The hurriedly scribbled yellow post it note on my desk at the British Council in Manchester one morning in late 1997 had two words on it that changed my life forever – ‘Call Ian’. It referred to previous British Council Vietnam Country Director Ian Simm who had interviewed me for the post of Assistant Director, Vietnam the week before – I had been successful and set the date to arrive in Vietnam in January 1998.
My first three months were full of briefings, receptions, culture shock, Tet, home hunting and motorbike purchasing. I didn’t fully understand my role but had faith that things would fall into place sooner or later. One Friday evening in early April there was a power cut in Quang Ba so I jumped on my Dream and headed towards the center – towards the light. Half way there, just coming to the end of Hung Vuong Street preparing to turn left by Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, I was hit at great speed by two fourteen year olds on a motorbike.
I was thrown from my bike which flew into the air and landed on top of me. Within seconds a circle of people had formed around me blocking the traffic, looking at me on the floor as if I had just fallen to earth. Several more seconds passed and then something, I now know to be miraculous, happened to me. Someone broke the circle and came to my aid. Singlehandedly a young Vietnamese woman took control of the situation demonstrating leadership, courage, quick thinking, kindness, intelligence, compassion and selflessness. She stepped over a line to where the great universal qualities of being a human being lie and are revealed.
Within minutes, due to her skill, I had been made safe and was extracted from the crash site into a taxi on the way to the nearest hospital with what I now know were 5 broken bones in my leg, shoulder and back. As I was wheeled on a gurney into the emergency unit I looked back and she had disappeared.
As I lay in hospital in the UK at the start of what was to be six months of rehabilitation and recovery, someone from the British Council asked me; ‘so where do you want to go next?’ assuming I wouldn’t want to return to somewhere where I had experienced so much trauma. ‘Back to Vietnam of course’ I replied, knowing that somehow part of me needed to go back and seek out those human qualities in my life and my work in what we called cultural relations.
I’m not sure if I succeeded to do this but I do know that I enjoyed seeking out people who had something different to say and different ways of expressing it. I did find those qualities in my wife and as we brought two children into the world, the fact that they have two passports each - one Vietnamese and one British, is a constant source of pride for us.
Since those moments, being helped on a street in Hanoi by a stranger who didn’t need a thank you, I’ve believed that cultural exchange was about more than coming together to share differences, it is about discovering the common threads of our humanity.
Paul Zetter was Assistant Director of British Council Vietnam from 1998–2002. Since then he has stayed in Vietnam to train people in arts in development and creativity and since 2005 to make films for the development sector in Vietnam and South East Asia. He has tried twice using newspapers and online media to find the woman who helped him on the street in 1998 but has not managed to find her, yet...