18 July 2006
by Nick Greenfield
Vern Weitzel, the longest UNV volunteer in Viet Nam, is behind the communication system connecting development sector organizations in the country for the past 15 years. (Photo courtesy: Viet Nam Discovery)Hanoi, Viet Nam:
Vern Weitzel. It’s a name familiar to anyone who’s ever trawled the Internet for information on Viet Nam, from information technology to development, it seems that all roads lead to Vern. Looking for information on Viet Nam veterans? Vern. IT tips and tricks? Vern again. Viet Nam’s indigenous primates? Environmental law? NGO working groups? Cryptozoology? Guess who.
Like a wired puppet master, it seems like the mysterious Mr Weitzel is pulling all the strings.
But who is the man behind the all-too-familiar name?
A former US Army meteorologist, polymath, primatologist, and Viet Nam’s longest serving UNV volunteer, Vern’s contribution to the Viet Namese scientific and development communities has been vital to the growth of both sectors. A passionate communicator, for more than 15 years he has devoted his seemingly boundless energy to connecting Viet Namese researchers to the world and development organizations to each other.
Raised in Seattle, Vern first came to Viet Nam as 22-year-old US Army meteorologist in 1970. Stationed at Pleiku in the central highlands, the young man spent two years supporting the American war effort before returning home to continue his university study, happy to put his time in Asia behind him.
After moving to Australia to take up a Masters degree in primatology in 1979, however, Vern again found himself involved in things Viet Namese.
“I think at the end of the war I was very frustrated and upset by what I had seen –
the terrible results of the war – and I didn’t particularly want to know about it [Viet Nam],” Vern says, “but when I got to Australia I met a lot of people who where involved in Viet Nam studies academically and I started going to meetings of the Australian Viet Nam Society and that was the thing that responsible for getting me back here.”
However, it wasn’t until 1989 that Vern would again set foot on Viet Namese soil, returning after receiving an overseas study grant during his PhD.
“I ended up spending half of the month that I had in Hanoi trying to work out what the Viet Namese side, the academic community, were really interested in, because they were in really difficult straits then,” Vern says. “At the time they had very, very poor connections with Western science and Western academia – although they were very well qualified – and it was obvious that what we needed to do was get people involved and connected.”
Returning to his studies at the Australian National University (ANU), Vern was soon elected chair of the Australian Committee for Scientific Cooperation with Viet Nam, and started fostering the connections he had seen the need for in Viet Nam, organizing conferences and study tours for Viet Namese researchers.
And then everything changed. With the appearance of networked computing and early email and FTP services on the global scene, suddenly researchers from around the world were able to communicate with each other instantly.
“Australia went from being encapsulated in the tyranny of distance to being the great communicator,” Vern recalls. “And where was I? ANU – so we started doing communication.”
On his next trip to Viet Nam, in 1992, Vern took some modems with him and connected a few organizations, including the National University and the predecessor to NetNam, to the nascent Internet.
“It was really an emerging science and email was the big thing of course, although it was still primarily academic pursuit. So we created a system which connected the academics in Viet Nam to email – it was a very simple thing, we would dial up Hanoi five or six times a day and exchange email messages and close the circuit,” Vern says.
“The thing about email was that it meant that a scientist in Viet Nam could communicate immediately with a scientist on the other side of the world... it was overwhelmingly well received and we had exponential growth in Internet traffic.”
Returning to Viet Nam on a number of research and academic visits over the next 6 years, Vern finally took the plunge and moved to Viet Nam full time in 1998, taking up a UNV volunteer position as web manager at the UNDP, where he began work applying his passion for communication to connecting organizations in the development sector to each other.
“UNDP has its website, but a website is only as good as the people who come to it and more people read their email than websites, so it’s an obvious way to expand and so that’s what I tried to do,” he says.
“One of the important things about working in the NGO community is that you need to find partners, so that you can share thoughts, so that you can share experiences, so you can combine your abilities in one area with others who are more experienced in another, and of course so you can find people who fund you and provide resources. It’s very important that all of these different functions come together, and while for the big organizations it’s not so much of a problem, the small NGOs have to work together.
“Now we have something like 40 email lists and the idea is to improve connectivity in a whole variety of different sectors.”
Now, after eight years at UNDP, Vern has become both the UNV’s longest serving volunteer in Viet Nam and perhaps the best-known member of the country’s development community.
“People keep saying that I am the most famous person in the development community in Viet Nam because everyone seems to know about me – but it’s so easy,” Vern grins, “what could be more simple than getting up in the morning and checking the news and copying it to an email.”
Self-depreciating though he may be, there is little doubt that Vern Weitzel has done more than any other single person in terms of bringing organizations and researchers together and connecting students with professionals and professionals with each other.
“Everybody knows that there’s no way they can keep a secret anymore because I’m the biggest blabbermouth in Viet Nam – and it’s worked!” Vern enthuses.
“People who didn’t have opportunities before now have plenty of opportunities to get jobs, to attend meetings, to apply for scholarships because the information is there. Everything I’ve really been about has been for improving the ability of people who didn’t have that much information available to them to get that information… And remember, the Internet is free, it’s really cheap and you can do lots!”