In spring 2000, the Stanley Center partnered with American RadioWorks™ to produce the two-hour radio project Revisiting Vietnam. The show addressed the cultural significance of the Vietnam War, as well as changes inside Vietnam 25 years after the war’s conclusion.
The conflict that the Vietnamese called “The American War” ended on April 30, 1975, when North Vietnamese troops captured the capitol city of South Vietnam, Saigon.
The famous picture of a US evacuation helicopter pulling away from a rooftop in Saigon left many Americans with mixed emotions: shame, anger, relief. But what about our former enemy? It was hard to know. The US lost the war, so there were none of the ties that usually reunite former enemies. No period of occupation, no Marshall Plan to help rebuild a bombed and ravaged landscape. Twenty-five years later, Vietnam and the United States are starting to get to know each other, maybe for the first time.
Correspondent Daniel Zwerdling and producer Deborah George traveled through the former war zones of Vietnam to discover how the country has mended.
THE BILLBOARD IN THE PARKING LOT says “Welcome to the Cu Chi Tunnels.” They’re big letters in plain English. And there’s probably no other spot in Vietnam that symbolizes so powerfully how the Vietnamese have made peace with the American role in the war.
The tour guide speaks plain English, too. “Good afternoon, ladies and gentleman, the tour through the tunnel is nearly one hour.”
The guide is dressed like an American park ranger. He starts the tour in front of a video screen, at a small outdoor theater in the woods.
The Communist guerrillas dug 150 miles of tunnels here, right under the American troops. We’re about an hour’s drive from Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as they used to call it. The guerrillas built barracks and weapons factories and hospital operating rooms, all underground. They’d live down there during the day, then sneak out at night and attack. The guide crouches at a pile of leaves.
“Now here,” he says, “I show you the secret entrance of the tunnel. These Americans came…open shed door – boom – Americans would be killed.”
These days, Americans are welcome. In fact, the Vietnamese government has remodeled the Cu Chi tunnels to accommodate them. Back during the war, the guerrillas made the tunnel openings so narrow that usually only Vietnamese could slip through. But they’ve enlarged the tunnels so that, as the guide puts it, “big, fat Americans” can go down, too.
When you emerge, there’s one final stop. You can relive the war, in a small way, by banging away at the firing range on weapons that soldiers actually used. They charge a dollar for every shot. If that doesn’t appeal to you, you can buy a memento at the souvenir shop. They’ve taken the profane sayings that American commandos used to mutter to build up their courage in battle, and they’ve engraved the words with a skull and crossbones on cigarette lighters.
“Though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil for I am the evilest son-of-a-bitch in the valley,” reads the tour guide with a laugh.
A lot of Americans who visit Vietnam shake their heads at some point and say to themselves, wait a minute. No matter how you felt about the war, whether you supported it, or opposed it, or fought in it, you can’t escape the basic facts: the Communist-led army killed 58,000 American troops. The US military and their South Vietnamese allies killed roughly million soldiers and civilians in their own country. American warplanes destroyed vast areas of Vietnam with bombs and pesticides and fire. So, why don’t Vietnamese hate Americans?
“When I meet Americans it is the first question they ask me,” says Huu Ngoc, one of the best-known scholars in Vietnam. He’s taken us to a sacred site in Hanoi to explain his answers to the question. The Vietnamese call it the one-pillar pagoda. It rises on one pillar out of a murky pond that’s covered with purple lotus flowers. Smoke keeps twirling around it, from all the incense sticks that Buddhist pilgrims light at the altar. Huu says this pagoda reflects the first reason why Vietnamese have forgiven Americans.
“I think that until now, for many Americans, Vietnam is synonym of war,” Ngoc says. “But the true face of Vietnam is not war. Buddhism for the Vietnamese means the heart and compassion and pity. It is our essential feature.”
Of course, many religions preach forgiveness. But Ngoc says there’s another explanation that’s more pragmatic. When you look at the whole sweep of Vietnam’s history, the war against the Americans was a blip. For more than 2000 years, Vietnam’s main enemy has been China. In fact, the two countries fought their latest war only 20 years ago, along their border. Many Americans didn’t even hear about it.
“To survive,” says Ngoc, “we have always after the wars with China to make peace and to forget the hardships of the war, to be able to live in peace with our giants.” He says the country’s applied the same lesson to the United States.
And finally, Huu says, the Vietnamese can embrace Americans now because Uncle Ho told them to. That’s what many Vietnamese call the father of their modern nation, Ho Chi Minh. Ho led the country to triumph: first they kicked out the French colonizers, then they humiliated the United States. But many Vietnamese will tell you that even during the war, Ho said they shouldn’t blame the American people for causing their suffering. They should blame America’s leaders.
Everywhere you go in Vietnam, it seems like many people have taken these teachings to heart. One of the hip new sports in Hanoi is an American sport. Computers calculate your bowling score, and the players sing along with American rock music and munch fried onion rings with catsup.
Or stroll along the city’s streets. The government has plastered the buildings with huge red banners that hail the Communist party. But Vietnamese whizz by on their motorbikes, wearing jackets emblazoned with the American flag.
Maybe all this makes it sound like it’s been a little too easy for Vietnamese to let go of the war. One woman says the process has been more painful. Her name is Sen Hoa. She’s marketing director for a fashion magazine. She says her own childhood in Hanoi was war. Her home is squeezed with a bunch of rowhouses around a courtyard that’s decorated with spindly plants. Sen Hoa says she can still hear those nights when she was 12 years old and the US was bombing the city.
“I just see the whole house shaking, and the glasses broken, and people screaming,” Hoa recalls. “I see the big hole on the street. I was so scared, I had to try to hide myself under anything that I can get myself in. I just…hard to say…I just… the feeling is just to run.”
Sen Hoa says as she got older, and became a mother and found a career, she thought she’d left the war behind. But then three years ago, a lifetime of buried resentments and confusion suddenly bubbled up inside of her. It happened on her first trip to America; she went on business to San Francisco. “I didn’t expect that I have such mixed feeling. I thought that it’s a beautiful country. I went to the beach, and I just walk slowly around. And I see the landscape so beautiful and I thought, they are nice people. When I met them on the street they are so lovely.”
But the longer she stayed in San Francisco, the more she began to feel bitter. Vietnam is one of the poorest countries in the world. College professors here make $30 a month. You can argue that the Communist party’s economic policies helped drag them down but nobody would dispute the fact that the war also set the country back – way back – when other parts of Asia began surging.
“I feel a little bit envy,” Hoa says. “Envy with the American. It is not fair to the Vietnamese people … The Americans have a good life … Why, Why should they bomb Vietnam? Why should Vietnam suffer from the war? That makes the Vietnamese people live in misery, and they are far behind from their neighbors. Unfair.”
Sen Hoa touches on the very issue that could knit Vietnam and America together: the economy. If you drive a long a stretch of road near downtown Hanoi, you come to what’s called the Labor Market. In most ways, it’s like any other street in Hanoi, the sidewalks are crammed with vendors making noodle soups and selling clothes and fixing bicycle tires. And every morning, young men who need jobs cluster on the street corners and just stand there, waiting.
Everybody in Hanoi knows that this is where you come to hire unskilled workers for the day or even for just an hour. Some of the men are wearing khakis and helmets they used in the army. They say they live part of the year on their family’s farms, but they can’t grow enough food to survive
The problem keeps getting worse. The population’s growing faster than almost anywhere in Asia.
Just a few minutes from the street corners where the unemployed men hang out, it’s lunch-time at the Red Onion. Today’s specials: seafood ceviche tossed in a cilantro-and-walnut pesto. Seafood stew and smoked chipotle.
Foreign investors hope this restaurant reflects the future of Vietnam. Go back to the Vietnam War for a moment. Remember the infamous Hanoi Hilton? That was the nickname of Hoa Lo Prison where the North Vietnamese kept American pilots who they shot down. A few years ago, the government tore down most of that prison and in its place investors from Singapore built the Hanoi Towers. It’s a hotel and condo complex, plus this restaurant. Lots of foreign businessmen began flocking to Hanoi and began hanging out at this restaurant.
“I also came to Vietnam because … it is a transitional economy and I thought it would be the next Asian tiger, and I wanted to to come to a place where I could witness that evolution firsthand.” So says Atticus Weller, who clearly wanted not only to witness the change but to profit from it. Weller works for Citibank He says he came to Vietnam on the same tide that brought executives from Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble and the chef at this restaurant “There’s a tremendous amount of entrepreneurial energy in Vietnam, so when you go out into the street you see everyone is running a business and it feels very vibrant.”
But lately, that enthusiasm has started to sour. Investors say government officials keep promising to do something about the corruption in Vietnam and all the frustrating Communist red tape. American and Vietnamese officials have been negotiating a major trade agreement that would tackle some of these issues, but many executives say they’re tired of waiting around for reforms. Weller says companies that set up factories and offices here just a few years ago have already begun to shut them down.
“The danger for Vietnam is not that it is going to have an adversarial relationship with the US, or the US is interested in being imperialistic,” says Weller. “The danger for Vietnam is that the US just don’t pay attention. Vietnam will become irrelevant.”
You can see Vietnam’s dilemma in the city they used to call Saigon.
On the face of it, this city’s bursting with promise. Take a stroll along the river, under the palm trees. The dinner boats are filling up with customers. The streets are blazing with neon. A woman on her way to dinner says folks here in Ho Chi Minh City aren’t all uptight like people in the capital of Hanoi, more than a thousand miles away: “I think Ho Chi Minh City people is more friendly, more friendly than Hanoi,” the woman says. “I think Ho Chi Minh City is more exciting.
But if you peer beyond the traffic and blazing lights, you see the struggling face of Vietnam. All over the city, there are skeletons of half-finished office buildings and hotels. Investors started them a few years ago, when it looked like the economy was going to take off. Then they walked away when the economy stalled. And some people say that Vietnam will never get out of its rut until leaders welcome two groups of people back from the fringes.
“I have been unemployed for … for 25 years,” says a man we’ll call Nguyen. That’s not his real name: he’s afraid if he identifies himself he might get in trouble with the communist government.
People who know him say that Nguyen is a remarkable man. He lives in Ho Chi Min City, and he is a gifted teacher. He could work as a translator; he could run a business or government office. But Nguyen hasn’t been able to do any of these things for the past 25 years because he worked for Americans during the war.
“Life is easier for, for the winners,” Nguyen says. “And life is very hard for the losers. I am not a loser, but I am associated with the loser, so I have to share the fate of the losers.”
When the Communists from the north took over the country in 1975, they rounded up hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who had ties to the American military. Many had fought in the South Vietnamese army, and the Communists locked them up in prison camps for years. Nguyen was lucky, he worked for an American company, not the army, so he didn’t have to go to prison. But he’s been punished in another way.
Ever since the war ended, the government has blocked so-called collaborators from getting regular jobs and it’s prevented their children from going to college. Nguyen laughs about it today, the way his country has wasted his talents. He used to be a photographer and writer, but when the Communists took over friends warned him to hide his skills. “For example, ‘don’t keep a typewriter at home,’ number one. And ‘don’t ever use a camera because that is the equipment of a spy.’ ”
So he tossed his typewriter in the garbage. And he sold his Nikon camera for five pounds of rice. But Nguyen says he gets by. He tutors students in English quietly on the side. And he’s turned the tiny patch of dirt behind his home into a miniature farm. Nguyen says he can feed his family of ten people with a single chicken, although he has to use a poor person’s trick. “If you put a lot of salt there you can eat just one piece only, you can not eat more,” Nguyen says with a chuckle.
Just before the war ended, his American employers offered to help him escape the Communists; they said they’d give his family a new life in the United States. But he declined. And he’s glad he did. He says no matter who runs the government, Vietnam is his country. “There’s one important thing: the reunification of Vietnam. That is very very very important to me. If there is a chance to reunify, under any slogan, we can find a way to survive.”
The country’s Communist leaders are finally beginning to reach out to fellow Vietnamese whom they’ve always seen as foes. It’s too late for people like Nguyen – he’s 64 years old. But Vietnam needs all the help it can get from the next generation.
When American tourists come to Vietnam, they might hire Tony Nong to arrange their trip. He’s been at the office since 6 am on this particular morning. He’s been fielding two fax machines, three computers and three telephones.
Tony Nong is known as a Viet Kieu. That’s what the Vietnamese call people who fled the country after the war. “The 18th of April  was one of the days that I as a seven-year-old remember for the rest of my life,” Nong says.
When his mother heard that the Communist forces were about to take over, she grabbed Tony and his brother and sister, they all crammed together on a motorbike, and they raced to the airport. She stayed behind, with Tony’s grandparents. “People were running after the plane as it was taking off, mothers carrying kids, and also men hanging onto the bay doors as it was closing,” Nong recalls. “That was my last image of Vietnam.”
Nong grew up with relatives in California and became an American citizen. He tried to get in touch with his mother, but nobody knew her address. He started to assume she had probably died. Until 1991. “I received a phone call at 4 o’clock in the morning and the person on the other end said, ‘This is your mother speaking.’ It was the first time in 16 years I hear my mother’s voice, and she cried for 15 minutes. She says, ‘Do you remember me? Do you miss me?'”
Nong flew to Vietnam for a family reunion and these days, he’s commuting between his homeland and the United States. He’s running the family’s travel agency in Ho Chi Minh City. Nong says at first Communist leaders threw all sorts of roadblocks in the way. They were worried that exiles might try to overthrow the government. But in just the last few months, Vietnamese officials have announced new policies designed to attract people like Nong back to the country. For the first time ever, Viet Kieu will be allowed to buy property in Vietnam. They can grow new roots here.
“Speaking sometimes to a lot of the people in the Vietnam community in the United States, many do want to come back,” Nong says. “But they have that fear of what would happen … I think if we can overcome that by government opening up, letting the Viet Kieus know that, hey, it’s OK, you’re safe to come back. I think Vietnam will develop a lot quicker and the misunderstandings will be put to rest.”
So far, Viet Kieu in America are not rushing to resettle – though planes from the United States to Asia were filled a few months ago. More Vietnamese-Americans than ever before flew back to their homeland to celebrate the New Year with their relatives.
Back in Hanoi, more than a thousand miles from Saigon, we’re inside the infamous Hoa Lo Prison. When the government tore down most of this prison a few years ago, they left just a corner as a memorial to suffering. Today, Vietnamese school kids giggle at the mannequins shackled in the old cells; they glance at placards about the Vietnamese leaders who died here under the French colonialists. They look briefly at photos of American pilots who spent years here in chains. Two thirds of the Vietnamese population was born after the war ended. By the time they have children, many people will only dimly remember that Vietnam and America fought a war.
The people of Vietnam fought 30 years of war against France, against the United States, and against each other. The fighting ended on April 30, 1975, when the last Americans boarded the last helicopters out of the country.
Now Vietnam is fighting another struggle-this time, with its economy. Much as guerrillas once infiltrated the countryside, private enterprise now infiltrates one of the last communist nations on earth. And the government is allowing it, hoping to raise living standards in one of the world’s poorest countries.
To see if it is working, we travel to the village of Phu Tho, some 50 miles northwest of Hanoi.
When we get Phu Tho, their annual celebration has already begun. Families have gathered around the village meeting house. This building has a steep roof with curlicues at the corners, and just inside the massive doorway, there is a huge shrine painted all red and gold.
The village leader is asking everybody who’s at least 70 years old to please step up to the altar.
Every year, this village of 1,000 people honors all its elderly residents. The guests of honor dress up in bright silk robes and wear different colors depending on their ages.
We have one of Phu Tho’s residents describe the scene for us.
“Now we can see coming three old men,” explains Boy Shun Tang, a village farmer, “And the head of village will come and present the gifts and flowers to them just to show our thanks to the old people for their contributions to the village.”
Next, a very old-looking woman makes her way up front. She kneels in front of the shrine and presses her forehead to the bamboo mat.
“You can see that she’s wearing the red color” Tang says, “it means that she’s 80 years old-90 years old-yeah, 90.”
And that gets us wondering how life in Phu Tho has changed over these 90 years. We ask the farmer if we can come back one morning and spend the day with his family.
A few days later, he’s waiting at 7 a.m. at the village gate.
To get into the village, you walk under a faded yellow archway. And as you walk down the path to Tang’s home, you can literally feel how the economy is changing-under your feet. Tang says only five years ago we would have been walking in mud. Today, we’re strolling on bricks. When we get to Tang’s house, his wife shows us more dramatic changes.
Tang’s wife is Wit Ti Dien. She has a huge smile and a mouth full of black teeth from a lifetime of chewing betel nuts.
She says 15 years ago, she and her husband had a thatched roof made of rice stalks, and they lit the home with kerosene lanterns. Today, the roof is covered with orange clay tiles, and they’ve got lightbulbs dangling from the ceiling.
But they’re getting antsy answering questions.
“In Vietnam whenever we have a guest, we should offer tea first,” Tang explains, “and after that, talking.”
“And supposing somebody starts talking to you before you serve and drink tea?” I ask.
“We would think those people, they are impolite,” he says.
Once we have had our tea, Dien and Tang can talk about their lives.
They were both born here in Phu Tho back in the 1930’s. Everybody in the village was poor, and everybody was a colonial subject. The French ruled Vietnam like a serfdom. And since then, Tang’s whole family has grown up trapped in the middle of wars.
During World War II, the Japanese invaded and the village was wasted by famine.
“Because of the hunger,” Tang tells us, “people just went out on the road and so many people died. And especially at the corner when you turn to the village-so many people died at that corner.”
Then the world war ended, the French came back, and Tang and his wife started their family. They eventually had six sons. But they hardly had any peace because Vietnamese rebels began fighting the French for independence.
When the French gave up, the United States continued the war.
“I saw the US bombers,” says Tang, “and so many US airplanes look like birds flying across the sky. And whenever they came, we heard the siren: oooooh! Our people at that time told each other that the land of the village is the land of God. Some bomb was dropped, but didn’t explode.”
When the war finally ended in 1975, Tang’s family felt jubilant; after all, three of their sons went off to fight the Americans, and all three made it back alive.
But gradually they faced another crisis: The communist economy began to collapse. And to tell that part of the story, Tang leads the way to his rice fields.
The rice paddies surround the village in every direction. From a distance, the houses of Phu Tho look like an island in a green sea. Irrigation canals keep the fields ankle-deep in water. Tang says when they farmed before the economic reforms, it was like going to work in a factory: They had roll call.
Everyone, he says, had to be on the field at 6:00 in the morning.
All these fields were part of government-owned collectives. It didn’t matter if Tang’s family grew a lot of rice or only a little. The collective paid them wages and the government took the harvest.
By the late 1980s, the country was producing such measly rice crops that even Vietnam’s leaders were basically saying: “this economy’s in shambles. These policies are a failure.” Plus, it didn’t help that the Soviet Union was collapsing and cutting off their aid to Vietnam. So Vietnam’s leaders announced sweeping reforms. They parceled out the fields to the villagers. And today farmers can do pretty much what they want.
“You can go eat late or early,” says Tang. “It’s up to you. And how many rice you can produce from that piece of land is up to your labor: It’s up to you.”
The Vietnamese call this philosophy doi moi. It means new way of life, and it’s motivating farmers to become more productive. Only 10 years ago, Vietnam had to import rice; now it’s becoming one of the biggest exporters in the world, and doi moi is turning Phu Tho’s farmers into entrepreneurs.
As we walk back into the village, we pass Tang’s neighbors. They are sitting on the ground pounding metal sheets into trunks and suitcases which they will sell on the streets of Hanoi. Back at Tang’s house, his family is selling hogs.
These are huge changes. Before doi moi, you were breaking the law if you sold anything on your own and kept the profits. Now you’re a patriot; you’re helping to develop the country.
So when Boy Shun Tang, his wife and a couple of their sons sit down for an afternoon meal, they can eat more lavishly than ever before. Dien has made chicken and mushroom and sausages and potatoes and rice. Granted, they don’t eat like this most of the time; most days they eat mainly rice. But now they can afford to splurge when they have guests, and they talk about topics that would have been unthinkable five years ago.
They discuss the merits of those sexy music videos on television. Thanks to the new prosperity, they have bought a TV.
“Dien a woman,” says Tang’s wife, “so I don’t like to see those sexy girls on TV. I just only want to hear the traditional Vietnamese music. So whenever they have that type program, I turn the TV off or I will leave the room to let the young people to watch it alone. Not me.”
But Vietnam is still one of the poorest countries in the world. Malnutrition is a major problem, and development specialists say the economic reforms are dividing the population into classes.
Roughly one-third of the farmers are as poor as ever. In fact, thousands of the peasants rioted a few years ago about 50 miles from this village. They were demanding more land and protesting high taxes and corruption. Then another third of the farmers are doing somewhat better. And finally, a third of the farmers are like Tang’s family: Their standard of living is surging.
Cracks are showing up in the society. We see warning signs when we take a stroll after lunch. Some of the most prosperous families in Phu Tho are building new homes. Now most people have one-story bungalows. But these new houses are three-story towers with balconies and gaudy turrets, and the owners are embedding the walls around their houses with broken shards of glass. Jealousy and crime have come to Phu Tho.
“There are some people, they are too lazy,” says Tang. “They don’t want to work. They cannot be rich. They become robbers or thieves. It’s sad, but it happens. Everywhere in the world there are always some poor people stealing from each other.”
Some Vietnamese leaders are worried that the new economic policies might accidentally accomplish something that America’s military could never do-destroy communism.
A couple of years ago, one of Tang’s sons announced that he didn’t want to spend his time in the rice fields anymore. He borrowed money and opened a shop.
Today, he and his wife have two gleaming machines which clean the village farmers’ rice and then spew it into burlap bags. And with that, Tang’s family has ended hundreds of years of traditions. Nobody in this family works in their rice paddies anymore. They make most of their money in the new economy and they hire poor farmers from distant villages to do the field work for them.
“I think that by this way our life is better,” says Tang, “because we can hire the people who are unemployed to come so that they have jobs and at the same time we can other things that make more profit. It’s better.”
And when I ask him whether the he and family are becoming capitalists, the translator tells me he replies “yes.” And then a moment later, “no.” She laughs.
So when Tang goes home and lights the incense sticks and prays at his family’s altar, he has a lot of reasons to thank his ancestors’ spirits.
And Tang’s altar symbolizes one more reason why his family’s prospering. After the war, some of his relatives fled to the United States, and they send money back to Tang’s family. It’s not much by American standards, but it goes a long way in a country where the average income is barely more than $300 per year.
Tang’s relatives bought this altar. It’s so big it almost fills the room.
“We would like to invite you, the god of our house and our ancestor, to come and celebrate with us,” Tang says. “We put sticky rice, chicken, wine and beautiful flowers on the altar. We hope you’ll enjoy them with us. And we ask you to bless our family with health and happiness and with success in business.”
DURING THE VIETNAM WAR there, the United States sprayed the herbicide Agent Orange over thousands of square miles of jungles. The tropical canopy was destroyed so that the Vietcong could not hide in the foliage. For years, American veterans who fought in Vietnam have claimed they suffer from diseases caused by Agent Orange – especially by a chemical in the herbicide called dioxin. More than 7,000 veterans have been compensated by the US government for exposure to Agent Orange, although scientists say there is no conclusive evidence that the chemical caused their ailments.
In Vietnam, some people say you can see the legacy of Agent Orange in their children. Just visit a former Vietcong soldier one evening at his tiny home in Hanoi.
To get there you turn down a long, dark alley. Most Vietnamese houses are tucked inside courtyards which smell musty, like charcoal and rice. You can tell you’re getting close to the veteran’s home when you hear his songbirds.
The veteran’s name is Nguyin Thanh Son. He says he fought during the war with a Viet Cong anti-aircraft missile unit. Son’s unit shot down dozens of American planes. But he says the planes kept coming, and they blanketed the jungle with Agent Orange. He says it looked like fog.
“We suffered with the eyes and with the smell, with the nose, and also with our throat,” Son recalls. “But at the time we did not know that the consequences of Agent Orange could last for long.”
When Son came home from the war, he and his wife started a family. They live with their two children and their grandparents in a space that’s about the size of a typical American dining room. There’s barely enough room for their beds and a sewing machine and a rickety table where they serve tea.
Son gestures toward the bed right in back of us. There’s a little girl with pigtails lying on her back, tucked under a quilt so just her head is poking out. She stares vacantly at the ceiling.
Son says she’s not a little girl at all. She’s almost 25 years old – born paralyzed.
“Her name is Nguyen Thuy Phuon. She is deaf,” Son says. “She cannot do anything. She cannot speak. She cannot listen. Just lie there.”
Son and his wife had a second baby. This time it was a boy, and this time their child was born blind. Now the boy is a young man, and he explores the world in his music. He’s learning to play a traditional Vietnamese instrument, which looks like a dulcimer on legs but it has only one string. The boy plucks the string and a undulating note swirls in the air.
“I love this musical instrument very much because he can express all the type of the sentiments of the human beings,” the boy explains, bending a note like a thick ribbon of sound. “The happiness, the sadness. It is so sweet, like my mom’s singing.”
Nguyin Thanh Son’s family symbolizes a question mark that hangs over Vietnam. How has Agent Orange transformed the country? You can answer that question with your own eyes. Drive up a dirt road into Vietnam’s central highlands with a Canadian named David Levy.
“The very lush jungle that existed here 30 years ago was wiped out by the Agent Orange herbicide. And even today we don’t see any recovery of the jungle that used to exist here,” Levy says.
Levy helps run an environmental consulting firm based in Canada that works with the Vietnamese government on the Agent Orange problem. At the moment, we’re passing farm houses made of bamboo about an hour from the town of Hue. During the war, the armies fought some of their biggest battles in this region, and US planes doused the jungles with Agent Orange.
“The pesticide would come down as a very fine mist, and it would hit the leaves of the trees,” Levy says. “Within about a day, the leaves of the trees would fall off and the tree would effectively be dead. Or, it would fall over within the next month or so.”
Levy says if we had come to Hue in the old days – before Agent Orange – the hillsides in every direction would have been covered with thick forests. But now the landscape looks bizarre. The hills are covered with a thick, green grass. There’s hardly a single tree in sight. Levy says this grass is like a monster. Soon after the herbicide killed the jungles, the grass moved in. Now it won’t let the trees grow back.
The Vietnamese call it American grass.
“Unless humans intervene somehow in this environment to improve it, this grass will last for centuries,” Levy says.
The Vietnamese could reverse some of the damage from Agent Orange by tearing up the hillsides and planting millions of trees, Levy says, but the government can’t afford to do much.
Agent Orange is creating other serious side effects. Levy shows us one hillside with a huge brown gash in it. A whole chunk of the hill has fallen away. Now it’s just bare dirt. When Agent Orange killed the jungles, no tree and plant roots were left to protect the soil from tropical rains. Erosion and landslides are common.
The slides close roads, and which blocks farmers from getting their products to market in Hue. “No question, people just to the west of here are very dependent on this road just for their daily livelihood,” Levy says. “They’re cut off for periods of days or weeks when these landslides occur.”
At the fabled Perfume River, where Kings sailed centuries ago, Agent Orange still fights its war – through flooding. Late last year it rained more than usual. This river gushed out over its banks and wiped out whole villages. They were the worst floods in 100 years. Scores of people drowned. Levy says the floods would never have been that bad if the hillsides were still covered with forests.
If you ask Vietnamese about the most important legacies of the war, they don’t talk about erosion and floods. They talk about their families.
At the Center for Disabled Children in Hanoi, some of the children have stumps where they should have arms or legs. Most of the children are mentally retarded.
The center’s director is a pediatrician named Nguyen My Hien. She says she founded the center specifically for victims of Agent Orange.
“These children are effected by dioxin from wartime,” she says.
After the war ended, Dr. Hien says she and other physicians began to sense that veterans were having an unusual number of babies with birth defects. Over the years, she persuaded the Vietnamese government and foreign aid groups to fund almost a dozen children’s homes like this one. They call them Peace Villages.
At this branch in Hanoi, the children live in three cinder-lock buildings. They’re spare and clean. The walls are painted that minty hospital green. As we talk in the hallway, a girl walks up.
“Good afternoon,” she says in uncertain English. “My name is Twa. I’m fine today. And you?”
“But she has some problem with skin, you see?” say Hien.
First we don’t see her skin problem. Twa is 15 years old. And she looks like a pretty young woman who happens to be wearing a black turtleneck under a white shirt. But Hien tells us to look more closely. Twa’s not wearing a black turtleneck. Her entire body, from the top of her neck on down, is black and hairy. Hien lifts the girl’s shirt and shows us her back. It’s covered with huge, sagging tumors.
“Very sad. Very, very difficult to treat her,” Hien says.
Hien says Twa’s father was sprayed with Agent Orange. As we’re looking at her back, Twa tells more of the story. Others back home used to torment her by saying her ailment made her like an animal.
“I’m very sad because my friend think that my skin look like buffalo, look like a buffalo skin,” Twa explains.
When you talk to just about anybody in Vietnam they accept it as fact that children like these are victims of Agent Orange. But American researchers say the issue’s more complicated.
Dioxin has probably caused serious health problems in Vietnam, but so far no one has identified the right victims, according to Arnold Schecter, a public health researcher at the University of Texas. Schecter has been studying the dioxin problem in Vietnam for years.
Scientists know that dioxin is one of the most toxic chemicals ever studied. And research in laboratory animals and humans suggest that, dioxin can cause diabetes, cancer, and specific kinds of birth defects. But Schecter says most of the dramatic birth defects that the Vietnamese cite have never shown up in the research. Most of the children in the Peace Villages, he says, are probably victims of old-fashioned plagues, like polio and cerebral palsy.
Schecter says scientists need to do major, long-term studies to figure out who’s really been affected by dioxin in Vietnam, and how.
“My best guess we’re probably going to find that there are hundreds of thousands of adults and children who have health problems from the dioxin in Agent Orange,” Schecter says. “So many have died.”
Researchers have been trying for years to persuade the leaders of Vietnam and the United States to study the problem together. Representatives from both countries are trying to negotiate an agreement. But one Vietnamese researcher says that officials in his own government are torn over this issue. During the war, Le Cao Dai, a surgeon, was operating on wounded Vietcong in the jungle.
“In the morning, very early morning, before sunrise, I saw three plane very, very high in the sky. And it seemed like a rain, a small rain, was falling slowly from the sky,” Dai says.
It was Agent Orange.
Since then, Dai’s been studying dioxin for Vietnam’s Red Cross. You’d think that Vietnam’s leaders would be anxious to prove that the American herbicide has caused terrible problems. Not necessarily.
“They want to forget the past,” Dai says. “It is policy of government to close down the past, to want to be friendly with everybody, even Americans.”
Dai says he’s trying to convince his leaders that dioxin is not just a past problem – that side effects from the chemical are hurting Vietnam now. Dai agrees that scientists need to pin down who’s been affected and how.
He says the legacies of Agent Orange are clearly so serious that it’s time to raise a sensitive topic – US financial support for victims of Agent Orange. “I think that they should do it, that the US government should do something,” he says..
Vietnam’s own government hasn’t done much to help people who think that dioxin hurt them. At least, not until recently.
Nguyin Thanh Son and his wife have raised their disabled children – the paralyzed daughter and the blind son – by themselves. Their daughter requires constant care. The son is more independent, but he needs help getting around town. And the family is poor.
Researchers like Arnold Schecter would argue that this family’s problems probably have nothing to do with the war. But Vietnamese leaders have just made an announcement. They’re going to give veterans $10 a month for every disabled child and sick adult in the family, if they think their condition might be linked to Agent Orange. And in Nguyin Thanh Son’s family, $10 is more than enough to pay their son’s way through music school.
US OFFICIALS STILL ARE SEARCHING for the remains of roughly 1,500 American soldiers who never came home from the Vietnam war. The government of Vietnam says it still can’t find 300,000 of its own soldiers. With 25 years gone by, the Vietnamese are turning to unconventional methods to trace the missing in action.
Every Sunday night, people across Vietnam tune their televisions to their country’s version of Unsolved Mysteries. This program searches for the remains of North Vietnamese soldiers who disappeared while fighting against the South Vietnamese and the United States.
The program shows a series of photos of MIAs. They’re young faces from the 1960s, frozen in black and white. The TV hosts tell where each soldier was born, describe the date and location of the battle where the soldiers probably died, and end the program with this appeal:
“If anybody knows where these soldiers are buried, please contact the following address….”
Until fairly recently, viewers sent in tips and the army went out and found remains of MIAs. But the war’s been over for so long now, the clues are getting cold. That explains why a respected professor in Hanoi, Nguyen Ngoc Hang, did something earlier this year that he couldn’t have imagined a few years ago. He and his family hired a psychic to track down his dead brother’s remains.
“My younger brother and me never believed in such kind of rubbish before, you know,” Hang says.
The professor has an amazing story. He runs a university center that trains government officials to speak English. Hang and his younger brother both fought with the North Vietnamese army. His brother was killed in 1970, just one year after he went to war – the family knows that much – but the army never recovered his body.
Hang says his family has always felt unsettled because they couldn’t give his brother a proper burial.
“So for nearly 30 years, my father visited every single cemetery. He went to see all the graves, trying to see if my brother’s name was there. We just couldn’t find him,” Hang says.
Not long ago, Hang’s family met a psychic who has a reputation for finding MIAs. She sat down with the Hang’s entire family in front of the altar in his parents’ house. A lot of Vietnamese have an altar in their home – it’s a brightly painted platform with a statue of Buddha and offerings for their ancestors. There’s usually a vase of flowers and fresh fruit and rice wine, and family members approach this altar whenever they want to communicate with the spirits of their dead relatives.
So on this day, Hang’s mother and father were there, his wife and son, his dead brother’s widow, and the psychic.
“And my father gave her the picture of my missing brother, and she said that she could talk to him,” Hang recealled. “So we all got together, curious to hear what she could say.”
Hang says she simply lit some incense, gazed at his dead brother’s photo, and, suddenly, started talking to the brother’s spirit.
Hang adds that this wasn’t some sort of freaky seance. The psychic looked like an accountant – which is how she makes a living during the day.
Hang says his dead brother started talking through the psychic’s voice. The brother’s spirit told the family that after he died, back in 1970, some villagers buried him in an unmarked grave in a cemetery hundreds of miles away. Hang says his brother’s spirit was very precise. He gave them the cemetery’s name. He told them what town it’s in.
So Hang’s family piled into a van the professor borrowed from the university, and they drove to the cemetery to find his brother. The psychic joined them. Hang says there were more than 1,000 graves in the cemetery, but the psychic marched straight to a row of unknown soldiers, and she pointed and said, “This is your brother’s grave.”
Hang was astonished.
“Before we went, she even described the characteristic of the grave, and we recognized it immediately,” he recalled.
But then, Hang’s family felt confused for a moment. When the psychic first contacted his dead brother’s spirit, back at their house in Hanoi, the spirit had told them that they’d find his bones in the third unmarked grave in the row. Yet, now that the family was actually standing in the cemetery, they were feeling his presence at the fourth grave site in the row.
So the psychic asked his brother’s spirit to explain.
“She checked with my missing brother, saying, `Hey, how come you told us at home that it was the third grave?’,” Hang says.
And his dead brother’s spirit explained the mix-up, through the psychic’s voice. He said when he originally told the family he was buried in the third grave in the row, he was only counting the graves of soldiers like himself. The first grave held the remains of a village girl, so he didn’t count her.
Hang says that explanation pretty much convinced his family that they were standing at the right grave, his brother’s grave. But they wanted to make absolutely sure.
“We got to test, OK? And one of the ways of testing it is to put a chopstick into the ground, and then get an egg, and then you put it on top of the chopstick. The chopstick is very small. If you spend five days trying to put it on top of the chopstick, no one would be able to do it,” Hang explains.
“But if the bones in the grave are one of your relatives, you can do it. So my father, with his trembling hand – he’s 75 years old now, you know – put the egg on top of the chop stick, and sure enough, it stayed right there.”
Hang’s family dug up the bones. The army helped them. Hang says, no, they did not conduct laboratory studies to confirm that the bones were his brother’s. He says they don’t need to. They’re convinced they found his brother.
They brought his remains back to Hanoi and held a ceremony with family and friends, and then, Hang says, they buried his brother in a pretty spot in a soldiers’ cemetery.
“I don’t know how to describe it,” Hang says. “In a sense, it was sad news, the death of a younger brother. But this new year brings joy into my family, and I believe that with this news, my father can live 10 or 15 years longer. I can see a joyful light in his eyes and in my mother’s eyes this new year. We’ve been waiting for 30 years to find my brother.”
Vietnamese officials say they’re still searching for the remains of hundreds of thousands of other soldiers, and they’re funding a research project to confirm whether psychics can really track down MIAs.
One of the study’s directors says that psychics looked for 2,000 missing soldiers last year, and found the remains in 70 percent of the cases.