Saturday, 4 June 2011

Ho Chi Minh Vs Agent Orange, 5-9 April 2011


Firstly, apologies that this blog isn't the happiest but it is an integral part of Vietnam's history and is important to get into the national psyche.  As I mentioned above it contains some horrid images that may upset you but again they are there for that purpose and so we never forget.  I must point out the photos are not my own, I sourced them off the internet for the purpose of showing you the horrors of war.  This is not anti-American in any way, it purely states the details of what happened.  My heart goes out to all those soldiers that were forced to go over and fight on behalf of their government.  War is a terrible thing, it affects the people directly involved in horrible and non-reversible ways.  Let us never forget those people who fought on both sides during the Vietnam-America War.

I woke up following a ridiculously short amount of sleep, gathered my belongings and headed to the reception area where I waited with a few others for our bus to Ho Chi Minh City. The bus turned up and I was lucky enough to be sitting beside Kathy, a hilarious girl who was on a trip around South East Asia and on her way to work in a hospital in Thailand for a couple of months before heading home to continue on her path to become a occupational therapist. We sat there on the back seat chatting for a while until I must have bored her as she fell asleep... Disgraceful! I let her off though as she was extremely excited that her boyfriend, Dan, whom she hadn't seen for a while, was flying into Ho Chi Minh later that day.

The bus journey was one of the easiest I had done in Vietnam to date and we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City a few hours later. As we arrived in Saigon, I was immediately overpowered by the feeling of being in a big city again. I hadn't been in a place with high rise buildings and an intense feeling of being in a city (like non-Londoners have when visiting the capital) since China. Although Hanoi remains the capital of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City is the financial capital and it accordingly feels much richer. HCMC has had more time to develop itself unlike Hanoi as it was under American capitalist control for ten years during the war. I personally felt excited to be in a place that seemed to be buzzing, with it's incredibly busy streets and people running around carrying on with their daily lives. The city has two names. The original and mostly known name being Saigon but after the North Vietnamese conquered the town and ended the war in 1975, they renamed the city Ho Chi Minh City after their national hero and founder of the modern day Vietnam.

Welcome to HCMC motorcycle madness
Marianne and Victoria had sent me an email the previous day to tell me what hotel they were staying in. The address was in my Rough Guide but it turned out that Kathy was staying at the same place so I decided not to worry about beginning the HCMC orienteering expedition and just to follow her. We were extremely lucky that the bus actually stopped just around the corner from the hotel and so it only took us a couple of minutes to get there. We were also joined by a few other people who we rallied together from the bus; Andy and Oisin, British grammar school boys on a trip before university or something else, Life, not really sure where he was from, Jakob, a Danish musician and a girl who I think was from Canada but I really can't remember her name.

Kathy and I found Bear Beer.  Could be tricky for some to say
This is how travelling goes, you go from not knowing anyone at 8am to suddenly checking into a hotel in a big group of people and sitting down to a meal and drinks a few hours later as though you've known them for ages. Ho Chi Minh City was the first time on my trip that the heat suddenly hit me, the humidity was unbearable and made you constantly sweat, luckily enough our dorm room was fantastically air conditioned so we were able to take refuge in their during the hot hot times of day. The room also had a nice little sitting area which was something I haven't seen before in a dorm room and was a great addition. I left the refrigerator of a room for some water when I met Victoria and Marianne who were busy tapping away on the PC keyboards in the lobby. Later that evening a group of us, bar Kathy who was at the airport to collect Dan, went out for something to eat and finished the evening off in our dorm room singing whilst Jakob was playing his guitar and drinking. A great night had by all!

The following morning, I was sitting down stairs in the lobby enjoying the fantastic 'free' breakfast of eggs and bread when I was joined by Alan who was travelling around South East Asia for a while and then Tom and Nicky joined us who were travelling from Hong Kong to Singapore and then onto Australia. Not that I knew it then, but I would be spending a long time with these guys. After a while, Kathy and Dan walked casually down the stairs and we all went across the road to the Sinh Tourist office to book a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels the following day. As it was lunch time, we all decided to head to have something to eat in a restaurant whilst it was at the hottest point of the day. As we were sitting there I saw Kevco walk past with Lauren and Tanners (the Canadians from Hué), so I quickly ran over to them to see how they were doing. It seemed as though I was destined to keep bumping into these along the way too.

--By the end of the Vietnam-American War 3,000,000 Vietnamese people laid dead, of them 2,000,000 were civilians. 2,000,000 people were injured and 300,000 people were missing.--

Later that afternoon Kathy, Dan, Alan and I decided to go to the War Remnants Museum that explicitly depicts the horrors and affects of the war, mainly the perils of using Agent Orange. We were in a quandary whether to take a taxi there or to walk but we eventually 'manned up' and made the decision to walk. The temperature of the day was hot and it didn't take too long until we were all suffering extensively from the sun's power so we took a brief five minute break and sat in the shaded area on a patch of grass in a park only to be told off by the park keeper who forced us to move on. We continued with determination towards the museum and after another 5 minutes of blistering sunshine, we got there.

American civilians in protest against the war
The museum was opened in 1975 and was called The American War Crimes Museum but the name was changed in the early 90s to the War Remnants Museum as relations with the USA were improving. Outside there is the usual decommissioned aircraft and tanks from the war imposing their deathly presence upon the entrance to the museum. The ground floor is largely dedicated to those who opposed the war with a collection of propaganda posters and details of protests that happened throughout the world against the United States involvement. Upstairs is where the more shocking collection of photos and artefacts are. Especially the room dedicated to the affects that Agent Orange had on the civilians in Vietnam and the American personnel that handled the poisonous dioxin.

Operation Ranch Hand, 1962-1971, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos

Operation Ranch Hand was an American plot to destroy forests and all vegetation in certain regions of Vietnam, eastern Laos and Cambodia. It's main goal was to deprive Viet Cong guerillas of cover as the Americans never stood a chance against them in the forested terrain. Another secondary goal and perhaps a more disgraceful one was 'forced draft urbanisation', by using defoliants on rural countryside, it destroyed the peasants ability to grow crops and sustain their food supplies forcing them to move into the American occupied cities. The Americans told people they were destroying crops to cut off the supply of food to guerillas but in fact they only managed to cause mass widespread famine across the rural areas of Vietnam.

The Girl in the Picture, Kim Phuc running and burning
As the widespread famine spread further across the rural areas of Southern Vietnam, increasing numbers of people began to relocate to urban areas that were controlled by the US. Urban populations tripled from 2.8 million before the war to over 8 million by the end. Of course this is what the US wanted, to gain more control over the Vietnamese population, however, they were not prepared and urbanisation became uncontrollable. Saigon especially could not cope with the growing population and around 1.5 million migrants were forced to live in slums. This was absolutely disgusting as many of the South Vietnamese officers and US military were living in luxury. Not the best way to get people on your side, is it?!

Innocent children always suffer, birth defects from the dioxin
Records show the United States of America dropped an estimated 80 million litres of chemical herbicides and defoliants between 1962 and 1971 that destroyed land and the lives of people across Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. By the end of the war, 12% of the agricultural areas in South Vietnam had been completely destroyed whilst 20% of all the land area was sprayed at least once with the herbicide that was said to be 13 times above the legal safe limit. According to the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the 6,542 spraying missions exposed 4.8 million Vietnamese civilians to the deadly herbicides eventually resulting in around 400,000 deaths and 500,000 birth defects although the Vietnamese Red Cross state slightly reduced figures. Soil and water samples taken from across Vietnam showed to be hundreds of times above the regarded safe level.  Agent Orange was only one of many different agents used over Vietnam but Orange was the most popular.

The affects of dioxin poisoning were realised as early as 1966 when The United States of America were charged with violating the Geneva Protocol of 1925 that regulates the use of chemical and biological weapons. Regardless, they continued to use the chemical herbicides and defoliants over the country. To this date it is believed that the US have not done enough to help with the clean up operation around Vietnam. In 2007 George W Bush signed a supplemental spending bill for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan that earmarked $3 million to the clear up of dioxin hot spots on former US military bases although it is estimated that the clean up of the base Da Nang alone would cost $14 million.

...Suppose we lost Indocina. If that happened, tin and tungsten, to which we attache such a high price, would cease coming. That is why when the United States decides to give an ais of 400 million dallars to this war, it does not make a gratuitous offer. In reality, we have chosen the least coastly means to prevent one of the most terrible things for the United States for its security, its strength and its possibility to obtain what it needs among the riches in Indochina and South-East Asia”. 
President D Eisenhower, 4 August 1953... The self interest purpose of war...

Agent Orange protest in USA
It is not only the Vietnamese that are suffering with the affects of Agent Orange exposure. Many American veterans that were exposed have suffered with cancers or have borne children with similar birth defects that are seen across Southern Vietnam. The War Remnants Museum have a room dedicated to affects of Agent Orange. Within the room are countless photos of people that have been born with birth defects, stories of the victims and even a tank with two still born defected babies on show. The room certainly puts war into perspective and everybody that walks through that room becomes speechless, on the brink of tears and angry at those that can stand by and inflict this on innocent people. The affects of Agent Orange will be seen for many generations as the affected people have passed on the genetic defects onto their children and they in turn will pass it on again, if they're lucky enough to have children that is. It's these poor children that weren't even born during the war that are suffering.

The museum is shocks your bones to the soul and has you constantly asking; How can one human being do this to another human being? The images of victims that were incinerated by napalm and phosphorous bombs, prisoners of war being tortured and the list of gruesomeness goes on. We left the museum in a solemn and pensive mood. Of course the museum was heavily biased towards the Vietnamese, but it is their country and it is them that have suffered and are still suffering from the affects of this horrid war.  The photos on display showing horrible scenes of how war had truly altered the American forces into a non-human force as they smile over dead bodies, picking up body parts without care, torturing Vietnamese and setting light to houses.  These poor soldiers that signed on for protecting their country were forced into this horrible situation whilst the people who put them there sat comfortably the other side of the world in Washington DC.

"I was ordered to go in there and destroy the enemy...That was my job on that day. That was the mission I was given. I did not sit down and think in terms of men, women and children."
Lieutenant William Calley, testifying at Court-Martial in defence of his actions in My Lai, 1970

On the way back to our hotel we desperately needed to relax and pick ourselves up after visiting the museum, so we stopped for Bia Hoi and it was worth it. Sitting down on the incredibly small plastic chairs, that are actually built for 3 year olds but nobody has told the Asians yet, the pitcher of freshly brewed golden larger was slammed on our table by the unusually rather inhospitable lady. We poured it into the traditional chipped glass mugs and sucked the deliciousness down in a few gulps. It certainly hit the spot and lifted our spirits back to the present day and thoughts on what to do that evening were circulating round the table.

That evening we gathered the rest of the group together and headed to indulge in some more bia hoi before it ran dry as it does quite early on in the evening after the Vietnamese have all been released from work. We found one place that was full but the friendly owner accommodated us by placing a few chairs just on the road and so we sat down drinking her beer in the middle of the street. This didn't last for long as the police arrived which sparked the lady to jump up and quickly gather the chairs before they saw. It didn't work and they pulled the lady aside and gave her a telling off and perhaps a fine, I'm not sure, I hope not as she was a nice lady. After the police disappeared, so did our beers, so we headed off to the 'Dollar Bar' around the corner where surprisingly enough, all drinks are $1 and we were there for the rest of the night.

For more information on Kim Phuc's foundation check out her website, click here.

Next time, Cu Chi Tunnels and Mekong Delta

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