The female ambassador who ‘slapped the table’ at an international conference

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Fifty-one years since the day she ‘fell in love’ with diplomacy, female Ambassador Nguyen Thi Hoi still has memories about the leader who inspired her to fight for national interests.

The female ambassador who ‘slapped the table’ at an international conference

Ambassador Nguyen Thi Hoi attends ESCAP conferences

Hoi, the former Director and Secretary General of the Vietnam National Commission for UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), and Ambassador to Austria and Canada, said her first job in diplomacy was as an interpreter (1970-1976). In 1976-1978, she was sent to study in Australia, one of the first cadres studying in a capitalist country.

When returning to Vietnam in 1978, Hoi began work at the Department of International Organizations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She recalled a historic event, the press conference of Nguyen Co Thach, then Minister of Foreign Affairs, on the afternoon soon after the northern border defence war broke out.

Prior to that, she was assigned to act as an interpreter for a US Congresswoman in Lang Son. At first, she did not believe in the possibility of China attacking Vietnam. But when reaching the border area, she acknowledged the attack and left immediately. Early the next morning, Chinese troops swarmed to attack along the border line.

“Thach’s press conference was held at 5 pm at Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ International Club and I was assigned to serve the event as an interpreter. A reporter then raised a question whether this was a border conflict or Chinese evasion. Thach then strongly affirmed that this was a Chinese evasion as Chinese troops had advanced deep into Vietnamese territory,” she recalled.

“I will remember the historic press conference forever. The press conference lasted several hours. The hall was full and all participants were standing,” she said.

International conference

As a Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) official, Hoi attended many important diplomatic events. In the early 1980s, though the new Cambodian administration was established, Pol Pot’s representatives still maintained their seats at United Nations and international forums.

Not only me, but all diplomatic officers in that period had to struggle like this,

Ambassador Nguyen Thi Hoi

In 1982, the first Asian and Pacific Population Conference took place in Sri Lanka. Hoi was one of the two Vietnamese officials attending the event.

As usual, the delegation representing Pol Pot administration raised its concern in protests against Vietnam. Chinese attendees also protested, followed by a speech of the Vietnamese delegation.

However, as time ran out, the speech of the Vietnamese delegation was delayed until the next morning. Some delegations showed their compassion for Vietnam, because Hoi was the only Vietnamese attendee (the other official had to attend another session). Hoi, the female Ambassador, then 33 years old, petite in her blue ao dai (traditional long dress), stepped to the podium and delivered a speech, clearly stating Vietnam’s stand.

“It was a session about population. So I said: What could Pol Pot do? Nothing, except the killing of nearly two million people of fellow citizens. Therefore, they have no status to talk about population, let alone population policies,” Hoi recalled.

Saying this, she unexpectedly slammed her hand down on the table, surprising the attendees. Pol Pot’s delegates were silent. When the session ended, the head of the Malaysian delegation came to meet her and said “You are very brave”.

Relating the story, she told VietNamNet: “Not only me, but all diplomatic officers in that period had to struggle like this.”

Candadian Ambassador

“During all the battles of wits during a decade long against sieges and embargoes, we learned a lot from Minister Nguyen Co Thach, who had strategic vision. He found problems, raised ideas and turned the ideas into reality. He inspired us to fight. Many cadres and I, under his leadership, became warriors struggling for the nation’s interests at all forums,” Hoi said.

For our generation, struggling for peace and independence for the nation, and a devotion to the country was natural,” she said.

“Thach taught us to build and use arguments to defend our legitimate standpoints. As he always had authentic arguments, he could answer all awkward questions from reporters,” she said.

“We learned from him that in order to have authentic arguments, we need to study hard to understand ourselves and other people, and find out the strengths and weaknesses of each side,” she said.

The first lesson Thach taught his officers was that they must not give up and should find optimal solutions in any circumstances.

“We always had to submit three solutions – the optimal solution, medium solution and least worst solution. The lesson was ingrained in my mind, which was a motto for me to follow in my career. I always tried to find solutions to all problems,” she recalled.

It was from the important lessons from the special teacher that Hoi applied during her term as Ambassador to Canada in 2002-2006.

Her sharp reasoning, plus the help of a Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) businessman, helped Vietnam win Canada’s support, the first among G7 countries, for Vietnam to join the World Trade Organization (WTO).

She successfully organized the historic visit by the then Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai to Canada in 2005.

In that period, a red flag with yellow stars was rarely seen on the territory of a developed capitalist country. However, 2,000 Vietnamese national flags, red with yellow stars, were planted together with Canadian flags alongside the route to welcome Prime Minister Khai.

She still remembers her feeling of being moved to tears when seeing Vietnamese flags on Canadian streets.

Huy Hung

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