It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. These famous Charles Dickens lines accurately describe my trip to Vietnam some years ago.
Worst, because it was the most trying workshop I have ever facilitated. From the word go the training venue was full of tension. Initially I did not pay too much attention to this as my mind was on how to convey abstract leadership concepts in the simplest of English. Then, on the second day of the training, the company’s General Manager, a Brit, burst out in anger and frustration at the inability of his managers to take initiative, make decisions or do anything on their own. Vietnam is a communist country, and while the workforce is very diligent, their work ethic does not allow for individuation. He responded to this amorphous field by becoming extremely belligerent.
Witnessing a manager verbally abuse his own staff made me, in turn, extremely indignant and angry. To bring my own emotions under control I called for a tea break but not before some delegates had noticed the moisture forming in the corner of my eyes, something that happens to me when extremely provoked.
The workshop concluded successfully enough. I felt drained and tired and longed for the anonymity of my hotel room ahead of the next day’s coaching sessions, but that was not to be. Nan, the financial manager had put in leave for the next two days and requested that I see her directly after the workshop. In a secluded corner of the hotel lobby she told me her story. At times she cried; at times we cried together.
In parting Nan asked what I was doing on the Friday. I told her I had the day free and she offered to show me the Chu Chi tunnel system on the outskirts of Ho Chi Min City. I agreed on condition she bring her children with so as to give her mother a break. She agreed.
There to pick me up on that Friday morning was not only Nan and the two children, but also her mother and brother and their chauffeur in a spacious, air conditioned MPV. The elderly lady and I bowed deeply to each other. She spoke no English. The children took one look at me next to their petite mother with her sleek black hair - to them I was a giant with yellow hair - and they scampered to sit with their uncle in the back. We started our journey.
The cityscape dropped behind us, the view opened up to rice paddies and water buffalo. Then we entered the notorious Vietnamese forest. As we got to the outdoor museum commemorating the Vietnam War the air was filled with the sound of gun fire and exploding bombs. Scary even if you know it is all just simulation. Our guide led Nan’s mother, brother and I through various tunnels while she stayed above ground with the children. The tunnel system is amazing; they even had an operating room below ground. All of this was made more real by the fact that Nan’s father had been a general in Ho Chi Min’s army and her brother bore skin lesions from orange poisoning. The old lady’s eyes spoke volumes.
After all this crouching through tunnels it was time for a delicious Vietnamese lunch and then the long journey back to the city centre. That was when the children became restless and demanding, typical of that age. The two year old was no longer afraid of the giant with yellow hair. I took him on my lap and quieted him with South African wine gums. The older brother also put his hand out for some. When the sweets were finished, more entertainment was needed. I sang ‘iziki zumba, zumba, zumba, iziki zumba, zumba, zei’, a Zulu song sung to a child while bouncing them on your knees and then unexpectedly dropping them between your knees, much like humpty dumpty. The youngest laughed with delight. And then the eldest came forward; he also wanted a turn to sit on my lap.
At that point Nan turned to look straight at me and said in her heavily accented English: “Jean, you a Westerner and an African. I am Asian. Deep down we are all just the same”.
This day was the best of times.