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MEKONG DELTA 2020 – THE DYING FIELD AND 45 YEARS OF DISILLUSIONMENT IN THE LIVES OF TWO INTELLECTUALS
In memory of Professors Nguyễn Duy Xuân and Phạm Hoàng Hộ, The monuments to the exceptional and undauntable intelligentsia of South Vietnam.
NGÔ THẾ VINH
Introduction: after completing his voluminous work “Illustrated Flora of Vietnam,” Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ called it “my life’s work.” In the last years of his life, as his last wish, he dedicated it as follows:
“To those victims, still living or dead, who decided to stay in the country after the event of April, 1975 in order to continue to contribute to the fatherland.
To Professor Nguyễn Duy Xuân, former President of the University of Cần Thơ, who died on 10/XI/1986 at the Hà-Nam-Ninh Re-education Camp.
To the restless souls of those who perished in the East Sea.”
The generations born after April 30, 1975 would be now about 45 years-old. During those years, the country underwent a policy that brutalized the population, squandered the “gray matter”, and denigrated a whole generation of South Vietnamese intelligentsia. To take a step further, the Mekong Delta would not be suffering a slow death today if the authorities appreciated and used that “gray matter” whose representatives were the exceptional professors Phạm Hoàng Hộ and Nguyễn Duy Xuân. They were the founders of the University of Cần Thơ in 1966. In 1975, they both decided to stay in the country with the wish of rebuilding a unified post-war nation. In the end, Professor Nguyễn Duy Xuân met a tragic death after enduring 11 years of confinement in the Hà-Nam-Ninh Re-education Camp in North Vietnam, while Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ went through an extremely excruciating ordeal as he had to experience “years of hoping against hope that the country will somehow make progress, moving around on bicycle, eating stale rice, trusting that flowers will bloom in the land.” He eventually departed this life half the world away from his fatherland – a fatherland he constantly felt attached to and never wished to forsake. The cases of Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ, Professor Nguyễn Duy Xuân in the post 1975 years, offer an example as well as a tragic lesson to a whole generation of intellectuals in South Vietnam. That bleak page in our history is a lesson that will remain indelible in the heart and mind of our people. The post 1975 young generations living at the four corners of the world can avail themselves of the Vietnamese text and its new English version to learn from this historical tragedy.
THE YEARS OF ILLUSION OF
PROFESSOR PHẠM HOÀNG HỘ
AND HIS WORK “ILLUSTRATED FLORA OF VIETNAM”
Picture 1: Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ [source: private collection of his family]
Peter Shaw Ashton,
Charles Bullard Professor of Forestry
“By providing annotations on each species in English, as well as the fine line drawings for every one of the c. 10,500 species, the Illustrated Flora of Vietnam provides the English speaking readers with the first, as well as a fully up to date and comprehensive reference for a flora hitherto little known to us. This work will stand as a monument to the determination, dedication, scholaship and even courage of its author. Professor Pham Hoang Ho almost single-handedly upheld standards of academic excellence in biology at the University of Saigon during its most difficult years. Under extraordinary difficult circumstances, Professor Ho was able to gather the materials for this remarkable series and even to visit the field to gather fresh materials for illustration. It is symptomatic of our times that he is now publishing this work, which will be such a stimulus to young biologists in Vietnam, privately overseas.
“The flora of Vietnam may finally contain more than 12,000 phanerorogams. This is because the country, pressed against the Pacific edge of the Asian tropics, has been a corridor for the periodic north-south migration of the very rich subtropical flora of South China and even richer equatorial flora of Malaysia. Her mountains still harbor conifer and angiosperm taxa of exceptional importance, while the lowlands bear evidence of past connections with the Phillippines and Borneo. All this wealth is now perilously close to extinction. The valient efforts of the current government of the Republic of Vietnam to plan and implement a comprehensive conservation strategy will be critically assisted by this manual, which will also stand as a record of the flora as it now exists.”
His birth certificate showed that Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ saw life on August 3, 1931 at An Bình, Cần Thơ. However, his obituary stated he was born in the year of the Snake, 1929, and passed away on January 29, 2017 in Montréal, Canada at the age of 89. His son, Phạm Hoàng Dũng, confirmed that "My father was born in the year of the Snake, 1929, but, following the practice in the old days, it was only years later that a birth certificate was filed and his birthyear was then recorded as 1931".
-- 1953: BSc Science - top of his Biology class, Paris
-- 1955: MSc Natural History, Paris
-- 1956: Agrégé Natural History
-- 1962: PhD in Science/Natural History, Paris
-- 1957-1984: Chief of the Biology Department at the Faculty of Science, Saigon
-- 1965-1984: Professor of biology at the Faculty of Science, Saigon
-- 1962-1966: Director of the Institute of Oceanography in Nha Trang
-- 1963-1963: Dean of the Faculty of Pedagogy in Saigon
-- 1963: Minister of Education
-- 1966-1970: President – Founder of the University of Cần Thơ
-- 1978-1984: Editor-in-chief of the science magazine “Khoa học Phổ thông” Saigon
-- 1984-1989: Research Professor at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris
-- 1956: Member of Société d’Histoire Naturelle de France
-- 1963: Member International Phycological Society
-- 1964: Founding Member - Hội Sinh học Việt Nam
-- 1965: Vice Chairman Uỷ ban Danh từ Việt Nam
-- 1967: Member Viện trưởng Đại học Quốc tế
-- 1969: Founder of the Annual Journal of the University of Cần Thơ / Niên san Đại học Cần Thơ
-- 1971: Member of the Uỷ ban Thẩm định hậu quả chất Da cam tại Nam Việt Nam, National Academy of Sciences, America.
-- 1973: Advisor on Ecology with the Mekong River Committee (MRC)
-- 1960: Cây Cỏ Miền Nam Việt Nam (Flore Illustrée du Sud Vietnam)
Bộ Giáo dục Việt Nam: 1 vol., 803 pp., 275 pls.
-- 1964: Sinh học Thực vật
Bộ Giáo dục Việt Nam: 1 vol., 861 pp., nhiều hình
-- 1968: Hiển hoa Bí tử
Trung tâm Học liệu, Bộ Giáo dục Việt Nam: 506 pp., 264 pls.
-- 1969: Rong Biển Việt Nam
Trung tâm Học liệu, Bộ Giáo dục Việt Nam: 558 pp., 493 figs.
-- 1970: Cây Cỏ Miền Nam Việt Nam, Second edition, volume I
Trung tâm Học liệu, Bộ Giáo dục Việt Nam: 1115 pp., figs. 2787
-- 1972: Cây Cỏ Miền Nam Việt Nam, Second edition, volume II
Trung tâm Học liệu, Bộ Giáo dục Việt Nam: 1139 pp., figs. 5272
An illustrated Flora of VietNam:
-- 1991, Volume 1 Fascicle I: Khuyết Thực Vật. Loã From. Hoa-cánh-rời to Tiliaceae
-- 1992, Volume 1 Fascicle II Hoa-cánh-rời From Elaeagnaceae to Apiaceae
-- 1993, Volume 1 Fascicle III From Smilacaceae...Cyperaceae... Poaceae... to Orchidaceae
-- 1991, Volume 2 Fascicle I Hoa-cánh-rời From Sterculiaceae to Fabaceae
-- 1993, Volume 2 Fascicle II From Daphniphyllum ... Fagaceae… Apocynaceae to Scrophulariaceae
-- 1993, Volume 2 Fascicle III From Smilacaceae... Cyperaceae... Poaceae ... to Orchidaceae
-- 1998: Cây cỏ có vị thuốc ở Việt Nam
Nxb Trẻ, TP Hồ Chí Minh: 860 pp.,
Drescription of 2149 medicinal plants found in Vietnam
In the summary of his scientific accomplishment, Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ confided: "Probably because in my tender youth I have lived in the lush orchards and rice fields of the Mekong Delta, I developed an early love for its flora. I could never forget the image of water lilies floating in the rivers and ponds looking resplendent under the sunrays at dawn, or the flowers of the Longan basking along the ricefield edges. Consequently, I was attracted to the study of botany and tropical ecology when I went to study abroad. At the University of Science in Paris, I started to study the Flora of Indochina. My first scientific contacts with them were at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. In my first natural history class, I paid a visit to the glass house of the Muséum to look for any species that might grow in our homeland. And I drew several of them at the time! I remembered several species of orchids I drew since 1950, in that glass house. Those were the “oldest” sketches in my book Illustrated Flora. Later on, while working on my Master Thesis, also at the Muséum, I had the opportunity to do monographs and drew many pictures especially of the Ficus species. There were not many of them already done because they were difficult to draw. Besides, once back in Vietnam, documents and materials about them would be lacking. Truly, my desire at the time was very modest. I only wished to learn about the Ficus species in Vietnam! I would be quite happy with that.
In 1956, I took the Agrégation exam along with 300 other candidates. I ranked 6th among the 30 who passed then returned to the country.
[* Notes by the author: we should differentiate between the Thạc sĩ diploma in Vietnam which is equivalent to the Master Degree and the French Agrégation which is a teaching diploma. After an arduous examination, candidates who pass it will become full professors from lycées to institutions of higher learning like the universities of science, medicine, pharmacy and law.]
Professor Hộ continued: "My ambition at the time was to return home, teach at a highschool and use my spare time to study the flora of the provinces in the Mekong Delta. Nevertheless, the University of Saigon and the Nha Trang Oceanography Insitute “drafted” me to teach at the University and head the Institute. While working in Nha Trang I conducted reseach on algae as part of my duties. After several years of work, under the guidance of Professor J. Felmann, I finished my doctoral thesis at the University in Paris in the year 1961. This work was published by the Annual Journal of the University of Saigon, a number of science magazines, and in book form Rong biển Việt Nam, as well.
In Saigon, my main task was to teach Botany and Plant Biology (to replace the French Professor Roger, an expert on fungus that causes tree diseases) to the prepatory and specialized students. It is my desire to do a good job teaching those subjects, relevant to the tropical habitat of Vietnam, I had to explore more extensively the flora of the country and completed the Illustrated Flora of Vietnam which later became my life’s work [excerpts from the private collections of Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ’s family: Văn Bằng, Sự Nghiệp Khoa Học của Phạm Hoàng Hộ, Giáo sư Thực vật học].
In the 1959-1960 school year, I, the author, attended the pre-med PCB (Physics, Chemistry, Biology) class at the Faculty of Science in Saigon. Professor Hộ just returned to Vietnam with an Agrégation diploma from France and taught Plant Biology. Although I studied under him for only one year, he left in his students and me personally an inspiration as well as a deep impression that were not easy to forget. After I moved on to the School of Medecine and no longer was his student, I still harbored an admiration for Professor Hộ and kept abreast of his progress and collected his scientific research works as well.
Picture 2: The Illustrated Flora of South Vietnam consisting of 2 Volumes published by the Trung tâm Học Liệu, Bộ Giáo Dục VNCH in 1970 [source: Sách Xưa]
In the first part of the 1990’s, the scientific communities in Vietnam and abroad were overjoyed with the successive publication of the Illustrated Flora of Vietnam by Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ. According to Professor Thái Công Tụng, now living in Montréal, the Bibliothèque du Jardin Botanique de Montréal, Canada keeps the complete works by Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ. The same holds true with the major libraries in the world.
The complete Illustrated Flora of Vietnam consists of two volumes and 3 fascicles in each, totaling about 3,600 pages excluding the Vietnamese Glossary and the Index of scientific names for the species. The meticulous research the professor carried out during his years living in France after he left Vietnam was also included in this Index.
This author personally received the complete 6 books of the Illustrated Flora of Vietnam published overseas from Doctor Phạm Văn Hoàng, the former Director of the Cần Thơ Rehabilitation Center. Doctor Hoàng is Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ’s younger brother and belonged to a senior class at the School of Medecine.
It is advisable to note that, prior to 1975, Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ served as an Advisor to Mekong River Committee. About the year 1974, the professors Phạm Hoàng Hộ and Thái Công Tụng jointly conducted a research on The Mekong Delta, Its environment, Its Problems; [published by the Ministry of Agriculture of the Republic of Vietnam, Saigon 1974] In my search for a copy of that work, I was informed by a disappointed Professor Thái Công Tụng that the work could not suvive the ravages of war.
It would be interesting to find out why the scientific works by Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ were primarily published in Vietnamese instead of French, the technical language he was most proficient in since it was used throughout his training and teaching.
In the introduction to his book The Algae of Vietnam/ Rong Biển Việt Nam published in 1969, Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ wrote: "From the start, this book was written in a foreign language when I was working at the Nha Trang Oceanography Institute and the Muséum. My ambition was to publish it in that foreign language in order to introduce the fruit of my labor to the four corners of the world as I had secretly promised myself when I defended my thesis.
Now, I change my mind and have it published in Vietnamese. I do so in order to demonstrate that any work done with true care can be expressed in any language in any field of interest. I am fully aware that many believe it would be a waste if a work is not written in a foreign language to be known by researchers of the world. However, such argument does not bother me. I would prefer having several million Vietnamese know and read my work than several thousand experts appreciate it. I have rid myself of the false pretention to compete with people of other lands in order to “bring honor” to the Vietnamese. In my judgment, that kind of pretention is not realistic. I firmly believe it is better to have many able Vietnamese than a gifted one: to hold a torch to light a city in other lands while yours is still plunged in darkness cannot be a valid proposition in our time. This pretention is in fact a relinquishment of responsibility, an unpardonable dereliction of duty vis a vis the younger generations.
To create for ourself a scientific lexicon and literature is an extremely far-reaching endeavor. Faced with such daunting challenge, many scholars opted for the easiest solution: study the subjects in foreign languages which are so rich and extensive. Such manner of study would produce many talented individuals but we cannot forget that our present day civilization is that of the mass – consequently no longer reserved exclusively for of a group of elites. Let not the wonders of foreign cultures overwhelm us. Were not the Japanese people awe-struck by the might of foreign science? Today, they are able to construct for themselves a particular scientific literature that equals if not surpasses that of foreign powers!
More than ever, the words pronounced by Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh still ring in my ears: "Will our country Vietnam have a bright or dim future depends on our national language." In the world of the future, cultural dependence especially scientific cultural dependence will be the prevalent one ". [The foreword to the book “The Algae of Vietnam;” published by the Trung Tâm Học Liệu, Bộ Giáo Dục in 1969].
Picture 3: a brief biography of Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ and the foreword by Peter Shaw Ashton, British biologist, Doctorate from University of Cambridge, Charles Bullard Professor of Forestry, Harvard University on the back cover of “The Illustrated Flora of Vietnam” [Volume II, Fascicle 2] published in Montréal 1993
Picture 4: A number of book covers of the monumental The Illustrated Flora of Vietnam consisting of 6 volumes and 2 Fascicles each by Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ published overseas [source: Ngô Thế Vinh]
THE VIA DOLOROSA
The case of Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ in the post 1975 years represents an example, also a painful experience for an entire generation of South Vietnamese intellectuals of whom he is a perfect representative.
Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ revealed that his work the Illustrated Flora of Vietnam was completed in four stages:
-- Research – Stage one: collaborating with Professor Nguyễn Văn Dương on the pharmacological properties of the plants, The Illustrated Flora of South Vietnam, published by the Ministry of Education in 1960 describing 1650 species commonly found in South Vietnam, "this is a time of groping, trying to learn about a flora that is not yet familiar to a student just out of school from a foreign land.
-- Research – Stage Two: in the second edition of The Illustrated Flora of South Vietnam in 1970, the number of plants rose to 5328 [Picture 2]. "This is the stage I consider the golden age of a Vietnamese botanist. Compared to the present day, at that time I could work undisturbed, had ample personal means and a rich land. But most of all, the encouragement of all quarters, friends as well as authorities.
-- Research – Stage Three: Post 1975, I continued my research and added another 2.500 species to the The Illustrated Flora of South Vietnam whose scope was extended to cover the whole of Vietnam.
In the aftermath of the 1975 event, Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ and his intellectual companion Professor Nguyễn Duy Xuân decided to stay in the country in order to rebuild a reunified nation at the end of the war. They had to pay a very dear price for it as Professor Hộ noted: “years of hoping against hope that the country will somehow make progress, moving around on bicycle, eating stale rice, trusting that flowers will bloom in the land.”
Even though Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ was retained in his position of Deputy Dean at the Faculty of Science, the new authority used the intellectuals of the old regime like him for “window dressing” only. He was not given a commensurate role to play in education. Being not a party member, he was not allowed to take part in the meetings and decisions of the Party Committee and was kept completely in the dark on many things. In 1977, after long days of attending classes about politics in a 18 months long program on “Scientific Socialism” especially organized for the South Vietnamese intelligentia in Hồ Chí Minh City; very early on, Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ protested the incorporation of too much time for political instruction in the training program. He warned: “If one allows politics to interfere too much, scientists will lose their professionalism.” [Huy Đức, Bên Thắng Cuộc]
He had to witness a number of opportunist intellectuals of the old regime who make haste to collaborate fully with the new rulers, not showing the slightest sign of scruples. They were ready to write so-called scientific works for newspapers that were in vogue to commemorate the holidays of March 2 and May 19 with titles like "how many kilograms of cassava will be as nutritious as one kilogram of beef " or "sorghum is more nutritious than rice "... those works of "pseudo-science" quickly became the butt of ridicule or contempt in the re-education camps where the South Vietnamese detainees were starving or suffering from malnutrition. They were fed mainly with stale rice "đại mễ" from China along with sorghum and cassava.
Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ, like the remaining decent South Vietnamese intelligentsia, realized he could no longer live in a society so mired in deceit and depravity. That he decided to put an end to all those years of “illusion” and wastefulness was unavoidable. Then opportunity knocked. In 1984 he was invited to teach as a visiting professor by the French government. Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ chose to live in exile in France.
-- Research - Stage Four: a period Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ chatacterized as "most rare and painful". He elaborated: "Painful because I left the country with no hope of returning someday. Painful because I was separated from my dear family, bid farewell to my beloved mother who had sacrified all her life for her children. Painful because I witnessed my beloved land gripped in abject misery, indescribable poverty, wretched desperation."
But, with enormous courage, for six consecutive years, he surmounted that immense sorrow. Professor Hộ patiently immersed himself in his research at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle (MNHN) which is affiliated to the Sorbonne. It is located on the left side of the Seine River, and established in the XVIII century during the French Revolution.
Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ stated: "It is rare for a botanist, especially from Vietnam, who has studied the flora in his country to have the opportunity to stay and do research at the Muséum National d' Histoire Naturelle in France which boasts a collection of plants ranking among the top in the world. It houses between 8 to10 million plant species. At least for Vietnam, it is the sole treasure chest where you can find more than 10,000 species native to our country. Throughout those six years working at the Muséum, every day on my way home in the afternoon, be it cold and damp or deserted and scorching, I never failed to utter to myself: "That’s a wonderful day” because I was able to learn of an unique or new plant of Vietnam!” During this last stage he succeeded to add more than 3,000 new species to his book Illustrated Flora of Vietnam bringing the total to approximately 10,500.
In France, during an encounter with a former student doing research at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle – Laboratoire d'Ichthyology and now teaching at the Faculty of Science in Saigon, Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ confided:
“I try to do the most I can. The Collection in France is extensive and done to scientific standards. Because it was collected many years back, if I don’t make haste, the specimens will be degraded and it’d be a waste… many people from mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore came here to study the French collection of plants from Indochina. I don’t know whether they have any hidden agenda. Those plants are part of our natural resources, we have to know them. If we don’t know but they do then they will use them up. It’s the same with everything, in the end, they will subjugate us, lord it over us while we will bow our head in shame. We may claim we have independence but we’d be actually worse off than under the French.
Picture 5: The Muséum National D’Histoire Naturelle de France, Paris where Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ worked in solitude for six long years to complete his work “The Illustrated Flora of Vietnam.” [source: Internet]
After he completed “The Illustrated Flora of Vietnam,” Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ expressed his deep gratitude to the Muséum National D’Histoire Naturelle de France, Paris and his French colleagues in these heartfelt words: "to accomplish the things that in my youth even in my wildest dream I could not fanthom: citizen of a colony, student of a second-rate school, resident in a small town, I never dared to think of writing a book no matter how small, I loved the plants around me but never entertained the ambition of knowing the flora of the whole country!"
The "suffering intellectual" Phạm Hoàng Hộ has excelled and realized his seemingly impossible "wildest dream" to become the “giant tree” he is in Botany of Vietnam as well as the world.
A LITERARY ANECDOTE
In his book Bông Hồng Tạ Ơn, when referring to the works by Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ, author Nguyễn Đình Toàn recalled: "In the years prior to 1975, Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ’s book still bore the title Illustrated Flora of South Vietnam. The division of the country accounts for the geographical limits imposed on its scope. Nevertheless, his work is not only appreciated by experts in botany. As author Võ Phiến remarked in his book “Literature of the South/ Văn Học Miền Nam,” written overseas after 1975, many writers, [among them Nguyễn Đình Toàn] have read the Illustrated Flora of South Vietnam in order to learn about the plants they saw to use them, when necessary, as materials for their books.” Probably Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ himself was unaware of this application of his work to the literary world.
FOUNDER OF UNIVERSITY OF CẦN THƠ
In the 1960’s, the dignitaries and intellectuals of Cần Thơ spearheaded a campaign to build the University of Cần Thơ. Prominent among them were Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ and Doctor Lê Văn Thuấn. A decree was signed on 3.31.1966 to establish the University of Cần Thơ, the first institution of higher learning in the Mekong Delta. Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ served as its first president from 1966 to 1970.
Owing to his scientific accomplishments and personal repute, Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ was able to recruit a considerable number of top "gray matter" in the South at the time. In the Agriculture field alone, he was able to enlist the participation of the distinguished professors Tôn Thất Trình, Thái Công Tụng, Nguyễn Viết Trương PhD, and Trần Đăng Hồng PhD. In his capacity as Minister of Agriculture, Professor Tôn Thất Trình introduced the HYV / High Yield Variety Rice into the Mekong Delta. During the post-war years, it fell on Professor Võ Tòng Xuân to carry on and expand Professor Trình’s work.
It is thanks to a competent faculty that the University of Cần Thơ rapidly evolved into a center of education and science of good standing meeting the diverse needs of a vast basin extremely rich in resources that have yet to be fully developed. After four years in operation, the University of Cần Thơ held the first graduation ceremony for its well trained students, the fruits of its labor.
Professor Đỗ Bá Khê [my professor of Physics in the PCB class], a member of Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ’s “think tank”, came from the Faculty of Science in Saigon to attend the graduation ceremony at the University of Cần Thơ 50 years ago. In his “graduation” speech he offered a very far reaching vision of the role this University will play for the future of the Basin:
“Today (19/12/1970) in the Age of Science and Technology, the provinces in the Mekong Delta expect the University of Cần Thơ to hold high the torch pointing the way to a new horizon adorned with golden rice stalks laden with grains, orchards with tree branches bent down with flowers and fruits, people contented and care free, an affluent community in a just society.”
Professor Đỗ Bá Khê was the pioneer who introduced the Community College System into South Vietnam prior to 1975, based on the American Community College Concept. A case in point is the Community College of Tiền Giang established in 1971 at Mỹ Tho, to be followed by the Coastal Community College in Nha Trang… unfortunately, post 1975, sharing the fate of the fine education system of South Vietnam, the Community College System was modified by the new authorities and lost its original meaning as envisioned by its founder.
Picture 6: in later years, eventhough he lived far away from the country, Professor Đỗ Bá Khê harbored an unending deep interest in “the future of the Mekong Delta and the role played by the University of Cần Thơ in its preservation and development.” [source: Ngô Thế Vinh private collection. Handwritten letter by Professor Đỗ Bá Khê from Concord, California dated 05. 29.2002]
PROFESSOR NGUYỄN DUY XUÂN
THE INTELLECTUAL LIGHTHOUSE OF THE MEKONG DELTA
THE TRAVELING COMPANION
In 1970, feeling that the University of Cần Thơ was well set on its way, Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ officially invited Professor Nguyễn Duy Xuân to replace him as the president of the University of Cần Thơ so that he could return to Saigon to teach and continue with his scientific research.
Professor Nguyễn Duy Xuân, a native of Cần Thơ, was born in 1925 and 4 year older than Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ. He held a PhD in economics from Vanderbilt University in America and returned to Vietnam in 1963 to teach at the Faculty of Law. As successor to Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ, he energetically developed the university in all fields i.e. academic programs, faculty training, curriculum, building new auditoriums, laboratories, dormitories, and other campus facitilities to accommodate students who came from the provinces of the Mekong Delta. He pioneered the credit system (to replace the old certificates system) being used at American universities. In addition, he sent a whole generation of young lecturers to study abroad like in the case of Trần Phước Đường to the University of Michigan. Mister Đường graduated then returned to Vietnam to work as a biologist. (Professor Trần Phước Đường later became president of the University of Cần Thơ from 1989 to 1997.)
In 1972, Professor Nguyễn Duy Xuân personally wrote to the young agronomist Võ Tòng Xuân who was then working at the International Rice Research Institute in Los Banos, Philippines to invite him to join the teaching staff of the University. Professor Võ Tòng Xuân recalled what Professor Nguyễn Duy Xuân said in the letter: “Professor Nguyễn Duy Xuân wrote the Mekong Delta is our rice bowl and really needs scientists in the field of agriculture. Peace will eventually come after the war. The country needs people like me. That is one of the reasons I decided to return and work at the University of Cần Thơ.” Võ Tòng Xuân PhD later became a well-known Professor in Agriculture, "Doctor Rice." His reputation is intimately intertwined with the application of the Miracle Rice/ Lúa Thần Nông. He went on to serve as president of the University of An Giang, the second largest university in the Mekong Delta after the University of Cần Thơ.
In the short span of 9 years [1966 - 1975] with the professors Phạm Hoàng Hộ and Nguyễn Duy Xuân at the helm, the University of Cần Thơ like a lighthouse of the Mekong Delta, grew into a center for training and scientific research with special emphasis given to the development of Pedagogy and Agriculture. The University made steady strides to keep pace with the other time-honored universities of South Vietnam and contributed significantly to the progress of the Mekong Delta.
FROM ILLUSION TO TRAGEDY
Only a few days before the event of April 30, 1975, like Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ, his friend Professor Nguyễn Duy Xuân, a committed intelectual, made up his mind not to leave the country. In the midst of the fighting, he courageously accepted the position of Minister of Education in the last cabinet of the Republic of Vietnam. A week later the government of South Vietnam collapsed when President Dương Văn Minh announced the surrender.
Professor Nguyễn Duy Xuân was sent to the re-education camp then transported to the North of the country where he was incarcerated at a camp in Hà-Nam-Ninh province without any hope for release. According to Võ Tòng Xuân (VTX), in 1983, on a trip to Hanoi to attend a conference, he travelled to the Ba Sao re-education camp to see the former President of the University of Cần Thơ. Professor Nguyễn Duy Xuân was overjoyed at seeing him and in spite of the harsh conditions he found himself in at the camp, he eagerly kept asking about the status of the University of Cần Thơ, the institution he and Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ worked so hard to build.
I, the author of this article, cannot help wonder what stage of development and progress would the University of Cần Thơ and the Mekong Delta be in today if the victorious Communists did not subject Professor Nguyễn Duy Xuân PhD in economics, a gifted and ardent patriot, to 11 years of unnecessary and cruel imprisonment but allowed him to continue his work of building the University of Cần Thơ at the pace he was carrying on in the years 1966-1975.
During the post-war years, it was not until 1983 that the two professors with the same first name Xuân were able to meet again for the first and also last time at the Ba Sao reeducation camp. Professor Nguyễn Duy Xuân suffered three additional years of imprisonment, for a total of 11 years, before he passed away on November 11, 1986 at the Ba Sao re-education camp in Hà-Nam-Ninh province due to hunger, illness and lack of medical treatment. His body was buried in a shallow grave at the cemetery on the slope of the mountain behind the re-education camp.
It was not until April, 2015, almost 30 years after his death, that the remains of Professor Nguyễn Duy Xuân, were taken by his daughter Mrs Nguyễn Thị Nguyệt Nga coming from France from the cemetery at Ba Sao Hà-Nam-Ninh to the Thiên Hưng Pagoda, Quận Bình Thạnh Sài Gòn for final rest. The requiem ceremony was attended by Professor Nguyễn Duy Xuân’s family and a number of the faculty along with former students including Professor Võ Tòng Xuân, Nguyễn Tăng Tôn PhD (former student), Nguyễn Văn Mận PhD (former student), Engineer Minh (former student), Mr. Hòa (administrative staff).
Picture 7: The re-education camp Ba Sao in Hà-Nam-Ninh, North Vietnam, on the mountain slope in the back of the camp was located the cemetery where many prisoners from South Vietnam were buried after 1975. Among them was Professor Nguyễn Duy Xuân’s shallow grave. 30 years later, his daughter Mrs Nguyễn Thị Nguyệt Nga came from France to take his ashes from the Ba Sao re-education camp to the Thiên Hưng Pagoda, Quận Bình Thạnh Sài Gòn.
Picture 8: from left, Professor Võ Tòng Xuân, Mrs Nguyễn Thị Nguyệt Nga Professor Nguyễn Duy Xuân’s daughter, holding the urn containing his ashes, her boyfriend Alan and a family friend [source: Võ Tòng Xuân]
THE UNIVERSITY OF CẦN THƠ AFTER 1975
Succeeding Professor Nguyễn Duy Xuân was Mr. Phạm Sơn Khai, a South Vietnamese who rallied to the North and member of the Communist Party. He specialized in "History of the Communist Party/ Chuyên Ngành Lịch Sử Đảng", Mr. Khai was appointed president of the University of Cần Thơ and served for 13 years from 1976 to 1989.
From 1975 on, to conform with the educational policy of “better red than specialization” espoused by the new authorities, a mandatory course “Karl Marx Leninism and Hồ Chí Minh’s Thoughts" was added to the curriculum of the universities in the South including the University of Cần Thơ. A course that "professors prefer not to teach, students not to study" but still in force to this day. Almost half a century has gone by, 45 years after the reunification of the country, there is yet an “autonomous university". It is too early to talk about democratization of the country when universities like "Think Tanks" are still being controlled and directed by Party Cells.
Picture 9: The Presidents of the University of Cần Thơ from the day of its founding; from left, 1.Prof. Phạm Hoàng Hộ, 1966-1970; 2. Prof. Nguyễn Duy Xuân, 1970-1975; 3. Mr. Phạm Sơn Khai, 1976-1989; 4. Prof. Trần Phước Đường, 1989-1997; 5. Trần Thượng Tuấn PhD, 1997-2002; 6. Lê Quang Minh PhD, 2002-2006; 7. Prof. Nguyễn Anh Tuấn, 2007-2012; 8. Hà Thanh Toàn PhD, 2013 - today. [source: private collection of Lê Anh Tuấn]
Picture 10: Prof. Võ Tòng Xuân invited Prof. Phạm Hoàng Hộ to take part in a field trip to Đồng Tháp Mười organized by the University of Cần Thơ, in March, 1981. From left, Trần Thượng Tuấn PhD, Nguyễn Thị Thu Cúc PhD (hidden), Đỗ Thanh Ren MS, Prof. Võ-Tòng Xuân, Prof. Trần Phước Đường, a cadre of the Phân Viện Quy Hoạch, Prof. Phạm Hoàng Hộ, a cadre of Đồng Tháp Province. [source: private collection of Võ Tòng Xuân]
In his eMail, Võ Tòng Xuân stated: "I will always remember Professor Hộ on that trip, he was very particular with his diet. He brought along his own food and flask of water".
PROFESOR PHẠM HOÀNG HỘ’S 80th BIRTHDAY
In July 2009, in Montréal, a number of his students organized the 80th birthday party for Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ. They presented him with his bust as a birthday gift. A student gave this touching statement: "The bust is not only that of a respected professor of botany. It is also the representation of an intellectual of the South who has consecrated his entire life to science yet proves to be modest in spite of his talent and most of all his love for the country."
A meaningful note: in that birthday party, Tăng Quang Kiệt MD conveyed the best wishes from Professor Phùng Trung Ngân, from California, the founder of the Ecology Department and Dean of the Faculty of Science in Saigon (1973-1975). He was also Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ’s former classmate of the same age:
"My dear friend Hộ, I truly thank you and your wife for allowing me to send in my thoughts on this memorable occasion. Throughout your 80 years of existence on earth, you have made a great contribution with your monumental The Illustrated Flora of Vietnam while at the same time provided guidance to students who loved botany and the Nature of Vietnam. As your close colleague in the training of our Vietnamese youth in botany I have witnessed your devotion to your work and your enthusiasm for research. The fruit of your labor can be seen in your Illustrated Flora of South Vietnam that was afterward complemented to become the Illustrated Flora of Vietnam including the numerous plant species that lied neglected at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. Prior to 1975, you and I, we often took the students on field trips to Lâm Đồng-Đà Lạt, led them to the top of Lâm Viên, one of the mountains with a height of 2,000m in the South. We often shared a dream that when peace returns to the land, we would together take a trip to the North to survey the flora of Fan Xi Pan Peak with a height of more than 3,000m at Hoàng Liên Sơn. Unfortunately, that dream will probably never be realized. However, you have on your own get to know Fan Xi Pan Peak through the plant species kept at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. In that way, you completed the Illustrated Flora of Vietnam in the service of Science. I am very fortunate to serve as your trusted collaborator over the years and learned from you the thoroughness when doing research, the devotion to teaching and the passion to study the Nature of Vietnam." 
Picture 11: Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ sitting next to his bust by a Canadian sculptor Megerditch Tarakdjian MD on his 80th birthday party organized by a number of his former students in Montréal, Canada. (3)
THE LAST WISH: KEEP THE MOTHERLAND GREEN
In the last volume of Illustrated Flora of Vietnam [Volume III, Fascicle 2] published in Montréal in 1993, in the short two pages of the Foreword, Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ left us a Message; meant to be his Last Wish for Vietnam.
"The flora of Vietnam probably consists of about 12,000 species. That is only counting vascular plants, excluding Algae, Mosses, Fungus.
This flora is among the most abundant in the world. This profusion in plant species is a true blessing to the Vietnamese people. As I have written as early as 1968, flowering plants are the inestimable benefactor of humankind. Flowering plants provide us with our daily food; flowering plants offer us, especially the Vietnamese people, a safe shelter. So many love stories started with a quid of areca nut and betel leaf. How many of us at birth have the umbilical chords severed with a sharp bamboo blade? In our most exalted mood, at our leisure time, it is those flowering plants that delight human beings with that delectable drink to enjoy with nature. In sickness, the flowering plants give us the medicine to cure us.
Those things are truer to us Vietnamese who, at many places, still exist in a plant-based civilization.
Those benefactors are threatened with annihilation, because the forests and water are receding at an unsafe pace, the arable land eroded in large swaths, and desserts advancing at an accelerated speed. The time has come, we can accurately sing along with this song’s lyrics: "Citizens, do you hear? Our motherland is in peril. The thick forests have disappeared, erosion is advancing... Gone the countless trees that adorn our land." [notes by the author: song “Hội nghị Diên Hồng”, music: Lưu Hữu Phước, lyrics: Huỳnh Văn Tiểng - Mai Văn Bộ - Lưu Hữu Phước].
That treasure throve of flora we have the duty to preserve. Preservation and restoration in our country are imperative. This is achievable because young or old we can contribute to that end. The small things we do daily will amount to much really.
Refraining from starting a spark, throwing a cigarette butt means helping to prevent a forest fire. Not cutting down a tree unnecessarily is tantamount to preserving our Nature. Planting trees is the preserve of the government or forest growing companies. But we can, on our own initiative, plant a tree distinctive, rare to our region or peculiar to Vietnam. Our people love bonsais, but people in their leisure can plant a distinctive, special tree – a hobby quite pleasurable in itself. Cities and towns should maintain public parks or botanical gardens, of any size – big or small - to exhibit indigenous or interesting trees or plants. They do not have to be necessarily useful or beautiful. There is nothing special about the aquilaria sinensis/ lign aloes tree. Yet, it is a source of pride to us because since the time of our ancestors Hồng Bàng, our people used it to make incense. There are thousands of trees that are unique to Vietnam! They can be planted along roadways to give shades. Villages, districts, provinces should start campaigns to plant trees of special interest. We do not need to wait for academies, reservations to preserve the precious natural resources for the next generations. We can surely contribute our part to that effort. Planting those rare, special trees can also offer a way to attract tourists: There is only one batonical garden in the world outside of Vietnam that can grow our Dendrobium amabile. They are very proud of that feat and the fact was included in the "Guinness Book of World Records in 1988."
Each year, the house that plants interesting and rare trees can be designated as “house of the year “. Naturally, at first sight, their contribution cannot compare to those done by people who used Rhizobium to increase the productivity of soy bean, planted aquilaria sinensis/lign aloes trees to make incense, introduced Miracle Rice or grape vines. But if thousands, millions of people contributed their “small parts”, then millions of those “small parts” will surely amount to “something big”.
Making big contribution is always difficult to do in my view. But, I also cherish the “small contributions,” the daily things that anybody can make. They are more meaningful. To me, performing extraordinary feats is not the exclusive preserve of The “followers of the Way/ Kẻ sĩ” or men of exceptional moral and intellectual attributes. The common folks who contribute “small things,” in their own way, are also performoning acts not less commendable. Actually, they can be called the unknown “followers of the Way/ kẻ sĩ”. With your “small contributions” you assuredly do not disappoint the motherland or bring shame to your native soil. [quotation from the Foereword, the Illustrated Flora of Vietnam; Volume III, Fascicle 2].
IN LIEU OF CONCLUSION
Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ considers the "Illustrated Flora of Vietnam as his life’s work" He dedicated that entire achievement to:
“To those who decided to stay in the country after the event of April, 1975 in order to continue to contribute to the fatherland and later survived or died in prison.
To Professor Nguyễn Duy Xuân, former President of the University of Cần Thơ, who died on 10/XI/1986 at the Hà-Nam-Ninh Re-education Camp.
To the restless souls of those who perished in the East Sea.”
This article is written as a prayer to the souls of professors Nguyễn Duy Xuân, Phạm Hoàng Hộ, Đỗ Bá Khê – the scholars who are men of admirable characters, true “followers of the Way” imbued with fortitude and worthy representatives of the intellectuals of South Vietnam. They walked to the end of their journey on earth consecrating their lives to the service of the fatherland during the darkest days in its history. These lines are written in a state of mind chocked with emotions. As I burned an incense stick in commemoration, I recalled this line by the great poet Nguyễn Du: “The bodies perish, but the spirits persist/ Thác là thể phách còn là tinh anh.” The examples they left behind can be compared to a shining lighthouse that guides the sinking ship of the Mekong Delta to safe harbor as it is drifting listess amidst ominous wind and waves. Let’s hope that one day "flowers will bloom in our land." Then, in a free and democratic country, on top of the Fan Xi Pan (over 3,000m high) in Hoàng Liên Sơn, a monument to Professor Phạm Hoàng Hộ will be erected to beckon students to come and conduct research on the local flora and realize his Vietnamese Dream.
NGÔ THẾ VINH
Saigon April 30, 1975 – Mekong Delta April 30, 2020
[Chân Dung VHNT & VH, Việt Ecology Press 2017]
1/ GS. Phạm Hoàng Hộ & GS. Nguyễn Duy Xuân đối với việc hình thành và phát triển Viện Đại học Cần Thơ (1966 - 1975); Phạm Đức Thuận; Tập San Xưa và Nay Số 439 Tháng 11 Năm 2013; http://www.cantholib.org.vn/Database/Content/1188.pdf
2/ Vị Tổng Trưởng quyết không rời Quê hương. Trung Hiếu; Báo Thanh Niên 28.04.2015; http://thanhnien.vn/thoi-su/giu-huyet-mach-cho-hon-ngoc-vien-dong-ky-6-vi-tong-truong-quyet-khong-roi-que-huong-556577.html
3/ Anh Chị Thuỷ - Thu Vân thăm Thầy Phạm Hoàng Hộ, http://truongxuabancu.fpb.yuku.com/topic/118/Anh-Ch-ThuThu-Vn-thm-Thy-Phm-Hong-H#.WJNVUxTcdwg
4/ Giáo sư Phạm Hoàng Hộ, một người thầy của tôi. Lê Học Lãnh Vân; Một Thế Giới.VN 02.02.2017; http://motthegioi.vn/giao-duc-c-69/cau-chuyen-giao-duc-c-108/giao-su-pham-hoang-ho-mot-nguoi-thay-cua-toi-55462.html
5/ Đại học cộng đồng được thành lập trước 1975. GS Đỗ Bá Khê; Đặc san Tiền Giang, July 1998.