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Visiting the Friendship Village, Hanoi, Vietnam

Friendship Village,  HanoiVietnam

 The Friendship Village  is set on a five  acre site approximately 20 kilometres from Hanoi city centre where it houses over a hundred children suffering from Agent Orange dioxin and 40 war veterans.

The Village was founded in 1992 and is the brainchild of the late George Mizo, a former US soldier who served in Vietnam, a hawk turned dove and prominent member of Veterans for Peace, an organisation made up of former male and female soldiers.   Mizo’s main aim was to help repair the damage done to the Vietnamese people and to Vietnam-US  relations following the war.  George died in 2002 but his German wife took up the cause and continues to fundraise on behalf of the Village.

I am here to meet with the director, Dang Vu Dung and carry out a tour of the teaching and training facilities.

Director  Dang Vu Dung  explains,  “We have 102 children residing here.  The age range is between 6 and 20 years.  The vetting system for entry is that they must be the offspring of former Vietnamese soldiers and they must be affected by Agent Orange in some form.  Having said that, the children we enrol here, while suffering a disablement of one form or another as a result of dioxin, are those that, with the right training and rehabilitation, can re-enter society with a skillset to help them survive.

Meeting the Director of the Friendship Village, Hanoi

 The younger children attend school here like any normal child except that here we employ special needs teachers.  The older children receive training in IT/computer skills, weaving and sewing to make clothes, souvenir making (note:  the souvenirs are used as a fundraising tool to generate extra income) and tend the organic vegetable and fruit garden.

 We appoint one mother (supervisor) for every 20 victims and they supervise, guide and encourage an ‘esprit de corps’ among the children with a goal of making them as self sufficient as possible.  We also encourage sports, for example, badminton and football.  Another important aspect is outreaching into the local community and we encourage direct contact and communication to ensure the children’s time here is as normal and productive for them as possible.  All our dioxin children spend a maximum of three years here before returning to their families and villages.

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In the classroom
Ain’t she sweet!

Our income support is split 50/50 – 50% comes from Government funding and the other 50% from fundraising mainly carried out by the Union of Veterans which includes mainly former French, German, Japanese, US and English soldiers. The veteran’s fundraising efforts, their enthusiasm and vision for what we are trying to achieve here is the essence of what the Friendship Village is all about  – turning the negative legacy of war into a positive one where children are given a second chance and the ability to live some from of normal life.  This was George Mizo’s vision.  

Computer training
“Peace Man”
Making souvenir flowers

There are also 40 veterans resident at the Village at any given time.

Two of the veterans resident at the Village

Vietnam Travelogue: Hanoi – First Impressions

Hanoi – First impressions

Travelling from Hanoi airport into the city what becomes immediately apparent is that the city is surrounded by agricultural lands,  mainly geared toward rice production.  I pass vast swathes of rice fields with farmers in conical hats, along with buffalo, tending the fields.

The French influence is everywhere – the houses are narrow but tall with verandahs,  green wooden window shutters and balustrades.

I am staying at the Hanoi Legend hotel in the heart of the Old Quarter – a quaint warren of tiny streets full of hotels, restaurants, tourist offices and hordes of street vendors selling everything from food to trinkets to old Viet Cong army caps with their Vietnamese red star emblem.

The tourist offices are everywhere selling trips up into the northern mountains, out to the karst rocks of beautiful Halong Bay where, for a $100 or so you can book a two day trip touring the islands, swimming, eating and spending the night on board in splendidly furnished wood panelled bedrooms. You can also book an overnight train south along the coast to the old imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty at Hue.

In the Old Quarter, there are motorbike taxis, car taxis and cyclos everywhere all looking for your business  – “You wan moto bike, you wan taxi”

A crowd drinking Bia Hoi on a street corner

There are food stalls where you can snatch a quick Beef Pho for 50 cents,  order your own sit down BBQ for a little more or simply sit on a street corner bar on foot high tiny plastic stools sipping Bia Hoi, the local draught brew which sells at a mere 15 cents a glass.

Vegetable seller along a Hanoi street

Why do they let cars up these tiny streets?

And if you want you can go upmarket to a Grafton Street-style area that sells all the top international brands.  There you’ll also find  five star hotels, excellent restaurants in an area resplendent with attractively dressed men and women driving Porsches and four wheel drives accentuating the obvious gap between rich and poor in this new open market-led economy.

Those motorbikes again!

Wow, I travelled three thousand kilometres and this is what I'm confronted with - where's that Louis Walsh fella?!

What differentiates Hanoi from HCM city, among others,  is its lake system, in particular nearby Hoan  Kiem lake, which, as a centre-piece, tends to have an overall calming affect on this teeming city.

This second instalment of my trip will concentrate on environmental issues, meeting up with environmental and forestry expert Dr Phung Tuu Boi at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, then a 20 kilometre trip out of the city to visit the Friendship Village, ending with a meeting at the Catholic Relief  Services Agency office in the suburbs of the city.

Vietnam Travelogue : A Night Off in Ho Chi Minh City

A Night Off in Ho Chi Minh City

“The youth of a nation are the trustees of posterity” – Benjamin Disraeli 

Wandering from the hotel one evening after a meal of BBQed buttered scallops, fresh crab and salad washed down with a cold Saigon Red beer, all for a mere three euros, I headed up Bui Vien Street (the trendy backpacker tourist area just a few minutes from the hotel)  for a stroll, passing a crowded pavement bar.

The street bar was full of young Vietnamese in their late 20’s/early 30s.  They immediately beckoned me over and insisted I join them.  They were in party mood, in great form and enjoying a few drinks.

They were friendly, welcoming, well educated, spoke perfect English, were interested and interesting and full of chat and bonhomie. These young people represent the new Vietnam, a country with a  successful market-led economy, for example, in 2010, Vietnam’s  nominal GDP reached $104.6 billion, with nominal GDP per capita of $1218.  They have a population of seventy seven million, 80% of which still live in the countryside.  Most Vietnamese businesses are SMEs.

This crowd were having a blast the same way that any group of young Irish or Europeans would do.  Positive in outlook, a good sense of humour and with expectations for a good life – this is the new Vietnam – tech savvy, educated, open to new ideas, gregarious, Generation Y, the iPhone generation?

Mr Ha

I got talking to Mr Ha, who runs his own gentlemen’s outfitters, the life and soul of the gang.  Gay, he cracked jokes, clinked glasses for toasting but was well read, well spoken and interested in why I was visiting.  I talked with Jen (28) who is fluent in English and Japanese, who is now considering a career in the hospitality industry and was eager for my advice based on her skill set.  There was Tuan with a career in IT, Mi Lan in the fashion industry and Jill from Cambodia, into catering.  The group eventually enlarged to include Indian, Catalan, American and German.

These guys gave me a night to remember full of insight and laughs.

Jen, fluent in English and Japanese hoping for a career in the hospitality sector

Jill from Cambodia

I’ve encountered a friendly and vibrant city and people, experienced some revealing moments, ate some great food and now leave for Hanoi just when I felt I was getting an angle on this fascinating city and its people.  I leave with a heavy heart (and my $12 Sopranos full series DVD box set).

Footnote:

I stayed in the Saigon Mini Hotel 1 – a group of five small boutique style hotels.  My double room cost around $20 a night – clean linen, comfortable bed, WiFi in the room  – but the real gem here was the young friendly staff of Ha, Miss Vicky and Christy – they couldn’t do enough for me and made the visit special.

Also Tuan Anh, my Ministry of Foreign Affairs translator who went to tremendous efforts to ensure my trip was a pleasant and successful one.  And it was.

Tuan Anh - Vietnam Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Goodnight Saigon!

Vietnam Travelogue – Part 3 Interview with Dr Phuong, Peace Village Dioxin Ward, Tu Du Hospital, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

The Tu Du Hospital is the biggest maternity hospital in South Vietnam and the Peace Village, a two floor ward at the back of the hospital was set up and supervised by Dr Phuong, who started her career as an intern at the hospital.  She is retired now at seventy two but still holds incredible influence and has been a passionate and tireless campaigner for Agent Orange children.

I’m picked up at the hotel by Tuan Anh, my translator, our driver and the assistant Press Secretary of Vava in an old brown Opel saloon that has definitely seen better days.

A drive through the usual chaotic HCM city traffic gets us there for 9.00 am and I’m greeted with a smile by Dr Phuong on the steps of the hospital.

Meeting with Dr Phuong at the Peace Village ward at Tu Du Hospital, Ho Chi Minh City

I’ve met people like Dr Phuong before – the characteristics are always similar – incredible strength of purpose and a passion and belief that emanates. She is the opposite of strident, overpowering.  She is softly spoken, firm, eloquent, but oozes humanity with a gentle smile.

She apologises for missing yesterday’s meeting and we conduct an interview which is in stark contrast to yesterday’s one at VAVA.  She thinks carefully before answering my questions, speaking good English and only occasionally leaning over to Tuan Anh for clarification on technical points.  And then she smiles, nods, pauses to reflect and replies rapidly but concisely.

Here are some of the points she made:

  • The chemical companies were put under pressure by the US administration to produce Agent Orange in vast quantities within a very short time frame.
  • This led to a far greater concentration of dioxin in the manufacturing that would not normally have been allowed and led to ‘complications’, that is, the temperature produced used in the manufacturing process created a far more lethal product.
  • You could take two views on this – it was either pressure to supply quickly and genuine mistakes were made or corners were cut for commercial reasons by the chemical companies.
  • Either way the companies were in business to supply a product – a product that had a high level of dioxin – and a chemical that has been described by scientists as ‘the most deadly poison known to humankind’.
  • The companies and the US administration continually claim that there is no evidence to link Agent Orange with the kind of cancers, diseases and deformities we are constantly dealing with.
  • But there is a vast amount of scientific evidence and interestingly,US scientific research, which lists over 15 cancers and diseases which are consistently  found in the children we look after here in the Peace Village..
  • And if there is no evidence – why has the US Environmental Protection Agency completely banned the manufacture and use of AO in the US?
  •  They also claim that it was only used as a defoliant to clear the forests. If that is so, then why, and this is in the US administration official data and records, did the army use it to spray 25,000 villages and hamlets.  This was an outright attack on ordinary people, on rural village communities. It was a crime against humanity – a war crime.
  • You can eventually contain and treat dioxin spread and leaching into the environment.  It may take decades, ingenuity, and a lot of money but you can never, ever rid it from the human body. It gets passed on from generation to generation. It may not affect the first generation outwardly and physically. It may even skip a generation and then affect the third generation.  The only way you can halt its toxic spread is to stop reproducing.  That is why we are still trying to cope with its devastating affects today, a full 50 years after the first spraying
  • This is not just about Vietnam, it is about American soldiers who suffered as a result of constant contact with the dioxin during the war – it is about other countries, other soldiers, other nationalities who came into contact – this is not just a story about the Vietnamese.
  • If I have one message it is this – for the sake of all humankind we must rid the world of toxic chemicals. Please get this message out.

I am then given a tour of the wards.  This was the aspect of the trip I was most dreading.  But its fine, I am fine.

We shake hands and I wish her good luck – she smiles but she’s got another appointment and must head  ………and it’s time for us to drive out into the countryside of Cu Chi in our old brown Opel saloon to visit the families.

Arrive in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

It’s a 4.00 am wake-up call in Bangkok for the 7.00 am flight to Ho Chi Minh City.  I’ve booked the same taxi driver who got me to and from the Vietnamese Embassy.  He’s one of the good ones and to avoid the madness of the BKK traffic he skipped through the university and hospital grounds to get me there on time, so I book him for the airport trip..

It’s a 5.00 am pick-up and I’m standing in the dark outside the hotel listening to cocks crowing and observing the ‘last men standing’ at the all night bar along the alleyway.  It’s pungent, warm, very warm, humid and the food stalls are already being set up for breakfast.  Sooprah, the taxi driver is late.  I’m beginning to get edgy when eventually his car arrives around the corner.  He makes up for it by hurtling down the highway to the airport.

Arrive into the spankingly new Ton Nhat airport  (this is where the first shipment of Agent Orange was unloaded in August 1961 when the Americans started ‘tests’)

Heading into HCM city centre

A half hour taxi ride into the city and the motorbikes are swarming like mosquitoes – it’s unbelievable.  Ho Chi Minh City wows the senses, Not since Phnom Penh have I seen anything like this, The motorbikes are everywhere – thousands and thousands of them – horns beeping, weaving, swerving, riding up on pavements, going the wrong way (but then there is no wrong way!) and the air is pungent with food being cooked on sidewalks….and as Phil Lynott observed – “it’s so goddammed hot!”

I’m staying at a small boutique hotel called the Saigon Mini Hotel 1,  its in a quiet alleyway away from the noise  just next door to Bui Vien  – think Temple Bar, think Covent Garden –  no don’t – its so much funkier – full of art houses, restaurants, bars and alive with young Vietnamese and a rainbow of nationalities.

I check in, shower and get a call to say my translator from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has arrived in the lobby.  He is Tuan Anh (pronounced Too’in Ang).  He’s well dressed, smart, perfect English and only 28.

Tuan Anh, the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs translator

We have an hour long briefing and then its over to meet Major General Tran Ngoc Tho, Vice Chair of the Victims of Agent Orange Association (VAVA). The meeting with VAVA will be informational but the person I really want to meet, Dr Phuong, a tireless campaigner on behalf of Agent Orange victims, has promised to meet me at the offices as well.

Then tomorrow morning it’s a visit the Peace Village Agent Orange ward which spans two floors at the back of the Tu Du Hospital, southern Vietnam’s main maternity hospital. This will be followed by a two hour car ride out into the country, up to the Cu Chi tunnels area, north of the city to visit three families.

Major General Trans Ngoc Tho – Vice Chairman of VAVA

We take a taxi to the VAVA offices to interview Tran Ngoc Tho.  Ngoc Tho appears to be an old style apparachik dressed head to foot in grey. We pose for photographs with the official VAVA photographer and Ngoc Tho is joined by two colleagues.    The meeting, which lasts over one and a half hours, does not go particularly well.  Each question put through Tuan Anh receives a wordy and long reply but with seemingly little substance.  As the interview wears on, apart from some of the obvious facts and figures that are in the public domain and I already know, it appears that I am not getting straight answers to questions.

I change tack and I am now trying to ascertain the level of increased cooperation between the US and Vietnam through funding and resources for  clean up in the dioxin hot spots.    I feel I am being stonewalled but then realize that it is not just me who feels this.  I notice his colleagues grimacing and moving uncomfortably as he talks.  He finally produces some interesting figures that the US Government eventually released to the Vietnamese Government outlining the provinces, the populations and the quantity of chemical sprayed during the ten year period.

Eventually I get a breakthrough when he tells me that there has been a giant leap forward in the US funding for clean up.

Nontheless, I am just slightly disappointed on two fronts – its taken me nearly two hours to get information  and a call has just come through to say that Dr. Phuong cannot make the meeting.

We shake hands, take some more photographs and head back to the hotel.  Tuan Anh knows it has not been a great but there is good news – Dr. Phuong has just called him on the mobile to say she can meet at 9.00 amtomorrow morning at the Tu Du hospital.

Today has been an early start and a long day.

Tomorrow I visit the hospital, interview Dr. Phuong, meet some of the children and then head up the country to to visit three of the families.

VAVA have agreed to supply a car and driver and I agree to provide monies to buy foodstuffs for the three families.

Travel to Vietnam to do story on Agent Orange

C123 US army planes spraying Agent Orange

I’ve been commissioned to do a story on the legacy of  the spraying of the defoliant toxic chemical Agent Orange by the US Army across the Vietnamese countryside.  Apart from the use of conventional weapons, chemical weapons were used to defoliate the forests in a bid to flush out the Vietcong.   Over  a ten year period from 1961, toxic rains poured down continuously over Central and South Vietnam defoliating mountains, plains and crops, destroying clean water resources and upsetting the delicate ecological balance.  Its a legacy of devastating environmental damage and serious public health issues which still have a profound effect today.

Flying to Ho Chi Minh city via Bangkok, I will concentrate on health issues and meet with the Victims of Agent Orange Association (VAVA), with Dr Phuong of the Peace Village at Tu Du hospital where AO victims reside and will travel up into the Cu Chi area to visit three families who have seriously deformed children as a result of AO.  From HCM I travel to Hanoi to cover environmental issues and  interview an environmental expert and visit the Friendship Village.

This is a staged travelogue of the journey.

Arived jetlagged after a Dublin–Frankfurt/ Frankfurt BKK flight.  Enjoyed Frankfurt stop-off for a few cold German beers before the second leg of the journey.  Lufthansa flight food was really poor.  I expected more from a Gernam airline. There is absolutely no excuse for producing food of this low quality for long haul flights. The inflight media entertainment was also limited in its choices.

Qatar and Etihad,  who also fly this route daily, are streets ahead in nearly every department – quality of jet used, ambience, comfort, efficiency and friendliness of staff, inflight entertainment choices includingfood and drink.

The only reason I flew Lufthansa was the competitive price and the expectation that German standards would be high.   They were barely sufficient.

I left Dublin at 18.00 hours and arrived in Bangkok around 14.30 (8.30 am Irish time) so the trip took 12 hours.  After a mere five hours in-flight sleep,  I ended up stuck in a massive tragic jam in downtown BKK and didn’t check into the hotel until about 17.30 hrs.

Exhausted, I sleep, shower, eat and more sleep again into Sunday morning.  Sunday is taken up with Skyping and Emails finalising arranging for the Ho Chi Minh city start of the trip.

My main concern is Monday down at the Vietnamese Embassy.  I have been granted a work visa from theVietnam Minister of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and have a letter from them to that effect.  However I must have my visa stamped before I can enter the country so I’ve a 7.00 am start to get across town  in heavy traffic. (I’m staying in Banglampoo along the river on the north west side but the embassy belt is over by Lumpini Park along Wireless Road).  I want to be first in the queue.  With memories of the queuing at the Dublin Passport office this could be a difficult day.   I’m first in the door only to be told the stamp will be ready on Wednesday.  “Too bad”, I said.  “My flight to Ho Chi Minh City leaves at 7.00 am in the morning.”  “Well then come back between 3.30 and 4.00 ”, she replied.

I  arrive back at 3.30 pm on the nail and go up to the same woman I met earlier with my docket to Window 3.  There are 3 numbered glass windows, all within a couple of feet of each other – one for tourists, two for business, three for special trips.  She looks at me blankly, waves the docket back at me and sternly tells me to go to Window 1.  I move two feet to her colleague at Window 1 and hand him the docket.  He breaks into a broad smile and tells me to move back to Window 3.  I take a few  steps back to Window 3 as the colleague hands the docket back to the woman.  He’s in stitches while she stares at me blankly then looks down at my application and passport which is lying face up on her desk.  There is absolutely no communication.  She leaves me standing as she flicks through folders, writes two receipts and each time very slowly and deliberately inserts a sheet of carbon paper into two differently coloured  receipt books.  Finally after what seems like an interminable wait, she turns to me blankly, stares through me and hands me MY STAMPED PASSPORT.  I move a few feet back to her colleague and ask:  “Is it always like this on Mondays?” He breaks into a huge grin.

The whole day has been spent focused on getting the passport stamped.

I celebrate by heading to a nearby bar for a cold Singha.  Its all systems go for Vietnam.

US Army soldier spraying Agent Orange

Ireland’s future depends on breaking free from the bailout

Once again Morgan Kelly has set the cat among the pigeons with his  reportage and analysis of the stranglehold that the troika of the EU/ECB/IMF has inflicted on Irish taxpayers.  Whatever about his prescription, his background detail, particularly his claim that it was US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner who overruled the IMF team ( the IMF ironically wanted the bondholders to take responsibility for their high stakes gambling) and sided with the ECB who insisted that Irish taxpayers, and not bankers would take the hit.

The deal, which puts Irish taxpayers in hock for generations ensures that ordinary workers – nurses,  guards etc  and small businesses will have to pay more for less and take the hit through increased taxes including  increased indirect taxes through levies – property tax, water tax, carbon tax etc  and through decreased services – education, health etc..

Of course, the real reason, while punitively and unrealistically punishing Ireland, was to protect the Eurozone and send a stark message to Spain

Colm McCarthy,  another right of centre Irish economist had this to say:  “…… unless the European banking crisis is acknowledged and dealt with soon, we are witnessing a slow-motion train-wreck that will end badly for Ireland, for several other eurozone members and ultimately for the entire European project.”  You can read his piece here.

Meanwhile Irish Times political correspondence, Stephen Collins, again hardly a radical voice in the wilderness, has had a go off high-earning lawyers, hospital consultants, doctors, judges, academics and senior executives in State bodies, who, in an outright attack on Ireland’s elite earners, he claims,  are using their power to evade taking equitable responsibility.  He quotes American thinker, John Jay Chapman who oberved:

“People who love soft methods and hate iniquity forget this,  that reform consists in taking a bone from a dog  – philosophy won’t do it.”


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