Dear Ms Marion Dewar: we, the Vietnamese boat people, always remember you!

Marion Dewar with the Vietnamese community in 1981.OttSunWP

Kimothy Walker

Saigon : (Ottawa Sun): — Sitting in view of Reunification Palace (also known as Independence Palace) in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, seems an unlikely place to think about Ottawa heroes. However, one came to mind.

It’s not my first time in Vietnam, but my first in the city formerly known as Saigon, the city where the U.S. evacuation ended the war in Vietnam. More on the Ottawa hero shortly.

Here, it’s often referred to as the American War and the weapons left behind are on full display. The war dragged on for almost 20 years.

As a consultant to the national broadcaster, I studied a lot about Vietnam, then and now. I also wanted to challenge my own pre-conceived notions. I am aware that reading American or Canadian media reports from the time wouldn’t tell it all. I tended to use several online encyclopedias for my readings about the mid-1970s, and then cross-reference the information against academic articles.

In reading, and watching documentaries, one photo always stayed with me. It shows parents pushing their children over the walls of what is now Reunification Palace. They were begging U.S. soldiers to take their kids to freedom. The Americans were moments away from pulling out and the North Vietnamese were closing in. A tank drove through the gate shortly after, not far from where I am sitting.

I think of the desperation of trying to send your child ahead, not knowing if you would ever follow, and worrying about who would care for them. As a parent, it speaks to sacrifice.

In Ottawa, we have many people who suffered greatly after the south fell and who lost family members on the boats they used to escape. We hear about the horrific stories about “boat people” who fled into the sea on overcrowded and dangerous vessels.

It’s estimated Vietnam was a country left in ruin with 1.7 million dead. Three million were wounded and there were 13 million refugees. Seven million tonnes of bombs were dropped by the U.S., and 75 million litres of Agent Orange, a toxic herbicide, were sprayed on Vietnamese civilians.

Today, Reunification Palace is surrounded by restaurants, expensive boutiques and there’s a Starbucks nearby. American tourists ebb and flow through the streets, treated with respect, as far as I’ve seen.

Next week, Vietnam marks 43 years since the war ended at the very spot where I am adjusting to jetlag and thinking about this country — and ours. I am struck by how the truth depends on whom you ask.

In 1979, Mayor Marion Dewar (1922-2008), led the Project 4000, in which Ottawa residents sponsored 4,000 Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugees.

Which brings me back to that hero. Former Ottawa mayor Marion Dewar seemed to ask herself another question: how she could simply help civilians displaced by war. While the Canadian government had helped the U.S. effort in the war through unofficial support, she seemed to concentrate on just getting people to safety. She distilled the people from the politics.

In the end, Ottawa welcomed 4,000 refugees from Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon. Those people have helped create a thriving Vietnamese community in the capital, filled with local leaders. In Canada, we accepted about 60,000 refugees to our country from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the mid-1970s.

But, before we pat ourselves on the back, this was after we allowed the United States to test Agent Orange as a chemical weapon at one of our military bases — and Canadian soldiers who suffered have applied for compensation. In some Vietnamese families there are three generations of severe birth defects caused by the U.S. spraying of Agent Orange.

Part of what has brought me here is to help more than 1,000 Vietnam TV (VTV) employees best utilize social media to boost their large, but shrinking, traditional media presence. Online users are growing faster here than in most countries.

Around me there are skyscrapers, but wedged between them are street food vendors who sit on small stools under corrugated metal roofs built into the urban landscape. They wash their dishes at night on street curbs. And I see them on their cellphones while waiting for customers.

Like Ottawa, Hanoi and HCM City are building rail systems, but construction has been delayed. Tourism is a rapidly growing industry and is mirrored by the constant construction, which can be seen throughout the cities.

Some of my Vietnamese friends here don’t use the expression the “Fall of Saigon,” they talk about the Spring of Saigon.

According to the South China Morning Post, economic growth has topped six per cent for more than 15 years. In Da Nang, known for the beach made famous by the American TV show “China Beach,” five million people visited in the first nine months of 2017 and one-third of them were international tourists. Hanoi and HCM City had double-digit growth.

Vietnam is becoming famous among serious travellers for its inexpensive and exquisite food, served with attentive service.

And, decades after Marion Dewar drove the Ottawa campaign to welcome Vietnamese refugees to our city, I realize how welcome I feel in Vietnam. As a woman travelling alone, I walk at night with no fear. In fact, I rarely feel noticed until someone wants to practise English with me. I tend to stand out as a foreigner.

I was interviewed, shortly after I arrived, by young journalists doing a story on foreigners and their experience in Vietnam. They spoke excitedly about their country and directed me to Bitexco Financial Tower, a 68-storey gleaming building with a helipad, two blocks from where we were. They took a selfie with me, and went on their way.

I watched those young people walk away, excited about their new-found knowledge, and thought about everything I had read about the past and realized the future is the focus here. Vietnam’s young people are not looking back.

In that moment, I was proud to live in a city that didn’t look away when some of their people needed us.

It’s a legacy Marion Dewar left to us.

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