Good morning, Vietnam - Dr Denver Calder

Submitted by Peter Calder on

He was 52 when he landed here, perhaps on a Bristol Freighter beating north from Saigon over land which shimmered in the tropical heat.

The countryside beneath him bore the scars of war which would not end for almost a decade. But he arrived on a peaceful mission, as a member of a New Zealand civilian medical team assigned to the Binh Dinh Province Hospital in Qui Nhon on Vietnam's south-central coast.

He was a less-than-affluent Hamilton GP, one of two physicians to join the surgical team paid for by the New Zealand Government under the Colombo Plan. "Just for the hell of it," he told the local newspaper in 1966 when he announced his intention to go. That's what he told me too. His name was Denver Calder and he was my father.

New Zealand civilian medical team

The team comprised doctors, nurses, radiologists, lab technicians who left jobs and families at home to lend a hand in the grim war, mostly for six-month stints. There had been a New Zealand presence at Binh Dinh for three years by the time my father arrived and the Kiwis would stay longer than the American troops; the last of them was evacuated from the airstrip behind the hospital on Good Friday, 1975, one day before the victorious Communist forces swept in from the north.

"Most of it, I suppose 90 percent was surgical trauma", remembers Jack Enwright (1922-2000), a surgeon in Qui Nhon for 10 years, now retired in rural Manukau. "And there were no idle moments. Whenever the flow of casualties stopped there were always people wanting something done - bowel obstructions, cleft palates."

The team was meant to deal only to civilian injury and there was plenty of that in a province which saw some of the heaviest fighting in the war. But Enwright is certain that some of the injured he operated on were fighting men and the New Zealanders soon earned a reputation for being politically neutral. "If you had a sick patient lying there bleeding you didn't ask him what his politics were," he says.

A team nurse regularly defied the American military's instructions and headed into the hinterland where daily firefights raged, to conduct clinics. "It's not safe," she was told, but she went anyway. Word of her approach preceded her and she never saw so much as a shot fired from either side.

Contemporary Qui Nhon

I arrive in Qui Nhon, a month before my 45th birthday, by road. Spilling out of the bus at Phu Tai, where the road to the coast leaves the main highway, I flag down a motorcycle-powered microbus which I share with a shy schoolgirl and a mechanic with an engine block which oozes black oil on the vehicle's flimsy tray.

And the aid goes on...

Today, there is still a New Zealand presence in Binh Dinh province. Volunteer Services Abroad (VSA) has an office in Qui Nhon and their volunteers work on a variety of educational, health, and agricultural projects. This work is supported by the New Zealand VietNam Health Trust, an organisation set up by former members of the New Zealand civilian medical team, to promote, maintain and develop health care projects within Binh Dinh Province and Vietnam.

I have come to the place where Dad, who died in 1984, spent six months of which he seldom spoke. I'm unsure what I'm looking for, if I'm looking for anything at all. But I'm driven by the knowledge that it would make no sense to pass this place by.

The airstrip that once trembled to the movement of military aircraft is cracked and pocked with weeds now, and the fisherfolk sun-dry their catches on its wide expanse.

The hospital, too, is unrecognisable. The single building which constituted the province hospital in those days is now at the centre of a rambling complex which has taken over a former military barracks. It is, by provincial Vietnamese standards, a substantial place though scarcely luxurious given that it serves a province of 2 million. And I can't help comparing it to the sparkling building on manicured grounds barely 100m down the street - the local Communist Party headquarters.

Dr Doug Short, who led the team my father was in, remembers his arrival. "I think it was a bit of a shock," he says. "He stepped off the plane and was straight into work and the conditions were very primitive. There were faeces flowing down the wall of the maternity unit from blocked drains above."

Short is being diplomatic, but behind his kind reminiscences I catch glimpses of my father - irascible, zealous, intolerant of inefficiency. "He found it at times very difficult to accept the way things were", Short finally admits. "We were as assistants. It was their country. He expected to apply routines he had at home."

If Dad ever heard Ho Chi Minh's dictum that a doctor should treat all patients as though they were his mother, it didn't cut any ice with him. I recall him scoffing, years after his return, that most of the injuries he dealt to were of civilians burned when they had filled their kerosene stoves with petrol stolen from the Americans. The statement carried two implications - neither complimentary to the people he had come to help: that they were dishonest and incompetent.

Doug Short recalls a time several of the doctors had gone to an American airbase up the coast to pick up some medical supplies. As their two-truck convoy wound its way back, Dad - riding in the second vehicle - saw the leading truck speed up and disappear around a bend in the road. At the same time his truck slowed.

By the time he caught up, the Vietnamese crew on the leading lorry were frantically unloading, hurling supplies to accomplices on the roadside, who scattered to sell them on the black market. "He was furious," recalls Short. "He said it was the most abominable thing he'd ever seen in his life. It took him several days to calm down and remember there was a war on."

Tan Tay Lan

There is no war on as I walk down the streets of Qui Nhon, but I am a conspicuous invader. This coastal city is off the tourist route and a European face is an uncommon sight but still draws a cheery greeting.

"Excuse me where you from?" I am regularly asked. "Tan-Tay-Lan," I reply, then, seeing that they are mystified at my appalling pronunciation I translate it into a language they have mastered: "New Zealand."

"Ooooooh, New Zealand," they invariably say and their eyes shine with respect and delight.

I have spent three days looking for traces of my father in this city. No one can even remember the Capitol, the building in which he may have lived, much less recall him.

The failure of my search is emblematic of the way in which the country's recent history has conscientiously obliterated memory. The Communist victory in 1975 cut a huge swathe across Vietnam's social structure. Re-education, a neatly Stalinist euphemism for punitive internment in a concentration camp, took the nation's best and brightest from their jobs and replaced them with Communist Party flunkies of dubious competence. That ideology removed many of the medical staff from the hospital in Qui Nhon and with them the institutional memory of my father.

Then, hours before I am due to leave, there is a chance. The trail leads me to a nurse in the paediatric ward who has been there since the 60s. I stand at the door to the ward, shifting nervously from foot to foot, and wondering how I could have been so stupid as to come without a photo of my father. Miss Kieu is delighted to meet me and speaks volubly, through an interpreter, about how wonderful my father - indeed all the New Zealanders - were.

Then she knew him? Alas, no, she says. She did not start here until 1969. But she is sure he was very kind.


I reach the roadhead at Phu Tai around 11am in driving rain and wait for the bus in the shelter of a small roadside café. An ancient man with three fingers on each hand plies me shot glasses of clear rice liquor which tastes like white spirit. He claps me on the shoulder after each shot and keeps repeating a single short phrase.

Using one of my few Vietnamese sentences, I tell him I don't understand. The teenage daughter of the café owner assists. "He is saying," she says, pointing to the brimming glass the old man holds out, "that now he is your son."


The article above appeared in the NZ Herald, 3 January 1998. Reproduced courtesy Peter Calder.

How to cite this page: ' Good morning, Vietnam - Dr Denver Calder ', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 28-May-2024