Scientist lends a hand in uphill struggle
|Old friends: Luong Bach Van (right) takes time out with Professor Tran Van Khe on Tet (Lunar) New Year 2010. File Photo
|Close to her heart: Luong Bach Van, Vice Chairwoman of the HCM City Fatherland Front Committee, has never regretted her return to the country. — VNSPhoto Mai Huong
The last image imprinted in 14-year-old Luong Bach Van's mind was a barbed wire fence. On the way to Tan Son Nhat Airport in 1960, she stared at that fence and felt like she was seeing the brutal war tearing the blue sky of Sai Gon City into pieces. After the door of the isolation ward was shut, she told herself: "My dear country is still poor; there are still many arrests and troubles. I have to remember all these scenes."
That thought so occupied Van's mind that she was determined to keep her nationality, unlike many other Vietnamese who became naturalised abroad to escape the war. "I came abroad to study. After finishing my studies, I will return," Van vowed when she joined her mother and siblings in Paris.
"Since my first days in Paris and during my 18 years in France, I never stopped thinking about my return," recalls Van, who is now the chairwoman of the Association for Liaisons with overseas Vietnamese. However, Van wanted to do something practical for the country instead of bringing back only a piece of paper.
So she enrolled in a course on heavy industry at Orsay University (Paris XI). In 1968, when the Mau Than (Tet) Offensive broke out in Viet Nam, many Vietnamese students that were abroad, including Van, wrote a letter in blood asking to come back. However, many predecessors advised them to stay and finish their studies. Van stayed, but she could not concentrate on academics when so much was happening outside the classroom.
At that time, many people were surprised that Vietnamese students could raise money to support the revolutionary cause at home. In fact, the money came from spring rolls that groups of Vietnamese students made to sell to other international students during the freezing cold days of winter.
"We set a goal of 10,000 spring rolls each season. By selling each for 1 franc, we could earn 10,000 francs. Besides spring rolls, the association of overseas Vietnamese students also printed T-shirts and political posters. Every talk at universities began with this introduction: "Did you know that while we are peacefully sitting in our classrooms, bombs are being dropped into Vietnamese villages and bullets are being aimed at our counterparts?" Van recalls.
In 1976, Van was nominated to represent overseas Vietnamese in France at the first National Assembly meeting of the unified Viet Nam.
Many people asked her how she could bear to stay after witnessing the countless difficulties the country experienced after unification. Van replies: "It is those difficulties that brought me back."
By that time, she had acquired her PhD degree and was working at the Saclay Institute of Matter and Radiation while her husband worked as a lecturer at a university. In the winter of 1978, despite her family's strong objections, she rode the train from Paris to Viet Nam.
Earlier, in her quest to return, Van confided that she would go anywhere and do anything for her country. After working at the Ha Noi Military Technical Institute, she moved to work in HCM City in 1983.
During a talk with the director of health services, Van proposed the idea of making coils for women.
"I was asked to write a letter expressing my wishes and send it to the city authorities; however, I didn't expect that my letter would get a response. A few days later, I received a piece of paper which said: "All services and branches are required to create favourable conditions for Luong Bach Van to implement the population programme of the city. Signed by Vo Van Kiet (the then mayor of HCM City who later became Prime Minister)."
With this small piece of paper, she was equipped to carry out experiments on dogs, rabbits, cats, rats and even humans by many institutes and hospitals. At that time, finding materials for coils (intra-uterine device) was not easy, due to the US embargo; therefore, Van had to ask for help from her friends abroad. After many efforts, four million coils were shaped despite limitations in the economy and technology, which astonished United Nations representatives.
Later, she was asked to study and produce goods made from composite plastic. For the first time after the war in Viet Nam, farmers were provided with plastic boats and water tanks.
During the south-west border war, Van watched countless young soldiers die from malaria. This led her to propose to study mosquito repellent, which soon helped decrease the number of malaria cases dramatically.
During the most difficult years after the country's unification, Van could be found travelling back and forth. One day she might be in the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta helping farmers raise shrimp; just a few days later, she might be in the northwest studying water bags for the highlanders.
After her retirement, Van was invited to work at the HCM City Fatherland Front Committee, where she was in charge of external affairs and overseas Vietnamese relations.
Van always seems to be concerned about a range of issues, such as the difficulties a foreign-born Vietnamese person encounters in being naturalised in Viet Nam, or the obstacles an overseas Vietnamese scientist faces when he wants to devote his invention only to Viet Nam. Many people have asked Van if she has seen many absurdities in the country, but she only replies, "Viet Nam is like a carriage going uphill. We have to co-operate to overcome obstacles."
Many years have passed, but Van has never regretted her return. — VNS