Ralph Coeckelberghs has nurtured his love for Vietnam since joining protests against the Vietnam War over half a century ago. In his home office in the suburbs of Brussels, Coeckelberghs has elegantly displayed small souvenirs he brought back from his working trips abroad, including a military hat with a five-pointed yellow star, a clay buffalo, and a lion statue made from a piece of coal he purchased in the northern Vietnamese province of Quang Ninh over four decades ago. Propaganda posters against the Vietnam War also adorn his walls, Vietnam News Agency reported.
As a 24-year-old student at the Free University of Brussels (ULB) 55 years ago, Coeckelberghs was close with a group of Vietnamese patriotic students. Realizing the futility of the war, he joined Belgium’s first anti-Vietnam War protest in 1964 when the US army bombed the northern city of Hai Phong. The Tet Offensive of 1968 further fueled public concern and prompted Coeckelberghs and his friends to protest against the war.
Recalling the momentous event of April 30, 1975, when the US war in Vietnam ended and the country was liberated, Coeckelberghs said his emotions are as fresh as if the event had just happened yesterday. He received the news from a friend who was a correspondent for RTBF radio and television in southern Vietnam. He was overjoyed and hurried to share the happiness with his Vietnamese friends. They hugged each other, danced and shouted with joy: “The war is over! Vietnam is liberated!”.
Coeckelberghs went on to work for various international humanitarian organizations, including the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and continued to maintain relationships with Vietnam. His first visit to the Southeast Asian country was in 1981, a difficult time for the nation. In 2023, 42 years later, he had the opportunity to return to Vietnam and was amazed at how the country had developed so rapidly despite being devastated by war. Highways stretched from the north to the south, new bridges spanned the Red River instead of just the Long Bien Bridge in the 1980s, and areas destroyed by war have now been rebuilt in a modern way.
According to Vietnam News Agency, Coeckelberghs affirmed that he has learned a lot from Vietnam’s past, a resilient nation during the war that has become dynamic since gaining independence. He is optimistic about the country’s future development.