|Fixer: Tran Quoc Hai (right) stands beside a Cambodian amoured personnel carrier. — Photo news.zing.vn
by Hong Thuy
For Tran Quoc Hai, 56, a self-taught Vietnamese mechanic known for building a new armoured personnel carrier (APC) for Cambodia, some things never change.
"I get up at 5:30am every morning, enjoy a perfect cup of coffee made by my wife and work till 10pm. Everything remains that way," said the mechanic.
Hai and his son, Tran Quoc Thanh, were recently honoured with the Grand Officer Medal from the King of Cambodia for their success in repairing and upgrading 11 Soviet-era armoured personnel vehicles BRDM-2 and BTR-60PB, as well as making a new one for the Cambodian army.
"This is both an honour and a responsibility. As long as I am in good health, I will continue creating new products and will not betray the trust of my supporters," declared Hai.
Road to success
His journey and the laurels that went with it began when the Cambodian army's 70th Brigade invited him to Cambodia to provide technical support for his cassava farming machinery.
His user-friendly machinery became famous for increasing crop productivity and freeing labour power, earning him fame not only in his homeland in Tay Ninh Province's Tan Chau District but also outside the country.
During this process of technology transfer, Hai discovered several armoured vehicles whose engines had failed to start and were about to be sold to scrap metal dealers.
Hai recalled saying to himself that it would be a waste if the vehicles were thrown away. Not wanting to let this happen, he expressed his intention to repair them.
"They stared at me while I was telling the brigade soldiers," Hai recalled.
Later, a brigade commander told him that numerous experts from Ukraine, Russia and Viet Nam had tried but failed to fix the machines.
"What hurt me most were their comments about the lack of success of Vietnamese experts in fixing the vehicles. My pride in being Vietnamese was aroused, so I told them I would use my own money to fix the vehicles," Hai said.
News about Hai's mission to repair the vehicles quickly spread throughout the brigade and even reached King Norodom Sihamoni of Cambodia.
But the King gave Hai the green light, probably wanting to know if the mechanic could do something about the vehicles.
"I felt worried a bit after receiving the King's instruction. But I became more confident about the possibility of success after closely examining every detail of the vehicles," Hai recalled.
In early last year, Hai and his son buckled down to work, using every year of the mechanic's US$25,000 to get the job done. The first vehicle was upgraded one month after, consuming only 25 litres of diesel per 100 kilometres instead of the usual 45 litres of petrol.
When it was handed back to the brigade, Hai remembered the look of surprise on the authorities' faces upon finding the vehicle capable not only of running but also of performing better than before.
He was then hired to repair 10 more vehicles. With their experience in fixing the first one, father and son were able to complete the repairs faster, with each done within 20 days.
They all looked brand new and were subjected to various technological improvements to make them more powerful in the battlefield, Hai said.
"I was paid $25,000 per vehicle, excluding the first one. Payment is done in advance to ensure that I had the money needed to buy the replacement parts. Besides the bonus that I can be proud of being Vietnamese, I can earn a remarkable income from repairing and upgrading the vehicles," Hai declared.
Not satisfied with what they had achieved, father and son came up with the idea of building an armoured carrier that could run on hilly terrain like that of Cambodia.
They brought the idea to the commander on the day all 10 vehicles were turned over to the brigade. Once again, the commander agreed after being told that payment would remain pending until they had either finished making the new one or refused payment for failing to create it.
After four months, Hai and his son successfully made their own APC. Its guns can fire targets at a distance of seven instead of 150 metres as the older versions did and is equipped with firepower on both sides. It cost him $200,000 to make the APC.
"I am fortunate to be able to do this because my Cambodian friends trusted me," Hai said.
Almost all people at Suoi Day Commune in Tan Chau District know Hai, not only because of his recent award from Cambodia but also because he was the first Vietnamese to build the first helicopter from scrap parts about a decade ago.
His effort to become an informally trained mechanic began when he became curious about why Americans could manufacture airplanes but not the Vietnamese. He was about 10 years old, and his desire to make airplanes was nurtured ever since.
Hai developed his practical skills by helping his father repair small machines such as a water pump and a motorboat.
In the process of learning by doing, he acquired the ability to diagnose problems of various engines and came up with his own solutions after observing and learning from experience, or through informal training. He has never received professional training in mechanics or the like but has been keen to learn all his life.
After many years of doing self-concept research and learning by doing, Hai made two helicopters under his own name, with the first in 2003 and the second in 2005.
Unfortunately, they were not appreciated, as local authorities were concerned about safety standards and prevented him from doing a test flight. The helicopters were later sold to museums in the United States and South Korea.
In addition, Hai has been renowned for making farm machines to use in growing, harvesting and processing cassava, among others.
"Hai is a creative farmer who has invented a number of agricultural equipment that is applicable and practical to the actual demand of locals," said Nguyen Van Hung, deputy director of the Tay Ninh Science and Technology Department.
"We acclaim his invention for local demands. It is good if he is enthusiastic and wants to collaborate with us," Hung added.
"No doubt it is an honour to be a Vietnamese and be able to serve one's country, though it is hard to put my creativeness to good use here," Hai said.
He recalled a provincial invention contest where his cassava farming machinery had failed because examiners found his presentation insufficient to demonstrate how the equipment worked.
"I would appreciate it if they could treasure scientific inventions rather than papers. It is not only me but others who tend to find places where their talents are applicable," Hai remarked.
It is a lack of mechanisation or appropriate production and processing tools that made the growing of cassava, an important food crop, hard work for domestic growers.
Challenges and difficulties of growers gave Hai the idea of manufacturing cassava farming machines. It was a hard-won success because it took him four years to make them. Since then, more than 500 machines have been sold to farmers in southern provinces in the past three years.
"It was easier for me to make the armoured personnel vehicle than the cassava farming machinery," Hai revealed.
Having a passion for practical science, Hai has shown that the benefits of one's inventions to others are more important than academic qualifications.
It is a pity that people like him are not well supported, however. On the sidelines of a National Assembly session, Science and Technology Minister Nguyen Quan said that neither rules nor regulations allowed state offices to use the public budget to finance individuals with the proven ability to make inventions.
"This is so not because the Ministry of Science and Technology is not interested in such individuals but rather, because current policies have not been fine-tuned to provide full support for them," Quan added.
Until such support policies become a reality, people like Hai have to rely on foreign partners to make their inventions.
Smiling, Hai said: "When the opportunities arise, I am ready for them." — VNS