Vietnam remembers Castro as relations remain strong

By VnExpress   December 7, 2016 | 12:29 am PT
Vietnam remembers Castro as relations remain strong
A corner at the Cuban Embassy in Hanoi dedicated to the memory of Fidel Castro. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Trang
The nation mourned Cuba’s late leader on Sunday, drawing on both memory and experience.

The last time the country ordered its flag to fly at half mast was three years ago, when legendary General Vo Nguyen Giap died at 102.

“This reflects that Fidel has been a true friend of Vietnam,” said Cuba’s Ambassador to Vietnam Herminio Lopez Diaz as people gathered in the Hanoi embassy to pay their respects. “General Giap was also considered a hero to the Cuban people.”

On a table at Diaz’ hip sat two books containing thousands of hand-written condolences offered by Vietnamese and foreigners who called Castro a hero, a comrade, a friend and a brother.

“I’ve been working in foreign affairs for quite a long time and I’m absolutely sure there’s no other relationship in the world for Cuba with the quality of relationship for Vietnam," said ambassador Diaz. “It’s not just government and party level, but people to people.”


Cuba’s Ambassador to Vietnam Herminio Lopez Diaz (standing fourth from left) witnesses the delegation from Vietnam-Cuba Friendship Association writing down their condolences for the passing of Cuba's former president Fidel Castro. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Trang

In the quiet backyard of the Cuban embassy in Hanoi, surrounded by wreaths of white flowers, Vice President of Vietnam-Cuba Friendship Association Pham Tien Tu recalled the events that made the relationship so special.

“Western media kept saying how poor Cuba was but Cuba always considered the Vietnam War its own fight. Every victory for Vietnam was celebrated as Cuba’s own,” Tu told VnExpress International.

To this day, Castro’s words to Vietnamese people when he visited Quang Tri, the central battlefield against U.S. imperialism in 1973, still linger in Tu’s memory: “For Vietnam, Cuba is willing to sacrifice its own blood.”

As Castro walked through a battlefield in Quang Tri, a bomb exploded gravely injuring a 17-year-old Vietnamese bystander. As she bled profusely, Castro’s car rushed her to the nearest hospital.

Last week, Nguyen Thi Huong, now 60, came to Hanoi to pay her respects to Castro.

Standing in the bomb-pocked central province, two years shy of victory, Castro committed to helping Vietnam rebuild; his small island nation later proved Vietnam’s biggest supporter in negotiating its membership at the United Nations.

Tu knew these bilateral talking points backward and forward, but his first recollection of Castro involved harvesting sugar cane with the sitting president on summer weekends when he was still a student in Havana during the late 1960s. Tu went on to become Vietnam’s ambassador to Cuba from 2002 to 2007 — a position that allowed him to meet with Castro many times.

“Fidel used to ask us dozens of questions to find the best way to provide aid to Vietnam,” said Tu.

Not all of the mourners present at the embassy were war veterans, politicians or exchange students.

Le Hong Diem, a young employee of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), said her father’s stories brought Cuba and Castro close to her heart -- a place she has never visited.


Le Hong Diem writes down her condolences at Cuba's Embassy in Hanoi. Photo by Quyen Nguyen

In the winter of 1972, as American B-52 bombers roared over Hanoi -- the city’s civil defenses were running short of rockets. Cuba sent them additional munitions, just in time, Diem’s father told her once.

“The moment the first B52 was shot down out of the Hanoi sky, my father said that we Vietnamese felt so much gratitude to the Cubans for their actions,” said Diem, who studied in the U.S. on a UGRAD scholarship, which is The Global Undergraduate Exchange Program run by the U.S. government.

Diem calls the Vietnam-Cuba relationship “intimate”, which for her has been driven by Castro’s “unyielding faith and resolution in fighting for the country's sovereignty and independence”. She compares him to Ho Chi Minh, who also “sacrificed his entire life for his country.”

Dinh Vu Hai Ninh, a young man working at a technology company in Hanoi, claimed Castro provided a sort of role model since his childhood in Hoa Binh. The northern province’s Xuan Mai highway was built with Cuba’s support.

“I like his personal style, and when I was small, people in my area used to hold fundraisers for Cuba,” Ninh recalled.

As he grew up, and read up on Cuba’s history, Ninh said his admiration for Castro grew stronger.

Today, he “feels sad” about Castro’s death.

For the small community of Cubans, the long lines of Vietnamese who have come from as far afield as Ho Chi Minh City to offer flowers and condolences has provided some comfort.

Odalys Soto, a 24-year old Cuban student only arrived in Vietnam three weeks ago to study Vietnamese culture and history in Hanoi. For her and six other students who plan to remain in Vietnam for the next five years, the last week’s been difficult.

“Our family needs us. It [Castro’s passing] was very unexpected,” Soto said.

Being far from Cuba in this moment has left her feeling “alienated and strange”.

But coming to the embassy helped, so did the unexpected words of condolences offered by a taxi driver when he learned she was Cuban.

Each year, Vietnam sends just 20 students to Cuban universities.

Fewer Cubans come to Vietnam (this year it’s only seven) to achieve full fluency in the language. Soto knew Vietnam only through the war she studied at school. She chose to study Vietnamese because she’s been a language student to begin with. Her friend, Roxana Alwarez chose it because it’s “unique as it’s only spoken in Vietnam.”

At the moment, total trade turnover between Vietnam and Cuba hit just $218.2 million in 2015 -- 0.007 percent of Vietnam’s total.

It remains to be seen how the Vietnam-Cuba relationship will develop, but Ambassador Diaz is optimistic and noted that relations are not just economic.

“We have an excellent base,” he said. “Both Cuba and Vietnam are moving ahead with the process of renovation, integration with the international world. There are many challenges ahead.”

As Cuba reforms, he said, it will look to the experience of China and Vietnam -- “especially Vietnam” -- while remaining committed to maintaining free healthcare and education.

“Ensuring the legacy of Fidel Castro is going to be important,” said Diaz. “To remind us what Fidel Castro and also the great leader Ho Chi Minh did.”

QUYNH TRANG contributed to this report.

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