I came to know and become close friends with Melanie during a very special period in my life and I think probably a very particular part of hers, when she spent a lot of time and energy working on Vietnam and visiting Hanoi and a close group of friends there. I first met her in 1994 when I was hired to work as a research assistant for Melanie and two other colleagues as part of the Australia Vietnam Research Project. Like others I was in awe of working for one of the ‘big names’ of Vietnamese studies. Her book Vietnam: politics, economics, society was then one of the few books on Vietnamese history on the shelves of British bookshops. Melanie was clever, knowledgeable, thorough and feisty but also friendly, kind and down to earth. I really enjoyed working for her. Through that project, I also got to know Dang Phong who was already by then a key collaborator with Melanie and others studying the origins and processes of ‘doimoi’.
Dang Phong’s house in Yen Phu village became a centre for a group of friends – some working on the project but also Phong’s other friends whose circle we joined. Melanie, Phong and a group including Dao Kim Lan, Le Thi Mai, Le XuanTuand Andrew Hardy were regulars at the table. My wife to be Natasha Pairaudeau joined our club too. Phong’s group of young colleagues and students were an important part of this world: Phong, Thanh, Hieu, Minh, Phuong, Van, Dao Mai, so many to mention.Many others were part of the club in some way and at different periods – Vilaison Campbell, Kirsten Endres, Angie Tran, Heinz Schutte, Ngo Vinh Long, Susan Bayly. Duong TrungQuoc would drop in late after tennis. We had a lot of fun: anecdotes, history, arguments, red wine, banana flowers, flash-fried heron, tofu Na-ta-sa, pizza Viet Minh, ruoutrang, Song cau cigarettes. Phong would have famous people round for us to meet and to tell their stories – Le Huu Dang, Dang Van Viet, Hong Ha and Le Thi, Tran Duy even Vo Van Kiet. Melanie was the centre of our group – President of the Club – chutichcau lac bo. For her, the club I think helped her to heal after a difficult period in her life. When in Hanoi she was there almost every evening and we liked to go and join her there.
We went on all kinds of trips around Vietnam – many weekend trips to Tam Dao, Mau Son, Phong’s old hunting grounds at Tuy Lai, boating on the Red River. Melanie on her scooteror on the back of Phong’s ‘Rebel’.Tet trips to let off firecrackers. Historical trips to see old French ‘lo cot’, Highway 4, or the places where Phong had been evacuated during the war.We went further afield to Lang Son – where Melanie recounted her trip there shortly after the Chinese army withdrew in 1979. And we went international too – on the train up to Kunming, and by car across to Laos and the Plain of Jars. Melanie liked that one – I remember her among the poppy fields.
We went on for ten years or so like this. But latterly Melanie started to move away somewhat – her work took her elsewhere and that time for her had passed. Melanie was always a wonderful friend to us even when not part of that group. She came all the way from Australia to attend our wedding in Worcestershire. It was so wonderful to have her there. We met up with her in London in 2003, in Cambodia when she was working there and we met again at Dang Phong’s funeral and then his first death anniversary in Hanoi.
I did not pursue an academic career and so can only comment on my personal rather than professional relationship with Melanie. Others will attest to her place in Vietnamese studies. But I can attest to some happy years of friendship – those Yen Phu years. When we had had a good evening she would treat us all to her repertoire of world national anthems, her impression of Ton DucThang, or her thoughts on the ‘Tiger’. Phong is dead now, so is Dr.Tu, the Yen Phu house is demolished, the rest of our club is scattered and now Melanie is gone. Khongphai lam ginua. But such happy memories. I wanted to record something of that period in Melanie’s life which I was lucky to share – for her family and those who knew her during other periods of her life. Melanie, chutich, muonnam!