Home is where the heart is

July 4, 2008

Home is where the heart is
Mr. Mai The Nguyen is proud to recall stories about his FNL badge

Distance from one’s roots can never dim the fire in a heart committed to achieving independence for the homeland.

Although Vietnamese expatriate Mai The Nguyen spent the bulk of his life away from his native Vietnam, his contributions to the people’s cause from afar speaks volume about his dedication to the nation.

As a successful architect, Nguyen partook in designing the Norwegian Royal Palace in the 1960s in addition to the National University Library and the State Bank.

However, apart from this primary profession, he also traveled throughout northern Europe to work as an interpreter for North Vietnam’s foreign minister Nguyen Thi Binh and Prime Minister Pham Van Dong in the 1970s and led an antiwar movement in Norway to protest US involvement during the American War in Vietnam.

Nguyen now resides in Norway with his family while simultaneously tending to his duties as a member of the Vietnamese Fatherland Front.

The story of his life is one full of twists and turns.

Mother patriot

Nguyen was originally born into an affluent cloth-trading family.

His mother Vuong Thi Lai, who became a widow at age 28, worked hard to raise five children and maintain a successful clothing shop.

When the August Revolution was accomplished on September 2, 1945, Lai donated 109 taels of gold (one tael is equivalent to 1.2 oz or 37.4 g) to the government to support its initial fundraising efforts.

President Ho Chi Minh recognized her assistance by bestowing a star-shaped gold medal, that read, “With this medal, Mrs. Lai represents the enthusiasm and sacrifice of Vietnamese women.”

Lai’s contributions extended beyond this initial gesture: she gave money for the building of a paper mill and a handkerchief-making factory, provided rice to the poverty-relief aid fund, and aided the municipal security force during the hard times of 1946.

She even bequeathed to the state three houses and two lots of land located in Hanoi.

All the while, Lai’s two sons were working hard to support their studies in France.

Nguyen, at the time, labored part time as a dishwasher at a Vietnamese restaurant while in school.

After graduating from a natural science university, he continued to study pharmacy but quit prior to getting a doctoral degree, disliking the profession.

Nguyen then left France and traveled to Norway, settling into a job at an architecture agency.

He worked diligently and proved his talent, subsequently gaining admission into the most famous architecture university in Oslo.

In 1969, he completed a thesis introducing in great detail the traditional structure of ancient houses in northern Vietnam, which launched a productive career in the field.

Antiwar activist

Yet, above all that academic knowledge and professional expertise rests the expatriate’s deep concern for the Fatherland at war.

The streets of Norway overflowed with demonstrations against the American War in Vietnam, making up some of the biggest protests in Northern Europe.

The song Giai Phong Mien Nam (Liberate the South) was translated into Norwegian to sing during rallies and it became an international ballad of the time.

Nguyen usually carried a boy on his shoulder named Jens Stoltenberg – who later reigned twice as Norway’s prime minister – to attend large demonstrations in Oslo, even on the coldest days.

Later, Nguyen left his well-paid job at an architecture company and worked without pay at a communication office set up in Oslo by the Provisional Coalition Government in South Vietnam.

In those days, he resided near the Norwegian Royal Palace and his home doubled as a hearth for visiting Vietnam dignitaries.

All guests staying at Nguyen’s place were usually treated to the Hanoi pho noodles he personally cooked.

The lack of spice in the broth concocted with foreign ingredients made everyone miss the homeland even more and fortified their desire to achieve liberation.

West meets East

When he was working at the communication office, Nguyen met and married a Norwegian woman named Liv Heidrun.

The couple has lived happily together ever since in Norway with the bride even returning to Vietnam several times with her beau to learn about Nguyen’s cultural roots.

The first time his wife visited her Vietnamese mother-in-law some 20 years ago, she secretly had an ao dai (traditional Vietnamese dress) made ahead of time.

As the plane was readying to land on her husband’s native soil, she went to the washroom to change into the appropriate dress.

Wearing the foreign costume, Heidrun was tense and nervous.

She requested a cup of coffee to drink to calm down, but she was so nervous she spilled it all over the ao dai.

Upon meeting the venerable Mrs. Lai, the Norwegian bride in the Vietnamese traditional costume was speechless.

She just held her hands and cried.

Nguyen intends to spend more of his old age in Vietnam to contribute to the country’s architecture.

He is currently writing a guidebook about the past and present architecture of Hanoi to introduce its special features to international friends.

Over the past 10 years, he has flown between Vietnam and Norway at least once a year to fulfill responsibilities as a member of the Vietnamese Fatherland Front.

Each time, he has witnessed drastic changes to the city’s landscape that surprise him.

Hanoi nowadays flaunts an increasing number of high-rise buildings and Nguyen is concerned about how to shape the new architecture to complement traditional buildings.

He has found the task of reorganizing modern Vietnam more difficult than designing the Norwegian Royal Palace.

Reported by Phung Nguyen

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