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January 14, 2010

Cassava and Vietnam: Now and Then


Kazuo Kawano

I visited Vietnam for a week this last December,  where a team of NHK video-taped for a documentary of the changes caused by the new cassava varieties I introduced 20 years ago in the lives of small framers, the enhanced activities of industrial and business communities and the development of research organizations. It was a most interesting, amusing and rewarding visit where I reunited with a multitude of former small farmers who are more than willing to show me how their living had been improved because of KM-60 and KM-94 (both CIAT-induced varieties) , many entrepreneurswho started from a village starch factory, and several former colleagues who became Professor, Vice Rector of Universities, Directors of research centers and so on. Vietnam can be regarded as a country who accomplished the most visible and visual progress most rapidly and efficiently utilizing CIAT-induced technology.

For my own record as well as for responding to the requests from my Vietnamese colleagues, I decided to record the changes and progress that had taken place in Vietnam in general and in cassava varietal development in particular in a series of picture stories. This is the first of long stories that would follow.

 The basis of Vietnamese agriculture is rice. Cassava is planted on the upper parts.

                                           In flat, dry area, they plant cassava predominantly

 Meeting old friends at Hung Loc Agricultural Research CenterNow, Hoang Kim is Senior Lecturer at Nong Lam University in Ho Chi Minh city and Nguyen Huu Hy is Director of Hung Loc Agricultural Research Center

  Reunion with advanced farmer Mr. Ho Sau with Hoang Kim and students in Trang Bom, Dong Nai

                     Reunion with advanced farmer Mr. Tong Quoc Thanh with Hoang Kim in Tay Ninh

 Meeting Former Director Truong Van Ho, old colleague Trinh Thi Phuong Loan (Retired as Deputy Director) and other friends at Root Crop Research Center, Vietnam Agricultural Science Institute in Hanoi

Meeting Tran Ngoc Ngoan (Now, Vice-Rector of Thai Nguyen University), Mrs. Loan and Mr. Ngo Trung Kien (an advanced farmer) in Mr. Kien’s house, Pho Yen, Bac Thai 

Meeting Mrs. Sau and Mrs. Quyen, successful former cassava farmers, in Hatay, near Hanoi

Giving concluding remarks in the end of Vietnam Journey in Lake Hoan Kiem, Hanoi, 5 Dec 2009


As is widely known, Vietnam has accomplished a rapid economic development in  recent 20 years. During the same period, , cassava, starting from a low status crop grown by small farmers and consumed as human food by poor people, has grown into a major crop providing raw materials for animal feeding, industrial starch processing and most recently bio-ethanol production (though I have some reservations for using cassava for this purpose), thus bringing precious cash income to millions of small farm families. When I first visited Vietnam in 1988, cassava’s acreage all over the country was 0.28 million ha with mean yield of 8.4 t/ha. It now occupies 0.56 million ha (official figure: the actual figure is said to be around 0.65 million ha; the emphasis of research is gradually shifting from varietal improvement to soil conservation) with 15.9t/ha mean yield. Vietnam has now advanced to World No. 2 exporter of cassava products next only to Thailand.

It is extremely gratifying to witness this progress toward the end of my career; then, what made this experience possible? The breeding work that has brought this result started when I joined CIAT as cassava breeder in 1973, where CIAT was inaugurating an integrated cassava research program with global mandate by recruiting a half dozen of young PhD from world reputable universities. As such, I initiated a comprehensive cassava breeding program using a population which contained a vast genetic variation coming from more than 2000 native varieties collected from the centers of origin and diversification of cassava all over Latin America.

Especially noteworthy in this process is the fact that those countries such as Colombia, Brazil and Mexico where abundant cassava germplasm existed donated  to or allowed CIAT to collect native cassava varieties on the condition that the newly established international research center CIAT uses all these germplasm for the welfare of people in the world without pursuing any monetary profit. It goes without saying that those rural small farmers who grew native cassava varieties inherited from their ancestors were very cooperative with the CIAT collection. The researchers as well the early CIAT administration clearly shared the immeasurable importance of basic germplasm in pursuing large scale breeding.

I accomplished much of the basic breeding during the first 10 years at CIAT/Colombia and moved to Thailand in 1983 by opening a CIAT/Asia office on the understanding that the effect of cassava varietal improvement would be more eminent in Asia. Thus, I started a more practical breeding in close collaboration with Thai workers. Here again, we were very thankful that the Colombian government allowed us to transfer cassava breeding materials to Asia without condition. As a result, I had transferred more than 1 million genotypes of cassava, mainly in the form of F1 hybrid seeds, from Latin America to Asia during the 15 years that followed.

This breeding work, based on the hybridizations between Latin American and Thai materials, resulted in a great success and produced many superior varieties. Now, some 97% of the total 1.15million ha of cassava in Thailand is planted with these new varieties we developed. I transferred many advanced breeding materials from Thailand to other Asian countries such as Indonesia, Philippines, China and Vietnam. In this process as well, the Thai government authorization of transferring our breeding materials to other Asian countries, which could well be potential (in fact, actual) competitors to Thailand, was to be highly appreciated.

In 1989, I brought planting stakes of Rayong 60 and Kasetsart 50 among others as a check-in baggage of the Bangkok-Ho Chi Minh flight (The import and plant quarantine permit had been very willingly arranged by the Vietnamese institution). Upon harvesting the first cycle evaluation /multiplication at Hung Loc Center in 1990, I carried the planting stakes of these varieties from HCM to Hanoi to be evaluated and multiplied by the research institutions in the North. In retrospect, my action was rather unorthodox power play. Nevertheless, considering that this was the beginning of a long story which would develop to generating an annual additional economic effect in the order of 200 million US dollars to be shared by the millions of small farmers, power play may be justified on certain critical occasions.

                                           F1 selection at CIAT/Colombia in1976

One of the early selections, CIAT/Colombia circa 1980


                                      F1 selection at Rayong Center, Thailand, circa 1987

Rayong 60 in Feb 1988 at Rayong Center, one of the major early successes at CIAT/Thai collaborative breeding program

                                           A typical cassava field in North Vietnam in 1989

Cassava harvest being carried to market in Ho Chi Minh city in 1988


Processing cassava for noodle near Bien Hoa in 1988

Cassava starch processing as a cottage industry in Tay Ninh early 1990s

By 1996, farmers can harvest more cassava for feeding pigs by planting new varieties (Here is KM-60 or Rayong 60  in Hung Loc Agricultural Research Center, Dong Nai Province (1990) and Ha Tay Province (1996)

Large scale cassava starch factories began to appear in Tay Ninh circa 1996

Cassava starch production became a big business following the step of Thailand (Tay Ninh 2009)

Now, the Bio-ethanol processing using cassava (A new Bio-Ethanol Plant is being built in Phu Tho)

Ho Chi Minh city (Saigon)
I began my first trip report to Vietnam 22 years ago with the following phrase “As the Air France flight 174 landed eventlessly at the airport of Ho Chi Minh City, only the vastness of the airport reminded me of its once familiar name of Tan Son Nhut, which was now more a symbol; of disrepair and abandonment.” Now, two decades later, Ho Chi Minh city is an entirely different place. See the town before and now.

The tallest building I could see in 1988. It had an eerie feeling of a ghost house.

Street filled with bicycles in 1988.

Now in 2009, many new buildings were constructed and being constructed.

Traffic is now like Bangkok 20 years ago.

Now, serious efforts are being paid to keep the town presentable.

As a result, the city looks very charming these days.


A similar transmutation took place in Hanoi, but the extent of metamorphosis is actually greater in Hanoi because Hanoi in the 1980s was somewhat dismal place.

A typical Hanoi building in 1989

A Hanoi street in 1989

Hanoi outlook in 2009, it is quite an attractive town

Hanoi street is less noisy and probably more cultured than HCM (2009)

Relaxing at Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi (2009)

People (South)

Children and housing in Bien Hoa near Ho Chi Minh city in 1988

Moon cake factory in Ho Chi Minh city in 1988

Busy street in Ho Ch Minh city in 2009

Barbecue shop in Ho Chi Minh city in 2009

Children and mothers attending an art class in Ho Chi Minh city in 2009
People (North)

“Curiosos”; When we visited Hanoi in 1989, just the presence of Reinhardt Howeler caused quite a sensation.

Farm people near Hanoi in 1989

Children in cassava field near Hanoi in 1989

People in front of Mrs. Sau’s house in Hatay, near Hanoi in 2009; Successful lives change many things.

People relaxing on the bridge at Hoang Kiem Lake in Hanoi in 2009

Hanoi street shop in 2009; Westerners are no longer a curiosity

Shops in Ho Chi Minh city (more pictures including)
  • Ben Thanh Market in the center of Ho Chi Minh city in 1988
  • Inside the Market
  • Cassava sold in open market in Ho Chi Minh city in 1988
  • Market in 2009
  • Bread shop in HCM street in 2009; the cheapest one is \15 and the most expensive one is \50 (US$0.55)
  • A super market
  • Yet, outside HCM, this type of a small, traditional operation is still common; A movable shop near Bien Hoa in 2009
  • Shops in Hanoi
  • Hanoi market with children in 1989
  • Money changers in Hanoi street in 1989
  • Hanoi street shops in 2009
  • A toy shop in Hanoi in 2009
  • A department store in Hanoi in 2009

Book store in Ho Chi Minh city

  • As was expected, there was hardly any book store worthy of mention in my first visit in 1988. What I observed in this visit in 2009 follows:
  • The main section of a big book store
  • Children book section
  • Stationary section
  • I was most impressed with the good quality maps printed in Vietnam being sold at very reasonable prices

Noodle shops
When I first visited Vietnam in 1988, there was hardly any restaurant, in many places not even an eating place for pay, outside Saigon. All our itinerary was managed by the “Liaison officer” of the Government office in charge of foreign visitors and all the eating outside the big cities was officially arranged. The choice and the quality was predictably unimpressive at that time.

  • I was to witness a tremendous change in eating in this visit in 2009.
  • For shop in Hanoi
  • The renowned “Fo”
  • Market noodle shop in Ben Thanh Market in Ho Chi Minh city
  • A super deluxe version of cassava noodle “ラーメン” at \250(US$2.75)
  • Vietnam has caught up with Thailand in this type of ordinary eating; “Fo” is quite comparable with “Bamie Nam” of Thailand
  • Vietnam is the No.2 exporter of coffee next only to Brazil overtaking Colombia. As such, the Vietnamese coffee is good as ever, together with the Vietnamese bread,

I described about the state of a government-run “hotel”  where we stayed in May 1989 as follows; “Yet, we had worst experiences when we traveled outside big cities. When we decided to stay in the city of Phan Rang about 350km to the northeast of Ho Chi Minh city, the new privately run hotel was all full so that we had to stay at the government run hotel. The government hotel occupied a large lot in which the sleeping quarters were 100m away from the eating place. Not a single soul was staying at this vast place on that night. I suspected no one had stayed for the past three months at least. The room was full of spider webs and dung of wall lizards and inevitably very dirty. There was no air conditioning or private toilet. A naked bulb was the only illumination and the door knob must have given out some 15 years ago and a huge pad lock had replaced it. The towel was provided but its original color was indiscernible. Many cockroaches were running in the communal bath room in which the toilet was full of rubbish and never flushed. An about 5cm rubber hose connected to the water faucet was the only shower facility (actually it worked very well; the only thing I liked of this ghost house. I was rather refreshed after suffering from all these pandemonium). The whole atmosphere suggested how a prison cell would look like. The whole setting was in good contrast with the private run hotel which was smaller but filled with guests and maintained a cheerful atmosphere. This was in the South. Things were worse in the North.

Yet, the most appalling part was the payment. The attendants, all elderly women, charged each of the Vietnamese colleagues an equivalent of US$1.75 in local currency, which was not particularly high for our understanding but paying an equivalent of 1.5 day wage for this accommodation was disputable. By regulation, they charged each of us US$27.50 in hard currency. In China, foreigners usually have to pay twice as much as native Chinese for air tickets, train tickets or hotel accommodation. For the domestic air tickets of Air Vietnam, foreigners have to pay four times as much in hard currency. Yet, this time it was 15 times as much. The attendants were showing the faces of incredulity. Anyone paying money for staying in this place was surprising enough. It must take foreign idiots to pay two month salary of local people for staying in this miserable place. Something is grossly wrong with the economic system. It is a tragedy that more than ten years was necessary to realize that.”Everything changed during the past 20 years, of course. Yet, it is in the hotel situation where the change can be seen most dramatically.

  • Hotel buildings in Ho Chi Minh city in 2009
  • Breakfast at Saigon Oscar Hotel where I stayed for three days in Dec 2009
Yet, the most impressive is the change in people’s attitude toward service and responsibility. I carelessly left a bag containing some memory cards and a recharger in my room at this Saigon Oscar Hotel. I realized this when I arrived in Hanoi but it was too late. Only half expectedly, I called the hotel from Yamatedai, Japan informing about what had happened. The hotel attendant answered that they were keeping the item in their Lost-and Found section. I immediately sent a Fax asking them to send the bag to my address in Japan. To my delight, the bag arrived in Yamatedai in good order a week later. I found it fair to inform this rather pleasant experience in some travelers’ Blog (口コミ旅行情報) as follows;


In addition to the recognition, promotion and social success of my former colleagues such as Hoang Kim, Nguyen Huu Hy, Trinh Thi Phuong Loan and Tran Ngoc Ngoan, the upgrading of the institutions where we used to conduct the varietal improvement work together is another very pleasant side product of our collaboration.

We (Reinhardt Howeler and myself) started with this type of formal, if not stressful, negotiation on how we would conduct our collaboration at Hung Loc Center in 1988.

Even as late as in 1992, the meeting was not without some tenseness.

Hung Loc Center was a rather sleepy, smallish place typical of underdeveloped countries (1990)

Harvested cassava roots from the experimental plots were carried by this type of “Truck” to the nearby processing place, circa 1992.

To my delightful surprise, Hung Loc Center in 2009 is a quite different place.

New building at Hung Loc Center in 2009

Meeting old friends in front of the meeting hall at Hung Loc Center in Dec 2009.


When we first visited North Vietnam in 1989, Thai Nguyen was a rather uninspiring rural town where the only higher education institution was a small college called Agricultural College No.3. Several students hanging their laundry at their dormitory was about the only memory I got in my first visit to AC3.

AC3 campus in 1994

Children beside the cassava experiment field inside the AC3 campus in 1994

Thai Nguyen University campus in Dec 2009 (The former AC3 was upgraded to a university housing more than 10,000 students)

My dear friend Ngoan is now Vice Rector of Thai Nguyen University

Receiving a gift from the University in Dec 2009


Varietal Improvement in the South

This is, of course, the core of the story. Since much has been reported in formal papers, I am herein just showing some photos for remembrance.

The first bulk harvest of KM-60 (right) compared with the local variety, probably HL-23 (left) at Hung Loc Center in 1991.

KM-60 and the local variety with KK and Kim at Hung Loc Center circa 1993.

Director Hoang Kim standing contentedly with KM-94 (right) and the local variety (left) at Hung Loc Center circa 1993.

KK with colleagues at KM-60 field in Dong Nai in 1996

Harvest of new varieties from Thailand at Hung Loc Center in 1997.

Multiplication of a new variety from Thailand at Hung Loc Center in 1997.

Good planting of KM 98-5 in Tay Ninh in 2009.

KK and Kim in Tay Ninh at KM 419 and KM325 field in Dec 2009.

Varietal Improvement in the North

Ngoan and KK in a varietal trial field in Bac Thai circa 1995.

KK and farmers near Pho Yen in 1997.

Local variety Vinh Phu (left) and KM-94 (right) with Ngoan and KK at AC3 experiment field in 1997.

Local variety (left) and KM-60 (right) in Hatay in 1996 with Loan at the center with a TV crew.

A new selection KM-95-1 (left) and the local variety Vinh Phu (right) in Hatay in 1997 with Director Ho on the left.

A group photo taken at the experiment field in Hatay in 1997. Faces of Ho, Loan, Mr. Tat, Mrs. Sau, Mrs Guyen among others.

Cassava field near Pho Yen in Dec 2009.

Ngoan (Professor and Vice Chancellor), Mr. Kien (a dedicated farmer), KK, and Loan (Retired Deputy director) at Mr. Kien’s cassava field near Pho Yen in Dec 2009.


One thing outstanding in our collaboration with the Vietnamese colleagues is their acute readiness for working closely with farmers. This is in good contrast to my Latin American experience.

Cassava field near Hanoi, circa 1995. Loan, a farm wife, KK and Ho.

Hearing from farmers in Hatay in 1996. KK and Mr. Chien, Deputy Director of Root Crop Research Center, VASI.

Loan leading a town meeting in Hatay in 1996.

Ngoan presiding a village meeting in Pho Yen in 1996.

Harvest of a field trial in Bac Thai in 1996; a curious mixture of Ngoan (Professor to be), students, farmers, an old woman and a baby.

Reunion at Mr. Kien’s house in Pho Yen 13 years later.

Strangely absent from my photo collection is Hoang Kim. Kim is the undisputed champion of associating with fellow researchers from other institutions, farmers from many provinces. Kim initiated the invitation of advanced farmers to the selection field at Hung Loc Center so as to evaluate and select their own favorites; a harbinger to the later much celebrated “farmer participatory research.

Here in 2009 in Dong Nai and Tay Ninh cassava field, Kim is mixing with advanced farmers, students, extension staff and officials.


I: Mrs. Tran Thi Quyen, Hatay

Here are the portraits of some successful farmers who had improved their lots remarkably utilizing the new cassava varieties.

Typical cassava farmers’ houses seen in our 1989 visit in North Vietnam.

Mrs. Tran Thi Quyen was one of those cassava/pig farmers in Hatay Province who had first adopted KM-60, With the better harvest of the new variety, she could increase the number of pigs she could sell to the market. This was the new house she was building using the money she earned and saved, which she was proudly showing me in my 1997 visit. The house was complete with a kitchen, toilet and bathroom under the single roof and cost some \80,000 (US$700) at that time.

Mrs. Quyen (left) with her grandchild in our reunion in Dec 2009.

Mrs. Quyen is still growing cassava and pigs. She is now building a new much bigger house.

II: Mr. Ngo Trung Kien, Pho Yen

Cassava was a small farmers’ crop used for family pig feeding or sold to small noodle factories.

Cassava chips drying on the road circa 1994.

Cassava and pig in North Vietnam before the introduction of new varieties.

Cassava noodle drying near Hanoi in 1989.

Mr. Ngo Trung Kien of Pho Yen, Bac Tay Province a dedicated farmer and one of the earliest adopters of KM-60. He has been successful in expanding his cassava/pig farming. Here in his plot in 2009, he was planting KM-98.

Mr. Kien is a innovative farmer as well. He introduced feeding chickens with cassava.

Pig feeding continues as ever. Mr. Kien told us he could now sell more than

50 mature pigs to the market annually.

Meeting village people at Mr. Kien’s house, Dec 2009. He has taught all his techniques to other farmers in the same village. Many farmers have built new houses and virtually all families own a motorcycle these days.

III: Mr. Tong Qnoc Thanh, Tay Ninh

Mr. Tong Qnoc Thanh of Tay Ninh Province was one of the earliest adopters of KM-60 promoted by the erstwhile Director Hoang Kim of Hong Loc Center. He was reputed to have made a lot of money by the multiplication and the sales of planting stakes of KM-60 and later KM-94. Either because he is a shay man by character or he is afraid of the Tax Office, Mr. Thanh does not elaborate too much about his success especially on the money making. Nevertheless, by any standard Mr. Thanh is a vastly successful man and the extensive cassava planting of his own cannot defy the reputation.

Mr. Thanh uses KM-98 for intercropping with rubber tree, Tay Ninh in 2009.

KM-94 is still the best for mono-culture cassava in Tay Ninh, Mr. Thanh agrees. But he is planting KM-98 extensively in his field, probably because being a new variety, KM-98 still offers good opportunities for planting stake sale.

 V: Mrs. Nguyen Thi Sau, Hatay

... When we visited Mrs. Sau in 1996, she showed us her new pig pen; KK, Mrs. Sau, Mrs. Quyen, children and Mr. Tat (Extension office at Root Crop Research Center, VASI).  

In 1997, Mrs. Sau was very proud of posing in front of her new house and motor cycles. I heard the house cost some equivalent of \250,000 (US$2,000) at that time.

Loan, Chien, Mrs. Sau’s husband (working in the Municipal office), Mrs. Sau and Tat.

Mrs. Sau’s new mansion in 2009.

Front view of Mrs. Sau’s mansion.

Sala of Mrs. Sau’s mansion.

With the expansion of Hanoi city area, Mrs. Sau’s place is now much urbanized. Being a small but smart “entrepreneur”, Mrs. Sau is now President of a mineral water production and distribution company.

V: Mr. Ho Sau, Trang Bom

At the time of our first visit in 1988, Trang Bom, one of the fiercest battle fields of Vietnam War, was not much more than a sleepy little town.

Mr. Ho Sau, who lived next door to Hung Loc Center near Trang Bom and Bien Hoa, was the first farmer to be invited to Hung Loc Center to observe the harvest of a cassava varietal trial which included KM-60. He quickly decided to multiply the small sample stakes of KM-60 for his own planting and later for sales to other farmers. Mr. Sau, 2nd from left, was a celebrated participant to the Workshop held at Hung Loc Center in 1997.

Mr. Sau’s cassava Palace in 2009. Mr. Sau is now an enormously successful business man owning large cassava plantings, a couple of cassava processing plants and a trading company.

His garden is decorated with many wonderful objects. A sculpture carved from the root of a single tree.

Yet, the most imposing is the crocodile pool with a dozen or so crocodiles for display.

Mr. Sau is not a type to hide his success to the extent of being flamboyant. Yet, he is intent in giving opportunities to many kinds of people. He is building houses for less fortunate families in the same village. Here in this photo below, he provides land and facility for Prof. Kim and his students to conduct field experiments. As such, I was reminded of the Colombian Pablo Escobar. While Escobar was a bad guy drug king, Mr. Sau may be a good guy cassava king.

From left to right; Students of Nong Lam University, Prof. Kim. KK and Mr. Sau.


It was a delight to travel through Vietnam with 「The Quiet American」in hand. It was my third time to read this book. By the end of the journey, my paper back was nearly disintegrated. While I could not find this novel being sold in book stores in Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, the street hawkers had a pirated version of the book. Honoring the hawkers’ smartness of finding the value of 「The Quiet American」as souvenir, I paid 80,000Don (some \400) to a hawker in Ho Chi Minh. In Hanoi, a hawker ran after me for some 50m offering the book for 50,000Don.

Joy of reading 「The Quiet American」at The Continental Hotel.

Excerpts from 「The Quiet American」Graham Greene

P. 60, “I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.”

P. 74, “I was to see many times that look of pain and disappointment touch his eyes and mouth when reality didn’t match the romantic ideas he cherished, or when someone he loved or admired dropped below the impossible standard he had set.”

P. 94, “I laugh at anyone who spends so much time writing about what doesn’t exist – mental concepts.”

P. 103, “If somebody asked you what your deepest sexual experience had been, What would you say?” I knew the answer to that. “Lying in bed early one morning and watching a woman in a red dressing-gown brush her hair.” “Joe said it was being in bed with a Chink and a negress at the same time.”

P. 167, “He gets hold of an idea and then alters every situation to fit the idea.”

Plain as it is, this novel describes about the dark side of innocence. It is now profoundly touching that Greene had clearly manifested the impossibility of America winning a war against Vietnam as far back as in 1955.

In this vein, it is unsettling to find that this novel is regarded as a simple love story, if not a melodrama, in Japan, as can be seen in the following cut out from the major newspaper Asahi. It is somehow a part of our Japanese culture to reduce things to a minimum context, resigning to not seeing the whole.

David Halberstam is best known for his 「The Best and the Brightest」which was published in 1972 and became a world best-seller. His earlier book「The Making of a Quagmire], published in 1965, is less known but highly appreciated by some critics for much of the Halberstam’s perspectives on the Vietnam War originated from his experiences described in this book. I have been wanting to read this book ever after I read 「The Best and the Brightest」but the book was out of print for a long time. In one of many Internet notices from “Amazon” , of which I seldom pay serious attention, I found 「The Making of a Quagmire」was republished in 2008.

While 「The Best and the Brightest」is an in-depth analysis of Washington politics during the Johnson/Nixon era, 「The Making of a Quagmire」is a ground level description of the local battles and politics in Vietnam during the Kennedy time. If 「The Quiet American」is a romantic narrative of innocence and complacency, 「The Making of a Quagmire」is a poignant account of ignorance and arrogance.

While「The Making of a Quagmire」contains all the reasons why America could not win the War in Vietnam, Chapter Six “Disaster: The Battle of Ap Bac” of this book describes, factor by factor, why the South Vietnamese/American forces could not win local battles in Vietnam. It is not that the Battle of Ap Bac was the turning point of the Vietnam War. It is remarkable because the Battle of Ap Bac contained all the elements why the Viet Cong/National Liberation Front could not be defeated.

If one reads 「The Making of a Quagmire」seriously, it should be transparent under the bright sun that this war could not be won by outside forces. Yet, Kennedy/Johnson Administration did not learn from the Pulitzer Prize (1964) of Halberstam in general and from the Battle of Ap Bac (Jan 1963) in particular. The North bombing by the US Air Force started in Feb 1965 and US Marines Corps were massively stationed at Da Nang in Mar 1965. History continues. As if nothing had not been learnt from Vietnam, and from 「The Best and the Brightest」in particular, the father/son Bush Administration went ahead with the Iraq and Afghan War on the same ignorance and arrogance. To human history, what is not learnt often outweighs what is learnt.


Throughout my many years of association with Vietnam, I have gotten to know many people, whom I seem to be able to categorize in retrospect. I got my first impression of the Vietnamese from the several Vietnamese trainees staying at the International Rice Research Institute, Los Baños, Philippines in 1963 and it was not particularly a favorable one. They appeared rather uncaring, cynical and apathetic, if not selfish, contemptuous, and corrupt. I may be too harsh and judgmental on them; nevertheless, Halberstam wrote about this type of people belonging to the upper strata of the South Vietnamese society during the same period so vividly and critically in 「The Making of a Quagmire」that my judgment might not have been too far away from the reality.

My ten years of close collaboration with my cassava breeding colleagues in the 1990s and the reunion with them in this trip completely changed my assessment of the Vietnamese. As evidenced by the series of my reporting here, they are industrious, insightful, considerate and indefatigable, as if to emulate General Vo Nguyen Giap. I might be a little too positively partial to those friends of mine. Nevertheless, I have a similar feeling toward some of my colleagues in Rayong, Thailand and Nanning, China to count a few. During the two decades of post-war Japan, we seem to have many Japanese of this category as well.

Then comes the mass of the population who just want tomorrow to be better than today. In this trip, I was deeply impressed and touched in meeting many people who seemed never to doubt tomorrow is better than today. This reminds me of the Japanese during the next two decades of post-war where the majority of the population was seeing a rosy future. Now in Japan, more than 30,000 people commit suicide annually and the main reason for this act is believed to be hopelessness to the present and future. Needless to say, Vietnam is not without problems such as the incompleteness of juridical system or rampant corruption to name some. Yet, the proportion of people feeling happy seems to be far higher in Vietnam than in Japan now. It is fascinating to imagine where these former colleagues of mine would further lead this society to.

People at a cassava open market near Hanoi in 1989.

People on a boat in Saigon river in 1988.

People on a ferry near Hanoi in 1989.

Boys on a Hanoi street in 1991.

Girls on a Hanoi street in 1991.

Two daughters at a village starch plant in Tay Ninh in1992.

People harvesting rice in Tay Ninh in 2009.

Hyper-energetic people in Ho Chi Minh city in 2009.

People relaxing at Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi in 2009.


See more:

Cassava in Vietnam: a successful story

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