update – ‘Connected and Disconnected’ – was interpreted in a multitude of ways. The conference attracted people from across Australia, as well as from Copenhagen, Denmark and Syracuse, New York. The gathering was open to a wide audience, including the general public, and attendance was free. Alongside academics were tour operators, high-school teachers and bureaucrats from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Many of the presentations were anthropological in nature, with detailed accounts of fieldwork in, for instance, remote leper colonies, hill tribes and an island in the contentious South China Sea. Others shone a sociological spotlight on overlooked aspects of Vietnamese society, like Linh Khanh Nguyen from Syracuse University, who spoke about the migration of Vietnamese women through marriage, creating connections that are rural to rural, internal to international. Though, as she explained, these kinds of linkages are also disconnections, dividing people and places in the very process of appearing to join them. And then there was an impressive and self-possessed young researcher named Giang Nguyen-Thu, undertaking a PhD at the University of Queensland on an Australia Award scholarship. Her presentation focused on a part of her doctoral thesis that analyses Vietnam’s transition to a neoliberal society as reflected in a television talk show, Nguoi Duong Thoi (Contemporaries). This popular program featured one-on-one interviews with celebrities and business people, alongside other high achievers – the self-empowerment discourse seemingly incongruent with the values of a classic socialist society.
The overall scope of the presentations suggested that we have arrived at a pivotal moment in Vietnamese history, with both obstacles to development as well as social shifts becoming more apparent. But, as Linh Khanh Nguyen pointed out, the conference had dealt largely with fringe groups rather than the majority. So what is going on with the Vietnamese populous? It was a question partly answered by Vietnam historian David Marr, who said, ‘it had been like pulling teeth to get Vietnamese scholars in the room…and now there was a Vietnamese majority here.’ It was an upbeat note on which to end.
After several decades of active multilateral engagement, there are now more Vietnamese researchers asking critical questions and able to access their country in a way that foreigners never will – though that’s both an advantage and a disadvantage.
THE CONFERENCE WAS the first time I could recall being with so many young Vietnamese nationals. Although we were all close in age, it was as though we had grown up in parallel universes. Few Vietnamese–Australians were in attendance; aside from me, there was also ANU academic Kim Huynh. Years before I had corresponded with him after reading one of his articles in the Sydney Morning Herald, so he immediately felt like an old friend. There was, however, one other person there who had an even better claim on the hyphenation than either of us, a Vietnamese–Australian in a more literal sense because she is half Vietnamese and half Anglo-Australian. Kathryn Dinh was there because she had recently embarked on a PhD in public health relating to Vietnam. I couldn’t help but feel there was something almost poetic about the way we were both peering into a country we’re outsiders of, because we have such a strong connection to it.
I’ve long felt jealous of migrant children forced to spend summers back in the old country; I mostly spent holidays impatiently waiting to go back to school due to the boredom of being at home while my parents worked with little respite. My most formative years passed in complete disconnection to our homeland. When I finally visited Vietnam for the first time it was on the eve of my thirtieth birthday, just older than my parents were when they left. If their trajectory in Australia is anything to go by, even if I spent the next thirty years in Vietnam, understanding it will always remain just out of my grasp.
Somehow, I’ve grown comfortable with living in a state of disconnection as a member of a minority in Australia. However, since visiting Vietnam I understand that I’m part of the ethnic majority, the kinh, in the Vietnamese context (notwithstanding what constitutes an ethnic group). But it’s not quite as simple as that, either. Even though I’m ethnically of the kinh majority, I’m a Viet kieu – one of the diaspora of three million Vietnamese, and a minority in another real sense.
Outsiders often think ethnic communities are tight knit, but in truth it seems few of my generation are deeply interested in interrogating our complex identity issues, not in the public sphere anyway. If anything, we seem to be a fairly disconnected generation, struggling to have a meaningful relationship with the Vietnam of today. Part of this is perhaps due to the generational divide in the Vietnamese community, which feels more insurmountable than ever. Even now, Viet kieu, who are perceived as being sympathetic to the current leadership of postwar Vietnam, risk attack from the fiercely anti-communist stalwarts in diaspora Vietnamese communities.
Over the past few years I’ve increasingly focused on Vietnam in my work. And the deeper I immerse myself in my research, the more fascinating I find the country is in its own right, with its rich history and diverse ethnic make-up; a post-colonial, post-conflict, post-socialist society in transition. It’s a shame that I can’t easily talk to my parents about what I’m learning.
KATHRYN DINH’S FATHER left Vietnam on a Colombo Plan scholarship to study at the University of Adelaide in 1960, before the war had even begun. Over the past few years I’ve also encountered others from my parents’ generation who came to Australia the same way, migrating earlier than the majority. The cluster of those who were educated in Australia, and able to speak academic-level English, has become a source of fascination because it’s a pathway that is little remarked upon in the general story of how the Vietnamese arrived in Australia.
From the launch of the Colombo Plan in 1951 right through to 1975, scores of students from Vietnam came to study in Australia as part of the education-focused aid of the plan. The flow of students ended only when the communists took control – although it should be noted that Vietnam was not a significant recipient country because most of the aid was directed towards Australia’s nearest neighbours. In any case, the Colombo Plan continued in different forms. In 2014, the Australian federal government launched the New Colombo Plan with the tagline ‘Connect to Australia’s future – study in the region’, and this ‘rite of passage’ is described in the following terms on the website of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade:
The New Colombo Plan is intended to be transformational, deepening Australia’s relationships in the region, both at the individual level and through expanding university, business and other stakeholder links.
It will encourage a two-way flow of students with the region, complementing the thousands of students from the region coming to Australia to study each year.
Over time, the Australian government wants to see study in the Indo–Pacific region become a rite of passage for Australian undergraduate students, and as an endeavour that is highly valued across the Australian community.
In a paper for the Alfred Deakin Research Institute, ‘The Colombo Plan and “soft” regionalism in the Asia–Pacific: Australian and New Zealand cultural diplomacy in the 1950s and 1960s’, David Lowe details the way the Colombo Plan was part of Australia’s Cold War activities. This included anti-communist intelligence activities in Thailand and Vietnam, but there were unintended outcomes as well. In relation to the training of scholars and its effect on Australia, Lowe writes, ‘Lyndon Megarrity has suggested that when policy towards Colombo Plan students and private international students began to merge in the second half of the 1960s, this hastened the rapid dismantling of Australia’s White Australia policy.’ The stage was set for the resettlement of thousands of Vietnamese refugees from the late 1970s, which instigated significant policy reform and changed the face of Australia.
A FEW DAYS after the conference in Canberra, I received an email from Linh Khanh Nguyen, who had sat next to me at the conference dinner at Lemon Grass Thai restaurant in Civic. I enjoyed her sardonic sense of humour, so we arranged to meet for ‘real’ Asian food on her last night in Sydney, before she returned to the US.
We connected easily, speaking in English, relating to each other as contemporaries with more common ground than was otherwise apparent. She affirmed this in our conversation at some point, saying, ‘You understand what I mean, it’s a Vietnamese thing.’ But there was the fact that she’d been living in the US for most of the past decade, so her identity was also fluid. We didn’t talk about the war, of course, though I referred to it at least once in the evening.
In the twenty-first century there are more people than ever straddling the different worlds of Asia, no longer rooted to one particular place. This includes those who leave their homeland to undertake study, and also people like me, the children of émigrés. My parents fled their homeland and spent years talking about counter-revolution, eventually giving up that dream on the warm, embracing shores of Australia.
And although the counter-revolution may never occur, change is still happening, certainly at the level of researcher to researcher. As a Viet kieu, I would like to contribute by conducting research that I’m in a unique position to do: examining more closely how international researchers work in Vietnam, and how they build relationships with their Vietnamese counterparts. In answering these questions I’ll seek those who hold some of the other pieces so that, together, we can connect different parts of the puzzle.