Posts Tagged 'dr phuong'

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.

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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.


September 2017
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