The Meanderthals

My friend Oum Nghiep and his Happiness Meter

On Wednesday morning, we had breakfast with Truth.

That came after an encounter with Honesty, Intelligence, Wisdom and Love on Tuesday afternoon – life’s quintessential ingredients humbly offered in person by 88-year-old Nguyen Thua Nghiep, former Shell and Esso oil accountant and 10-year president of the local Shell union, husband, father, grandfather and accomplished thinker, writer and philosopher.

I’ve met a few amazing people in my life – Desmond Tutu, Warren Buffett, Ned Johnson, Teddy Kennedy, Mikhail Gorbachev, to name a few – and they’ve all had one thing in common: a certain presence about them, an experience-molded view of the world that is captivating, arresting and compelling.

They could all learn a bundle from wiry, wise and kindly Nghiep, who’s turned his personal quest for perfect truth into something of a science.

So how did a middle-aged American befriend an elderly Vietnamese gentleman in February of 2011 in Ho Chi Minh City?

It began in November, when Gabi and I sought refuge from the brutal Vietnamese sun and found an empty seat in one of Ho Chi Minh City’s numerous parks. No sooner had we taken two-thirds of the bench than a wispy old Vietnamese man with brilliant white hair and searing dark eyes sat next to us, occupying the final third of the bench.

He smiled, I returned the greeting, and he spoke to me in perfect English. We launched into a discussion about life, love, relationships, truth, wisdom (and lack thereof), the world, our governments, and humanity. Conversation with Nghiep is laced with quizzes (“There are five crucial ingredients to a successful and happy marriage. Do you know what they are?”) that raise more questions than they answer and serve as provocative life lessons.

An hour later I left him in the park, a bit wiser from his words and and with a lot to think about. I clutched his business card in my hand, having promised to call him next time I was in Ho Chi Minh City.

Three months later while in HCMC with my daughter Kirsty,  I called “Oum Nghiep”, to say hello and ask if he would be available to meet. I wanted Kirsty to meet him, to hear his words, and I longed to learn more about his philosophy on life. It seems to me that we in the west are starved for knowledge and understanding, and in Nghiep I discovered nourishment for my mind and soul.

He invited us to his home at 5 p.m. that afternoon: “It would be my pleasure to receive you at my home,” were his words, and we were quick to accept. He was standing on the stoop at the agreed-upon time, a broad smile on his face and a welcoming hand extended for visitors he hardly knew. We could as easily have been family or life-long friends.

Nghiep’s wife, Ton Nu Ngoc Chuong, made orange drinks for us, and we talked about life, family, the essence of being, and of life’s priorities, challenges and gifts. Nghiep seems an expert on the subject, in terms of longetivity and experience, yes, but mostly owing to perspective and careful thought. Reflection seems the name of the game for him, and he has perfected the art of thoughtful consideration. The author of six books, he’s finishing work on his seventh.

Each one them is about priorities, as in essentials for human beings, certain truths to create lasting and loving relationships, and the like. This is a man who has spent countless hours thinking about how things really work – how people relate, what causes conflict, what does joy really mean – and he’s fueled his research with an endless list of random contact with people like Gabi, Kirsty and me.

And now he’s created the perfect measurement tool to help his fellow man find contentment : The Happiness Meter.

For 20 years, Nyiep has written daily jounal entries about each of his days. They are brief notations that purely capture the salient details of the day. He emphasizes the need for brevity – conservation of words, energy, resources and thought is a recurring theme for him – and that each entry ends with a numerical rating of the day.

It’s a 10-point scale (10 being blissfully happy, 1 being miserably unhappy). Management of the meter is simple, following three steps:

1) Evaluation and Reflection. Nghiep says it’s vital to think about the events that caused happiness or sadness during the say. Have a fight with your wife? Reflect on what caused it, and avoid it in the future. Worried about money? Reflect on what you value most in your life and assess your financial concerns
in the context of broader issues.

2) Learn. Do something to improve your happiness every single day. “It’s mind control,” he says, eyes twinkling as he leans in to emphasize his point. “If happiness is your objective you will be happy.” He quotes Bertrand Russell, mentioning the titles of Russell’s books in flawless French, but I hear an echo of my mother’s voice quoting Norman Vincent Peale at the same time.

One core idea is to live with relentless positivism. Another is to take steps to ensure that you don’t repeat the mistakes of your life.

3)  Improve. It’s a simple mechanical exercise to make a conscious effort to improve your happiness every day, Nghiep says.

This is personal mind control with immeasurable upside; the power of positive thinking with permanent positive results.

So why use the Happiness Meter (as I am going to)?

I think Nghiep is onto to something when he intones that human beings have three essential needs. There are only three elements that make his “A-list” – all others are “B”. Guess one and “you graduate grade school”, two, “you graduate middle school”, and all three: “Ah! University!” he exclaims.

Love? Nope. That’s a B. Why? Love is wonderful, but it can also cause pain, sadness, difficulty.

Family? “Wonderful answer,” Nyiep says, “But not A. B. Family is not essential.”

Kirsty and I scratch our heads, and settle on Health.

“Correct!” he says. “Grade school graduate.”

We agree that Happiness is next.

“Middle School! A answer!”he rewards us with a smile.

We fall short on the final ingredient, and he steps to our aid.

“It is life itself. Without life all else does not matter. We must conserve life by being wise, and mankind these days is now wise at all.”

So how to achieve wisdom? It is a simple mathematic equation, and Nghiep offers it up:

Wisdom = knowledge + experience.

Take it from a life-long accountant, a philosopher whose writings reflect his experiences sweetened by a positive outlook, a man whose wallet contains marked sections to organize notes according to denomination, and whose life-long quest for systems that work now involve finding truths to help his fellow man be happier.

We joined Nghiep and his wife for breakfast on Wednesday, accepting his offer of pork and rice at the restaurant where they go nearly every day. It was without question one of the most rewarding experiences of both our lives, a moment we will savor, recall and draw upon as time goes by.


Because we ate breakfast with a philosopher and his wife in a land where we don’t speak the language, where food, customs and cultural mores are all foreign to us. And in the process, a kindly Vietnamese gentleman with a penchant for clarity and a genuine interest in human contact passed along his ideas on how people might be able to get along better with one another.

It’s like being touched by a savant, an angel, or an emissary from a higher power. He would gently object to this characterization, saying he is only a man with years of experience and some time on his hands. But this is my blog, and I respectfully and politiely must hold my ground.

He insisted on paying for breakfast – “It is I who invited you,” he said, rejecting my offer to pay – and took my arm to help him to the cab. They dropped us near our hotel, handshakes and hugs to cement the morning and what I hope is a long and fruitful relationship, and waved goodbye for now.

Kirsty and I stood on the side of the road, waving until the cab was out of sight. Left speechless, we set out  to find our hotel, feeling lighter and wiser from our breakfast with our new friend the seer.

Nghiep keeps a notebook with the names and addresses of his “park friends,” and there’s always room for one more.

If you’re in the neighborhood I encourage you to stop by and say hello. It will change your life.


  • Wes Snapp

    I am awes! He reminds me of the monk,Chang, in James Hilton’s LOST HORIZON, in which Chang espouses on "Moderation in all things – even moderation’"

  • Wes Snapp

    I meant awed, not awes . Sorry

  • Nguyen Thua Nghiep

    Dear Frank Yetter!I have received you letter and the attachment. I have also replied to you letter. Have you received it? Please advise. Thanks.Nghiep

  • Frank and Gabi Yetter

    Dear Nghiep…Yes, I received your letter and will respond in kind once we’re back from our travels. Wonderful to be in touch, and I look forward to seeing you on our next trip to Ho Chi Minh City. Be well…

  • Francie

    Like an island in the sun. Makes you realize how thirsty you are! The question is, how does one achieve that kind of serenity — for that IS what he evidences. What a wonderful teacher. How fortunate that you happened upon him. (But things like this are not accidents, are they …)

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