Vo Tong Xuan came of age during a period of tumultuous change in Vietnam.
The town of Chau Phu, his birthplace, is situated in An Giang Province of what was once
the Colony of Cochin China, just one of five subdivisions of French Indochina. At the time
of his birth in 1940, the French had occupied this part of Vietnam for more than seventy
years. In September of that year, however, the very month he was born, the Imperial
Japanese Army entered Indochina and subsequently occupied it in collaboration with French
colonial officialswho, by virtue of their affiliation with the Nazi-linked Vichy
regime in France were, for a time, allies of Japan.
Japans arrival was the first in a series of turbulent events that formed the
backdrop of Xuans childhood and youth. Subsequent traumas included: the violent
break between the French and the Japanese in early 1945; the defeat of Japan in August
1945, followed on 2 September by Ho Chi Minhs declaration of Vietnams
independence; the long and complicated power struggle among Vietnamese patriots during the
First Indochina War, in which Ho Chi Minhs communist-led Vietminh ultimately
thwarted Frances attempt to reclaim its Indochinese colonies; the partition of
Vietnam into communist and noncommunist zones at the Geneva Conference of 1954; and,
finally, the bloody war pitting North against South and, in the South, neighbor against
neighbor, until all Vietnam was ultimately united under the Northern communist regime in
In the face of such turmoil, Xuans family sought security and social coherence
within the Cao Dai religious sect. Cao Daiism was a new religion that combined elements of
Confucianism, Daoism, and Catholicism with other eclectic elements. It had emerged in
Saigon in 1925 and was uniquely Vietnamese, although among its saints was the French
writer Victor Hugo. Under the authority of their "Pope," adherents of the Cao
Dai movement formed strong social communities in the Mekong Delta. Xuans maternal
grandparents, who were originally from Gia Dinh, were middle-ranking officials of the
sect. Some time in the late 1930s, they were assigned to the Cao Dai temple in the town of
Chau Doc, near the Cambodian border in An Giang Province. Their daughter, Nguyen Thi Ni,
sang in the choir and thus came to the attention of Vo Tong Luc, a local lawyers
clerk and fellow Cao Dai member. The two young people courted and married. Vo Tong Xuan,
born on 6 September 1940, was their second child but the first to survive childbirth. Five
Vo Tong Luc was a literate man whose work, Xuan says, involved composing petitions to
judges and officials "on behalf of the oppressed." For a time, he and the family
remained in Chau Doc. As a little boy, Xuan remembers going fishing with him in a sampan
in the months of August and September, when the Mekong swelled to the very edge of the
city. At some point, however, Luc left his job in the lawyers office and ventured to
Saigon to work on the docks. At another, he was arrested by the Japanese and held in the
infamous French jail on rue Catinat in Saigon, allegedly for participating in
anti-Japanese intrigues. When the war ended, Xuans father became a full-time officer
in the Cao Dai army, one of three private armies operating in the Mekong Delta. (The Hoa
Hao, a religious sect, and the Binh Xuyen, a highly disciplined crime organization, also
maintained private armies.)
The family now moved to Tay Ninh, site of army headquarters and the Cao Dai Holy See.
There Vo Tong Luc built a house on "the first and last piece of property that we
had," Xuan says. But otherwise, he devoted little time to the family. As an army
officer serving with a religious sect, he was a fitful provider who left Xuans
mother and grandmother to provide for the family as best they could. Xuan helped his
grandmother by picking insects off of the tender sprouts in her backyard vegetable garden.
With his brothers and sisters, he collected wild mushrooms from the nearby woods.
Xuan learned early to adjust to change as well as to adversity. As his father was
posted first to one place then another, the family also moved. From Tay Ninh, they shifted
briefly to Saigon. Here Xuan entered grade one in 1948. The next two years were spent in
Soc Trang, some 240 kilometers southwest of Saigon, where he completed grades two and
three. Then back to Tay Ninh for grades four through six in a Cao Dai school in which the
day began with a succession of drumbeats and a hymn. (Here Xuan encountered a teacher who
required bright students like himself to punish those who made mistakesincluding
once, in Xuans case, a very pretty girl. "If you dont beat her," the
teacher said, "Ill have to give you a low mark." Xuan resolved the dilemma
by beating her lightly and apologizing profusely afterwards.)
When Ngo Dinh Diem became premier of the newly created South Vietnam in 1954, he
suppressed the private armies and incorporated them into his national forces. Sect
officers were summarily dismissed, including Xuans father. Vo Tong Luc responded to
this new state of affairs by turning to a life of religious devotion. Losing himself
within the temple walls, he seemed to have abandoned all serious efforts to support his
family. "When he was dismissed," Xuan remembers painfully, "we had
Xuan was fifteen at the time and the family was once again in Saigon. Because he was a
veteran, Vo Tong Luc was given a license to operate a newsstand. Xuan decided to make use
of it. Each morning he rose at 4:00 a.m. and pedaled the family bicycle to the newspaper
distributors. By 4:45, he was back at the house where everybody rose to help fold the news
sheets into proper newspapers. Then his oldest sister carried one bunch to a popular
breakfast noodle shop, while he and his brother made the rounds hawking newspapers at city
bus stations. At 6:30, everyone returned home and surrendered the mornings earnings
to their mother before bathing, changing clothes, and going off to school. Twice a week,
the daily round started even earlier. On Thursdays, Xuan had to rise at 2:00 a.m. to line
up for a popular womens magazine. It was the same on Sundays, when the movie
magazines came off the presses.
Following three years in Tien Long Middle School, Xuan won a place for himself in
Saigons prestigious Cao Thang Technical High School, an elite public school open
only through examination. When his mother returned to Tay Ninh, he lodged with relatives
and friends of his father in Saigon so that he could carry on at Cao Thang. For a year or
more, he stayed with an uncle who obliged him, in return for his keep, to guard his
precious automobile. The family lived in a narrow lane, too narrow for the car, which was
parked at the lane entrance. Xuan slept each night in the empty vehicle, ungrudgingly. He
discovered that it was the perfect place to practice his English pronunciation without
bothering anyone or arousing ridicule. In other households, Xuan earned his keep by
tutoring the children in mathematics, physics, and chemistrysubjects in which he was
adept. For a time, too, he reentered the newspaper business, buying directly from the
publishers and selling in Cholon, Saigons Chinatown. (Readers in Cholon, he learned,
were especially alert to political news about the beleaguered government of Ngo Dinh Diem,
which was beginning to teeter during Xuans high school years.)
Xuan excelled in school from the outset. He was bright, to be sure, but also diligent.
After he began learning French in grade six, for example, he discovered that
French-language science and mathematics textbooks were especially good, with useful
exercises at the end of each chapter. He saved his money to buy used copies from the local
bookstalls and strove to solve every problem, often competing with his friend Phan Tan
Tai. When the two of them could not figure something out, they went to their teachers for
helpall this above and beyond the required lessons. While attending Cao Thang
Technical High School, Xuan also joined an informal English-language group run by an
American who worked at the United States Embassy. Every Thursday and Sunday evenings, they
gathered at his apartment to read aloud and discuss the news together.
Given Xuans hard work and many successes in school, it came as a shock when he
failed the national examination for high school graduation. To this day he is not sure why
he failed, but the upshot was an extra year of hard study and the postponement of his
dream to win a scholarship to study abroad. Xuan landed a job with the Civil Aviation
Department, which needed someone with drafting skills to help design a new radio tower for
the Saigon airport. Once on the job, however, the director (corruptly) exempted him from
his regular assignment so that Xuan could tutor his daughterfor the very same
examinations that Xuan himself was preparing to take. This time around, Xuan passed, as
did his pupil. Indeed, 1961 was a banner year for Xuan. In addition to earning his high
school diploma, he also won a scholarship to study at the University of the
Philippines College of Agriculture at Los Baños*.
For talented young Vietnamese like Xuan, the Philippines was not a destination of first
choice. France, Canada, the United Statesthese were the favored pilgrimage sites for
students seeking advanced degrees. But scholarships to such places were out of reach for
Xuan because, he says, bribes were needed to gain access to the qualifying examinations.
Practically speaking, only the rich could apply. The Philippine scholarship cost nothing
to apply for and it was easier to win, since fewer people competed for it. Xuan astutely
seized the opportunity and came in number two in the qualifying examinations. As it
happened, two spots were open.
Elation turned quickly to anxiety. Xuans scholarship paid for tuition and
expenses, but it did not cover transportation or the cost of new clothes. Xuans
father frantically canvassed his friends and managed to borrow enough money to pay for a
one-way ticket to Manila and a new dress jacketXuans first. At a party hosted
by the parents of his fellow scholarship winner, Xuans relatives berated his father,
saying, "Why are you sending your son to that backward place?" When they asked
what field young Xuan would be taking up, he dissembled, "I dont know. Some
kind of engineering." Agriculture was just not impressive enough to mention.
Xuan was undaunted by all this and soon departed for the Philippines. Upon arriving in
Los Baños, he learned that he was the recipient of a Rockefeller Foundation Scholarship,
which provided a generous allowance of two hundred pesos a month. His air ticket would
also be reimbursed. This unexpected boon allowed him to pay off his fathers debts at
home and to anticipate with greater confidence the arrival in the Philippines of his
fiancée, Miss Bui Thi Ngoc-Le.
Le had been a friend and classmate of Xuans at Tien Long Middle School in Saigon.
Later, she and her mother settled in a neighborhood near Xuans high school. The two
young people courted and, in the year prior to Xuans departure for the Philippines,
Xuan and Les parents blessed their engagement. (Xuan was twenty at the time.)
Les mother was a businesswoman who dealt in lumber and furniture. Her father had
died during the First Indochina War serving with Ho Chi Minhs nationalist movement,
the Vietminh. (Because of the Vietminhs links to the Communist Party, which was
illegal in South Vietnam, this latter fact was a secret that Les mother held closely
until the Vietnam War ended years later.)
In March 1962, less than a year after Xuan embarked on his studies in the Philippines,
Le joined him there. The Vietnamese ambassador performed the wedding ceremony in Manila.
Duly married, the couple began their life together in Los Baños, a lush, bucolic
university town a few hours southeast of Manila. Their first home was Xuans student
room in a local boarding house.
By this time, Xuan was thoroughly acclimatized in the Philippines. When he first
arrived, he stuck closely to his fellow Vietnamese scholar who had been a translator at
the U.S. embassy in Saigon and whose English was superior to Xuans. Initially, Xuan
fell into the habit of letting his companion do the talking, but he quickly realized this
was a mistake. Breaking away, he cultivated friends among Filipinos, Pakistanis, Sri
Lankans, and other English-speaking foreign students. With his Rockefeller scholarship
money, he bought a radio and began listening to English-language broadcasts. This worked
wonders and in a few months time, Xuans English became comfortable and
Although Xuan was not really aware of it when he first went to the Philippines, the
University of the Philippines College of Agriculture was one of the finest
agriculture schools in Asia. With external funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and
U.S. foreign aid and close ties to Cornell University in the United States, the College
offered excellent instruction in agricultural science and was itself the site of
groundbreaking research. Foreign students flocked to its courses and Xuan found himself
amid a student community of startling variety. Choosing agricultural chemistry as his
major field, he studied diligently and, over the next several years, built the academic
foundations for his future career. At the same time, he plunged enthusiastically into the
full range of university life.
Xuan quickly learned the benefits of volunteering. By writing stories for the school
newspaper, the Aggie Green and Gold, he improved his English. By serving as the
newspapers photographer, he learned how to take photographs professionally, and how
to develop and print themall at the schools expense. (Xuans Pentax was
his second Rockefeller purchase.) By being on hand to photograph official university
functions, he became friendly with school officials and staff members and made himself
indispensable. By leading the international students association, he met hundreds of
fellow students from Japan, Korea, India, Pakistan, Thailand, Indonesia, and elsewhere and
became a link between them and the school administration. And by volunteering to make
broadcasts about Vietnamese culture for the Philippine Broadcasting Service, he learned
how to plan and execute effective radio programs. Xuan was paid little or nothing for
these activities, but each one added to his repertoire of skills and broadened his social
In the midst of this busy campus life, Xuan and Le started a family. When their son, Vo
Tong Anh, was born in August 1963, the family moved to a larger room in a house in Los
Baños, near one of the towns famous hot spring resorts. A daughter, Vo Tong
Ngoc-Diem, was born in December of the following year. Through his work as all-around
photographer, Xuan had come to know the college dean, Dr. Dioscoro Umali. It was Umali who
arranged for Xuan and his growing family to move into a new Cornell-UP College of
Agriculture joint housing project. Theirs was one of the smallest houses, but it was
heaven sent. Xuan and Le lived happily there amid American and Filipino neighbors for
Xuan earned his Bachelor of Science degree in agricultural chemistry in 1966. This
marked the end of his eligibility for the Rockefeller scholarship. He was advised to go
home "and do something there"as one of his teachers bluntly put it. But
Xuan felt that a bachelors degree alone was insufficient to make an impact in
Vietnam. Moreover, the war in South Vietnam was escalating. He therefore applied to pursue
a masters degree at the College with the understanding that he would finance it
himself, somehow. Among the subfields that he had been studying was sugar technology, a
specialty of the Department of Agricultural Chemistry. His adviser, Professor Ramon
Samaniego, helped him approach the Yulo Sugar Central with a proposal for a grant.
Xuans idea was to use certain biochemical processes to clean and prepare
bagassethe fibrous byproduct of sugarcane millingfor making paper. Yulo agreed
and Xuan was thus able to finance the first year of his graduate education.
Xuan used the financial cushion provided by the sugar company to prepare for harder
times ahead. Calling upon his years of experience as the universitys volunteer
photographer, he started a business. At first, he and Le simply developed, enlarged, and
printed pictures taken by friends and fellow students. Using their bathroom as a makeshift
darkroom, and working overnight, they could produce nice prints quickly and cheaply. Their
little business thrived. In time, Xuan branched out into commercial photography, shooting
weddings, funerals, student portraits, and scientific subjects. Weddings were lucrative.
Arriving at the brides house the night before the wedding, he and Le would be on
hand the next morning to photograph her as she "awoke," prepared her face and
hair, dressed for the ceremony, and walked to the awaiting car escorted by her mother and
father. Then, Xuan says, "We ran to the church and covered everything, then to the
reception, and then back to the house for the opening of the gifts. A few days later, we
presented an album to the couple and had enough money to live on for one week."
As a graduate student, Xuan developed his knowledge of food chemistry and food
processing. His masters thesis grew from his work on pulp production from bagasse at
the Yulo sugar company. But when he discussed the prospects of Vietnams sugar
industry with students and officials visiting from Vietnam, they told him, "It is
better to go into rice." This advice was reinforced in a letter he received from the
rector of the University of Cantho, which was established in 1968 in the heart of the
Mekong Delta. Word of Xuans success at Los Baños had traveled back to Vietnam, the
rector said. He wanted Xuan to know that if he knew more about rice, he might be very
useful to the university.
Among the many advantages of being at the College of Agriculture was the fact that the
International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)* was right next door. IRRI was established in
1960 with Rockefeller and Ford Foundation funding. In a decades time, it became the
most important center of rice-related research in the world and the scientific engine of
Asias Green Revolution. Upon completing his masters degree, Xuan approached
Dr. Robert Chandler, IRRIs director general for a job. Chandler explained that
positions at IRRI were open only upon government recommendation. As a private citizen, he
said, Xuan was not eligible. But Xuan explained that he could support himself through
photography. "What I need is knowledge," he said. Chandler referred him to
Vernon Ross, head of the department of rice production, training, and applied research,
who took him in. Together, they designed a program to introduce Xuan to every phase of
rice production, "from plowing, to harrowing, to counting stem borers," he says.
Soon he was up to his knees in IRRIs vast experimental rice paddies.
Among the materials Xuan was given to study was a series of lessons for IRRIs
four-month-long training program in rice production, which it offered regularly to
participants from all over Asia. They were highly technical and, as Xuan learned from the
Vietnamese participants, the lessons were going completely over their heads. He had an
idea. A few years back, Xuan had worked as translator in a skills development program for
Vietnamese malaria eradication officers. He had observed carefully as experts from the
U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare taught the participants, step-by-step,
how to train people.
Xuan now approached Ross with a proposition. "Let me try to rewrite these lessons
in the form of training modules," he said. With Rosss go-ahead, he prepared the
first five lessons, which he presented to the current trainees, complete with new drawings
and slides. The training was such a success that Ross offered Xuan a fellowship to remain
longer at IRRI and transform the entire training manual. Xuan threw himself into this
project as he continued his own rice-related research in soil chemistry and rice
nutrition. In 1970, IRRI published Xuans A Training Manual on Rice Production.
"My very first publication," he remembers proudly. Translations followed, and
edition after edition. The manual is still being used at IRRI.
Xuan now contemplated returning home. He had lived in the Philippines for ten years.
And he had established himself, so that, had he wanted to, he could have stayed on at IRRI
or pursued his Ph.D. anywhere abroad. This is what his parents urged him to do and, truth
to tell, also what his wife Le wanted. Although modest, their life in Los Baños was
comfortable and safe. In Vietnam, the war raged on with no end in sight. Le feared that
Xuan would be drafted into the army and she might be left alone with the children. His two
younger brothers were already in the armed forces. And savvy young men with options, both
Xuan and Le knew, were opting to leave the country. Yet Xuan felt a pull to go home. He
often thought of the new university at Cantho and of the rectors letter, which, in
so many words, had invited him to join the faculty. Others at the university had also
written him. He struggled with his decision: "Everybody is leaving Vietnam. Should I
also stay here, or go back?"
Xuan and Le agonized over their future and decided, finally, "We should go."
In a Filipino department store chocked full of consumer goods, they shopped for gifts to
take home. Xuan remembers holding up first one item, then another, as they debated what to
take to this brother, that sister, the neighbors. And he remembers thinking, "I just
cant bring everything home." But if he did not, he asked himself, how would his
family and friends ever be able to enjoy such things? And then he thought about all of
Vietnam, and about all the people there who yearned for prosperity. Who is going to bring
them prosperity? he thought. Then it struck him. "Instead of waiting for others to
help us, we Vietnamese should help ourselves." This small epiphany girded Xuans
commitment and soon he and the family were back in Vietnam.
As Le feared, Xuan was promptly drafted into the army. However, the rector of the
University of Cantho was so eager for him to assume his duties there that he petitioned
the Ministry of Defense to have his military service deferred. Xuan was an active-duty
soldier for only nine weeks, after which he was released to join the faculty at Cantho.
Where agriculture was concerned, Xuan quickly learned, the new university was starting
virtually from scratch. In an early meeting with his dean, Xuan suggested that Cantho
adopt some courses from the curriculum of the Philippine College of Agriculture. This was
a fine idea, the dean agreed. "But who will teach them?" Xuan rashly
volunteered. He soon found himself teaching rice science, soil fertility, field plot
techniques, agricultural extension, and technical Englishall at once. But a
practical problem soon arose: there was no data on Vietnam. For all his years studying
agriculture in Los Baños, Xuan still lacked data specific to the rice varieties and
growing conditions in Vietnam. This he would have to generate himself. To do so, he
arranged to rent a small plot of land outside Cantho to begin his scientific rice
research. By 1972, he had set up a collaborative arrangement with IRRI whereby the
institute provided seeds and Xuan in turn shared his local data with the rice scientists
in Los Baños.
Xuans monthly salary at the university was pitifully lowjust enough, he
says, to support his family for one week. So when he was approached by an agricultural
chemical company to become its consulting technical director, he promptly agreed. Xuan was
familiar with the Ciba-Geigy company and its popular pesticide Basudin from his IRRI days.
In fact, it was the Ciba-Geigy representative in the Philippines who recommended Xuan to
the companys Vietnamese joint-venture partner, Thanh Son Agrochemical Company.
Since pesticides were a necessity for growing the new "miracle" strains of
rice developed at IRRI, pesticide-producing companies like Ciba-Geigy played a critical
role in increasing Asias food supply. But in becoming Thanh Son companys
consulting technical director, Xuan remembers making the point, "We should not live
on the back of the farmer. The company should grow together with the farmer." He
therefore worked to improve Thanh Sons advisory services. He placed an agent in
every province, distributed useful how-to leaflets to farmers, and set up scattered
demonstration sites where farmers could see how new rice strains should be grown and with
what results. As their know-how increased, Xuan argued, farmers would better appreciate
the benefits of Ciba-Geigy products.
Xuans work for Ciba-Geigys Vietnamese affiliate complemented his scientific
research. For one thing, the company funded applied agricultural research at the
university. For another, through his team of provincial representatives, Xuan was able to
monitor agricultural data and rice-growing patterns in a vast region of South Vietnam.
From 1972 on, he says, "I knew the situation in the whole delta."
Thanh Son company paid Xuan a monthly salary five times larger than what he received
from the university, besides a car and a house in Saigon. The latter permitted Le and the
children to live safely in the capital city. And of course the extra income was an
enormous practical boon. To do justice to both jobs, however, Xuan had to adjust to a
frantic schedule of work and travel. Every Monday morning at 4:00 a.m., he left the family
home in Saigon and drove alone to Canthoa four-hour trip through the verdant
river-laced rice lands of the Mekong Delta, including two ferry crossings. All-day Monday
and Tuesday, he was busy in the classrooms, labs, and test fields of Cantho. Late Tuesday
afternoon, he sped back to Saigon so that Wednesday he could report to the Thanh Son
company office. Early Thursday morning found him again on the road to Cantho, where he
taught all-day Thursday and Friday. But Friday night, he hurried back to Saigon so that he
could devote Saturday to the company.
In the midst of this exhausting routine, in January 1973, Xuan and Le celebrated the
birth of their third child, a daughter, Vo Tong Thanh-Phuong.
In 1973, Xuan took on yet another large responsibility. At the time, the United States
Agency for International Development (USAID) in Vietnam was assisting in several projects
of the Committee for Coordination of Investigations of the Lower Mekong Basin. One of
these included a research component concerning the management of heavy clay delta soil for
multiple cropping. What was needed was a research station. Xuans friends at USAID
recommended Cantho and Xuan himself was named project leader. In addition to providing
generous funds for field research, the two-year project brought a new laboratory to the
university plus a pumping station and other facilities for irrigation-related experiments.
It also increased Xuans income by another substantial amount, which caused some
jealousy among his university colleagues. "I was the guy getting three
salaries," he says unapologetically. After all, he says, the work needed to be done
successfully"They had to find someone who could do it."
Although Xuan had lived abroad for many years, it did not take him long to discover
South Vietnams favorite radio program. "The Family of Uncle Tam" was
broadcast every morning between 5:00 and 5:20 a.m., just as millions of farmers were
rising and bathing and heating up the previous nights rice for breakfast. The
program was a melodrama about the daily trials of a rural family and its neighbors,
invoking character types familiar to and beloved by the Vietnamese. Although the story
carried a heavy load of official propagandaone son in Uncle Tams family served
faithfully in the army of South Vietnampeople listened with pleasure regardless of
their political loyalties. After tuning in for a while, Xuan had an inspiration. Why not
use "Uncle Tam" to relate useful information to farmers? The shows
director was reluctant at first; it appeared that "Uncle Tam" was wholly funded
by the governments psychological warfare agency. But Xuan persuaded him to try the
idea and began working with the actors. Adept improvisors, they were soon inventing ways
to slip Xuans lessons about, say, pest-resistant rice strains, into the dialogue.
"It was very, very popular," recalls Xuan. In getting information to farmers,
"We did much better than the Ministry of Agriculture."
Xuans research and teaching, his work for Thanh Son company/Ciba-Geigy, his
collaboration with USAID, his contributions to "Uncle Tams
Family"these were occurring within an increasingly unstable political
environment. By the early 1970s, the government of South Vietnam was holding on
precariously even as its enemies advanced ever deeper into the body of the state. The
country had been at war for many years and the whole society was mobilized for one side or
the other. Hundreds of thousands of foreign soldiersmostly American but also Thai
and South Korean allies of South Vietnamhad come and gone, leaving untold physical
destruction and misery in their wake. They had failed to save the southern regime and,
after 1973, it was left to stand alone. By this time, the governments political
opponents in the south, organized as the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG) since
1969, had infiltrated most vital organs of the country and, in alliance with political
cadres and soldiers from North Vietnam, controlled vast sections of the
countrysidealthough not yet the major towns and cities.
Cantho itself was still relatively safe within the Saigon governments fold, but
by 1973 the war had come to within twenty kilometers of the city. The rice paddies beyond
were effectively controlled by forces of the PRG, the Vietcong. From the classrooms and
laboratories of the university, Xuan could hear bombs and mortar shells exploding in
contested areas nearby. He knew, or supposed, that some of his cooperating farmers in
outlying field sites were Vietcong partisans. And he knew that certain chronic
troublemakers among the students were also on "the other side." So even as he
focused obsessively on his work, Xuan could not escape the war, nor remain oblivious to
the shifting sands of power in his country.
He was in a quandary. As a teacher at the university, Xuan was officially employed by
the government of South Vietnam. As a consultant for Thanh Son company, he was active in
the countrys capitalist economy. And as project leader of a USAID-funded experiment
station, he had close and friendly links with South Vietnams most powerful ally, the
United States. But his sympathies were mixed. The South Vietnamese government, he
concluded, "was like a rotting houseeveryone was corrupted." He watched
helplessly as huge amounts of USAID funds lined the pockets of Saigon officials. Moreover,
during his long idyll in the Philippines, Xuan had become friendly with an American who
passionately disagreed with his own governments military support for South Vietnam.
Louis Wolfe, of the American Friends Service Committee (a Quaker organization), gave him
materials that depicted Ho Chi Minh and Vietnams communist movement in a positive
and idealistic light. This gave Xuan a useful perspective with which to balance the
stridently anticommunist views of the Saigon government. As a result, he did not have an
altogether negative view of "the other side."
In addition, Xuan frankly sympathized with the protesting students at his university.
Many of their grievances, he felt, "were just." On one occasion, when the rector
summoned the police to arrest students suspected of being Vietcong, Xuan and Le hid one of
them in the trunk of the company car. Afterwards, Xuan and two other professors pleaded
with the police chief for the release of three other students who had been caught in the
dragnet. They argued, over the rectors furious objections (and unsuccessfully, as it
turned out) that the students would miss important examinations if they were in jail.
On 23 October 1974, the war came horrifyingly close. As Xuan was driving with a student
from Cantho to Saigon late one afternoon, Vietcong snipers ambushed his car. He supposes
they mistook it for a government jeep. Seeing flashes of light ahead, Xuan instinctively
pulled to the side, where he and his student clambered into a roadside ditch as gunshots
sounded around them. A woman farmer who was traveling with them, and sitting in the back
seat, was hit; she remained trapped in the car. Xuan and the student kept to the ditch for
about half an hour, until several trucks passed safely by. Then they rushed their wounded
companion to a hospital for treatment. The next day, Xuan counted seven bullet holes in
Aside from his USAID-funded project, Xuan had also been collaborating with some
visiting Japanese agriculture professors sponsored by the Japanese Ministry of Education.
One of them was Dr. Jun Inouye, a plant physiologist who was interested in traditional
Vietnamese rice cultivation. He and Xuan conducted several studies together, the results
of which were published in Japan. Inouye then suggested that Xuans contributions to
the project were nearly sufficient for him to qualify for a doctorate. So why not complete
a few more experiments and stand for the degree? With Inouyes help, Xuan was awarded
a fellowship to complete a doctoral dissertation under Professor Kenji Ito of Kyushu
University. He took a leave of absence from the university and the Thanh Son company and
departed for Japan in November 1974, not long after his harrowing brush with death. The
following March, not four months later, he successfully defended his dissertation.
During Xuans brief stay in Japan, the situation in South Vietnam deteriorated
badly. The Provisional Revolutionary Government and North Vietnam intensified their
assault on the beleaguered government. Le and the children had stayed behind in Saigon and
Xuan kept in touch with them by telephone as he witnessed the incipient transformation of
his country on Japanese television. Sometime in February 1975, he noticed that Japanese
newscasters had abandoned the term Vietcong in favor of "the liberation
forces"an accurate harbinger of things to come. He arrived home on 2 April and
waited with Le in Saigon for the onslaught to end. The final crisis came on 30 April when
PRG and Northern forces entered the city. As last-ditch battles occurred in the midst of
negotiations, Xuan, Le, and the children followed events over the radio. Frightened, they
gathered in the bedroom and huddled under a pile of bedding for fear of bombs and
exploding shells until the surrender was announced at last and all was quiet.
With this, all Vietnam came under the de facto control of the Vietnamese Communist
Party and its administrative organs. (Officially, North and South Vietnam were united to
form the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in July 1976.)
The new provisional government immediately announced that everyone who had been working
under the old regime was required to register at their place of employment. Xuan, of
course, had two places of employment. He and Le talked things over and decided that it
would be prudent to register at the university. Since Xuans fate was uncertain under
the new regime, Le insisted that she and the children accompany him. On the first of May,
the family piled into the company car and drove south to Cantho.
During the initial days of transition, looting presented the greatest threat to the
university. Xuan was appalled to see that the compound where some Americans had lived had
been stripped bare. "Nothing was left. Only the floor." But teachers and
students had joined to stand guard over the universitys precious laboratories. When
the dust settled, he says, "our university was intact. We lost only one bag of
The university was occupied by a platoon of soldiers and twelve political officers.
Faculty members waited warily to see what the new dispensation might bring. Some of
Xuans university colleagues had been officers in the South Vietnamese Army; they,
and former government officials, were politically suspect and were targeted for
reeducation camps. Although Xuan had only been a "second class" soldier, his
ties to USAID led to suspicions that he might be a spy for the American Central
Intelligence Agency. So his situation was also problematic. Fortunately, Xuans
reputation at the university was good. Among those eager to vouch for him were his
students, including those he had helped at great risk and who now surfaced among the
While the universitys new leaders deliberated his fate, Xuan enjoyed a two-month
holiday. He looks back on May and June of 1975 as his "happiest months." Shorn
of all duties, he spent his days blissfully tending his fields and plots with his
assistants. At noon, he had a box lunch and a nap in the office. At night, he had dinner
with the family, then watched television. TV was available for only two and a half hours
and the family watched every minute. Then he went to sleep. "The next day, again the
same," he remembers. It was liberating. "My mind was free, very free."
After two months, Xuan says, "the new leaders knew who was who." He was spared
reeducation camp. Instead, he was named assistant to the dean of agriculture.
Xuan assumed his new post amid radical changes at the university. To begin with,
everyone was required to attend reorientation lessons in which Communist Party cadres
explained the essentials of Marxism and Leninism. Participants learned the correct history
of Vietnam and how the new governing system would operate. Many new faculty members
arrived from North Vietnam or from years in the underground. (Xuan noticed that they were
avid backyard gardeners, a good sign.) At the same time, some of Xuans former
colleagues left the university and a few, unable to cope, fled to exile abroad.
For himself, Xuan was philosophically well disposed toward the new regime. He
identified with its idealism and harbored hopes that it might truly offer a better
alternative to the corrupt governments of the past.
Xuan was immediately impressed with the universitys new head. Soon after the
reorientation meetings were over, Pham Son Khai gathered the faculty together and
addressed them frankly. Xuan remembers the meeting well. "Some of you are doctors.
Many have masters degrees or are engineers. But I am only grade seven," he
began. "I do not have what you have. However, I have been appointed by the central
government to come here to lead this university. What I have is more than thirty years in
the system. My political standing is high." So, lets work together, he said.
When it comes to technical matters, he told them, he would respect their expertise. But if
political problems arose, he said, "I will be the one to take care of that."
Xuan found that Khai was true to his word and in the months and years to comeas
Khai rose to become university rector and party secretarythe two men established a
respectful and fruitful working relationship.
It was to Khai that Xuan turned when, early in the new regime, he discovered that some
of the universitys new occupiers were stealing equipment and materials from the
science laboratories. One of them, for example, stole the desiccatora glass jar used
to keep laboratory glassware and chemicals dryto store his rice in. Another used the
labs glucose sugar in his family kitchen. This behavior did not comport with the
idealism that Xuan hoped for in the countrys new leaders. Khai told him not to be so
idealistic. "They are also human beings. They also eat like you and go to the toilet
like you," he said. "They are not saints." Down-to-earth dialogues like
this helped Xuan temper his expectations with a strong dose of realism.
When it came to the curriculum, realism was sorely needed. Xuans new bosses were
naturally eager to compare Canthos courses with those being taught in universities
in the long-socialist North. There were many differences. When they came to Xuans
course on agricultural extension, for example, they asked, "What is this?"
"This is so that agricultural graduates will know how to approach farmers,"
Xuan replied, "to explain complex technology in simple terms. You have to work with
"Oh, we dont need this," they said. "Under our system, we just
order the team leader of the cooperative or the manager of the state farm and they do
Agricultural extension, remembers Xuan, was "very painfully rubbed off the
Xuan learned not to argue in the face of setbacks like these. Instead, he found allies
among the cadres and patiently introduced them to his methods and results. Little by
little, he made the case for agricultural research and showed how university-designed
experiments could lead to practical boons for farmers. Shrewdly, he shared credit for his
breakthroughs with the political leaders. If new ideas came from them, he learned, they
were more readily accepted. Pham Son Khai was his main ally. When, in 1977, Xuan
introduced him to brown planthopper-resistant strains of rice in his Cantho laboratory,
Khai immediately supported him against party naysayers. His political authority helped win
acceptance for the new varieties across the delta.
One of Xuans great worries during this period was that virtually everyone who now
occupied key posts, including those who administered food production plans, was a former
military or political officer. They knew almost nothing about agriculture. To educate
them, he began a weekly thirty-minute television show called "The Agricultural
Technology Program." He was well aware that, in government offices, cadres gathered
eagerly around television sets whenever there was something to watch. In villages, too,
poorer farmers watched TV sets in the homes of their better-off neighbors. In this way,
Xuan began teaching officials and farmers alike new techniques in high-yield rice
In North Vietnam, agriculture had been subject to socialist direction since the
division of the country in 1954. Authorities initiated the first phase of collectivization
in 1956 with the creation of work-exchange teams. In subsequent years, the North advanced
in stages to a system of Soviet-style collective farms in which households pooled both
land and farming implements and worked under a unified management. In 1976, Vietnams
Communist Party formally urged its leaders in former South Vietnam to initiate
collectivization of the newly won territories. This was accomplished relatively quickly in
the narrow plains of the central provinces and in the highlands. But in the rice-rich
Mekong Delta, farmers resisted it and agriculture continued to be organized on a
family-farm or household basis.
Even so, the party imposed radical changes. Farm lands, some of which had been
redistributed to small farmers in 1970, were redistributed again. The government now
allocated land to households based on family size and land quality. Farming plots were no
longer owned, they were assigned. And they were often reassigned at the whim of local
leaders. When private ownership of tractors, rototillers, threshers, pumps, and draft
animals was abolished, farmers were obligated to sell their tools and water buffaloes to
the state for less than they were really worth. Draft power in the Delta plummeted. Xuan
observed that these policies left farmers with barely enough food, yet the Mekong Delta
was potentially one of the most productive regions in Asia.
Rice was part of the problem, he decided. Eaten morning, noon, and night, rice was
Vietnams essential staple, its staff of life. Throughout the countrys history,
abundance in rice had been equated with abundance itself. Communist Party cadres shared
this view and drove farmers in areas under their jurisdiction to produce as much rice as
In the immediate postwar years, when food shortages threatened Vietnams tenuous
social order, this policy made sense. But as a scientist, Xuan knew that in the long run,
such a policy was wrongheaded. True, vast stretches of land in the fertile Mekong Delta
were perfect for growing rice. Because of high soil acidity, however, vast areas in the
South were not. In such areas, Melaleuca tree forests flourished naturally, providing
firewood and construction materials for peasant families nearby. In the years following
1975, however, the party-driven quest for more rice production led farmers to strip the
land of forests and build paddy fields in their stead. In establishing New Economic Zones
for the landless poor (and former enemies), the government also opened new lands for
cultivation in areas with soils similarly unsuited to rice. The low harvests that resulted
from these mistakes discouraged farmers and contributed to the countrys generally
low agricultural productivity.
On the redistribution of agricultural land, however, Xuan was of one mind with his
countrys new leaders. In a country where the majority of people had been landless,
he says, this was a "beautiful thing." But he suspected that some of the
Partys innovations in the structure of agricultural production, such as it obsession
with rice, were at cross-purposes with the aim of achieving prosperity.
To test his hypothesis, in 1979 Xuan quietly embarked on an experiment to explore an
alternative to the requirement that farmers sell all their grain to the state. Working
with production Group Nine of Lung Den hamlet in the Ke Sach District of Cantho Province,
he began to promote a simple contract system based on the secret practices of some local
farmers. In most respects, the arrangements between the farming households of Group Nine
and the authorities were the same as everyone elses. Farm lots were arbitrarily
assigned and inputs such as seeds, pesticides, fertilizer, and irrigation, along with farm
implements, were provided through state-controlled mechanisms. The production group, for
its part, provided all the labor. In Xuans experiment, however, members of Lung
Dens Group Nine signed contracts promising to sell a specified amount of rice to the
state. They were free to sell on the open market any rice that they produced above and
beyond the contracted amount. In other words, Xuans scheme gave farmers an economic
incentive to grow extra rice.
Xuan designed his experiment so that it would be invisible to district-level
authorities. Technically speaking, it was illegal. (Indeed, the innovative provincial
party chief who first introduced a version of this system in North Vietnam during the
1960s was subjected to house arrest. Now, however, experiments similar to Xuans were
being conducted in at least one northern district.) For three rice cycles, he and his team
carefully monitored the impact of the new incentive. In each cycle, Group Nine farmers
outperformed their peers. Not only did they yield higher consignments of rice to the
state, they also earned higher family incomes. With the data firmly in hand, Xuan began
sharing the results of his experiment with administrators who consulted him about raising
rice production in their districts and provinces. "Why dont you have a look at
Production Group Nine?" he would say. In this way, he drew attention to his
innovation, working cautiously upwards from lower-tier officials to higher ones. Then, in
September 1980, Xuan unveiled Production Group Nines secret on his advice-to-farmers
television program. The contract system was soon under discussion at the highest levels.
This breakthrough was only one of several events that made 1980 a threshold year for
Xuan. By this time, Xuans work at the university had attracted the attention of
Vietnams long-time minister of defense and then deputy prime minister for science
and technology, General Vo Nguyen Giap. The two men had become acquainted attending
various scientific conferences. As an early member of the Vietnamese Communist Party and
renowned mastermind of the defeat by Vietnams revolutionary forces of French,
American, and US-allied South Vietnamese armies, General Giap was a very influential
patron. When Xuan was invited to attend the celebration in the Philippines of IRRIs
twentieth anniversary, along with Vietnams minister of agriculture (Nguyen Ngoc
Triu), he wrote to Giap explaining IRRIs importance. Giap issued an order permitting
him to gooverriding the advice of his universitys new rector and the
provincial police chief, who evidently feared that Xuan might defect. It was his first
trip outside Vietnam since 1975.
After the IRRI meetings, Xuan returned to Cantho just in time to be named full
professor of agronomy by the countrys prime minister. This, too, was General
Giaps doing. Until 1980, there were no professorships in socialist Vietnam. In that
year, however, the ministry of education resurrected faculty ranks. Following an elaborate
evaluation process involving tier after tier of committees, Xuans name was advanced
to the prime ministers office as a candidate for assistant professor. (Only four
instructors from Cantho were considered.) When the nomination came to Deputy Prime
Minister Giaps attention, he insisted that Xuan be named a full professor instead.
Xuan thus became one of only seventy-six persons of that rank in the entire country at the
A more remarkable breakthrough was Xuans election to the National Assembly.
Although it was constitutionally the countrys highest state authority and lawmaking
body, the National Assembly played a secondary role in formulating national policy, which
was actually done in the more powerful councils of the Vietnamese Communist Party. Until
1980, the Assembly simply approved what the Party had already decided. Beginning that
year, however, the popularly elected Assembly began to play a more important role in
airing debates about important national issues, a trend that accelerated rapidly during
the decade. As a nonparty member and a neophyte in the new system, Xuan was not an obvious
candidate for the Assembly. It was General Giap, again, who proposed his name. With
Giaps influential backing, Xuan was listed on the local ballot by the Cantho chapter
of the Front of the Fatherland and subsequently elected. Taking the rostrum as a newly
elected deputy, the emboldened Xuan lost no time in criticizing the governments
agricultural policies. "I was the first one to say things not in line with the
government in the National Assembly," he says.
Xuan had established his credibility. When the central or provincial governments took
up problems concerning rice, he says, "they would refer to me." Although Xuan
foresaw the need for "drastic changes in agricultural policy," not to mention
great leaps in agricultural research and training at all levels, he was careful not to
take undue advantage of his strengthened position. He remained rooted at the university
and continued to divide his time between research, teaching, and extension work. He began
to reestablish his links with organizations outside Vietnam, quietly seeking support to
advance his research and to train his students. (Among those who responded were the
Agricultural Development Council, the Mennonite Central Committee, Save the Children
Foundation/UK, and IRRI.) And, working always from field-tested data, he urged sympathetic
officials and party members along the path of reform.
The contract system was his first big victory. After Xuan introduced Production Group
Nines successes on television and in the National Assembly, the central government
became keenly interested. Food shortages were again on the rise in Vietnam and farmers
were growing angry. In April 1981, the Politburo of the Vietnamese Communist Party, the
countrys single most powerful organ, issued a directive adopting Xuans
contract-based innovation throughout Vietnam. Under the Contract 100 system, as it was
called, all farmers could contract with their cooperatives or production groups to sell a
predetermined amount of grain to the state at a fixed price. Then they could enjoy as they
wished the fruits of any surplus they produced, consuming it themselves or selling it to
The impact of the new system was dramatic. During the next six years, the aggregate
rice harvest in South Vietnam grew by over 2.5 million tons, and in the North by 2 million
tons. The rate of growth in rice production increased by one-third. And significantly, as
Xuan carefully documented, most of the increases resulted from higher yields "per
hectare per crop," not from opening new lands for cultivation. In other words, the
contract incentive was succeeding. Farmers, working harder and more productively on plots
no bigger than those they had worked before, were simply growing more rice.
Although it was satisfying to have his research findings confirmed on such a large
scale, Xuan knew that the Contract 100 system was but the first of many needed changes in
the way his country approached agriculture. Using the research techniques he had applied
many times before, he continued to study the needs, habits, and concrete circumstances of
farmers themselves. He discovered that flaws in the system which were invisible to
observers from above became glaringly apparent when viewed from the farmers
perspective. As he lobbied for more comprehensive reforms, Xuan used his grassroots
insightsgleaned from methodical, painstaking scientific observationas his
chief weapons in combating the ideology-driven resistance of certain party members.
As it happened, Xuans recommendations fell on increasingly fertile ground during
the 1980s. Trying to cope with a vast range of national disappointments and
failuresand after bitter debatesVietnam?s communist leaders gradually
abandoned their rigid adherence to strictly communist models and began to improvise. The
adoption of the Contract 100 system was one of the first such improvisations. But many
more followed in the 1980s, culminating in the 1986 Sixth Party Congress with the
promulgation of a new national policy of openness and renovation, or doi moi. In the midst
of this ferment, Xuan, the researcher and educator who was also a nationally prominent
scientist and elected deputy in the National Assembly, campaigned tirelessly to rewrite
Vietnams agricultural policy in favor of farmers.
By 1987, when the positive agricultural growth rates spurred by the Contract 100 system
began to taper off, Xuan had already identified the more stubborn impediments to long-term
growth. Many of these grew from the governments insistence upon a top-down approach
to agriculture, even in situations where its knowledge and logistical capabilities were
insufficient to the task at hand. For example, although the government insisted that
farmers sell a large percentage of their rice to the state each year, it was not always
able to purchase the contracted amounts at harvest time. The glut that resulted in private
markets drove prices down, leading farmers to grow less rice. Furthermore, although the
government insisted on controlling the distribution of farming inputs and tools, it was
not able to deliver these on a timely or adequate basis. This stunted production and
angered farmers. In addition, government planners still told farmers what to plant and
where to plant it, without taking into account the farmers own preferences or local
market conditions, not to mention soil types and other factors. Finally, and most
importantly, under the Contract 100 system, farmers were still assigned their farming lots
by officials. Since these assignments could be changed arbitrarily, farmers had no
incentive to make long-term improvements on the land. Until these problems were addressed,
Xuan argued, and especially until land tenure was secure, Vietnam could not achieve its
As part of its sweeping doi moi reforms, the Vietnamese Communist Party paved the way
for eliminating nearly all these impediments. A new contract system ("Contract
10"), introduced in 1988, decentralized the distribution of farming inputs, freed
prices, and gave farmers greater latitude in choosing crops. Furthermore, a land law
approved by the National Assembly introduced new land tenure provisions. Farmers would now
be allotted land on the basis of long-term, inheritable leases of ten, fifteen, and twenty
years. "With that," says Xuan, "many farmers were very contented." In
November 1988, the Council of Ministers went even further. It declared that, after paying
land taxes and commissions, farmers would henceforth have the right to dispose of all
their products freely; they were no longer required to sell rice to the state. With this,
Vietnam stopped the practice of providing rice subsidies to government employees and
soldiers and gave private traders equal rights and access to the countrys grain.
Almost immediately, Vietnam experienced a massive spurt in rice production. In 1980,
the country produced 73 percent of its food needs. By early 1989, this figure swelled to
91 percent, although Vietnam was still importing rice. In 1989 and 1990, however, Xuan
reported, "Vietnam exported close to 1.42 and 1.62 million tons of rice, making it
the third largest rice-exporting country in the world."
Although these spectacular gains seemed to flow directly from the doi moi reforms, Xuan
carefully analyzed what happened and showed that many factors had combined to produce
them; some, like good weather, were purely serendipitous. A huge sale of government rice
stocks also sparked the boom. Beginning in 1991, the rice surplus dwindled, but Vietnam
continued to export rice. As Xuan was quick to point out, exporting lots of rice was not
an altogether desirable objective, especially when the rice was being sold cheaply. It was
more important to raise the productivity and incomes of individual farm families. To his
mind, this is what the doi moi reforms had been designed to do, by freeing farmers to make
rational choices about what crops to grow, and where and how to grow them. It was now
Xuans hope to wed these new freedoms (and the security of land tenure) to the
growing body of practical knowledge that he and his fellow scientists were developing at
the University of Cantho and in other research centers around the region and the globe.
Xuan had long lamented his countrys obsession with rice. As early as 1980, as a
deputy in the National Assembly, he had argued bluntly that "if we continue to grow
only rice, our farmers cannot get anywhere." However, much of this advice fell on
deaf ears, as the government continued to prioritize rice production and provincial
officials still competed with each other for "rice victories." Xuan approached
this dilemma in the same way that he had approached the problem of collectivization: by
creating a body of scientific evidence that would be persuasive. He did this through a
technique called Farming Systems Analysis (FSA).
Put simply, Farming Systems Analysis involves conducting a holistic audit of a single
farming unit. In South Vietnam, this was the household. In this technique, researchers
study not only the physical variables related to farming per se, such as soil types, land
elevation, rainfall, access to groundwater, surrounding vegetation, pests, predators, and
the availability of domesticated animals, including draft animals. They also take into
account the location of the householdis it near a major road, a market, a
town?and its size, age profile, talents, and resources. In the household, what
contributions are made by men, women, children, elderly persons, and other relations? Do
some members have external incomesfrom a military pension, for example, or outside
jobs? Do some have special skills, such as carpentry, tool making, midwifery, or weaving?
And so on.
Xuan began applying this technique to farmers in the Mekong Delta in 1980, when he set
up an "agro-ecosystems" workshop at the university. Working in small test sites,
his field workers began gleaning a wealth of intimate information not only about the
concrete circumstances of farming life, but also about how farmers lived and coped. After
an initial appraisal, the team formulated specific recommendations, or guidelines, for
improving productivity at a particular site. Then, one of Xuans advanced students
implemented the recommendations on a trial basis, in collaboration with a cooperating
farmer. As the work progressed, the test site became a demonstration site where local
farmers and administrators could witness the new techniques and learn them. Finally, when
the student finished the research, his or her cooperating farmer stayed behind as a local
agricultural promoter in the locality.
This research strategy accomplished multiple goals at once: it advanced knowledge
through research; it gave budding agricultural scientists grassroots experience and
training; it demonstrated useful new techniques to local officials; and it helped farmers.
Xuan pursued this line of research through the 1980s, although virtually no other
university in Vietnam followed suit. But he found allies abroad. Beginning in 1987, the
East-West Center at the University of Hawaii established an affiliation with the
University of Cantho. With the assistance of Professor Terry Rambo and others from the
Center, Xuan began holding workshops in several provinces to introduce an FSA methodology
called "participatory rural appraisal" to fellow researchers and technicians.
Building upon these exercises, he formulated guidelines to help Delta farmers adjust to
the post-doi moi market economy. In 1988, Xuan cofounded, with Gerald Rixhon of Winrock
Foundation and others, the Asian Farming Systems Association, which brought together
like-minded agricultural scientists and advocates from throughout the region. Then, in
1990, with funding from the Christopher Reynolds Foundation, Xuan hosted a national
farming-systems seminar at Cantho. All of Vietnams agricultural universities were
represented. As an outgrowth of this conference, he formed the Vietnam Farming Systems
Network, through which nine institutions now collaborate on a broad, national,
farming-systems-based research agenda. Canadas International Development Research
Centre (IDRC) helps to fund the network.
The doi moi reforms of the late 1980s marked only the beginning of Vietnams move
to a market economy. In subsequent years, the Party lifted state controls over the
distribution and sale of fertilizers, pesticides, and seeds and permitted private
ownership of tools and farm machinery. In 1993, it fixed the lease term for rice and other
annual croplands at twenty-five years, and for perennials at fifty years. And, as an
incentive for farmers to reinvest their earnings in productive activities, it also
drastically reduced the land tax. These measures have been profoundly liberating, but they
have also placed a great burden on farm families who, economically speaking, must now sink
or swim on their own.
This is why Xuan now works night and day to expand his farming-systems-analysis
research throughout the country and to institutionalize it at every level of government.
It is essential to help farmers diversify their products and, through new appropriate
technologies and techniques, to maximize their incomes. In a fully diversified system, for
example, a farming household, wise in the ways of the marketplace and in handling money
and credit, will produce a wide range of products tailored exactly to the capacities of
its land and to its own unique resources and talents: fish, chickens, ducks, and pigs;
bees; black pepper, cacao, cassava; multiuse shrubs and trees such as ipil-ipil; flowers,
perhaps; and every manner of fruit and vegetable. And alongside village crafts (pottery,
umbrellas, toys), also processed foods such as vinegar, pastes, jellies, honey, candies,
cakes, medicines, and wine.
Turning this vision into a countrywide reality will require a large effort. The
one-hectare project sites of the eighties and early nineties will no longer do. "We
must have big experiments," Xuan says. To execute province wide projects, he has
helped to gain generous financial support from the International Fund for Agricultural
Development (IFAD) and the Dutch government (through the Wageningen Agricultural
University)U.S.$18.3 million and U.S.$3.5 million, respectively. The European
Community is funding similar projects for returning Vietnamese refugees in the Mekong
Delta. At the same time, Xuan is collaborating in an IRRI project, launched in 1991 and
one of eight in the country, to familiarize Vietnams agricultural economists with
market concepts and strategies. This has led to the founding of a new professional society
dedicated to developing market-oriented skills, the Vietnam Society of Agricultural
Economists. "When you switch over to a market-oriented economic system," Xuan
points out, "you need people trained in market economics."
Xuan has been repeatedly reelected to the National Assembly and has served as
vice-chairman of the Assemblys Committee on Science, Technology, and Environment. He
was named vice-rector of the university in 1983. (More than once, he has declined the post
of deputy minister of agriculture.) He also advises the Ford and Winrock Foundations and
is on IRRIs board of trustees, as well as those of several other international
organizations, including the Manila-based Asian Institute of Management and Canadas
Institute of Governance. Yet he remains an active scientist. In the midst of his teaching,
administering the university, organizing, and advocatingnot to mention
travelinghe has also published a stream of scientific papers on topics ranging from
deep water rice and rice-shrimp cropping systems to brown planthopper pests and the
cultivation of sugarcane and pineapple in the Mekong Delta. In addition, he has written
articles on farming systems analysis, agricultural policy, and a variety of curriculum and
training concerns. Indeed, he is preoccupied with upgrading tertiary education for
Vietnams rising young technocrats. Thus, Xuan remains a very busy man.
These days, as in all these years, Xuan manages his hectic life with the daily support
and assistance of Le. Their three children are now grown. His elder daughter is a medical
doctor, the younger one a food technologist. Xuans son, Vo Thong Anh, has followed
in his fathers footsteps: He is a soil scientist.
Reflecting on his successful adjustment to Vietnams communist government, Xuan
thinks of mangoes. There are people, he says, who will not eat a mango unless they have a
sharp knife. "If they dont have a knife, they wont eat a mango. But other
people can eat a mango without a knife. They just peel it and eat it. "A goal in
life," he says, "you can reach it in many ways."
Xuan never joined the Communist Party, but he came to respect it. It impressed him
during the difficult years of the late 1970s and 1980s that the party made pragmatic
adjustments in response to the real needs of the people, jettisoning mounds of cherished
ideology along the way. "Of course, we have one party control," he says,
"but the party listens to the masses." And although different in character from
the Western variety, Vietnams democratization is nevertheless "systematic and
organized." The party has heeded the debates in the National Assembly, for example,
leading to many of the key policy changes of recent years. Certainly in his own efforts to
improve the lot of Vietnam?s farmers, Xuan has found allies high and low.
To be sure, many uphill battles remain. But in his long-beleaguered homeland, Xuan
wants people to know, "a good breeze is blowing."
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Various interviews and correspondence with individuals familiar with Vo Tong Xuan and
his work; other primary documents.