Cablegate: A Kindergarten for Can Gio: The U.S. Navy Connects With

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.




E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: A) 03 HCMC 1144


1. (SBU) On March 14, 2004, Consul General participated in a
ribbon-cutting ceremony to open a kindergarten built with the
assistance of the U.S. Navy and funding from a U.S. NGO. Ground
was first broken on this project back in November 2003, during a
port call to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) by the USS Vandegrift, the
first U.S. Navy ship to visit Vietnam since the war. As one of
three community relations projects (comrels) carried out by
crewmembers during this historic visit, the foundation-digging for
the two-room schoolhouse in Can Gio proved a valuable experience
for participants on both sides. However, USG participation in
even clearly beneficial projects can sometimes be more complicated
than expected, as local authorities remain cautious in their
dealings with the USG.


2. (U) Although administratively part of Ho Chi Minh City, the
rural district of Can Gio remains a land apart. Located south of
the city's urban center and on the opposite side of the Nha Be
River, it bears no resemblance to most of HCMC. Nor is it
particularly close to downtown. A trip to Can Gio from central
HCMC entails a drive of at least one hour, plus a ferry crossing.
Traveling to the most distant part of the district, bordering the
South China Sea, can take well over two hours. In this somewhat
forgotten corner of HCMC, crowded streets, busy factories, and
noises give way to a handful of empty roads flanked by coconut
groves, mangrove swamp, rivers, and shrimp farms. Visitors have a
difficult time deciding if the area is made up of water dotted
with a multitude of islands, or land dotted with a multitude of
lakes and rivers.

3. (U) On the whole Can Gio is poor and there are limited
opportunities for the district's 62,000 inhabitants -- short of
commuting into the city for work. The soil is salt-infused and
unsuited to rice cultivation. Similarly, the vast tracts of
mangrove swamp do not lend themselves to other forms of
agriculture. In recent years, the local economy has received a
bit of a boost with the introduction of commercial shrimp
farming. Shrimp ponds dot the landscape and the most common
vehicles on the roads are refrigerated seafood trucks hauling away
the harvest. This new economic prospect has meant jobs for
residents and rising incomes (though from a low base). Locals
hope to capitalize on Can Gio's natural resources by attracting
ecotourists to a nature reserve and mini-biosphere. The clearing
of forest and filling of mangrove swamp in the ongoing effort to
build a multi-lane highway through the district may, however,
underscore some basic misconceptions about ecotourism. As the new
highway is served only by a small car ferry service, it may also
illustrate some weaknesses in infrastructure planning.


4. (U) As in other poor areas of HCMC, providing educational
opportunities for children in Can Gio is a challenge for local
authorities. In Doi Lau Hamlet -- a few patches of dry land
crowned by houses in a sea of shrimp ponds -- there was previously
no separate kindergarten. The lack of classroom space at the
local elementary school meant that kindergarteners were mixed with
older students. With permission from local authorities, Vietnam
Assistance for the Handicapped-Health and Education Volunteers
(VNAH-HealthEd) produced a plan to construct a two-room
kindergarten on the grounds of Doi Lau's elementary school. The
school was to be built by local construction companies, but funded
entirely by VNAH. When news of the USS Vandegrift's upcoming
visit became public, American citizen Ca Van Tran, VNAH's
president, was one of the individuals the Consulate General
approached for comrel ideas. He suggested that USN personnel
participate in the groundbreaking and help dig the foundation for
the new kindergarten.

5. (U) USN participation was envisioned as a way to save money on
construction costs, allowing VNAH to use the funds for other
projects. It also presented an opportunity to bring American
military to a rarely visited part of Vietnam to help break down
barriers of mistrust, and offered crewmembers a chance to see
something of the country beyond HCMC's downtown business and
tourist areas.

6. (U) During the ship visit, many USS Vandegrift crew members
volunteered for three planned comrels. (The other two projects
involved painting portions of a school for street children and
distributing supplies donated through Operation Handclasp to a
city orphanage.) Early on November 20, 2003, a group of
approximately 30 crew members ventured out to Can Gio District,
where they broke ground for the new kindergarten in tiny Doi Lau
Hamlet. Ground-breaking on the kindergarten went smoothly. The
DCM, Consul General, and DATT accompanied the USN contingent to
Can Gio. On site, the CG offered remarks in Vietnamese on the
importance of education to a gathering of local officials and
students. Local officialdom appeared pleased with the remarks and
the kindergarteners were clearly awestruck by the strangers in
their midst. The USS Vandegrift crew pitched into digging the
foundation after a short dedication ceremony. Their energy seemed
to unnerve their Vietnamese hosts, who became clearly agitated at
the sight of 30 Westerners sweating profusely as they wrestled
with the fifty-fifty combination of earth and water that seems to
make up Can Gio. Afraid that heatstroke or other calamity was
only a few shovel loads away, local officials began calling for a
lunch break at 10:15 in the morning. The American volunteers kept
at it for at least another hour until the foundation was well
started. Then victory was declared and all participants settled
down for a lunch of Can Gio delicacies, namely shrimp and crab.
Lunch was followed by a second, shorter, work period, after which
the sailors loaded up in their vans and departed for their liberty-
call downtown.


7. (U) On March 16, 2004, the new kindergarten opened its doors
with a ribbon cutting by the CG and the director of Can Gio's
education department. The director openly acknowledged the work
of the Vandegrift's crew and the support of VNAH in his remarks.
It was clear from conversations with the teachers and district
officials that everyone remembered the Navy's contribution. The
school's new occupants, in their finest school uniforms, filed
into the classrooms at the conclusion of the ceremony, looking
ready to undertake the daily rigors of kindergarten. The students
did not begin their time in the new schoolhouse empty-handed.
VNAH and ConGen personnel also donated several boxes of toys and
school supplies for the new facility.

8. (U) This collaboration by an American NGO, the U.S. Navy, the
Consulate General, and Can Gio officials was precedent-setting in
Can Gio. Many of the local officials involved had never dealt
with Americans before. The positive and tangible contribution
made in November and reinforced at the school opening clearly made
an impression on the local residents. Americans came to Can Gio
and they helped -- with money from the NGO and labor from the
sailors. Just as importantly, they spent a day with rural
residents of Vietnam -- sharing food, joking, and working


9. (SBU) There were other lessons in this experience as well.
Building a kindergarten should not be controversial or
"politically" dangerous, but the days leading up to the ground-
breaking and the ribbon-cutting were filled with mixed messages.
District officials moved very slowly to approve "public" American
involvement and were uncommunicative about their plans. They
insisted on specific approval from the HCMC External Relations
Office (ERO - the MFA branch office for southern Vietnam) at every
step of the planning. ConGenoffs, FSNs, and NGO staff were
constantly on the phones or in meetings trying to smooth the way
for the project. Some of the local reticence can be chalked up to
inexperience and fear of the unknown. Americans haven't been
around Can Gio much since the war, when the area was a site of
significant guerilla activity. Outside of official meetings,
however, Can Gio district officials were much more positive. They
were friendly, talkative, and grateful for assistance from the USN
and ConGen. VNAH contacts attributed this strange dual behavior
by district officials to admonishments from the HCMC government
"not to get too close to the Americans or appear too eager."

10. (SBU) ConGen appreciates the goodwill and efforts of the USS
Vandegrift in helping VNAH build a kindergarten in Can Gio. They
did good work and left a positive impression. As a learning
experience for the ConGen, this comrel project showed that our
counterparts at the city level may insist on calling the shots to
a greater extent than they let on -- and are wary of any local
body developing its own relationship with the ConGen.

© Scoop Media

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