Thứ Sáu, 3 tháng 10, 2014


An Interview with the author Ngô Thế Vinh conducted by literary critic and writer Đoàn Nhã Văn on October 30, 2010.
Đoàn Nhã Văn/ ĐNV 1_ Dr. Vinh, starting with your book Mekong Dòng Sông Nghẽn Mạch in Vietnamese we now have an English version Mekong – The Occluding River that was recently published and introduced to the general public. In your personal view, what type of readers do you wish to target? For example the academics, experts doing research on the rivers of the world, government circles, the people of Southeast Asia or the college students in Vietnam...?

Ngô Thế Vinh/ NTV 1_ With 2,000 copies printed – including the second edition that came out within the same year 2007 – and its audio-book form, the Vietnamese version of Mekong Dòng Sông Nghẽn Mạch could only reach a limited readership of Vietnamese living abroad and a still smaller one at home. Since 2009, when the book was added to the “ Kệ Sách Da Màu” website in “ebook” form it had achieved a wider exposure through the Internet.

As you already know, the Mekong is an international river that flows through seven countries including Tibet. It supplies water to almost 70 million people who speak different languages and possess diverse cultures. English being a universal language serves as a common vehicle of communication to the seven nations in the region. A “Spirit of the Mekong” can manifest itself only through exchanges and dialogues so that “mutual responsibilities” can be developed to conserve the eco-system of the River, the lifeline of millions of inhabitants of the region. Besides the readers who read English and show concern for “nature”, “the environment”, and “ecotourism”; the book Mekong – The Occluding River also attempts to reach the select group of decision makers who directly or indirectly have a say about the fate of the Mekong. I am specifically referring to:
  • The members of the Mekong River Commission, the Mississippi River Commission (Those two Commissions have entered into a formal sister-river partnership in July of 2009), the Commission’s national members like Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, the U.S. Department of State that shows signs of wanting to re-engage with the countries of the Mekong’s region.
  • The academia at the universities, students majoring in the environmental sciences. Particularly the colleges in the four countries of the Lower Mekong. The three major universities in Thailand like Chulalongkorn, Thammasat, Chiang Mai. In Laos we have the National University of Laos in Vientiane and in Cambodia the Royal University in Phnom Penh. As for Vietnam, our main focus includes the Universities of Cần Thơ and An Giang in the Mekong Delta.
  • We cannot omit to mention the University of Yunnan in Kunming, China and the National University in Rangoon, Myanmar. Those two countries run along the Mekong current but are not members of the Mekong River Commission.
  • Then we have the experts on the Mekong, the environmentalists, the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA in Thailand), International River Network (IRN in U.S.A.), Stimson (U.S.A.), PanNature (Vietnam)…and of course, the climate change activists worldwide like Al Gore of the “An Inconvenient Truth”.

A bookstore at an American university has recommended that the students use the Mekong – The Occluding River as a reference book in their study of the rivers. I would like to refer the readers to the following quote: “Author Ngo The Vinh combines his vivid travel notes and collection of photographs with a meticulously researched history of the environmental degradation of the Mekong River. Mekong-The Occluding River: The Tale of a River by Ngo The Vinh provides an excellent foundation for Conservation studies. Ngo The Vinh’s style is excellently suited towards Conservation studies, and will teach students the material clearly without overcomplicating the subject… As of July 2010, this revision raises the bar for Mekong-The Occluding River: The Tale of a River’s high standard of excellence, making sure that it stays one of the foremost Conservation studies textbooks.”
The book first reached the bookstores in July of 2010 and the reception so far has been encouraging. It was at one time ranked 8th in the Top Ten list of Bestsellers in Ecotourism / Rivers & Nature. It indicates that the book’s English version has reached the five continents. I’m not referring here to the financial aspect of it.

ĐNV 2_ You have gone through the experience of having several of your books translated into English: Vòng Đai Xanh / The Green Belt, Mặt Trận ở Sài Gòn / The Battle of Saigon etc…, now it’s Mekong Dòng Sông Nghẽn Mạch / Mekong The Occluding River. What have you done differently this time in order to introduce your work more extensively to the intended targets?

NTV 2_ It’s quite a challenge for foreigners to learn about Vietnam through the lenses of a Vietnamese. The number of foreign experts who can speak and read Vietnamese fluently is extremely limited. We may say that good works written in Vietnamese do exist and apparently there is a need to have them translated to familiarize foreign readers with the Vietnamese culture. Putting the quality of the translation aside, I’d say that there are a good number of works written in foreign languages that have been translated into Vietnamese. Unfortunately the opposite does not hold true for books in Vietnamese been translated into foreign languages. We need to overcome that language barrier as soon as possible. To achieve that goal requires a concerted and well funded effort that is beyond the ability of one or a few private individuals.

Let me tell you about a personal experience. My daily professional work puts me in contact with my American friends. Many of them love to read and are what you would call “bookworms’. When they learn that I’m an author, they express their desire to read my works. This is one of the incentives that made me decide to have my books translated into English.

Translation is not an easy task. To do a good job requires the person to have both a thorough understanding of the two cultures and a good command of the two languages in question. On top of that, he or she must have the time – sometimes a year or more - and the patience to work with the author to produce an acceptable result. I am fortunate to have friends who possess such qualifications like Ms Nha Trang and William L. Pensinger, Nguyễn Xuân Nhựt, and Thái Vĩnh Khiêm.

Permit me to share with you and the readers some of the feedbacks I received from foreign readers concerning my translated works. Among them you can find scholars, newsmen, environmentalists…their comments showed that the translations succeeded in conveying faithfully the message of the Vietnamese versions.

The Green Belt:

- GERALD C. HICKEY, former professor of Anthropology at Yale and Cornell and author of “Free in the Forest, Ethno-history of the Vietnamese Central Highlands, 1954-1976”.

“I read The Green Belt with great interest. It brought back memories of the Central Highlands in the 1960s and the events surrounding the Buddhist and student unrest during that period.
It’s clear that Ngo The Vinh learned a great deal about the highland people and their plight during the war and post-war world. What news I now get from the highlands is very sad. The montagnards are facing a worse threat to their way of life than at any time previously. The Americans (like the French) used the montagnards and coldly abandoned them. All one can do is to keep trying to bring it to the attention of American leaders in Washington. Still one hopes against hope.”

- OSCAR SALEMINK, Holland, Professor at the Free University of Amsterdam, author of “The Ethnography of Vietnam’s Central Highlanders”.<>.

“I am impressed with the knowledge, foresight and sympathy that Ngo The Vinh displays in ‘The Green Belt’ which he wrote more than thirty years ago already. Although the novel is a piece of fiction, many of the events alluded to are historical. The dynamics and dilemmas depicted were real dilemmas for various parties involved and especially for the Thượng (highland) people who are portrayed as victims of various policies and conflicts.”

- JOSE QUIROGA, M.D., Chilean American, former professor at UCLA, Director Program for Torture Victims, Los Angeles. 

“Historians, journalists, politicians, military strategists, and novelists have written many books on the Vietnam War. ‘The Green Belt’ is a powerful, compelling, and original novel written by a Vietnamese physician and writer that explores the human impact of the Vietnam War especially on the Thượng ethnic minority. They used to live isolated in the Central Highlands of Vietnam and were discriminated against. This territory became a strategic area during the conflict and their peaceful lives changed forever. The human rights conditions of the Thượng minority needs international attention.”

The Battle of Saigon:

- MARK FRANKLAND, former correspondent of The Observer during the Vietnam War, Author of a biography/diary about the Cold War “A Child of My Time – An Englishman’s Journey in A Divided World” (Chatto 1999). 

“’The Battle of Saigon’ should interest, and move, anyone who is interested in the fate of Viet Nam. It may also surprise those who know little about the complex attitudes of the South Vietnamese people towards a war whose consequences still shape their lives.

Both during the fighting and after the voice of the South Vietnamese has often been ignored. As a foreign correspondent in Viet Nam during the war I was lucky enough to hear something of that voice, largely thanks to the persistence of my Vietnamese assistant. But he was a man of middle age with a large family and could not accompany me into the war zones where he might have helped me understand better the so often misunderstood ARVN soldiers. And it is the mind of the South Vietnamese soldier that particularly interests Ngo The Vinh.

In ‘The Battle of Saigon’ he allows some of those soldiers to speak. The result is a judicious and humane portrayal of men at war which should concern an outside world that gave them so little thought at the time.

The author also deals with the political and moral dilemmas of the Vietnamese diaspora in North America, trapped between love of the country they were forced to abandon, the ruthlessness of its present communist rulers, and the sometimes painfully different habits of the Western culture they now live in.

Here, too, Ngo The Vinh remains shrewd yet sympathetic. And he shows the same qualities when writing about troubled American veterans who he accepts are as much the war’s victims as the Vietnamese themselves. This is a generous and perceptive book.”

- TIM PAGE, Tim Page left England at 17 to travel across Europe, the Middle East, India, and Nepal. He found himself in Laos at the time of the civil war and ended up working for United Press International. From there he moved on to Saigon where he covered the Vietnam War for years working largely on assignment for Time-Life, UPI, Paris Match and Associated Press. He became an iconic photographer of the Vietnam War and was wounded four times, once by ‘friendly fire’. Tim Page is the subject of many documentaries, two films and the author of nine books including Tim Page’s Nam, Ten Years after: Vietnam Today... and founder of the Indochina Media Memorial Foundation. Tim now freelances from Brisbane Australia, and has taken up a position as Adjunct Professor in Photojournalism at Griffith University.

“There have been a succession of books on the Vietnam conflict, though there have been few that have told it from the South Vietnam point of view, from the aspect of the true losers, those who fought for a and believed in the nascent Southern Republic.

Ngo The Vinh brings us essays illuminating his experience as doctor with the crack rangers, here in dealing with the dichotomies of combat. He then moves to the disconcerting life of a refugee rebuilding a life in the strangeness of Southern California and the struggle to reestablish in his profession amongst the politically riven ex-pat community of the 1/2 million boat people. A perspective totally neglected in prose so far.

You will find yourself slipping in the mind set of the soldier doctor, prisoner in the gulags and liberated uprooted refugees through to nascent middle class American.

The whole time you hear the plaintive tones of a man attached still to the spiritual roots of that haunting country Viet Nam.”

And recently: Mekong - The Occluding River:

We actually do not have an influential forum to express our views and concerns pertaining to the issues which are vital to us i.e. the Mekong. We need to carry on a conversation not only within our own community but also with the nations in the region and to the wider world as well.

- AVIVA IMHOF, Campaigns Director, International Rivers, Berkeley, California.
“Dr. Vinh’s love of the Mekong River and the life it supports comes through on every page of this book. Part travelogue, part history, part autobiography, Dr. Vinh weaves a compelling story about his travels through the countries sharing the Mekong River and gives the reader a frightening picture of what dam construction in China is doing, and could do, to his beloved river.”

- WITOON PERMPONGSACHAROEN, Publisher Watershed, People’s Forum on Ecology, TERRA:
“It’s really great to know that someone tries to do something on his/her capacity to protect the Mekong. It’s really true that the Mekong and her people are facing a serious situation “prosperity or destruction”? We need more people like you working to “Save the Mekong for our future generations” by helping to “Stop destructive developments for the Mekong’s sustainability.”

- MICHAEL WALSH, President Mississippi River Commission
“Thank you for your book ‘Mekong - The Occluding River’. As you know the Mississippi River Commission signed a letter of intent with the Mekong River Commission in July 2009. We are exploring ways to communicate lessons learned and river science. A current thought is to try to facilitate a link between river research centers and universities in both countries. These centers help provide people a view of the past, the current state of the watershed, and some thoughts and ideas on how to manage for the future. We are currently developing stronger relationships with these river research centers in the United States and plan to encourage them to have exchange scientists from the Mekong and to the Mekong. I have enclosed a 200-year Vision the Mississippi River Commission signed on August 20, 2009. Please provide a feedback on this “working” vision. We applaud your great work.”

Recently, I also received a letter from former vice-president Al Gore, the Nobel Prize laureate and author of books about the ecology, climate changes and global warming.

ĐNV 3_ A decade back, in 2000, in an interview with Nguyễn Mạnh Trinh, you stated that: “No individual country has the ability to control the stretch of river that flows within its boundary if it does not possess the ‘Spirit of the Mekong’”. To this day, it appears as if the nations downstream the Mekong have failed to live up to that “Spirit of the Mekong” as you envisioned it. In your opinion, how many more decades do we have to wait for it to take place and can your book Mekong – The Occluding River help bring it about?

NTV 3_ The World Water Day adopted this very meaningful motto “Everybody Lives Downstream” that could apply to the entire area the Mekong flows through. Not only Vietnam but all nations affected by the degradation of the Mekong must join their voice and speak out as one. A lone voice raised in defense of a parochial interest would be less effective than a chorus of voices sending out the same message. Unfortunately that’s the state of affairs we find ourselves in now. Arguing, fighting among each other downstream in complete disregard for the devastation that emanates from upstream to me is quite senseless. We just cannot conserve the Mekong section by section. We must adopt an overall, comprehensive approach to the issue.

In my view, a big country like China could play a divisive or unifying role towards the countries lying downstream the Mekong. Facing an immediate threat posed by China - a case in point: the shortage of water during the first months of 2010 – the countries in the Lower Mekong all joined in forceful protest against Beijing. But this proved to be only a one time occurrence. After that, things reverted to their former state. Through its policy of divide and rule, temporary concessions, and bilateral talks, the Chinese tiger easily neutralizes the prey that broke ranks. There are signs that Cambodia and Laos are moving away from Vietnam to fall into China’s orbit. Nothing points to a lasting alliance between Thailand and Vietnam.

In the interest of “sustainable peace and development” of the entire Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) we must reject extreme nationalism and an anti-China or Sino-phobia approach. Quite the contrary, we must all espouse the “Spirit of the Mekong” that encompasses the “Culture of Peace”, to be understood in an encompassing and harmonious sense, to allow the Mekong countries – including China and Myanmar – to voluntarily join hand and work for the integrity of the Mekong and its abundant resources. The Mekong must be regarded as an international river to be preserved for ours and future generations.

ĐNV 4_ Since 2003, you have suggested that a Department of the Mekong should be established at the University of Cần Thơ. Recently in 2009, during an interview with the daily Tuổi Trẻ in Vietnam, you stated: “The University of Cần Thơ must urgently work in tandem with a reputable international ‘think tank’ to set up a research and training center to provide the ‘gray matter’ to the entire Mekong region”. To save this vital waterway, the University of Cần Thơ may serve as a jumping board for the other centers of learning in Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand to emulate. In your view, what would be the major obstacles to be encountered? What can we do to actively offer a helping hand in the establishment of a Department of the Mekong?

NTV 4_ Vietnam, as a country located at the estuary of the Mekong, is suffering from the cumulative impacts resulting from the degradation of this River. There is virtually no chance that Beijing will forgo its plan to provide electricity to its Southwest region. Just a while back, after the construction of its fourth and world tallest hydroelectric dam named Xiaowan, China immediately embarked on the building of the dam Nuozhadu upstream the Mekong. This mammoth structure is the largest of the series of 14 dams in the Mekong Cascades in Yunnan Province. In the near future, under the tremendous pressure from the dam building conglomerates, 11 more dams will be gradually constructed downstream in Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand.

If we cannot put a stop to that dam building process, the least we can do is to demand that each dam project be implemented in a transparent manner. In that way, the deficient and hazardous aspects of the projects could be made known and monitored or rectified. To do that would require an international body of experts who are highly trained and committed to the wellbeing of the Mekong.
Being acclaimed as the center of science and technology in the Mekong Delta, what has and will the University of Cần Thơ do to deal with the destructive exploitation of the Mekong?

On account of our special geographical location, the University of Cần Thơ must act as a pioneer, a leading research center to collect data, observe and monitor all changes in the Mekong in regards to the current flow, water quality, fish supply…In summary every aspect of the rich albeit fragile eco-system of the entire Mekong region including the Mekong Delta which is the granary of Vietnam. If we manage to do that, then we will be able to react and do damage control.

If nothing is done, if we wait until the Mekong completely runs dry and the entire delta is submerged in saltwater, then the University of Cần Thơ will resemble the boat that ran aground in the dried up saltwater Aral Lake in Central Asia.

Evidently, we cannot afford to sit tight waiting for China to hand out data as it pleases. For our very survival, we need to be extremely proactive. We need to obtain the necessary information – the objective data. We need a long-term strategy, a body of experts who are not only well trained but also totally committed to their line of work.

The future Department of the Mekong at the University of Cần Thơ will function as a training and research center. Its mission can gradually evolve as time goes by. A possible name for it at inception is The Center for Technical Research on the Environment.
  • Set up a specialized library with the emphasis on collecting materials about the Mekong at the start.

  • The teaching staff will consist of the university’s regular academic body, experts and advisers from the Mekong River and Mississippi River Commissions. They should be invited to teach at the Mekong River Department as visiting professors. The materials used in their lectures will provide invaluable information gathered from actual work experience.
Outstanding students who are fluent in foreign languages from Vietnam and other countries will be selected to join the program and trained as experts in ecology. Hand in hand with theoretical teachings, the students will be exposed to real world situations through fieldtrips at the dams and important sections of the River. Furthermore, the students will do “on-the-job-training” at the offices of the Mekong River Commission. To graduate they must complete a small thesis pertaining to the various aspects of the Mekong’s eco-system.

The Vietnamese government must do its part in establishing a network of “attachés for ecology”. We already have military or cultural attachés. I don’t see the reason why we cannot assign “attachés for ecology” for the Mekong at our embassies and consulates in the countries of the region. They will act as eyes and ears, human observation posts for the Department of the Mekong and the Ministry for the Protection of the Ecology.

With such an academic baggage and a sense of mutual dependency as well as responsibility, this group of international students will represent a valuable source of “gray matter” to the Mekong River Commission and the governments in the region that are suffering from a severe penury of trained personnel. This young and dynamic group of experts will form a common core ushering in a new era of lasting cooperation for the seven countries along the Mekong current.

Of course, there is a price to pay for the preservation of the Mekong and the Mekong Delta. However, we should never lose sight of this mantra from Sea World San Diego: “Extinction is forever. Endangered means we still have time”.

To answer the second part of your question on whether there is a need for other “Departments of the Mekong” at the universities in the region like Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand? As far as I know, those neighboring institutions, especially in Thailand, like the Chulalongkorn University and the University in Chiang Mai (the birthplace of the Mekong River Commission in 1995) are one step ahead of the University of Cần Thơ in offering courses on environmental science related to the Mekong.

Nevertheless, the difference with the project of the Department of the Mekong at the University of Cần Thơ is the expansion and upgrading of its scope pertaining to the student body that would come not only from Vietnam but also Cambodia, Laos, Thailand even China, Myanmar, and Tibet.

As to be expected, the challenges are legion considering the parochial and short term nature of the conflict of interests among the nations in the region. On the other hand, we must also acknowledge that the financial and personnel assistance for the Mekong projects from the international communities is not lacking. The project for the establishment of the Department of the Mekong at the University of Cần Thơ would prove worthy of receiving international support.

It’s part of a strategy to preserve the ecology with an “enlightened and long-term vision”. That’s a price worth paying to protect the livelihood of millions of inhabitants who depend on the water source and resources of the Mekong.

The dream of having a “University of International Stature” for Vietnam has reached a feverish pitch in the country over the last years. When you turn your attention to the existing internal state of affairs, not a single institution of higher learning in Vietnam - including the state universities – is granted the “autonomy” that allows it to function free of government’s interference. The future remains uncertain and I do not know how many more decades it will take before the first Vietnamese institution can join the rank of the 200 best universities in the world. Hopefully, with the establishment of the Department of the Mekong serving as a “think tank” for the seven nations in the region, the University of Cần Thơ will seize on this golden opportunity to achieve the status of an international academic institution. At a regional scale, it can carry out on-site studies about the impacts resulting from the exploitation of the Mekong’s resources.

ĐNV 5_ Suppose a publisher in Vietnam sees the real value of your book Mekong Dòng Sông Nghẽn Mạch and wishes to distribute it inside the country. As things now stand, a priori condition is for the publisher to obtain a government permit. To do so, there is a high probability that the publisher would have to “edit” “sensitive” phrases or in the worst case scenario even sections of your work as he deems necessary. Even if this publisher is fully committed to the interests of the country or to the common good, he must work within the confines of the existing regulations. Confronted with such an eventuality, can you share with us what would be your decision and your reasons for it?

NTV 5_ Your mention of editing or censuring gives me a flashback that reminds me of an experience I had with the publication of my first novel Mây Bão, 47 years ago. At that time I was a 23 year-old medical student in Saigon. The draft was submitted to the “Censor Bureau” and returned to me one month later with a denial notice. The Director of the Information Office at that time was Mr. Phạm Xuân Thái. Besides being a high government official, he was also a well respected scholar well versed in the traditional Sino-Nôm languages. He was the author of the Danh Từ Triết Học or Philosophical Lexicon published in 1950 in Saigon. He was at least one generation older than me. Instead of working with the representative of the “Censor Bureau” I requested a personal meeting with him. He agreed to meet me at the Office of the Director in the Ministry of Information. In his learned and sociable manner, he exchanged with me his ideas about the role of a writer. He impressed on me the idea that an author should reflect the mainstream not underground side of society he lives in. My reply to him was that the writer should do both. To reflect only the mainstream side of it was the job of the Ministry of Information. At the close of the meeting he agreed to give Mây Bão to another censor for a second review. That task fell on the shoulder of Nguyễn Xuân Đàm. I only learned much later that Đàm is also a writer and poet with the pen name Song Hồ. He was very understanding and we exchanged our thoughts about my book. After he submitted his opinion, a permit was issued soon afterward. I was able to retrieve that permit number (2355 HĐKDTƯ-PI-XB NGÀY 5-11-63) from a copy of the book at the library of Cornell University. From then on, we became literary friends and Đàm passed away in the United States not long ago.

The difficulties with censorship in South Vietnam did exist before 1975. Nevertheless, there was still some “elbow room” for writers to be creative. At this point, I’d like to share with the readers a section of my interview with Lê Ngộ Châu, the publisher of Bách Khoa Magazine pertaining to the publication of my book Vòng Đai Xanh [Bách Khoa CCCIXX, 1972].

In the mid-1960’s, when Robin Moore’s “The Green Berets” was introduced to the American readers it was hailed as “The novel that blasted a war wide open” and became a best seller for several consecutive weeks in the United States. Its primary theme was to celebrate the heroic martial feats of the Green Berets of the U.S. Special Forces. The secondary aim was to disparage and demean the Vietnamese for their discrimination of the Montagnards living in the Highlands.

Robin Moore is a classmate of President Kennedy at Harvard. This president created the Green Berets as an anti-guerilla unit to fight the unconventional warfare. Moore received military training for almost a year at Fort Braggs and earned his paratrooper badge before being sent to Vietnam with the Green Berets. Soon afterwards, the book was made into a movie with the same name and with John Wayne playing the leading role. The movie was over-dramatized and failed to portray the realities of the Vietnam War.

In my opinion, Vòng Đai Xanh offers the Vietnamese side of the Highlands issue in contrast to “The Green Berets” which presents an idealized image of the American Green Berets/Special Forces whose fighting motto “De Oppresso Liber” insinuates that they are the liberators of the oppressed. They believed they were sent to Vietnam in a mission to free the Montagnards in the Highlands from the oppression of the Vietnamese.

So that Vòng Đai Xanh could reach the reading public on a timely manner and open a dialogue with “The Green Berets”, I took the initiative to delete almost half of the book in order to obtain the permit from the “Censor Bureau”. Even though this was a case of voluntary self-censorship I still wonder to this day whether I did the right thing or not. After I got out from the communists’ “re-education camps” I was unable to keep complete manuscripts of my works including that of Vòng Đai Xanh. My entire collection of the “Sinh Viên Tình Thương /Compassion Magazine” also suffered the fate of “from ashes returning to ashes”!

Now, let’s go back to your question. I recall that on my visit to the Mekong Delta in September of 2006, I had the opportunity to visit author Sơn Nam in Saigon. It was the first time we met however I felt we have known each other for a long time because I have read almost all of his works long ago. On that occasion, he was in very high spirit and told me he has read my book Cửu Long Cạn Dòng Biển Đông Dậy Sóng more than once. He held in his hand a second edition of the book published by Văn Nghệ in California whose cover looked rather worn out. He repeated the suggestion that I should have it published in Vietnam and graciously offered to let me stay at his house for several days so that we can work over its content. Sadly enough, he passed away on August 23, 2008 at the age of 82. I never had the chance to take him up on his offer.

I and probably also Uncle Sơn Nam were fully aware that with an unchanged content that touches on “sensitive” issues, particularly concerning a big country like China, there is a very slim chance for the book to see the light of day in Vietnam in the near future. It is even more so when we take into consideration the present uncertain political climate and absence of freedom of expression in the country.

It has been suggested that in order to be issued a permit the publisher needs to “edit” many paragraphs or even delete a number of pages. Failing that, the venture has to be shelved regardless of the commitment and dedication the author may have for the country.

I believed Cửu Long Cạn Dòng Biển Đông Dậy Sóng was conceived and born in a free land. Now, if under the guise of a laudable cause I have to submit myself to the present day’s censorship that is in itself so “outdated and absurd” in order to have the book published, I would consider it a Faustian compromise and a dangerous precedence. Therefore, my position is very clear and definitive. If the book is to be published at all, it must be in its untouched form. With me, that’s a matter of principle.
But then, another question comes to mind. In these modern days, do we really need to have the book published in Vietnam when anybody anywhere can read, listen to or even download then print part of or the entire book from the Internet completely free. All my published books and articles pertaining to the Mekong are posted in their entirety on Kệ Sách Da Màu or on a number of websites I myself was not informed of.

Cửu Long Cạn Dòng Biển Đông Dậy Sóng:
Mekong Dòng Sông Nghẽn Mạch:
Audiobook Mekong Dòng Sông Nghẽn Mạch:

Several students in Vietnam wrote me, even those in Hanoi. They did not have any difficulty reading, listening to or printing my books from the above mentioned links. What’s more, with the advanced photocopy services in Vietnam, all that you need is a copy of the book from Văn Nghệ Publisher sent from the United States for you to duplicate it into as many copies as you wish. The final product with its colorful cover is as attractive and artful as the original.

We are about to cross the threshold of the 21st century, the age of the Internet. This planet is turning into a small village. All attempts to cover up information will prove fruitless. To describe such a futile endeavor, the Montagnards use this proverb: “cố dìm tre khô dưới nước” or “trying to keep a dry bamboo under the water”.

ĐNV 6_ Being a medical doctor, why did you choose to spend your time and effort in order to save a river that is being drained dry and not leave it up to the experts instead.

NTV 6_ Even during my time at the medical school, I actively took part in extra curriculum activities and served as secretary general then editor in chief of the school magazine Y Khoa Tình Thương from 1963 to 1967. My classmates and I were all deeply concerned about the social issues of the time. Each number of the Y Khoa Tình Thương always brought to the fore the hottest events of the day. The book Vòng Đai Xanh about the Montagnards and the FULRO (Front Unifié de Lutte des Races Opprimées) was written during that period.

If in my years as a medical student I felt a deep attachment to the Highlands and the Montagnards, it would then be natural and understandable that I would be concerned about the threat facing the Mekong, the third largest river in Asia, which is being drained dry and the serious impacts that are befalling the Mekong Delta, the largest granary of the country. I do not believe at all that this concern should only be reserved to the experts in the field.

My many visits to Vietnam, particularly to the Mekong Delta, convinced me that the two decades of “Renovation” had brought about many developments albeit unsustainable ones. The three most challenging hurdles facing the country are: [1] the decline in the quality of education which is manifested in the dilapidated school buildings and the outdated academic programs; [2] an outmoded and overburdened health system that was left listless and unresponsive to the health needs of the majority of the population; [3] but the most glaring of them all is the widespread degradation of the ecology from land, drinking water and food safety…The ensuing outcome of those three hurdles is the high price our generation and the next have to pay far into the future.

The lessons from the Thị Vải River and the MSG company named Công Ty Bột Ngọt Vedan exemplified the disastrous outcome of a reckless pursuit for profit going hand in hand with corruption. Currently, there is a drive to attract foreign investments into the country in complete disregard to its impacts on the ecology. This phenomenon is quite common nationwide and not limited to the Đồng Nai Province. The company named Công Ty Bột Ngọt Vedan started operating in October of 1994. Within ten years, it turned Thị Vải into a dead river. Due to the application of antiquated technology from neighboring countries like Taiwan and mainland China, this firm transformed a pristine river into a sewer and fertile lands into garbage dumps for toxic chemicals. This is a typical case of ecological disaster in our country. This drama is unfolding and multiplying at various speeds on the dying rivers all over Vietnam.

Early on, more than a decade ago, in my non-fiction novel Cửu Long Cạn Dòng, Biển Đông Dậy Sóng, I wrote about this company named Công Ty Bột Ngọt Vedan. Its plant was built right on the bank of the Thị Vải River.

Quote: “Again, he [the owner] started and operated the country’s largest Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) factory on a river bank. He gained the support from the doctors, academicians or members of the Institute of Tropical Ecology and the Office of the Environment and was granted complete freedom to discharge the waste from his factory into the river under the pretext of conducting experiments and research on the impacts of industrial waste on the environment within the production cycles.” 

Just a while ago, in California, I happened to meet a college lecturer in “ecology” coming from Vietnam. He told me that it is quite difficult for his department to enroll students because graduates in ecology would have a hard time finding a job. To me, this state of affair is such an absurdity considering that Vietnam is a developing country which is paying dearly for the destruction of its ecology. Instead of training a large army of ecology experts for all industries, those who graduate with a major in this field cannot find work because society has no demand for their skills. This society’s behavior resembles that of ostriches that prefer to bury their heads in the sand at the approach of dangers. This is a denial attitude, an avoidance of responsibility allowing the situation to fester into “environmental time bombs” with disastrous if not to say immeasurable consequences. Not a few leaders in the country from the provincial to the national levels speedily approve unsustainable development projects out of greed or lack of knowledge. They believe that no matter how polluted the country becomes, they will be able to clean the environment by cleansing the water and rejuvenating the lands. An endeavor to clean the environment of such magnitude is considered unrealistic by the world’s experts.

While treating my patients, I always advise them to look at their glass as being half full instead of half empty regardless of the severity of their illnesses. However, looking at the condition our country is in today, I can say that it resembles a “leopard’s skin”. Next to the “islands” called tourist centers which are well kept to attract the tourists and their foreign exchanges, the rest of the nation’s environment is being constantly degraded. The half full glass is being filled with “dirty water”. We will deceive ourselves if we persist in looking at the situation through rosy lenses.

I have practiced medicine for over 40 years in both a military and civilian capacity. Presently, I am still working full time at a hospital. I do not know how many patients I have treated to this day. The number must be very limited when we consider that “the sea of suffering is immense. No matter where we turn, we cannot see its border” (Buddhist saying).

Let’s go back to the issue of our country. Medically speaking the health of an individual or even of a nation depends on the health of the surrounding environment. This is the definition of “health” offered by the World Health Organization (WHO) at its inception in 1948: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. We are now at the threshold of the 21st century. In my view we should look at “HEALTH” with a new and expanded view. It must be defined as a “state of complete physical, mental, social as well as ENVIRONMENTAL well-being – not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.

ĐNV_ Thank you for sharing with our readers the valuable and much needed information concerning the preservation of the Mekong.

San Diego – Long Beach
10 / 30 / 2010

Note: the other works of Ngô Thế Vinh on the Mekong: