|Growing close: Tickner and children at Dien Bien Social Protection Centre. In the past five years, they have become family. — Photo courtesy of Neville WilliamTickner
by Le Huong
They call him "Ong Tay", which is a general term for all Westerners.
However, for the inmates of the SOS Children's Village and Social Protection Centre in Dien Bien Province, the tall, white-haired man with a perennial warm smile is a foster grandfather they enjoy spending time with, and whose visits they look forward to.
Australian Neville William Tickner can often be found at both places playing ball with the children or bringing them gifts of milk, food and fruit, not to mention clothes.
Tickner, 60, first came to the city in September 2009 to visit the famous battleground that he'd heard a lot about since the days (April 1967 -March 1968) he served in the Australian Army as a field gunner, stationed in what is Ba Ria - Vung Tau Province today.
"I immediately fell in love with the people and geography," he said. "I came back five days later intending to help for a month and return to Malaysia via Laos." He had been a young solider in Malaysia (1964-1966) and was based in Penang when he visited Viet Nam in 2009.)
Then, he visited the newly-set up SOS Children's Village that hosted 46 children aged 2 to 10. He went there everyday and taught them to play rugby. He still remembers the effect the game had on the children.
"They'd never seen a rugby ball before. It has an unpredictable bounce… and children found it so funny. I'm sure it took their mind off the trauma they'd suffered. I could see their material as well as emotional needs… and so our long friendship began."
Tickner was so taken up with the children that he decided to live in the city and engage more with them. He also taught English for free at a local language centre.
He said he does not like to use the word "charity", because it implies some sanctimonious hierarchy where the giver is stationed above the recipient.
"I have simply done what I could, what every grandfather wishes he could do," he said.
"Most importantly, I have built bridges of friendship at every level here in Dien Bien Phu, and I must say...it is the warmth and friendship of the Vietnamese people in general and here in Dien Bien in particular that has allowed me to do so."
Nguyen Kim Thin, a former staff of the SOS village, said Tickner did not make much of an impression on him as a western backpacker visiting the children.
"But then, over the past four years, he has showed his enthusiasm and kind heart with frequent gifts that the children really need."
Tickner also helped equip each of the 14 houses in the village with a range of appliances including a TV and a refrigerator.
Vu Thi Hue, director of the Social Protection Centre, said Ticker has also brought bicycles, poultry, pigs and clothes.
"Whenever he comes, the children are happy," she said, "And so am I."
Tickner's new home is a 20sq.m room at the Muong Thanh Hotel in downtown Dien Bien City. It is minimally furnished with a bookshelf that has many books on General Vo Nguyen Giap and a photo of President Ho Chi Minh on the wall.
He has made friends with some local war veterans despite the fact he does not speak the local language.
"Old soldiers don't need to speak anyway. We have a common understanding about what each other has been through and a mutual respect."
Tickner said he does miss his three children and seven grandchildren at home, but really enjoys life in Dien Bien.
"One of the great attractions of living in the valley for me is that I am a patriot myself and have a strong understanding of the battle and sense the spirituality of this special place, where so many young lives ended.
"Living among memories and monuments and being able to serve the community (especially the children), gives me a sense of honouring their sacrifice in some small way."
Tickner is also using his time in Dien Bien to gather material for a book on a massacre in Noong Nhai Village, where more than 400 people, mostly women, children and elders, were killed by the French just a few weeks before the colonial army surrendered in May 1954.
He has spoken to elderly survivors of the Thai ethnic minority and other witnesses including Viet Minh soldiers who helped bury the victims after the massacre.
"Much of the material I need to fill in the spaces will not be released by the French or Americans...so I will be forced to offer my own explanations, based on my personal understanding and historical knowledge.
"The Thai people's homes were turned into a huge war grave by the French and their side of the story has never been told, nor commented on in any depth by foreign writers and historians," he said, adding: "Remember, it is a work in progress." — VNS