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In Memory of a Beloved Teacher


Editor's note: Professor Nguyen-Dinh Hoa, a noted Vietnamese linguist and language educator, passed away last December in the USA. The following obituary in his honour was written by one of his disciples living in Australia, as a tribute to his memory.

Frank Trinh


"Professor Hoa is in a coma!" They are words spoken to me by Do Van, a BBC colleague, on a late Autumn evening when the streets of London were still wet from the drizzling rain of that afternoon and the fallen leaves of the trees were being scattered by the intermittent Autumnal winds.

Having heard the news that my teacher was in a coma, I still found it hard to believe. I thought that Do Van was joking, spreading sensational news! I still recall that Friday evening of the 28th October 2000, the last year of the second millennium. We had been invited to attend a dinner at Do Van's home about 30 km, Southwest of central London. The dinner, hosted by Do Van, was to both welcome us from Amsterdam and to say goodbye, as we were leaving London the following day. Whilst having dinner, I suddenly recalled my old teacher and mentor, so I asked Do Van to make a phone call to America, to enquire about him. Unfortunately, the voice on the other end was from the answering machine so we gave up. What else could we do?

I had earlier been informed by Professor Hoa that he was to undergo heart surgery on 19th October, so my thoughts were focused on him and wondering about his state of health. When I was in Holland, I tried a couple of times to telephone his home in Mountain View, California. Once again I heard only his American-accented voice on the answering machine. Using email to enquire about his health proved no better, because, from the day he knew he had heart failure, he realised that he had to look after himself by cutting down his workload. He rarely exchanged correspondence with other people, even though he was the Director of the newly formed Institute of Vietnamese Studies in Garden Grove, Southern California. In order to avoid receiving email from his old address <> he changed it to <> from which I only once received an email of 19th August 2000 reporting on his health. He wrote this email to his wife, his children and his grandchildren, when they were having a few weeks holiday in Thailand. I still retain and cherish this message, namely:

"Dear Wife, Children and Grandchildren: I have received David's Email and My-Khue's also. Look forward to welcoming back Pat, Antonio and My-Khue from Bangkok on August 16, and Ba Ngoai, and the rest of the gang on August 21. Friday phone calls received: HoangThi Trang (Houston, TX), Chi Nga, Co Trong. Saturday calls from: DuongDucNhu, VienLinh (Khoi-hanh monthly), Thim Dinh-The, Cu TranTrongPhuc, Viet-Hang, Dinh-Hung, and TrinhNhat from Sydney. Sunday calls from: Chi Mai (she and anh Van back from China trip), Annette (from Honolulu) and Bac Ai (from Virginia). I eat OK, plenty of fruit and vegs, with sa-siu, gio lua, cha gio from our freezer) as well as the wild rice + broccoli dish and the two huge chicken pieces that Sharon had given me. Drink a lot of juice, too. I take slow walks twice a day as usual. Monday Aug 14, 2:30 pm, I have dental appointment with Dr. Peter T. Yoshida in downtown Mountain View (650-968-3820). Debbie Viet-Hang, who is in Florida with Tim Fish and the 2 boys for a week, will call Dr. Yoshida to tell him that I have a heart condition and will need antibiotics before teeth cleaning. Of course, I'll remind him, too. Until next time, Love, Dinh-Hoa Nguyen."

His wife and himself had three daughters, Patricia, Cynthia and Deborah, who are married with children. Only their son Gregory, who is nearly 40 years of age, is enjoying the single life. Professor Hoa liked to socialise and had a wide circle of friends. When he was Director of Center for Vietnamese Studies and Programs at the Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, he was fond of hosting dinner parties, partially because of his wife's culinary skills. He loved travelling extensively without any worry about long distances, always jovial and hearty, and relating his many stories. He was quick to answer any correspondence from friends and colleagues, or students, both old and new. Whoever wanted referenced material which he knew, he was more than willing to help find the information required. He did not mind the time spent doing this.

Before he underwent an ultrasound to determine the seriousness of his illness, he still thought that he would only have to have a heart catheterisation, a less serious procedure than by-pass surgery. During our seemingly frequent telephone conversations he confessed to me that he was taking a minute dose of aspirin, on doctor's advice, to thin the blood and stop blood clots. He took slow walks twice a day, and read two detective stories every day. He loved reading this type of novel and he was a very fast reader. The mobile library came to his front door and he could borrow them and return them in this way.

When he was informed that he had to undergo open-heart surgery, where they would be taking four veins from his leg and using them as grafts to carry the blood from his heart in case his main artery was blocked, he tried to reassure himself by remembering a veteran musician and composer, about the same age as himself, who had undergone the same surgery, but who had needed seven grafts instead of four. This man was still living and enjoying good health.

Upon my return to Sydney, in the early part of November, after my European trip, I finally had the luck to talk to his wife on the telephone, who informed me that he had been in intensive care for 23 days. The operation had gone well, as his heart surgeon had the reputation of being the best in the world! However, there had been subsequent complications, and he had been in a state of unconsciousness since the surgery. The oxygen content in his bloodstream had fallen to a critical level, he was running a fever and his limbs were swollen... His wife said that, a few days before, his daughter Cynthia, who is a psychiatrist, and his other children were visiting him, and Cynthia remarked that his eyes seemed to indicate that he may have recognised her, and he could bend his thumb, showing that he was becoming conscious.

From that day onwards, until Mr. Pham Phu Minh, the publisher of the 21st Century magazine, forwarded an email dated 29th November 2000 from his nephew, I was not aware of the following news:

"Up until to day, nothing has proved satisfactory. Heart is beating; kidneys are not causing concern. Lungs still need help from respirator, limbs are lifeless, eyes unable to focus. Still in a comatose state!"

From 19th October to 29th November, my teacher was considered to have been in a coma for one month and 10 days, but according to Do Van's email of 16th December, a few days before he died he regained consciousness, and recognised family members and other relatives. After that, complications again set in, and he suffered extreme pain and, at a later stage, he was thought to have died for at least 12 minutes. On that occasion, the doctors revived him, using emergency resuscitation methods, but unfortunately the chest sutures started bleeding, and he fell into a coma. Finally, his family decided to turn off life support. It was pointless to continue! He officially passed away at 2 pm, Sunday, 10th December, 2000 at the age of 76. He was laid to rest at the Los Gatos Memorial Park, southwest of San Jose, on Saturday 16th December 2000.

For quite some time, I had been thinking that 'Death' is a state of falling into a long, deep sleep. Who is there among us, who will not experience, at least once in their lifetime, the perpetual sleep? Due to the country's situation, the day my mother departed the world, I was not by her side. The day my father suddenly passed away, I was also not present. The day my teacher permanently took leave, again, I did not have the chance to say farewell. The last time I met him was five years ago at a dinner party in his home in San Francisco, the occasion being when I gave a lecture at a San Francisco State University on the teaching of Vietnamese studies and language in Australia. However, the first time I met him was in 1957, when as still a high school student, I attended the ceremony marking the appointment of the new Dean and the teaching staff of the Faculty of Letters at the Saigon University. He, at the time, had just returned from the United States, and was newly appointed Faculty Dean.

I met up with him again when I officially enrolled as a student in the Faculty in the early 1960s. At that time he was the Head of the English Department which had a high number of enrolments. During my preparatory year of English Studies, I chose 'Introduction to Linguistics' as one of my optional subjects, which was also one of his 'pet' subjects. The lecture hall was often packed with students, numbering as many as 200, who were there to take notes on the course. Sometimes his students had to stand in the outside courtyard to listen or take notes. I still recall that every time he came into class, he always had an English-language newspaper in his hand, which was published in Saigon, be it the Saigon Post to the Saigon Daily News. He would occasionally use these to engender further discussion about Vietnamese, or to point to 'the real' versus 'the unreal', as it appeared in these newspapers. With his poise, his confident manner and his leisurely way of speaking, be blew away the cobwebs regarding language learning in Vietnam. He guided his students in the way of greater insight into linguistics, a science which, at the time, was relatively new in Vietnam. He passed on his knowledge and experience, which he acquired, from studying over 10 years in the United States to his many disciples. As if it were destined, I followed in his footsteps from that memorable time onwards.

I met with him again many times after that, in class as well as in oral examinations, when I was attempting various certificates, such as Practical English Studies, Vietnamese Linguistics, English Linguistics, English Literature and Civilisation, American Literature and Civilization. After that, he went back to the United States in 1966; having been appointed Counsellor for Cultural Affairs at the Republic of Vietnam Embassy in Washington D.C. Later he took up a teaching position, and was also Deputy Director of the Center for Vietnamese Studies and Programs at the Southern Illinois University (1969-1972). During this period I only had contact with him by mail in my capacity as Editor of the monthly magazine of the Vietnamese Association of High School Teachers of English (VAHSTE). He helped found this association and served as its advisor.

I started exchanging correspondence with him more frequently in early 1974 when I came to Australia to further my studies. When Vietnam underwent its 'metamorphosis', I had the opportunity to visit him in Carbondale in the United States in the winter of 1975. There were several other occasions I visited him after this. Perhaps during my six or seven visits to the United States, be it from England or from Australia, I always tried to stop by to see him for a couple of days. After having been awarded my Master's Honours Degree in Linguistics I was recruited by the BBC to work in London. Instead of flying directly to the United Kingdom, I made the trip via the United States, partly to visit him, but also partly to ask his advice. He had introduced me to one of his nieces as a prospective marriage partner: a niece who was youthful, and the daughter of one of his female cousins. They had lost contact with each other, and had only just met up again in Washington D.C.

The day he saw me off to go to the capital D.C., it was Winter and the day after Thanksgiving 1979. The driveway in front of his house was fully covered in snow. From inside the house he was enthusiastically helping me carry the luggage to his car. He did not realise that my suitcase was too heavy, and his knees buckled to the floor under the weight. 'Thump'. He grimaced and drew in his breath, obviously hurt, but pretending that it was nothing at all.

My prospective marriage did not eventuate. Our teacher-student relationship however was not affected as a result of this. Perhaps, my stars relating to marriage were unlucky, or at least, that is what my father, an amateur astrologer, always said. It was safer to think about marriage later in life to avoid bad omens. My Dad had somewhat similar star patterns, and he had to remarry at only 27 years of age, because of his first wife's death. During the French-Vietminh War, the family was evacuated from Haiphong to his home village in Phu Ly, Ha Nam, but after a while my Dad went back to Haiphong in 1946, prior to my mother and us children coming back. During that time however he picked up with another woman.

Unlike my father, my teacher was always faithful to his wife. They lived all their lives for each other till his death. To the best of my knowledge, he would never have thought of being a 'womaniser'. He loved reading far more than he liked chasing women. According to his wife, the year he was assigned to teach English at Rabat in Morocco, he was so immersed in reading that every time you saw him he had a book in his hand. His eyes were never far from the pages whilst walking without paying any attention to the traffic. Consequently, he was hit by a bike and the newspaper he had been reading was thrown to the ground.

Not only did he love reading, but he also wrote almost non-stop over a period of 45 years, from 1955 just about to the day he departed this world. Suffice it to say that he either had a book or an article published, on average, at least every year. His publications ranged from books on teaching English and Vietnamese, to articles on culture, syntax and grammar, as well as book reviews on languages and literary works. His two latest books are Vietnamese, which has the Vietnamese title glossed as 'Vietnamese without the Veneer' and published in 1997, and the other, From the City Inside the Red River published in 1999, a book written about his own life in the city on the Red River as it was in the mid-20th Century. He started re-writing the two volumes into Vietnamese. Of course, they now lie dormant.

In 1987, he came to Australia to give a speech about Vietnamese lexicography at the 10th World Congress on Linguistics, held at the University of Sydney. Meeting him at Mascot Airport on the winter of that year was myself and Dao Dung, who was also one of his disciples. Dao Dung was, then, Publisher/Editor of Sydney-based The Vietnamese Herald weekly. Professor Hoa stayed with my wife and myself at Bankstown. At the time we lived in a two-bedroomed flat on the fourth floor of an eight-storey building. From then onwards I accompanied him to various venues whenever he gave talks in Australia.

In Sydney, he visited Vietnamese classes at the Saturday Schools of Community Languages, and also gave a lecture at the Macarthur Institute of Higher Education, later known as the University of Western Sydney Macarthur. I had taught Vietnamese and Interpreting/Translation classes at this institution for some years. He also talked about the teaching of English to Vietnamese speakers to teachers of English at Adult Migrant Education Service (AMES) in North Sydney, in the presence of Monique Hoa Lockhart, a long-time teacher at this institution. He gave a talk to his fellow countrymen at the office of the Vietnamese Community Association in Bansktown. There was a dinner held in his honour by his friends and his former students at Quoc Khanh Restaurant in Cabramatta, and I noticed the presence of the late Professor Nguyen Hoang Cuong, the then Chairperson of the Vietnamese Community of NSW's Educational and Cultural Council, as well as Mr. Luu Tuong Quang, the then Federal Director of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs in NSW. Professor Hoa could not contain his pride when I informed him that one of his disciples, a teacher of English 'proper' (graduate of the Faculty of Pedagogy, English Section, BA degree in English as a Foreign Language at the Saigon University's Faculty of Letters), was now Lawyer Quang Luu, Head of SBS Radio, and who was also the highest Federal official in Australia of Vietnamese background.

During a trip to Melbourne, a distance of nearly 1000 kilometres, my wife Anh Thu helped in the driving, and we stayed overnight in Gundegai, a country town on the Sydney to Melbourne inland highway, about five hours drive from Sydney. In Melbourne he was invited to give a series of lectures on Vietnamese culture and language in a tightly packed schedule of two to three days, organised by Dr. Nguyen Xuan Thu. There were workshops for the students and the lecturers at the Phillip Institute of Technology. He also talked with the Vietnamese community in Victoria in a hall that was tightly packed with his many admirers. We also took him to visit the new headquarters of Radio Australia, where a close friend of his, whom he had not met for many years, worked. Radio Australia was the equivalent of BBC or VOA, the short-wave radio station in Australia, which broadcast in Vietnamese to Vietnam. During this visit, we were shown around by Mr. Nguyen Ngoc Phach, a long-time employee of the station. Phach was the brother of Mr. Nguyen Ngoc Linh and Mr. Linh was Professor Hoa's close friend during the 1950s in the United States.

I heard the official news: 'He's no more!' via SBS Radio, broadcast in Vietnamese on Tuesday 12th December, 2000. A feeling of dazed bewilderment overcame me. I felt heavy of heart as well as a profound sense of loss. There was a complete emptiness in my whole being ... Teacher, have we really said farewell? Is the promise to meet together in April, the springtime over there, never to be, Teacher?

If this is so, let it be! When the Gods call, one must heed the message. What more is there to say? My teacher, Professor Dr. Nguyen-Dinh Hoa--offspring of a mandarin, handsome, intellectual and born of wealth--has indeed fallen into a long, deep and never-ending sleep...

Frank Trinh

Everlasting memories

Sydney, the final month of the second millennium


Last updated: 24/12/2005  


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