Beatle-mania in Hanoi. In the 1990s, before Vietnam got the internet, it was less easy to find shared points of cultural experience than it is today. I would often mention to a Vietnamese friend a famous Western actor or singer, only to be met by looks of incomprehension. But one British name everybody knew: the Beatles.
In 1997, the former ambassador David Fall decided to throw a much bigger and more lavish Queen’s Birthday Party than we had ever done before. This was held at the Residence at 15 Phan Chu Trinh. Some clever person (not me!) at the Embassy or the British Council managed to find a Vietnamese Beatles tribute group. They were note-perfect, and the assembled Vietnamese and British guests ended up dancing the night away to a selection of Beatles hits. But another event in the same year made an even bigger impression on me: a procession around Hoan Kiem Lake by a group of Vietnamese students to commemorate the anniversary of John Lennon’s death. Any kind of march or public gathering by ordinary people was extremely rare in those days, so as soon as I heard about it I went down to the lake to watch. I found myself unexpectedly moved by the sight of a hundred or so young Vietnamese walking slowly together while singing, with great emotion and feeling, Lennon songs such as Imagine and Give Peace A Chance. It showed that some forms of culture cross all boundaries of geography, time and nationality.
Besides the Beatles, the other thing guaranteed to cut through any boundaries of language or nationality between British and Vietnamese people is, and always has been, football. I first realised that Vietnamese people were just as football-mad as the English during the World Cup in 1994. Every night, the road outside my house in Ba Trieu would fill up with impromptu 5-a-side games – easily possible, since there were so few cars on the streets in those days – before people headed off to watch the World Cup on TV. I often used to venture down and join in the street games, where I always received the warmest of welcomes from the Vietnamese players, who were often remarkably well informed about British football, despite it rarely being on Vietnamese TV at the time (I will always remember my Vietnamese teacher’s husband correcting me over a particular English striker’s first club).
It was in the same year that together with a group of mostly expatriate friends, I became a co-founder of the Hanoi Capitals Football Club. We played year-round friendly matches against any Vietnamese opponents we could find, mostly in Hanoi, but also sometimes in places like Mai Chau (not yet established then as a backpacker destination) and Lang Son. Football gave us a chance to see parts of Vietnam, and to befriend and mix with local people (first in the games, then over bia hoi and ruou afterwards) which we would have not have had otherwise.
Of course, we have since seen many more examples of the enduring attraction of football – and particularly the Premier League – in Vietnam, such as the visit by Arsenal which became famous for the devoted Vietnamese fan known as “running man”. With footballers from South Korea and Japan having broken into the Premier League, I hope within my lifetime to see a Vietnamese player pull on the shirt of one of the UK’s most famous teams. Or perhaps a Vietnamese investor in my hometown team, Bolton Wanderers.
Son Doong cave. Unbeknownst to me, while I was in Vietnam as a young diplomat in the 90s, an intrepid group of British cavers (mostly from Yorkshire, the heartland of British caving) was busy starting to explore and map the amazing cave systems of north and west Vietnam. Meanwhile, a few years earlier, a local man from Quang Binh, Mr Ho Khanh, had discovered the entrance of what appeared to be an extremely large cave while sheltering from a storm in the jungle. He had then moved away from the area and forgot the location. But he and the British cavers were eventually introduced to each other, and at their encouragement, he spent several years trying to rediscover the entrance. Eventually, in 2009, he did so, and the team, led by Howard Limbert, were able to explore what subsequently turned out to be the biggest cave (by volume) in the world.
As someone who loves exploring nature and wilderness, it was an especial privilege for me to be able to join a tour of Son Doong in 2016 with a group of other foreign ambassadors, and to meet both Howard and Ho Khanh in person. The cave itself has to be seen to be believed – parts of it look more like an alien planet than anything you might expect to see on Earth. I’m always amazed to think that a place which is now rightly known as one of the great wonders of the natural world, and has rightly been inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, was still unknown during my first posting in Vietnam. And I’m proud to think that the story behind its exploration is really one of British–Vietnamese cooperation, with the British spirit of adventure and discovery combining with Vietnamese determination and resilience.
“These are cultural values that have no impediment to geographical boundaries, time or nationality.”