Young envoy in Vietnam

The Washington Times

By Margie Mason
Published October 17, 2003

DANANG, Vietnam — Alex Huff is hard to miss among the dozens of children in the cafeteria at Phan Thanh elementary school. Blond-haired, blue-eyed and towering over his classmates, his legs are so long that his knees nearly touch his chest as he sits at a plastic table slurping up beef-noodle soup and milk.

In a city that was home to one of the largest U.S. air bases of the Vietnam War, in a school where the portrait of the late communist leader Ho Chi Minh hangs on the wall, 11-year-old Alex is a symbol of how even the deepest wounds can heal. But it goes further than that.

His Vietnamese is so good that he has astonished the country by placing second in a national storytelling competition that is as prestigious here as the National Spelling Bee in the United States. He is believed to be the first foreigner to do it.

Since kindergarten, Alex has been the lone Westerner surrounded by a sea of Vietnamese children. His parents, Bob and Kathleen Huff, moved here more than five years ago from DeQueen, Ark., to work with disabled children. With no international school in the area, they enrolled their son in a kindergarten where no English was spoken. He later spent two years in a school in Hanoi before the family moved back to Danang.

"When we first started, I was just thinking an hour or two a day. But when we actually showed up, they said, 'Pick him up at the end of the day,' " Mrs. Huff recalls. "He just looked straight ahead, and he had one tear go down his face and he said, 'I can do it.' And I said, 'OK.' "

At first, it was hard. The other children, who had rarely seen a Westerner, liked to stare as he labored over his lessons, or to rush up and touch his skin. Then he discovered that in Vietnam, too, they play tag and hide-and-seek, and he started to make friends.

But Vietnamese is devilishly hard to master. Although its alphabet is Romanized, it has six distinct tones, each of which can change the meaning of a word. The tones are what give the language its singsong musicality.
"I just kept getting better and better," Alex says. "By the fourth year, I was probably pretty much completely fluent."

Now "they see a Western boy and they try to speak English to me and then when I answer in Vietnamese, they're really shocked. But then they figure: 'Oh, I thought you were Western. But why did you dye your hair yellow?' "

Americans started arriving in Vietnam in the 1990s as the country sought, like China, to open up to market forces without abandoning communist one-party rule. Some, like the Huffs, came to work with children. Others came to do business.

After signing a pact normalizing trade relations in 2001, the United States and Vietnam last year had record two-way trade totaling about $2 billion. Companies like Nike have turned "Made in Vietnam" into a fixture in American malls, and Vietnam ships a lot of seafood to the U.S. market.

Today, an estimated 2,700 Americans live in Vietnam, mostly in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, which both offer international schools. Danang in central Vietnam, 470 miles south of Hanoi, doesn't have that option. So Alex's three-story school next to an old Buddhist temple is an open-air affair with no air conditioning to keep the heat and humidity at bay.

Danang was a base from which American warplanes took off for combat during the Vietnam War. Viet Cong guerrillas regularly rocketed the Marines' helicopter base a few miles to the south.

Now the streets that once teemed with U.S. soldiers offer everything from Internet cafes to tour companies and clothing shops. The city of 700,000 is a constant symphony of construction noise, swarms of beeping motorbikes and people chatting or eating on the sidewalks.

Overlooking China Beach, once a favorite for GIs on leave, is the five-star Furama Resort hotel with marble floors and tiled swimming pools.
Yet Danang maintains a small-town charm. A typical sight is schoolgirls on bicycles wearing the traditional ao dais, a flowing white tunic.
Alex says he feels most at home in Vietnam.

"I don't really know what people play in America anymore," he says, holding hands with one of his closest buddies whose head reaches just abaove Alex's elbow. "When I go back to America, it's kind of like reverse culture shock."

But some of his friends are in touch with the outside world. Le Nguyen Van Anh's smile broadens as she chirps that Mickey Mouse is her favorite cartoon and Britney Spears is the coolest singer because "she's beautiful and she has interesting moves."

Le Nguyen Van Anh and Alex were close friends from the start, and both received high enough grades to go to the school of their choice next year. She was the top student, while Alex wowed the judges at the storytelling competition with a tale about a leper who finally became accepted in her village after the people there came to understand that it wasn't ghosts that had nibbled away her fingers and toes.

"I think he's talented, especially when he tells stories. He's much better than the Vietnamese students," says Dang Van Tien, whose daughter is in Alex's class. He said he had fond memories of the American soldiers who rented a house next door when he was a student. "After his graduation, Alex can go to the United States and teach Vietnamese. He can bring the nations closer together."

Alex's father, Bob Huff, says that was part of the reason the family moved here. He headed an Army helicopter crew in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970. Although he has buried a lot of bad memories, he says, he has never forgotten the children.

"There's always casualties of war, and a lot of casualties are in the minds of people for years afterward," he said. "We like to be accepted for who we are and for what we're trying to do, not memories of a war. We're very happy that it has come to this point, to where an American child can compete equally with the Vietnamese children. It says something for Vietnam's capabilities to get beyond."

The couple came here with World Concern, a Seattle-based international Christian organization, but they now are working independently, hoping to set up a school for deaf children. They say their son will continue in Vietnamese public schools for now but likely will go to an international high school to move away from rote learning and more toward critical thinking.

As for Alex, he thinks he may work with disabled people one day — or, he says with a smile: "I think maybe I want to be the ambassador to Vietnam."