A large number of retired high-ranking officials now find themselves living in the residential area of Van Bao Street. Some of them were once a President, Ministers and other leaders with significant power. But upon retirement, I feel that their lives are oddly lonely. These residents rarely meet one another, and even upon a chance encounter there seems to be no mutual greeting. The only place where they get together is the Cultural Centre where only a few meetings are held each year, and in such circumstances, just short conversations suffice. Time simply goes by in such a way. One day, I visited three of the apartments and jotted down my feelings afterwards.
NARRATIVE FROM MR. VU MAO’S HOUSE
It is fairly quiet in the small second floor apartment of Block N3 in the Van Bao residential area for high-ranking officials. When visiting this street, one must pass Mr. Vu Mao’s house to arrive at the houses of Mr. Tran Xuan Gia, the former Minister of Planning and Investment, which is rented by his predecessor, Do Quoc Sam, and Mr. Cao Si Kiem, the former Governor of the State Bank of Vietnam, which are next to Mr. Ha Quang Du’s house, the former Minister-Director of the Committee for Physical Training and Sports, and opposite the small yard of former President, Tran Duc Luong.
Mr. Vu Mao frankly states that on this street, people’s living motto is, “Every man must carry his own cross,” and as a result, they maintain little connection to one another. Therefore, in his leisure, he often takes pleasure in playing music and composing poetry. In this Year of the Buffalo, he is 70 years old, but when he talked to us the spirit and quality of the former leader of the Communist Youth Union reignites in him. His sentences are regularly beautified with poems or songs. But behind that happy and energetic appearance, not many people can see through the quiet moments in his life. He composes poems and songs to comfort his sorrow and to thank life for the foregone happiness. With a sad tone, he told me about his stormy childhood.
When he was young, his family lived in a small apartment. Family affection was important to him and was always something which required refilling, because quarrels were not unusual between his parents. In 1943, when he was 4, his parents got divorced, and 2 years later each of them had their own families. Little Vu Mao moved to live with his father in the absence of maternal care. Night after night, he dreamed of calling out for his mother until he woke up in tears. Little Vu Mao lived with his father and step-mother with a feeling of self-pity, and the corporal punishment he received from his step-mother is still imprinted in his soul after nearly 70 years: Sometimes/ my heart is preoccupied/with bitter hurt, since your divorce/to nobody’s thoughts/my parental care needs filled up…(excerpt from Vu Mao’s poem, “Hoai Vong Ngan”). Despite being in extreme sorrow, he was given no other choice. Until 1975, upon his return from his training in the School of Youth Corps in China, an intermediate contact helped him meet his mother again at Thien Quang Lake. His mother hugged him tightly and explained: My little son, when our family was so poor, as a worker, your dad had to be away from home/to earn a living/ I myself had to huckster/ in the outskirts” At the time, a four-year-old child could not have understood the entire situation. He only knew that suddenly one day his family was separated, and as a child he was the most affected. Since then, he has thought to himself that happiness means forgiveness and tolerance of suspicion and selfishness.
Recalling his childhood, he considers himself unlucky, which was also the driving force for him to better himself. Talking to him, I can feel the burning in the eyes of an old man reflecting on his childhood, which was special and unique from those of other officials known to me. Listening to the account of his own life, I can link the narrative to the following verses: Grateful I am to those who hurt me/ so that I can see how beautiful life can still be!
“What have you learned from your stormy childhood?” I asked. “I have exposed myself to suffering so that I will not cause suffering to others. Over the decades, in charge of a variety of positions and acting as the head of a considerable number of agencies, besides the quality of my stringency, I made myself sympathetic to my colleagues!” he exclaimed.
Among the three houses in our visit, his little apartment is probably the most elaborately decorated one. In his cabinet stand the books of his songs and poem compositions ready for him to sing and read to his special visitors. In one corner of the apartment stands a statue he demanded be carved of himself. On the wall facing his front door hangs a large picture which he says was continuously embroidered by a craftsmen in Lam Dong for 6 consecutive months.
He has experienced and driven away all temptations in life. The arrangement of his destiny and the paradoxes in life have helped him realize the plain nature of his personality: “excessive trustfulness”. He sorrowfully told me that because of his excessive trustfulness, he received significant difficulty and betrayal from those who once supported him.
When being rotated from the position of First Secretary of the Central Communist Youth Union to Chairman of the National Assembly Office, Mr. Vu Mao was considered as a groundbreaker. Some supposed that with his dynamic and active qualities as a youth union leader, he could accomplish such ground-breaking achievements. It is said that Mr. Vu Mao innovatively introduced the digital voting method to replace the manual voting one and therefore paved the way for technological application in the operations of the National Assembly. He also initiated the idea of broadcasting live all the Q&A sessions by ministers in the Hall. In his opinion, all of these innovations had initially shocked many, but he eventually convinced them otherwise. In fact, those are his most unforgettable contributions, to those who are interested in the operation of the National Assembly.
As a retiree, he has now rid his life of all competition in political affairs so that he can enjoy the simple and leisurely life of an old man. Instead, he composes songs and poems or plays golf with his old friends and compatriots.
During our exchange, his wife busied herself with preparing and offering tea to their guests. After finishing each serving, she would immediately dash off into her little room. Such a manner has been maintained by her for decades.
Mr. Cao Si Kiem is probably the first person in the history of the National Assembly to face a no confidence vote as the Governor of the State Bank of Vietnam. This has haunted him like a big scar since then. He is now the Vice President of the National Council for Consultation on Financial and Monetary Policies and living with his daughter’s family in his apartment in Block N of this residential area. I have visited him from time to time as a writer, and I find the talks between us are sometimes merely simple chances for him to reflect upon his memories. Frankly, I designate my exchange with Mr.Kiem as the “asymmetrical dialogue”, both in terms of age and the amount of information he has given.
Many have asked whether or not the building at 49 Ly Thai To Street, the headquarters of the State Bank of Vietnam, is “haunted”, because several recent governors have been replaced or have gotten into trouble from “accidents”. My mind is preoccupied with this question on the way to my interview with Mr. Cao Si Kiem, who had been the “owner” of this building for over 10 years. He considers his life as a ball, “the deeper it is under water, the higher it will bounce back.”
Interviewer: Why did you involve yourself in the banking sector?
Mr. Cao Si Kiem: I was once involved in agriculture and forestry service before moving on to banking. I followed elementary courses in the beginning and then later pioneered in the Bac Can mountainous areas where I stayed before eventually being admitted to the Communist Party. At that time, I was very young, just 17-18 years of age. In 1966, I moved to Thai Binh province, and in 1981, I was in charge of local Party affairs as the Secretary of the Communist Party of Thai Binh. When Comrade Muoi, the former Communist Party Secretary General, took over the position of Prime Minister, he put me in charge of the banking sector and said, “Your career should be coupled together with the banking sector.” I told him that I had no experience in macro-affairs and was only responsible for local affairs. I was afraid that I couldn’t function well in the position. Comrade Muoi frankly told me that I was selected because I was young, and I should take the time to learn by working. I finally accepted in May, 1989.
Interviewer: Was it challenging for a man with “no experience in macro-affairs” to function as the Governor of the State Bank of Vietnam?
Mr. Cao Sĩ Kiêm: I accepted the position with three conditions: First, for Comrade Muoi to allow me to formulate the regulations and laws for market and external access. Second, for him to facilitate me in finishing the construction of the mint (at that time we had our money printed in China and the former Soviet Union, which was quite passive). Third, I would be granted absolute control in interviewing and selecting personnel. Comrade Muoi agreed with the conditions, and I initiated the formulation of two Ordinances, one on Banking and the other on Credit Institutions. One year after the completion of the Ordinances, I took over all the personnel affairs. The mint was also completed shortly after. (It was one of the most modern factories in Southeast Asia at that time).
Interviewer: Based on what you have mentioned, that is such an immense amount of work to be completed in such a short period of time. However, to be honest, among the three issues under your own control, were you satisfied with the comprehensiveness of being granted with absolute control in terms of personnel affairs? Banking is a most lucrative sector.
Mr. Cao Sĩ Kiêm: Absolutely comprehensive. Actually, Comrade Muoi granted me with significant preferences and told me to just get on with it and my requirements would be furnished. In fact, all the banking personnel were hand selected by me. Before I took office, it took months and even years to appoint a deputy governor, but when I was in office, it took only 2 weeks for the formalities to be ratified. At that time, Comrade Muoi ratified the records of 4 people at the same time! Overall, I received great support and preferences during my term in office.
Interviewer: What did you feel when you knew you would be the first “owner” of the building at 49 Ly Thai To Street?
Mr. Cao Sĩ Kiêm: I felt the burden of work ahead! But I thought to myself, it is during the difficult times that I am needed most and I should not surrender. I realized that I could best optimize myself mentally in the most pressured situations.
Interviewer: Do you consent to the idea that your career is marked by two major affairs, one being the most successful and the other the most notorious? Your most successful affair was bringing down the inflation rate from 700% to 2-3% in the 90s, and the most notorious one was concerning the EPCO Minh Phung case, which caused you to step-down from office as the Governor of the State Bank of Vietnam.
Mr. Cao Sĩ Kiêm: Absolutely!
Interviewer: At least 2 “owners” of the building at 49 Ly Thai To Street have been replaced, or were involved in notorious affairs. What do you think of the supposed idea that 49 Ly Thai To Street is a “haunted” building?
Mr. Cao Sĩ Kiêm: That’s groundless. Our predecessors are those of great confidence and capacity such as Mr. Nguyen Luong Bang, the Governor and later Acting State President, and other high-ranking officials in the Party and State apparatuses. If it is really haunted, our predecessors would have also resigned. When the market economy was introduced in Vietnam, market mechanisms were applied and the Governor has had, since then, a risky career because the banking sector is very sensitive, especially when the economy is in transition and when enduring unstable conditions.
The monetary policies imposed great effects on other sectors. They were a locomotive for the innovation process, but at the beginning of the Doi Moi (innovation) process we lacked experience, models and direction, and thus mistakes in management were inevitable, for which a high price would be paid by the Governor.
Interviewer: What was your fatal mistake in the EPCO-Minh Phung case?
Mr. Cao Sĩ Kiêm: My mistake was a lack of supervision over my staff, or that my methods of assessment were not enough and did not function well. Therefore, my deficiency in supervision resulted in this incident, and the one to blame was Tang Minh Phung. I showed the proper ways and how one should be consistent. If you deviate and cause an accident you should take responsibility. Now, the amount of loss does not matter, but at that time 2-3 trillions of dong is a big deal, which, more importantly, was unrecoverable. Now, EPCO-Minh Phung can be justified because such an incident was caused by our own mechanism.
That’s why when I talk to our current leaders, I often tell them to establish close supervision mechanisms for all activities. Even if you are competent, good willing, ethical and decisive, without an effective means of supervision and access to information, the staff will be corrupt and the leader will then become the one to blame.
Interviewer: What are your feelings about stepping down as Governor?
Mr. Cao Sĩ Kiêm: I was very upset, but my motto is that life is a ball which recedes under your own pressure and bounces back when you release the pressure. Therefore, I always force myself to think and bounce back in order to handle every situation. I have continued to assert my competency, mentality and “bouncing capacity” since the day I resigned. Those with competency and strong mentality can develop in every environment.
Interviewer: Does that mean that you have never thought about leaving everything behind?
Mr. Cao Sĩ Kiêm: I think about it from time to time. However, it is unacceptable to just give up if you get down on yourself and can’t think clearly. For example, I experienced a period of extreme stress after resigning as Governor.
Interviewer: Did you think that being the head of an agency which holds the largest quantity of the country’s assets will bring about great benefit, especially to the Governor?
Mr. Cao Sĩ Kiêm: As a Governor, your relations are very diverse such as lending and disbursement relations, which will produce great benefits. But one should think outside of the box for the long-term goals, and this should be done under inspection. It should be remembered that your actions may also be revealed, and therefore, being the head of such an agency with significant benefits offered, I often reminded myself to think outside of the box.
Interviewer: Tell me about your house.
Mr. Cao Sĩ Kiêm: I bought it myself. When it was transferred to me, the house was surrounded by grass and a thick grove of trees. Actually, when I first came to Hanoi for the job some of my staff suggested buying a house worth several hundreds taels of gold using the agency to fund it. But at that time, the banking sector was plagued by a variety of troubles and lawsuits. Moreover, I had just taken over the office and had not yet contributed anything. I did not want to get involved in housing affairs.
Interviewer: What was the biggest gift you received when you were in office as Governor?
Mr. Cao Sĩ Kiêm: There were no big gifts other than some pens or notebooks, not to mention money. If one had to travel abroad for business, the foreign organizations would incur the travelling fees worth several thousands of USD, which you could spend or save. There are no such fees if business took place inside the country.
Interviewer: That’s hard to believe, sir.
Mr. Cao Sĩ Kiêm: At that time, it was different. Now, people often use land or houses as gifts. For example, the bribers offer you a house, but place it under the name of another person, not under your name. That’s the way. Now, position can also be sold. One may pay VND 1 billion to buy a position, then a year later recover VND 4 billion with 3 billion as a return. That’s what I was told and my hair just about stood on end!
Interviewer: Was there anyone that offered a large quantity of money and said, “Appoint me as the Director of a Department”?
Mr. Cao Sĩ Kiêm: No, there was not such a thing at that time. I could appoint several people without being paid, which has helped define my credibility. Therefore, despite stepping down after nearly 10 years, I am still respected and loved by local and central officials.
Interviewer: The current trend is that, upon retirement, heads of ministries often work for strong groups as advisors or experts. It is said that you have provided significant support to many enterprises. Do you have any intention of following the trend of becoming an advisor or expert?
Mr. Cao Sĩ Kiêm: I have supported almost all significant enterprises in Vietnam such as Bitis and Trung Nguyen Coffee. I will not act as an advisor or expert because I am too busy.
Interviewer: How is your employment now?
Mr. Cao Sĩ Kiêm: I am quite busy, but happy, because I can apply my acquired knowledge to my current work. In my free time, I often play instruments or compose poetry.
NARRATIVE OF A CONTEMPLATIVE MAN…
Mr. Ha Quang Du’s house is located between the houses of Mr. Vu Mao and Mr. Cao Si Nghiem. Mr. Du is also a high-ranking official who succeeded Mr. Vu Mao as the First Secretary of the Central Communist Youth Union and then Minister-Director of the Committee for Physical Training and Sports. However, subjectively speaking, not many of the youth these days know of Mr. Du. He is living a life of peace in a residential area, and he does not want to be the focus of the media. When we visited his family, he was in casual form with his trousers pulled up disproportionally, riding his motorbike, likely a Honda Dream. And his wife was taking a walk in the front of the house. Only a few days later, they were planning to visit their youngest daughter in Australia.
Without long social contact with him, not many would know that he is of the Tay ethnic group and that his father was once the district Communist Party Secretary of Tuyen Hoa, Tuyen Quang Province. My first feeling when encountering him was that he is very sincere, just like the music of his ethnic group, and the feeling received from a person living in the mountainous areas.
In 1964, Mr. Du started to study at the University of Agriculture No. I in Hanoi, where he met and fell in love with his friend’s sister. She married him and has shared the sorrow and happiness of life together with him.
He told me the story of his sudden and unexplainable discharge from his then position. He also went on to share the stories about the officials who were once arrested for illegal money trading and how he “saved” them, which eventually led to their now thriving careers. I paid little attention to those affairs, but focused on his current life instead. After consistently asking, he stated, “Now, I sometimes take seasonal employment for my friends’ companies to establish relations with certain entities, or help directors who are incompetent at language and editing the language of their projects. I often help them with economic or contractual issues. The payment from these two projects helped us cover the airfare to visit our daughter, because my entitlement to a monthly pension of VND 4.7 million and my wife’s VND 2 million cannot cover all of our living expenses in Hanoi. I do not bound myself to any specific agency and work in a freelance manner at my own discretion. Thanks to the kindness I gave to my friends, I still receive respect and love from them. For the Tet holiday, it is not unusual for me to be offered 20 or 30 bottles of wine as gifts. Sometimes people give me money, which I can receive more comfortably now than when I was in office. The amount of money can vary from VND 5 million to 10 million. That’s their means of respect and sincere gratitude to me for what I have done for them. I still devote myself at my age and I am experienced enough to know right from wrong.”
Now, in his retirement, his closest friend in the residential area is Mr. Vu Mao, who is both his neighbor and predecessor at work. From time to time, the two men still visit each other, enjoy tea and exchange talks about their poetry.
It would be extremely lonely for the couple if the children of their relatives from the countryside did not live with them and study in Hanoi, because both of their daughters are abroad, one residing in Germany and the other in Australia. They are very happy and proud of their successful children. Three of them have achieved their doctorates. He and his wife find their own happiness in the simplicity of their meals. According to Mr. Du, his passion is collecting wines. He has a room filled with different kinds of wines of various famous brands. My colleague and I had the chance to enjoy one from his collection. When visited by friends, he sometimes offers them wine to share over an exchange of poetry. He has also published several collections of poems. His poems often describe current affairs or praise the beauty of love. Reading his poems, one can experience different feelings, but overwhelmingly still find in him a man of varied emotions and concerns for life, human beings and the world.
We left Block N3 at sunset with the withering rays of sun reflecting the tall trees of the old yard onto the street surface below. The children, exhausted from playing games, took a rest under their shadows. It was late in the afternoon and several cars, some probably belonging to the families in this residential area, were rushing home. Though each of the retired officials in Block N3 has his own life and status, with twilight upon them it can be said that it often inspires poets of its own masterpiece, and somewhere in that residential area someone is composing a poem on his world of being.