Collateral Damage, (spiked piece from Vietnam)

It has been long time since I wrote anything on here. 

Sorry about that. 

I’ve copied and pasted an old piece I wrote. I always thought it was a decent story but, for various reasons, it never saw the light of day. It wasn’t really anyone’s fault. It was commissioned by one editor, I travelled to Da Nang to get it and, by the time I returned, the commissioning editor was gone. Sometimes it just works out that way. I’ve knocked on just about every publisher’s door since but, as time goes by, the story grows less relevant. Hence it’s inclusion here. I’d like someone to read the Nguyen’s story. 

Collateral Damage

Vietnam and the lethal legacy of Agent Orange

By Simon Speakman Cordall in Da Nang

There’s nothing too remarkable about the house on the main street of Khue Trung Hamlet, just outside Da Nang, Vietnam.  From the outside, it looks little different than any of the houses in this down at heel commune. Like any number of Vietnamese houses, the gated front of the house opens onto the street. Outside sits a glass and aluminium handcart, the kind you can find on any street corner of any town in Vietnam. Today the door to the house is closed and the cart sits idle. It’s been sitting idle for a while. The glass is choked with dust and the few stray packets of cigarettes sit inside ignored.

Inside, thirty six year old Nguyen Duc Nghia sits in his wheelchair and stares at the back of the closed door. It’s not clear how long he’s been sitting there, or even if he’s aware of the door.  No one’s talked to Nguyen Duc Nghia for nearly twenty five years.

Hoang Thi The pictured with her son, Duc

Nguyen Duc Nghia and his Mother

Elsewhere within the dim half light of their home in Khue Trung Hamlet, Nghia’s sister, Nguyen Thi Tyna, younger by three years, struggles to make her way across the front room. Leaning heavily on an ancient walker, her legs are losing the ability to support her. She smiles, but most of what she was has gone. Soon she will join her brother, physically present but practically absent. She has known this for years.

Their Mother, Hoang Thi The, doesn’t know what to do. Her husband died in 2005. Now, alone and seventy six, she worries endlessly about the future. She struggles to lift Nghia in his chair and, as Tyna deteriorates, she isn’t sure how she’s going to cope. Already the air in their small house is rank with the smell of excrement and stale sweat.

Nguyen Thi Tyna, age 33, pictured with a certificate signed by the President marking her Father's war service. Her disabilities will soon be as severe as her brother's.

Nguyen Thi Tyna, age 33, pictured with a certificate signed by the President marking her Father’s war service. Her disabilities will soon be as severe as her brother’s.

Life hasn’t always been this way. Both children were born into a privileged life. Their father had been decorated for his service in the war against the Americans and, like many veterans of that conflict, had secured a good job and a prestigious position within his community.  Nghia and Tyna were both bright children and seemed to be doing well at school. It wasn’t until Nghia was ten that problems seemed to start. He seemed to slow down. His teachers became concerned. Day by day, Nghia seemed to disintegrate, falling apart both physically and mentally.  Eventually, his limbs withered to nothing, his legs and ankles twisting and contorting into grim parodies of what they should have been. Eventually, by the time he was twelve, Nghia and the world just parted company.

Agent Orange Victim, Ho Chi Minh City

Agent Orange Victim, HCMC

Their father’s health also began to fail. He seemed to be ill all the time. The Doctors diagnosed everything; his heart was failing, his lungs were giving out, his organs were simply losing the will to function.  Then Tyna began to show the same symptoms as her brother.

The house was sold to pay for the children’s treatment. They moved to the hollow shell of the home that now houses them, sold to The by a concerned relative for as little as they could and for as much as she could afford. Their possessions too, have been sold to pay for the children’s care. There’s nothing left to sell. Even the handcart lies empty.

Le Van O

Le Van O plays the keyboards at an awareness raising event, HCMC

Their story isn’t all that unusual in Vietnam. However, what marks this story out as particularly unique, is that The’s husband, Tran Dam, could remember the American plane that sprayed the Agent Orange upon him that led to his family’s later collapse.

It’s estimated that nineteen million gallons of the defoliant, Agent Orange were dropped on southern and central Vietnam between 1961 and 1971, (http://www.vietnam.ttu.edu/resources/agentorange/) contaminating around 17% of Vietnam’s entire forested area and – according to the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs – exposing around 4.8 million people to the effects of the chemical. Vietnam’s thick forests were reduced to moonscape and jungles to grey ashen wastelands, their horizons only interrupted by the skeletal remains of the trees that once flourished there. The intention was to deny the Viet Cong – and much of the Vietnamese citizenry – both shelter and sustenance. While its success as a military strategy remains open to debate, its human legacy is an inescapable fact for the American soldiers and airmen who handled their lethal cargo and, critically, for the generations of Vietnamese still being born with the horrific effects of exposure to Agent Orange.

Viewed from afar, the story of Agent Orange is rich in irony. However, perhaps none is crueller than its impact upon Vietnam’s rural poor.  The forested areas around the Viet Cong tunnel fortress of Cu Chi, as well as those bordering the supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh trail, were all doused with the defoliant. The legacy of this action remains to this day. Families, most amongst the poorest in Vietnam, are still bearing children carrying the horrific effects of the Agent Orange their family was exposed to during a war that ended before most were born. Unable to provide the intensive care many of these children will require, most parents find themselves with no option but to give up their children to the care of the state organisation, VAVA, (The Vietnam Association for the Victims of Agent Orange. Le Van O  lives at their An Phuc Centre in Ho Chi Minh City. O was born without eye sockets due to his  family’s exposure to the chemical. Nguyen Thinh Thang was born to farmers in Tay Ninh Province, bordering both Cu Chi and Cambodia, his legs have never grown since he was a baby, Now twenty eight, he hopes to qualify in IT. Government funds, limited as they are, only extend to veterans of the northern army and the Viet Cong. Those civilians and members of the US sponsored ARVN, (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) who are similarly affected have little to rely but the charity of others.

In Da Nang the problem is particularly acute. Much of the Agent Orange that was used during the conflict was stored here and its legacy has been all the more devastating for it. Environmental Scientist, Dr Wayne Dwernychuk, now retired but formerly of Canadian company, Hatfield and Associates who undertook one of the most extensive studies of Agent Orange contamination in Vietnam, (http://www.hatfieldgroup.com/services/contaminantagentorange.aspx) identified Da Nang, (population 887,069) as one of the most contaminated areas in all of Vietnam. In Da Nang, as in many of the US bases which were home to Agent Orange, dioxin – the source of Agent Orange’s toxicity –  has been seeping into the food chain and, consequently, the populace, since its manufacturers, Monsanto, Diamond Shamrock and Dow Chemical, amongst others, shipped the first canister here. “If the contaminated areas in Vietnam are left untreated, dioxin may reside in soils for over one hundred years.” Dr Dwernychuk explained, “Dioxin is an extremely stable compound due to the very strong chlorine bond in its structure. Ostensibly, if unremediated, (made safe) contaminated areas could be the source of dioxin entering the human food chain for many years into the future.”

Van, (nearest) doesn't talk or mix with other children at the centre

Van, (nearest) doesn’t talk or mix with other children at the centre

Kien practicing letters

Kien practices writing letters

Such is the severity of the situation in Da Nang that VAVA have established their own subsidiary, DAVA, (the Da Nang Association for the Victims of Agent Orange) “We have around 5,000 victims that we know about in the Da Nang area” Phan Thanh Tien, Vice President of DAVA explained. “of those, around 1,000 are veterans. We don’t know how many there might be in the countryside” Outside of Da Nang, DAVA’s day centre provides care to many of the children bearing the cost of US’ war strategy. In their well-ventilated classroom, the inheritors of Agent Orange’s legacy, some as young as eight, some in their mid twenties, sit in well ordered rows, their school books placed in front of them in neat display. Today they’ve been practicing the letter ‘a’, repeating it on row after row upon page after page. For many, this is the limit of their abilities. Next door, some of the more able children are practicing needlework. They’re making the dolls and dust masks that will help fund their care.

While denying the connection between long term ill health and Agent Orange, seven of the companies responsible for the manufacture of Agent Orange settled out of Court with representatives of US veterans contaminated by the defoliant for $180 Million. In 1991, the US Congress recognised the link between certain conditions and exposure to Agent Orange, giving US veterans access to the same benefits and medical care as they would in treating any combat injury. A legal action brought by representatives of the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange, similar to that brought by the veterans, was dismissed by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan in June 2007. It’s a response that’s angered many, not least some of the veterans themselves. Former marine, Chuck Palazzo of the Agent Orange Action Group and Veterans for Peace is amongst them. “It’s taken a long time… but at least my fellow veterans are getting something. The Vietnamese get nothing. Nixon promised them $3.25 billion in war reparations. Do you know how much they got? Not a single dime.”

Legal frustrations notwithstanding, in August 2012 the American government provided $41 million to help in the clean up of Da Nang airport, work that is anticipated to be completed by 2016. http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/08/09/us-vietnam-usa-agentorange- idUSBRE87803K20120809 However, for those families living daily with the effects of Agent Orange, eradicating the source of the contamination already present within their bloodstream is a case of too little too late.

Of course, all of this means very little within the house in Khue Trung Hamlet. Surrounded by the bare pea green walls, Nguyen Duc Nghia continues to stare blankly at the door. Tonight, his sister will wake screaming from the nightmares brought on by what she is becoming. They never fought in the war against the Americans and, even before they succumbed to the effects of Agent Orange, would have struggled to explain its cause. Still, irrespective of the actions of courts and governments, they bear its cost.

Agent Orange victims raise money at the War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City  (1)

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Are you experienced?

“Why don’t you like the UK?” I hadn’t expected the question and, to be honest, didn’t have much of an answer. I don’t dislike the UK, I don’t really think about it all that much. I just don’t want to live there. There then followed a recital of some of the more high brow UK pit stops of any respectable two week trip, combined with a mixture of incredulity and incomprehension as to why anyone from there wouldn’t want to live there. I didn’t acquit myself well. I wanted to talk about game shows, The Daily Mail and cul de sacs, but it was pretty clear that the fiction my interrogator had created for herself was too dear to her, so I shrugged my shoulders and mumbled something about just looking around the world a bit. It sounded cooler.

It was curious. She’d been on a brief trip to the land of my Father’s fathers, (it’s complicated) and had created such a firm impression of the place that anything I might say to the contrary would only undermine her conviction, which, really, just didn’t seem fair.

Traveller beware.

I cannot tell you what Tunisia is like. I can’t do that any more than I can tell you what Russia, Vietnam or the countless places in between, are like. I lived in some longer than I lived in others, but all I can really comment on is my experience of being on the outside and looking in. As experiences go, that’s in an entirely different time zone to someone born there, or emigrating there in the hope of a better life. Instead, I just pass through. All that I can really hope for is that what I say of a place is true to my experience of it, just as my Anglophile’s experience of her visit to that sceptred isle was, and continues to be, true for her.

I have travelled within Tunisia a little. I have managed to see something of the contrasts of my adopted Salt Flatshomeland, from the lush mountains of the North to the endless tracts of Sahara in the South. We spent Christmas Day underground, in one of the troglodyte dwellings the Berber’s hacked out of unforgiving rock and sand to protect themselves and their families from the desert elements and the nomadic marauders who hid within them. This particular dwelling was the same one as had been used in the Star Wars films. The set and props remained in place, their shine gradually giving way to rot and the neglect born of an absence of cross cultural understanding and appropriately focussed capitalistic zeal.

Christmas with the Skywalkers; it’s not as good as you think it is.

hotel and Skywalker Homestead, Matmata, Tunisia

Writing work is thin on the ground. I agreed some with a local news outlet, but downed tools after payment promises began to drift by with worrying regularity. It’s frustrating and depressing in equal measure. Not least, as finding an alternative to fill the Matmatavacuum is proving difficult. My drive to work borders on compulsion. It’s absence plagues me. Without it, I’m never entirely clear who I am. I get tongue tied when asked what I do. At times like now, when work is short, I say teacher. It’s a fine profession, but it stopped feeling like mine some time ago.

In the meantime, I wait for Libya. I tried to get there once before, only for my ambitions to find themselves dashed upon the rocks of an entirely fluid bureaucracy. Even identifying the process by which a UK journalist, (in Tunisia) can get a Visa for Libya is as close to putting your finger on mercury as anything I’ve experienced.

For now, there is Tunisia. In a country that so many people talk of getting out from, my experience runs counter. I like it here. Generally, I like the people I meet. I like running across the hills above our house and pausing to look across the city and its lakes. I like taking the train to La Goulette and eating fresh fish on the sea front. My experience is good.

Bottle Collector, Tunis

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Carthage Stalled

SSC_7061

“Delenda est Carthago”

                                                     Cato the Elder

Forgive me, reader, for I have sinned. It has been three months since my last confession.

Not that I care a great deal for regular blog entries, of anyone’s forgiveness for that matter. I’m still making this up as I go along and I never really know how much to put into it. I got married, I travelled to – and had guns pointed at me in – Dagestan and have now moved, lock, stock and bride, to Tunis. It’s too much. It’s narrative overload.  It’s important, I get that. It gives the blog a solid arc; the office drone, the blindman and, now, jobbing global citizen, but it doesn’t feel right. It’s not an image I can associate with, or really want to. Maybe it just involves too many words. I’ve been writing professionally for a while now and I want to keep some of those words for myself. not everything is public. Not every act needs documenting.

How’s that for some 21st Century heresy?

Tunis is cold and damp. The white low French colonial buildings cling to sandy hillsides as Tunisthe small city sprawls from coast to desert. Cats are everywhere. They slink like rats through the rubbish that lies in plentiful mounds on pavements and roadsides. Backstreet coffee shops and takeaways jockey for position amidst the decaying white stucco of

Three Blind Micean empire long since retreated, providing shwarma and coffee to the pavement bound populace. Cabs are as plentiful as the cats and slightly less trustworthy. Two rides to the same location will rarely take the same route or come at the same price, the cost of the ride being calculated at whatever rate the driver ranks your gullibility against the current value of the Dinar.

The coffee shops whose presence seems to define every alleyway and ginnel of Tunis are near uniformly the preserve of the male. Men sit in large, sprawling groups, loudly debating the issues of the day while puffing hungrily on fruit flavoured water pipes, the occasional fez puncturing the thick, sweetly pungent fog with a brief glimpse of dull burgundy amidst the grey.

Outside of the deserted tourist areas of the coast, alcohol is served rarely and then, only in purely masculine demesnes. Alcohol comes with the distinct tang of aberration and those SSC_7116that drink seem to prefer doing so to oblivion. In a male culture comfortable in defining women in terms of virgins and whores, it seems impossible that any woman other the latter might enter these enclaves of male dominion. A perception heightened, from personal experience, when that woman happens to be western.

The suburbs, where we’ve established ourselves, stand in saccharine contrast to the unknown dangers of the centre. Here, the wide  streets divide the white stucco houses of Tunis’ middle class. The revolution never made it this far. I don’t suppose much does. Here, Monoprix and Carrefour bags pack the back seats of the ubiquitous black SUVs, as young families ferry the weekly shop to and from their hillside villas, a north African take on a global ritual.

Making its way from the out to the in, is Avenue Mohamed V, taking you past the pock marked remnants of deposed Ben Ali’s RCD party headquarters, whose ultra modern exterior stands in stark contradiction to the overgrown  pathways that surround it and the rudely shattered windows of the building itself. Scorch marks are still visible on the railing that separates this bygone seat of autocracy with democratic Tunisia outside.

SSC_7070On Avenue Habib Bourguiba in the city centre, bored policemen with machine guns stand half hearted vigil over chic urbanites, as they gather to drink coffee on the wide pavements that border the city’s main drag. This is first world Tunis. Designer shops and global brands line either side of the wide, leafy avenue, designating their territory in demarcations of aspiration and personal liquidity.

Politics are alive here. They are central to nearly every conversation as a country, fixated on events, tries to establish a new identity for itself in the sudden absence of an old one. After twenty-four years of oppression, the country seems to be undergoing a collective exhalation. It’s an old story and there’s little new in the SSC_6956factionalism that has erupted in Ben Ali’s wake. However, it’s fascinating to see the dynamism of the debate that’s erupted throughout the country. Protests are a fairly regular occurrence, with groups stemming from an apparently shared political axis clashing, sometimes physically, over the minutiae of their respective agendas. As here as everywhere, that factionalism can run to extremes. Through an entirely porous border, the Tunisian army plays cat and mouse with the Islamist fighters who have made the mountains their home. They’re on the streets of the capital too, demanding sharia law in a country that takes its religion in moderate measures and prides itself on its secularism. To many, the sudden emergence of hardline Islam makes no sense. Under Ben Ali these were the invisible people. Now they are here, amongst them and demanding their say in this nascent democracy. Maybe they have a right to. It’s not really for me to say.

It’s a dizzying environment in which to find yourself, but, I’ll admit, one I’m struggling to connect with. I’m always anticipating the rush of adrenalin and confusion that accompanied my arrival in Vietnam, or the overwhelming sense of awe that came with the initial relocation to Russia. Instead, all I can see are a series of tasks that have to be accomplished before progress can be made. I’ve no idea why this might be. Tunisia – Christ, Africa – are as alien as anywhere. However, I find myself struggling to engage with it and that’s to squander a huge privilege. I’m, quite literally, dislocated and that’s something I’m having difficulty reconciling myself with.  I don’t know why, I can’t work it out. Sometimes I blame Makhachkala. I was there recently and the experience quite intense. Now I’m left with the feeling of another destination being little more than another flight, or a new home, little more than a search of the classifieds, when it should be the other way round. This has to be more than a mechanical process. This has to continue to mean something. The alternative is to concede that the world’s capacity to awe is finite and that’s not only a pretty repugnant thought, but an illogical one too. I don’t accept it.

Onwards!

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Back in the USSR

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

Stalin shouted over to me. He’d seen my pipe and wanted to compare. I wandered over. Stalin liked mine. He asked me what make it was. I told him it was from Ireland and asked if he wanted some tobacco. I had some good stuff. Lenin laughed and told Stalin he was cheeky. Stalin didn’t care. He stuffed tobacco in his pipe like a starving man would bread. He asked me for a light, but my lighter wouldn’t work. I said I was sorry and left him there, with a pipe full of fresh tobacco and nothing to light it with. 

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I should apologise. I’ve probably been reading too much Hemingway. It’s shameful, but I find myself inadvertently lapsing into the voice of whoever I’m reading at the moment. Either way, it seemed as good a way as any of reigniting a long neglected blog.

Needless to say, I am back in Moscow. Only now ‘I’ has become ‘we’ with a union soon to be blessed by the British Consulate and whatever God that looks over Montenegro. In many ways, this will render permanent the voluntary estrangement I have from the UK. Make no mistake, the Daily Mail has already won the debate on immigration. There is no welfare welcome wagon waiting for my Russian, soon to be, wife in the UK, only endless waits and needless bureaucracy with no guarantee at the end of it. I’m OK with that.  If anything, it reinforces my resolve to make the separation from my country permanent. The Little Englanders have won. They can keep Jerusalem.

One day I’ll buy a horn.

As it is, Moscow has become a kind of home. Returning here from Vietnam was as natural as stepping back into an old and familiar room.  Moscow still takes no prisoners, it never did, but the city’s familiarity now blunts its teeth. I met Irina here and, despite all the crap of old; the blindness, the uncertainty and the operations, a second new life has emerged, as unexpected as it was unsought. As it was, all lives – whether they be new ones or old ones – need their own specific magnetic North. Ours turned out to be here.

There are worse places.

I walked today. It’s August, but already Autumn seems to have arrived. The suffocating heat of the early summer is gone, and a chill now fills the air and rain is rarely far away. I didn’t really have a plan, but, drawn as much by the love of a book as anything else, I ended up at Patriarch Ponds. The leaves were beginning to turn and the air was fresh and cold. Children, wrapped up in coats and scarves span around their parents legs, while the drunks pulled themselves further into their coats and passed another bottle around. Again, it’s hard to say why, but it’s hard not to love this city. I stayed a while, reading my book, before drifting towards the centre and a refuge from the drizzle.

I ended up in a church. Irrespective of belief, (I don’t have any) Orthodox churches have to be amongst the most peaceful places on this or any world. They exist in a perpetual evening of childhood Christmases. It’s hard to imagine a mood that couldn’t be softened by the low lights, the choir and the sense of endless history that works like resin through the wood of these places. Don’t misunderstand me. I’ve experienced the fury and intolerance of the Russian Orthodox Church first hand. I covered the abortive 2013 Moscow Gay Pride rally. Still, inside, it’s hard to reconcile the vivid memories of those brutal images with the tranquillity of the interior.

Maybe peace, happiness, whatever, is always best experienced at a distance. The minutiae of the everyday distracts from enjoying the immediate. Maybe that’s why childhood memories are always so pleasant. Because we have distance. Alternatively, maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m finally just giving way to age. Maybe the soul’s little more than a spiritual liver. We start of clean. A blank slate for own histories to be written upon, before polluting it through the highs and terrible lows of nothing more sinister than our lives. We become clogged and emotionally snarled up and, gradually, our ability to experience pleasure dissipates.

Or maybe I’m just in a bad mood.

I’ll change tack. I’m not working, so any structure I impose on this narrative is my own. Moscow has been kind. Work was easy to come by. We both quickly found teaching work with our old school and I was soon contracted to The Moscow News as a kind of formal freelancer, (Russia is strange this way). I’m incredibly proud of having worked for the Moscow News. Primarily, I’ve always been a historian and working for a newspaper that, to the English speaking world, documented much of the Soviet Union’s history was always a little humbling. That, and the Editor, Natalia Antonova, was little short of awesome. Not least, as she supported me in writing stories like this. As you can imagine, finding out the paper was being reduced to an insert in Mosckovskii Novostii wasn’t good news.

That didn’t help my mood.

I need to cheer myself up. I need to come back to Moscow. I don’t know if it’s because I’m adopted, I don’t know if it’s because I’ve always been a shiftless bastard, but, right now, this feels like home and I like that. It’s true that we’re also preparing to leave again and, maybe, that accentuates the bond with a place, or at least forces the ties to the surface, I don’t really know. I only know that, though I know we’re leaving, I’m equally certain that we’re coming back.

It seems impossible and I never lose sight of that. So much in this city does. I wandered into a bar a couple of days ago and met a man, my age, with his left eye missing. We sat there with two eyes between us and toasted each others’ sockets. Moscow does that. Moscow is riddled with the impossible and the amazing and it never ceases to surprise.

So, there I was, trying to put all of this in order, putting this blog together in fact, as I walked out of Red Square smoking my pipe, when the guy who dresses up as Stalin for the tourists yelled over to me. He’d seen my pipe and wanted a look.

And I was home.

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Schroedinger’s Cat

“They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworths, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over. And as Presuming Ed here has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black.”

Dealer, D. 1987.

That the act of observing automatically changes that which is being observed is a pretty well worn cliche. However, like the cliche about cliches ultimately just being often told truths, it’s also true. Similarly, by this rationale, I wonder if Vietnam might be in danger of having been oggled a tad too much.

Maybe it’s that my time here is drawing to a close. I think endings automatically force on you a subconscious desire to summarise, but I still can’t shake the sense that things are changing. Maybe it’s just that I saw two separate drunken tourist today, each wearing the wooden conical hats of a thousand tourist brochures and each thinking it hilarious, but it’s on my mind, which means, by default, it’s in this blog.

Tourism has a long and established history of reinventing the best parts of the best parts of the world in its own image then resenting them for being too much like home. It’s a gradual shift; initially it’s the insistence that western standards of hygiene be met. From that follows the insistence on western standards of customer service and from that, inevitably, flow the endless orders of egg, chips and lager.

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Floating vendor at Halong bay

This is hardly new. Southeast Asia has been reinventing itself in the reflection of tourists’ expectations for a long time now. Similarly, tourists project a reality onto Southeast Asia – and Vietnam specifically –  that has never really existed. This is where they come to lose themselves, get their hair braided, buy long baggy clothes, discuss the natural simplicity of the people and lay the groundwork for the hundred anecdotes they’ll tell over a hundred  dinner parties. It’s a pervasive myth, and one that those naturally simple people work very hard to reinforce; their tourist industry is based upon it. All the way through Vietnam, from Sapa to Hanoi, from Hanoi to Hue and Hoi An and from there to Danang to here, (Saigon) that reality is hard at work, reflecting Western notions of Vietnam back to Westerners. All of these destinations are superb – if you’re ever here you should visit them – but they’re as removed from Vietnam as the moon is from Milton Keynes.

Artisan fishermen and oil rigs, Vung tau

Artisan fishermen and oil rigs, Vung Tau

Vietnam is a highly industrial nation and, like any industrial nation, people work hard. They work from very early in the morning to often quite late at night. Moreover, they do so in conditions that would, as often as not, make the average western worker blanche. Right now, about three kilometres from my flat, women sort through the refuse of the city

Sorting through refuse, Ho Chi Minh City

Sorting through refuse, Ho Chi Minh City

dump, with their scarred and always partially infected, bare hands, for anything that can be salvaged. This, for about $2 a day. On Bui Vien, the backpacker mecca of Southern Vietnam, women push children at tourists in the hope of selling a few more trinkets. The odds are that the children aren’t even their own, as often as not they’ll have been shipped in from the Mekong by families so poor and desperate that they’d part with their own children for a few more dollars a month. Similarly, the trinkets themselves – crude wooden bracelets and bead work necklaces – bear little relation to anything Vietnamese as much as they do to Western ideas of Vietnam. I suppose it’s always been that way and, I’m guessing, it always will be. It’s like Pi, it just goes on.

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A bamboo house with neither power or running water, Mekong Delta

Trust me, I don’t mean to sound down or cynical. It’s hard to blame anyone for forming whatever opinion they like of Vietnam when Vietnam itself gives them so little to go on. As I said, there’s a tourist trail that runs from North to South and, within that trail, visitors are allowed almost total freedom of movement and, in ways that can’t be imagined elsewhere, near limitless freedom of action. Straying outside of that trail, however, isn’t so straightforward a proposition.  Until recently, to work in any of the more remote areas of Vietnam, I would first have to submit my passport and Visa to the local security authorities with a request for permission to visit. I say, until recently, as, after a less than flattering piece I wrote about the economy here, those permissions started drying up. Again, it’s a long way from the nouveau hippie trail fancied by most of Vietnam’s much monied international visitors.

I’m aware that I’m erring towards vitriol and, at the risk of repeating myself, that’s not my intention. The thing is that my time here has been stunning. I’ve loved it. Vietnam has repaid every second I invested into it and done so with immense generosity. Quite simply, I love it. But I love all of it; from the endemic prostitution, through the white sand beaches and far away hamlets, to the sons and daughters of the Politburo getting rich off the country’s back. To miss Vietnam’s failings is to miss Vietnam and that would be a real shame, because it’s amazing. It really is.

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Thrills, spills and chills

“Whether he knew of this deficiency himself I can’t say. I think the knowledge came to him at last–only at the very last. But the wilderness found him out early, and had taken vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude–and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.”

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Life has changed. Life has changed dramatically.

I started my time in Vietnam by commenting that life here could never be normal. However, experience soon gives the lie to expectation and, eventually, everything becomes normal. A climate that never drops below 30c simply becomes the everyday. The sweat, the noise, the traffic simply get absorbed by the mundane. By wondering when the electricity bill is due. By wondering if that rattle on the motorbike is just something coming loose, or something more serious. It’s like they say, no matter where you go, you take yourself with you.

There’s nothing wrong in that. Expecting anything otherwise would be wrong, self deluding too. No, life, in all its banality, will always take precedence.

On the one hand, that’s fine. Like I said, it’s as it should be. However, I have this worrying streak; one that’s still searching for extremes and, in that, working for the newspaper has found a home. Occasionally I wonder how much of this is me and how much is having previously lost, (and mostly regained) my sight. Certainly, the three years I lost after the accident still grate. However – if I’m really honest – the kamikaze has always run pretty strong within me.

I’ll give you a for instance, I had an itch to write a story on the My Lai Massacre. The idea was pretty grand. Somehow, interviewing and recording the victims would in some way prove historically significant.

Son My Village, the irrigation ditch where US Soldiers killed 107 unarmed civilians

More than that – and this is a little cynical – I was sure this would be part of the living history of the 20th Century I’d be recording. I wanted to reach out and touch that, even if it meant laying my hands on the scars.

My Lai, (it’s actually called Son My Village) is around five hundred miles from Saigon, meaning a flight to Danang, where I could hire a motorbike to get me to Hoi An, where I could get a hotel, and from there to Son My Village, (about one hundred and thirty five miles). This being Vietnam, my plan to get a decent motorbike for the trip consisted of arranging to meet Some Guy in A Bar, (capitals intended). With grinding predictability, the guy appeared, but the motorbike didn’t. I ended up making the trip on an ancient Honda Wave.

I’m not going to go into any detail on Son My, or interviewing the survivors. Not because those things are somehow sacred or too precious. They’re not. They’re just really big and anything like that is going to overshadow anything else I put in here. I’ll simply say that I left there numb.

Anyone who’s read this blog knows I have one eye and that one eye sports a contact lens the size of a fruit bowl. I’ll just throw that in here for the newbies. In any event, the Vietnam heat dries it out, which, as you’d imagine, is quite painful.  That process is

Road back from Son My Village

obviously amplified on a motorbike, but I can usually get round it by wearing sunglasses, or pulling my visor down. Leaving Son My, it was sundown and I was wearing someone else’s helmet. One without a visor.

I could never have prepared myself for how dark the highway was at night. There is simply nothing. Fields and rice paddies cast no light and that is all there is for what seems like an eternity. The headlights of cars, trucks and buses can be seen for miles, before barreling up to you on full beam, scorching a hole right through to the back of your skull. You ride in a perfect cocoon of black, its only interruption being the dim yellow pool cast by the Wave’s headlight about two metres in front of the bike. The pain was pretty intense when riding, worse when I stopped. Every mile or so, a farmer or a young couple would suddenly come screaming into view, either stopped on the highway, walking or cycling; all without lights.

I got back without injury and, while I can’t say I enjoyed the experience, there it is. It’s never going to go away.

This isn’t going to be an inventory of the stories I’ve covered, even I’d be bored by that. Rather, I’m trying to pick selected highlights to give you an idea of where I’m going with this. Here’s one, I was on a beach in Quang Tri province, again, in the centre of Vietnam. It was incredibly hot. The kind of heat that causes the sand on the beach we were stood on to burn your skin. Anyway, there I was, staring at a rusted piece of American Ordinance, while the bomb expert was explaining its blast capability, (one hundred and fifty metres)

Unexploded bomb, Quang Tri Province

and how, due to its age, how incredibly unstable it was. I took pictures.

The list goes on. I interviewed kids born with the effects of Agent Orange, their arms and legs little more than stumps, or their heads formed without eye sockets. I spent time with the street kids trying to escape lives of theft and prostitution, or women who can’t get their kids into school because they were born HIV Positive. Last week I was in the Mekong Delta. There, I interviewed a family living in one of those bamboo houses the tourists

Child born with the ongoing effects of the Agent Orange dropped here by US Forces

are fond of taking pictures of. There were three generations in there, doing what they could without running water or electricity. The house was pretty much on an island, its only connection to land being the logs supported over filthy snake infested water by bamboo forks. Poverty on that level always comes like a punch to the gut. You expect it to. What you don’t expect is the smell.

Straight after this, I traveled back to Saigon, washed, slept a bit, then put on a clean shirt and went in to teach. The mosquito bites were still fresh.

Kid in a bamboo house

I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m somehow traumatized by any of this, I’m not. Obviously, you shield yourself from it at the time, but the true nature of what you’ve seen tends to work its way in over the following few days and that’s never nice. However, the reality is that I find myself getting increasingly hooked on it. There is something about seeking the extremes in others people’s lives that casts a reflection, not upon your life, but upon you. That’s not always a pleasant experience, but it’s never boring. However, to claim any kind of lofty philosophical motive, (though it’s definitely present) is disingenuous at best, dishonest at worse. It’s actually a lot simpler. It’s exciting. If you think there’s something dark in that, you’re probably right, and my enthusiasm for it scares me. But these are newspaper stories. Stories we all read so, in that, I suppose, it’s a darkness shared.

… and it’s not wondering when the electricity bill is due.

Posted in Ho Chi Minh, Saigon, Sight loss, Travel, Uncategorized, Vietnam | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Light in a Dark Place

I’ve copied and pasted a piece I wrote for the Saigon Times below. It’s a tough one, as I really pulled my punches with it. For instance, you can’t really go describing the vomit, the rats or the stench of a state owned hospital when you’re writing for a state owned newspaper.

However, that said, I met a kid called Giang, (pictured) whose memory I can’t quite shake. Not least when I think about the 75%.

Light in a Dark Place

It’s 5.30pm on Wednesday and the Children’s Cancer Ward at  Cancer Hospital is busy. Families make temporary camps down the hallways, taking turns to rest on the mats they have brought with them. Rooms designed for four, strain to accommodate numbers of up to forty, as everyone makes themselves as comfortable as they can to best get through another day in the ward.

In total, there are twelve nurses here, providing care to 180 sick and terminally ill children. It must be an impossible job. However, it’s not until you consider the scale of that job that the importance of the families’ presence becomes so apparent. Given their presence, they’re perfectly positioned to provide a blanket covering of care that would be hard to match elsewhere. Seen firsthand, their commitment to supporting their children is amazing. Ung Buou caters for the poorest families from across the South. They come here from afar as the Highlands to the Mekong Delta. Seven year old Giang, (pictured above) from Soc Trang in the Mekong Delta has been living here, accompanied by his family, for seven months now.  Like many from the Mekong Delta region, Giang’s family are farmers, and it has fallen to his Aunt’s family work their farm while the family wait it out in Saigon.

Unfortunately, with so many families crammed into such a small area, space is at a premium. Meals are often prepared within the ward, as often as not within the same room as a child receiving treatment. Bich, (5) her brother and her Mother have found a space on the stairs today. Bich has been here for four months now. Luckily, coming from a family of seven, the work on the farm can be spread around, meaning that, as often as not, Bich will have a parent and a brother with her at most times.

The toilets are at the furthest end of the ward; small, cramped and uni-sex, these have to cater not only to the sanitary requirements of the families resident here, but also to the endless parade of cooking equipment brought here after mealtimes. It would be a strained situation at the best of times. However, when you also consider that this small space must accommodate the frequently urgent needs of small children undergoing the rigours of chemotherapy, it’s a true testament to the family’s patience that the system holds together at all.

75% of the children currently staying in Ung Buou’s children’s cancer ward will not likely recover. It’s hard not to be carried away with the tragedy of that statistic. These things should not happen to children.  However, to dwell on that number alone is to miss the point. Children will always be children and, watching Bich pose for pictures with her family, or seeing Giang play with my camera and howl with delight on seeing his picture on the display panel, is to miss the joy that these children bring with them; no matter what the circumstances they’re in, or no matter how dark a place that might be.

Posted in Cancer, Ho Chi Minh, Saigon, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments