Nguyen Nguc Phuong is 33 years of age and a confident, articulate public speaker – comfortable on a podium in front of an audience. He is resourceful and self-motivated, as seen in his decision to leave school at 16 and relocate to Vietnam’s largest city, Ho Chi Minh City, to learn to be a mechanic and an electrician.
Nguyen later returned to his hometown of Danang, one of Vietnam’s touristy cities, and opened his own repair shop. However, after seeing the impact of Agent Orange – a defoliant sprayed by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War to destroy the crops and jungle upon which the Viet Cong relied for food and cover – he decided he wanted to volunteer his time to help the children born mentally or physically handicapped due to the herbicide’s tragic and grotesque effects.
“I wanted to become a teacher to do something for them,” he says, pointing out to over 40 children and teenagers at the Danang Peace Village – a center run by the Danang Association for Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin to care for children and teenagers affected by Agent Orange.
But Nguyen’s story is not typical of a thirty-something bored with a day-job and seeking a socially-responsible career break.
Nguyen Nguc Phuong’s father fought in central and southern Vietnam for 10 years up to the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, and sometime, somewhere along the way, came in contact with some of the 76 million liters of Agent Orange that was sprayed on the Vietnamese countryside up.
As a result, Nguyen is only 95 centimeters (a little over 3 feet) tall and weighs in at a meager 20 kilograms (approximately 44 pounds). “My sister is the same size like me” he says. “When I was born I weighed only 800 grams and was less than 20cm long.”
“I was very angry because I did not know when I was younger why I was left like this. I wanted, I still want, to be a normal person but I know I am not in a good condition,” says Nguyen. “The salary is very little here but I don’t care, I know the center doesn’t have much money,” he says. “But I want to help the other kids who are worse off than I am and help them have a better future.”
Some of Nguyen’s colleagues share similar stories. Now 24, Hoang Kim Nguyen lifts a blouse sleeve to show blotchy, discolored arms. “I don’t know why I have this,” she says, “but my mother worked at Danang airport during the war so I guess it is from Agent Orange.”
Nguyen Thi Hein, Hoang’s boss and manager of the center, says that she was quite aggressive as a teenager, but has mellowed into one of the center’s best teachers, despite a careful, often inaudible way of speaking. “I was bullied, teased, when I was younger,” Hoang says. “Not because of my arms, but because of this,” she adds, lifting off a jawline length wig to reveal a few patchy tufts of hair instead of the straight brown or black sheen a Vietnamese woman her age should have.
She has come a long way, she feels, but a traumatic adolescence has scarred her mentally. “It was difficult for me to go outside when I was a teenager, and I am still shy in many ways,” she concedes. “But I got my diploma and I am happy to be here at the center,” where she teaches art, embroidery and sewing.
Asked if she is angry – like Nguyen – at the impact it seems Agent Orange has had on her life, Hoang pauses for a couple of seconds before replying that “I know American people were affected too, soldiers in the war and their children next in the U.S.”
For parents of affected children, the center provides invaluable support. Pang Thu Dan Thanh has two children, one son in kindergarten who seems perfectly healthy, she says. Beside her sits Nguyen Hu Thao Vi, 16, who best-buddy-style rests a hand on her mother’s shoulder midway through the interview.
The teenager was born with Down Syndrome, another apparent result of the spraying of Agent Orange.
“My husband was not a Viet Cong, but he did work in the areas where spraying took place,” says mother Pang Thu Dan Thanh.
Raising Nguyen Hu Thao Vi has been difficult, her mother concedes. “She could not even sit up by herself until she was four years of age and now at 16 she still cannot speak much other than a few simple words.”
A few miles away from the center, Danang’s glossy new international airport sits around four hundred yards from the site of the old Danang airbase, where American troops mixed-up and stored the toxic jungle spray. The codename Agent Orange came from the yellowy amber sheen seen on foliage along the Ho Chi Minh trail after a dousing by U.S. aircraft and riverboats.
The site of the old airbase has dioxin contamination up to 350 times higher than the trigger levels at which international recommendations for action should kick in. Given rare access to the U.S. $43 million dollar clean-up, I was told by one of the U.S. government subcontractors on the job that the clean-up will take 54 months to complete, pointing to an adjacent concrete slab covering one of the areas where the liquid was mixed and returning aircraft hosed down.
The contractor – standing in the driving coastal rain and barely-audible over the din of the blue Vietnam Airlines jet taxiing a stone’s throw away on the new Danang airport runaway – asked not to be identified as he was not authorized to discuss sensitive material, but said that the contaminated soil would be excavated to a temporary mound 8 meters high by 70 meters wide by 100 meters long, and in turn baked to over 600 degrees Fahrenheit, a procedure intended to break down the dioxin into carbon dioxide, water and chloride.
The Danang clean-up is a joint project of the Vietnamese Defense Ministry and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) that began in August of this year, after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that her government would assist with the clean-up during a visit to Hanoi in the summer of 2010, amid tensions between Vietnam and China over the South China Sea, known as the East Sea in Vietnam, in turn prompting closer ties between the U.S. and Vietnam.
Chuck Searcy came back to Vietnam 17 years ago, 3 years before the U.S. and Vietnam normalized relations. He eventually stayed on in the one-time enemy terrain to work for the Veterans Memorial Fund, which cleans up unexploded ordnances from the war in central Vietnam. Speaking in Hanoi over a morning coffee, not far from the old Hanoi Hilton where Republican Senator John McCain was detained for five years as a prisoner of war, he recalls in sonorous Morgan Freeman-like tones that “when Agent Orange was used in Vietnam we were told it was harmless, that it was just a pesticide, and we believed that.”
For decades the U.S. government disputed the link between Agent Orange and birth defects in Vietnamese children, but that opposition appears to have relented, the Vietnam War veteran tells me.
Now things are changing, he says, acknowledging that “the U.S. government finally is doing the right thing, maybe not enough, but at least it is helping American veterans. We ought to be doing the same thing in cooperation with the Vietnamese people. That is late in the day, but is finally starting now too.”
Washington’s “Asia Pivot” will be in full focus this week, as newly-reelected President Obama visits Southeast Asia, with stops in Thailand, Burma and Cambodia. While in Cambodia Obama will participate in the East Asia Summit, where he will meet leaders from China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, Australia as well as his Southeast Asian counterparts.
For its part, the Vietnamese government provides a monthly stipend of about U.S. $17 to more than 200,000 Vietnamese who are believed to be affected by the toxic herbicides. Although the program costs the Vietnamese government around U.S. $40 million annually, the stipend isn’t much for those receiving it, and doesn’t go far.
“We would not be able to manage having him at home,” says Nguyen Thu Thon, mother of Nguyen Viet Hai, age 24, who stays at the center. “We cannot afford to hire care for him and we need to work ourselves to make ends meet, and he cannot be left alone by himself.
Currently based in southeast Asia, Simon Roughneen has written for Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, South China Morning Post, Asia Times, The Irrawaddy, ISN, Sunday Business Post and others. He is a radio correspondent affiliated to Global Radio News and has reported on RTÉ, BBC, CBS, CBC Canada, Fox News, Voice of America, al-Jazeera.