HANOI - We are in Hanoi, sitting in Mrs. Vu’s kitchen. The table is weighed down with exotic delicacies, passion fruit, pineapple, slices of melon, litchis, dragon fruit, kumquats, grapefruit, heart-shaped pieces of watermelon and small, fat bananas. We’ve already made considerable inroads into the spread, as if we hadn’t eaten for days.
Mrs. Vu, whose given name is Viet Nam like the country where she was born in 1944, has a degree in chemistry and speaks fluent German with a Saxon accent. She is one of the Vietnamese school children to have been sent to the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) – to Moritzburg, near Dresden – in the 1950s to be educated in a fellow socialist country.
Even as children, the "Moritzburger" kids belonged to Vietnam’s elite. Today they are successful seniors almost all of whom have maintained business relations with German companies.
Mrs. Vu is a riveting talker. Since she retired, she has been working as a tourist guide – not in the field, holding up an umbrella so her group can follow her from temple to museum, but right here in her home, on her sofa or at the kitchen table. She is at once a skilled hostess and a font of knowledge about Vietnamese culture and German history.
Nothing against the Temple of Literature, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum or Hanoi’s Old Quarter – it’s just that for many German tourists the highpoint of their visit to Hanoi is coming to see Mrs. Vu. The visit is included on tours organized by Cologne-based SKR with their Vietnamese partner Terraverde Travel.
"Encounters with local residents are a basic part of our Southeast Asia travel concept," says Olaf Melsbach, SKR’s CEO. All the firm’s German-speaking guides – alongside Mrs. Vu, some dozen mostly also academic colleagues from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia – are hired to “build bridges between cultures.”
The operator includes these especially interesting local people and opportunities to experience daily life in the host country along with the usual tourist sights on its tour programs.
Mrs. Vu’s special attraction is that she was part of the exclusive "Moritzburg Circle" of some 350 children. Ho Chi Minh himself was behind the initiative to send the offspring of party members to be educated in East Germany. At 11 years of age, Mrs. Vu, whose mother was a doctor and father a civil servant, was the youngest of the lot.
Moritzburg's Castle - Photo: Christian Skubich
What was theoretically an educational program was in fact a way of sending the children out of harm’s way: this was 1956, and the Vietnam War had started the year before.
"Saying goodbye to my mother was the most difficult thing," Mrs. Vu recalls. For three years after that, her schoolmates, teachers, and the principal of her school in Vietnam who had also come to Germany were her replacement family, along with the German teachers and hosts. "The Germans were wonderful people, they were like parents to us, we looked up to them and were thankful because they gave us so much and we learned so much from them." The main thing though was: "We were safe in East Germany, and you don’t forget that feeling."
Mrs. Vu attended school in Dresden and lived in a home in Moritzburg: "Maxim Gorki Street, Number 4," she recalls. In Germany she saw snow for the first time, learned how to ski, and ate never-before-tasted things like cheese, herring, and liverwurst.
"At first I could barely get the food down," she says, but her German “parents” warned her: "You eat the food that’s on the table, or you stay at the table until you do!" The dainty little Vietnamese girl also learned German values like punctuality, hard work, dependability, and a sense of responsibility. "It was strict," she says, "but loving."
Agent orange and the Berlin Wall
Today Mrs. Vu lives in downtown Hanoi, 15 minutes from the "Lake of the Returned Sword" (Hoan Kiem). To get to her place, visitors must make their way through a labyrinth of narrow streets.
We walk past curious children who call out "Hello people!" past teens playing volleyball, older folks playing badminton. Time and again we pass ground floor living rooms, inside which we see parked alongside the wooden furniture a cherished motorbike – a sign of wealth in this prospering city of 6.5 million inhabitants.
Mrs. Vu’s house is tall and narrow. Loud, 70s-style wallpaper dominates the living room with its brown velour sofa and armchairs, large flat-screen TV and a wall unit that would have done an Easter German household proud back in the day. A cuckoo clock hangs in the kitchen.
Pouring green tea and instant coffee, Mrs. Vu in best German style encourages us to help ourselves to fruit: "Otherwise I’ll have to assume you don’t like it." Also on the table is a bowl of lotus seeds that look like olives but taste sweet. "They’re good for your health. A little bitter, but beneficial." The last sentence could also describe Mrs. Vu’s later flight from Vietnam.
She had returned home in 1959 after three years in East Germany, but headed back to Germany again in 1962 to train as a photo lab technician. The Vietnam War would continue to rage until 1975.
In 1965, Viet Nam Vu enrolled as a chemistry student at Martin Luther University in Halle, later transferring to the Academy of Sciences in East Berlin. When she returned definitively to Hanoi in the 1970s, she got a job at a state scientific research center. The war was reaching its end, and Mrs. Vu says she wanted "to contribute something in the fight against the Americans.”
"East Germany was heaven compared to the worst days I experienced here," she says with reference to events like the American 1972 “Christmas bombing” which resulted in huge numbers of casualties. Does she feel hatred towards the west, towards America? "No," she replies: you never forget what happened, but you can’t move forward if you’re always looking back.
In any case the worst of it was not grief or anger at those decades of suffering “but the after-effects of Agent Orange.” Agent Orange was a defoliant that the Americans used across great swaths of forestland in Vietnam. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese got sick as a result, and later consequences included children with birth defects, cancer, and immune system weaknesses. "Such effects continued into the third generation,” Mrs. Vu says shaking her head.
When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Viet Nam Vu was in East Berlin. She relates how she ran to the Brandenburg Gate but she wasn’t allowed to cross over to the western side because as a Vietnamese she needed a visa.
If she was saddened by the fall of East Germany, the re-unification of Germany made her happy "beyond all measure." She has passed her passion for Germany down to her daughter who after studying in Marburg is now working towards her Masters degree in Bonn.
All these years Mrs. Vu has carefully preserved her German school certificate dated May 5, 1959 that bears a quote from Nikolai Ostrovsky (1904-1936), the Soviet social-realist writer: "The most valuable thing a person possesses is their life.”
Last year she returned to Moritzburg to visit her old teacher. "It was wonderful," she says. "She’s in her mid-80s now but she remembered all of us by name."