When it comes to my birthplace, Bac Giang is a province town located 50 km north from Hanoi, in the far away exotic Vietnam. The city is located on the country road No 1 from Hanoi to Lang Son, which in turn is located almost at the border od Vietnam and the Chinese People Republic. I distinctly remember the time in 1979 when the city of Lang Son has been completely destroyed (just like Warsaw in 1944) I remember how I was afraid that the Chinese will demolish my city just the same way in the spirit of so called payback to Vietnam – to a brother country. Because the little brother didn’t want to listen to the older one and instead preferred the council of the oldest bother – the Soviet Union, who wasn’t China’s favourite country, probably because China was jealous of the Soviet Union’s power. But luckily the two countries quickly ended the pointless conflict, which has costed them both dearly, the moral losses were the most painful. How was it possible that two great socialist countries fought with each other?
The most important thing was that I didn’t have to go to the army. I could learn Polish in the Foreign Language College in Hanoi, where we were taught not only by Vietnamese teachers but also Mr Andrzej and Mrs Ela from Poland. About this Polish-Vietnamese relationship I’ll speak some more later on. I can still remember that my neighbour – my friend’s father from Pond street (Thùng Đấu) - was a high ranking official in Vietnam; another neighbour was a high ranking commissioned officer (my dad was the principal in a secondary school). One day in 1974 (we were 12) my friend and I whispered about what he has overheard from the adults discussing the Chinese aggression on the Vietnamese Paracele archipelago on the South China Sea I couldn’t have known then that 40 years later in faraway Poland I could lead a huge (forty thousand) demonstration against China’s hegemony concerning that particular area. At that time, we didn’t understand politics or why North Vietnam couldn’t openly protest the hegemony. Many years later, in Poland I found out that much earlier the USA president R. Nixon has settled many things personally with Mao Tze Dung and that’s why the Americans could freely bombard North Vietnam without fear of China’s response. And when China unrightfully took possession of the American’s ally (South Vietnam), Americans calmly observed the situation from a distance, however not a very significant distance since their aircraft carriers were stationed near the archipelago.
If it is to be chronological, I will write all the things I still remember. So, I remember the Vietnam War, where North Vietnam, with some help from socialist countries bravely fought with South Vietnam, who was supplied by the capitalistic countries (mainly the USA), both parties sacrificed many soldiers and civilians.
So, we battled furiously, Americans bombarded the North and I often couldn’t go to the primary school in the city, we had to evacuate to the remote villages or to the jungle (that was the name of the first level of school and it consisted of 4 grades).
I don’t remember all the names of the villages we lived in, but I remember Yen The, where sometime in the past a Vietnamese national hero Hoang Van Tham bravely fought the French. So well, there was always another war in the unfortunate Vietnam.
Supposedly I was one of the best students in the merged province of Ha Bac (2 cities Bac Giang and Bac Ninh), it was proven by the fact that I won a prestigious award in the province maths competition. As a result, in the middle school (gymnasium, grades 5,6,7) I was a well-established student, I frequently received some certificates. During my last year (in the seventh grade) I could yet again represent my province in the National Maths Competition, where I scored enough points to be accepted to an elite secondary school (high school, grades 8, 9, 10) at Maths faculty of the University of Hanoi.
I distinctly remember those years, the last grades before the university. On the one hand it was an honour to be one of the only 3 people in the whole province of Ha Bac (there were total of 23 students from various provinces most of whom from Hanoi); on the other hand it was a torture, it was a survival camp. Somebody decided we should be tested constantly, there were frequent competitions. It was very stressful for the students, because at the end of the school year some weaker students were sent back to their provinces. And that was a huge embarrassment to the student.
So I had to work hard, namely fight (constantly fight with other students) and in the last grade (10th) at last, I was one of the 13 students who could peacefully prepare to the university exams. At that time, I kept thinking that it would have been better if I have been eliminated and sent back to my province where I was one of the best instead being a part of this elite group (called A0) where I had to constantly fight in order not to lose my place. Besides in a regular school there were so many (pretty) girl students, whereas in our class there was only one last girl left. I remember one friend who was even better than I was, but he studied so hard he … went crazy. Literally, because one night while everybody tried to solve math exercises, he has had an epilepsy attack, it caused a lot of fear among students. Naturally, he was sent back to some regular school, it worked out pretty good for him because he was doing well there and he had time to develop both academically and psychologically.
Another student, received an award in the international mathematics contest, the entire Vietnam has been proud; unfortunately, later in his life he ended up in a psychiatric hospital and soon afterwards he lost his university teaching job. Many years later during a visit in Hanoi I bought him a beer and we reminisced the student years. I was very disappointed with the social services in Vietnam because I knew that in free democratic Poland the international contest winners receive a pension. When my other friend from Bac Giang had still been an editor-in-chief of a huge Hanoi newspaper; I used the opportunity to write an article about pensions, but I didn’t accomplish anything, the friend still doesn’t get any help. Soon after the other friend lost his job (the editor-in-chief), probably not because of my article, but because of some political issues. Supposedly also connected with China. Sic!
The only advantage was that we had the best available learning conditions, we received government scholarships throughout the 3 years of the secondary school. We lived in student dormitories with students not only from Mathematics but also Geography and Philosophy where we had beautiful “step-sisters”- a little older fellow students from the Hanoi University. After regular lessons were over, at night we studied together in small dormitory classrooms.
I had great results both on my graduation exam and the university exams. I and a friend both got 27 out of 30 points from three subjects (maths, physics, chemistry), it was one of the best results in Vietnam at that time. As a reward, my friend went to study in Hungary and I went to Poland. It has been decided that I would go to Poland with a new colleague from Central Vietnam who has also scored 27 points at his exams.
Accidentally, it turned out we could study Information Technology on the Wroclaw Polytechnics instead of Mathematics at the University.
My friend is now a famous Professor at the Wroclaw Polytechnics. I had the honour to accompany him to the ceremony where he was awarded the title of Professor by the President of Poland.
To be continued
By Ngo Hoang Minh
Translation Dominika Chmielewska