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A Day for Singing
by James MacNeil.

It is National Day in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Thuc, the project driver, is at the helm as usual. He has orchestrated this whole trip. He wants my comrades and me to see Quang Tri as he has seen it. He wants us to meet the common folks and stellar performers in this poorest of provinces. He also insists that we listen to his critical commentary on the national day radio shows that the Voice of Vietnam has been broadcasting since sunrise. His commentary dispels any doubt that he believes in the common people of Quang Tri more than in the leaders in Hanoi.

"You see my dear James - esteemed international expert – in Vietnam, the people are better educated than the leaders. Look around – xichlo (rickshaw) drivers, market ladies, hair cutters - they read books in their spare moments! The masses are well educated, but they have no political power. Do you see what I mean?"

I can’t tell if he is proposing a serious idea or merely provoking the passengers just to help him stay awake at the wheel. For a survival strategy, I have unconsciously developed a habit of encouraging these diatribes, for when he is thinking and speaking he tends to drive at a "safe" speed. During those long stretches of road when conversation is absent in the van, or worse still, when he is excluded from the conversation, he drives like an intoxicated maniac. It is the most incongruous feature of this otherwise sensible and intellectual man - how he derives adolescent delight from running vehicles and pedestrians off the road, playing chicken with trucks, and generally scaring the wits out of the women in the van.

"Well, my dear Mr. Thuc - distinguished chauffeur and doctor of laws honoris causa - all this reading of books is not a waste of effort, because, as you know, a well-educated populace makes the foundation of a democratic country - dan chu, that is ‘popular rule,’ is not that so?"

"Dan chu!" he erupted, "that is the most ridiculous thing I have heard all day. What do the people have? What do they know? A roof and a floor. If they’re lucky they have walls, too! What do the people know how to do? Fight wars. That’s what they are good at. And this is true for the leaders as well." I try to get word in, to the effect that ‘come on Thuc, people have walls here - even the poorest people have at least three - don’t exaggerate so much.’ But it is useless to place myself in the middle of his crazy rail, for he is not stopping. "The people have no power, do you understand that? The only thing that chu (rules) Vietnam is the Communist Party. Forget about your ideals."

The fancy parades are in Hanoi, but we are on the road heading to Quang Tri to be with our people. This morning we watched the preparation for the national day parades on the noodle stand television. At lunch we caught some of the procession on a roadside restaurant television. All morning we listened to the broadcast of the event on the car radio. The rousing speeches, patriotic songs and the play-by-play descriptions of the beautiful, progressive men and women who marched with their hearts brimming with the pride of a unified people building a nation on the eve of long-promised economic prosperity.

We are driving south on highway one toward Dong Ha, the capital of Quang Tri Province. The line that once divided the north and south of Vietnam - or the "demilitarized zone" - runs through this province. It was hit hard during the war and today remains one of the country’s poorest areas. Each year it still gets blasted by typhoons that remove topsoil, homes and life from Quang Tri’s fragile coastline and mountain slopes. During the American war the sacrifices of the people were nothing short of heroic, the suffering and destruction unspeakable. The struggle continues today unabated - against nature, against the remnant destruction of war, and against the often-misguided economic policies of the Party that the people once fought for so valiantly. I can’t say that I have come to help the people of Quang Tri. While I do manage a micro-credit and agricultural improvement program with the Women’s Union in neighboring Quang Binh, my organization has no additional funding for new projects in Quang Tri.

Thien passively listened to the exchange between Thuc and me. He seemed more interested in the radio reports of the celebration in Hanoi. Our team’s two Party members, Hoa and Nhien, expressed their usual amused uneasiness with Thuc's ranting. Hoa nudges me and says, "James you have to understand that not only does Thuc not have the qualifications for Party membership, he is also a man who works for the Women’s Union." Everyone laughs, Thuc included. Hoa has the way with words and she usually delivers them with just the right combination of charm and authority. She is tougher than anyone in the van. Not only is she a political survivor in one of the party’s mass organizations, but she was also on the "ground" during the war. Her parents chose her to be the warrior rather than risk losing their only son. So she walked the Ho Chi Minh Trail, carrying sacks of Chinese wheat flour on her back. She tells me that the walk was no problem but eating the wheat flour porridge was awful. During most of that fiasco Thien was in the woods studying animal husbandry in makeshift college classrooms set up under tents. Nhien was too young to see action. Thuc was an anti-aircraft gunner in the infantry, but I don’t think he saw action south of Ninh Binh. If he did travel the Ho Chi Minh Trail and enter Saigon, like he says he did, then he most certainly was driving a half-track or a tank. After all, he was a driver for the army. But Hoa walked the trail. She was by far the toughest.

It is lunchtime when we reach a crossroads about forty kilometers north of Dong Ha. It is one of those countless market areas that hug highway one so closely that trucks nearly careen into restaurants as they pass each other on the road. We pull over for ‘popular rice’ and gather around the ready-made dishes that are displayed on the front sill of the restaurant. It is an early lunch so the food is still relatively free of the dust and car exhaust that will coat it by the early afternoon. Before I get out of the car I can already see the parades in Hanoi on the television in the back of the restaurant. When I open the car door I am bombarded from all sides by shrill renditions of popular war marches. I cannot duck for cover - it emanates synchronously from our car radio, from the television, the public service loudspeakers, a Karaoke machine in the adjacent tea shop, other car radios. The entire country is plugged into the same program of endless float parades and monotonous speeches going on in front of Uncle Ho’s Mausoleum.

After lunch, tea and tooth picking, we are back on the road to Dong Ha. The highway is relatively empty on this national holiday, but nation building takes no break. The burning tar of an upcoming road repair operation is visible a few kilometers away.

Up ahead I notice a woman squatting right in the middle of the two-lane highway. A truck swerves past her to our left as we pass her on the right. Under her conical cap her only protection is baggy clothing that shields her from the broiling sun. Her tools consist of a basket filled with fresh tar. She is patching potholes in the highway by hand. I don’t see what kind of hand protection she has, but I hope she is wearing gloves. Someone says, "Heaven and earth! How dangerous can ya’ get?" Someone else: "Poor woman, what a terrible situation."

A minute later we reach the road repair operation. The traffic is slowed down, and we join the queue of cars and trucks that is slithering along the small detour on the shoulder. An ancient Russian steamroller is flattening out the tar that has been laid mostly by basket and shovel. The road crew of fifteen or so, mostly women, hand-carry baskets of tar back and forth between the road and the drum of boiling tar that is generating huge plumes of thick, black, toxic smoke. I try to imagine the temperatures of this roadside inferno - 98° in the shade, 107° on the road, 124° next to the oil drum. As we pass one of the workers, a middle-aged man with a scraggly goatee and a black face, calls out to us, "Hey comrades! How is the parade in Hanoi? I’ll bet they’re having a ball, no?" Evidently he noticed our Hanoi license plates. Thuc leans out the window and responds, "We haven’t been there in a day, but from the TV it looks spectacular." The sincerity in the question, the innocence in the faces of the heroes and heroines of the revolution. The people who fought the epic battles, the people who now ‘owned’ the government, the newspapers, and the labor unions. The revolutionaries who were promised that only a proletarian dictatorship could govern a human-made utopia. They slave away for $1.50 a day without a complaint, not even enjoying so much as an extended tea break on national day. My heart sunk to a new low. My college dream of socialist utopia was now smoldering below the lowest level of Dante’s smorgasbord of nightmares. The social and economic upheavals of the 20th century were finally taking their toll.

Fifty-five gallon oil drums. Every time I drive by one of these tar-surfacing operations these drums remind me of the "agents" – the blue one, the orange one. These drums were probably just another relic of the American War that were strewn in some corner of Quang Tri twenty-five years ago. Although they have since been recycled for umpteen civilian uses, their original function was to carry the chemical herbicides 2,4,5-D and 2,4-T. These American-created compounds were used to defoliate large swathes of South Vietnamese jungles. The agents got their infamous common names from the orange and blue colored bands around these oil drums.

I try to pretend that I have been in Vietnam long enough to be desensitized to this. I am cool enough already and have exorcised all the demons and, like the Vietnamese, I just get on with the practical tasks of building a progressive, modern nation. But the industrial desperation of oil drums, the burning tar and the soot-covered farmers bring me back to confront the America that I thought I left behind.

Suddenly and miraculously, Hoa retrieves me from my pit of loathing. As the car coasts by slowly she grabs a pack of Thien’s cigarettes and hands them to the fellow who asked about the celebration. Thien doesn’t flinch, but instead begins to search his person for more goodies. Hoa then calls one of the women workers over to the car and asks for her hat. Meanwhile we assemble cookies and sweets and mandarin oranges - whatever we can gather together - and place them in the hat. "This is for the whole crew!" She says. A few other women wave and say thanks as we pass by. It happens in an instant. A smile creeps over my face as Hoa nods approvingly.

Quang Tri means memorials to destruction, and in two days we will visit them all. Our guide is the president of the provincial Women’s Union and Quang Tri native, the eminent Mrs. Phuong. According to Thuc’s estimation, she is the most capable Women’s Union president in the country’s 53 provinces. Our first stop is the center of the Thanh Co - the ancient citadel. It was built around the same period as Hue’s famous citadel, but unlike that splendid cluster of edifices, the Thanh Co is now absent from the surface of the earth. For some strategic reason the United States vaporized it. Only the ramparts of the citadel remain. All that we find within these ramparts today is a memorial in the center that is surrounded by overgrown pasture where local people graze their cows.

In addition to these walls, only two more structures remain from those days. One is a shell of a schoolhouse in the center of the new town and the other a Catholic Church called La Vang on the outskirts. La Vang is situated in a quiet rural area surrounded by rolling hills and fields. It endured heavy shelling during the war. According to our brief national day survey, all that remains is the façade, which is replete with the empty outline of a rose window. The church itself is hollowed out - one side was entirely erased, half of the altar was pulverized. The attraction for both Vietnamese Catholics and communists is a small statue of the Virgin Mary – which is also the only holy relic that remains on the site. She stood her ground on a small altar under a fig tree, weathering the storm of hell fire that rained down from the flying beasts. Mary is surrounded by flowers left by the faithful and by a small sign that reads, in Vietnamese,

"The goodness of our Mother survives the acts of evil. Bomb after bomb fell upon this spot on earth, and when it stopped our mother remained unscathed, as pure and beautiful as ever."

Jesus was buried in the rubble, bashed to bits by a cluster bomb. As if bearing the cross wasn’t enough already. The local folks have since reassembled the bits to restore their Jesus to some semblance of a dignified, crucified savior.

We wander around the church grounds, chatting in small groups. "Hey Thuc," I ask my steady comrade, "Could it be that human beings are addicted to suffering?" Thuc gave me a long stare and made that patented, inquisitory contortion in his face. "James, you haven’t seen anything yet. This is death, not suffering. The dead don’t suffer anymore." First he tells me to "forget my ideals" and now that the "dead don’t suffer." But he does not want me to forget ideals, but rather to know the cost of having them. "You might be American but you don’t know the cost of being free." If I had to summarize his thesis, that would be it.

From La Vang Madame Phuong leads us to Cam Lo district about forty kilometers to the west of Dong Ha town. We stop in the market for ten minutes to purchase cookies and sweets "for the kids," Hoa told me. From there we swing by the district Women’s Union Office to pick up the district president - Madame Hong - who will be our local guide. She is a beautiful woman in her early 40s. She is not very outgoing but has an air of self-confidence. She greets us and assumes her seat in the van. I think her reticence might be due to slight intimidation by the lineup in the car - me, apparently an international dignitary, Hoa, a nationally known Women’s Union cadre and author, and Phuong, her immediate boss, who is an impressive leader destined for the National Assembly. And Thuc, a self-proclaimed coolie who enjoys "researching various topics."

Thuc looks in the rear view mirror and suggests to Hong, "Sister Hong, why not let us know where we are going today?" Hong replies, "Oh yes, brother, of course, we are going to the village of Truong An, one of many villages that were sprayed with agent orange during the war, and ...we’ll visit some of the children who suffer from dioxin poisoning." Then Thuc glances penetratingly at me to see my reaction. I nod back at him. In a brief instant of eye contact I told him, "I knew one day we would come here together."

Cam Lo district is in the foothills of the Truong Son Range - the Annamitic Cordillera (as the French called it) that separates Laos from Vietnam. On the way up the mountain Thuc notices berries growing on the side of the road. Thien and I leap out of the van with the ostensible purpose of gathering a few handfuls. After picking over the bushes for a few minutes I notice Thien is standing erect, directing a stream of urine onto the red soil. "Time for fertilizer," he says. I do the same. "James, look at this landscape - not a single tree." True. As far as I can see, in every direction, the landscape is treeless. There was nothing but rugged brush and the occasional head of cattle scratching around for grass. "Agent orange?" I ask Thien. "Yeah," he replies, "or Agent Blue, I don’t know the difference. They contain dioxin (he pronounces "dee-o-seen"), though, and that’s what damages the chromosomes of mammals." "Damn. Ya’ know something, Thien, the US government told the American public at that time that these defoliants were not dangerous because they were organic herbicides." "Yeah they were organic. But so is arsenic and rotenone." Thien and I zipped up and got back in the van. Through the van’s window I survey the extent of the empty landscape. Sure, a lot of expatriate experts blame the persistent defoliation on overgrazing and brush fires, overpopulation, whatever. But these astute assessments cannot detract from the severity of the dousing that started this wasting of the countryside. Defoliation was the mission of Operation Ranch Hand. Formations of fat, lazy planes dragging their white clouds of herbicide like lassoes across the jungled landscape. The herbicide, 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid, or 2,4,5-T, had a violent and profound impact – it stimulated plant life to grow so quickly that it died from the strain. The carpet of dead plant matter soon became highly inflammable tinder. The slightest spark would set off brush fires that would complete the mission – to deprive the Viet Cong soldiers of jungle cover.

My wake-up call to America’s horrendous blunder was in college. I was slouching in a wooden chair twirling a pen on my finger when the numbers jumped off a history blackboard and landed in my head like javelins. Twenty million gallons dumped over ten years (1961-71). They defoliated 10% of the land area of what was then South Vietnam. Or, as my teacher nonchalantly suggested, "an area roughly equal to the size of our commonwealth of Massachusetts."

Thien and I had talked about this before, but in the abstract, back in distant Hanoi where the levels of dioxin found in children are 50 times lower than in places like Quang Tri. He was a biologist by training and understood how a purportedly benign organic compound could have such a deadly impact. Thien told me that 2,4,5-T was dangerous because it contained the contaminant dioxin. Dioxin (2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin) is a by-product of the production of 2,4,5-T. Months later I will meet an American epidemiologist in Hanoi who will tell me that "dioxin is the most potent teratogen ever tested on animals." "Teratogenic" means "relating to, or causing developmental deformities". The word "teratogen" became jargon of the trade in the late 1950s, which was around the time that American scientists were testing many such compounds on laboratory animals.

As the van continues to climb towards Truong An, Thien poses the question, "James, does the US government compensate US military men who were injured by Agent Orange?" My answer is not as compelling as the complex thought process that I knew was backing up Thien’s question. "Well, Thien, I guess the US government would say that there is no demonstrable scientific connection between Agent Orange and whatever injuries the men have suffered."

We enter the Truong An Village. The condition of the homes tells us of the poverty of the village. Randomly sized wooden boards for walls, mostly tin roofs, some made of straw. A few houses have no windows, but they are still better off than the ones that are missing a wall or two. The home gardens testify to the richness of the soil and the diligence of the farmers. Cows are grazing between rows of jackfruit trees, each of which is covered with climbing black pepper plants. The soil is ubiquitously red and seemingly weedless. Thien is excited by this integrated farm system, which recently had been promoted by the agricultural extension department as a model of self-sufficiency and income generation. He makes up a song on the spot "jackfruit, pepper, cattle…will make you rich, without a battle." The guy is an agriculture extension agent to the core, and like most of the cadres on our project, he never shies away from poetry.

We walk from house to house led by Madame Hong. We bring our cookies and sweets, and talk with mothers and fathers. We meet a handful of the 180 children, born between 1970-1980, who are heinously deformed by dioxin. After we walk out of the first house, Thuc explains to me slowly; "Agent Orange was not the problem. Some of these villagers probably got doused with it directly and they are fine. The problem was when the dioxin settled into the water sources and the soil. Parents drank the water for years not knowing that the dioxin in the water was maiming their offspring before they were born." I listen in silence and nod carefully.

Dioxin settling into the water and soil was only part of the story. The accumulation of dioxin in the bodies of animals was the other. Dioxin accumulated in the soil and water, then in the zooplankton, then in the fat of fish, which were ingested by human beings. Dioxin got into the ecosystem and biomagnified, becoming increasingly more concentrated and lethal, as it passed up the food chain. Thuc’s science may be only half right, but his powerful words stay with me as we visit other homes - maiming their offspring before they were born. Kids are deformed and disabled. In one family two of four kids, in another family three of four - and in some families, all kids - physically and mentally disabled and completely dependent on their parents. Although they were born in the 70s, they look like 5-year-olds. One child is able to sit upright in a chair only after five years of therapy. One child is lying on his back playing with a plastic bottle on a string, oblivious to visitors. The hands and feet of one child are bound with rope to prevent self-mutilation. One child is horrifically malformed into a permanent lockjaw position, barely recognizable as a human being - yet she is still able to smile upon feeling the warmth of her mother’s arms. We give them cookies and a few dong notes to help buy toys. They ask about the National Day festivities in Hanoi. Hoa tells them that it was going well, but that "the real heroes are you folks who are down here making a living."

Despite the prosperity brought by jackfruit and peppers, and the imminent post-socialist order that was emanating from Hanoi, these folks are still living with the war. On the radio, the Party Secretary speaks of mobilizing all sectors of society to help realize "market-oriented socialism." While the Prime Minister remarks about the "inevitable logic of economic laws," all but admit that the revolution has capitulated to the IMF once and for all. On CNN, MacNamara gets the last word when he says that the "intransigence of the northern Vietnamese" cost 2 million additional lives. And the US government insists that they cannot conclusively demonstrate a causal relationship between dioxin sprayed in the 1960s and children deformed today. They feign despair before the logistical difficulties of performing a longitudinal experiment 30 years into the past. They hold fast to enlightened scientific procedures. As one US Ambassador to Vietnam once soberly declared, "you can’t make the linkages until you do the science."

Thuc and Hoa just want me to know about the children of Truong An. Unlike most other occasions, they do not ask me to comment on what we have seen. Like Aunt Huong just wanted me to know about Senator Nixon’s visit to Ninh Binh in the 1950s, and Uncle Tho wanted me to know about his lung that was carved out of his body by a South Korean soldier, or Dien who lost 5 sons in the fracas and still carries on. They just want me to know; to not take anything for granted, to share responsibility for the abomination of war. Most of all they didn’t want me to crumble, but to carry on with respect for their heroic sacrifices, and not to capitulate so readily as the politicians and profiteers.

On the road five minutes out of Truong An, Hoa passes around mandarin oranges to break the silence. Madame Phuong insists that Madame Hong sing a few Quang Tri songs. She does not even feign refusal. She sings with long moaning notes as her head waves back and forth. Then come the bouncing notes, followed by a quiet stretch that almost goes down to a whisper, then at last the passionate crescendo. She sings of the struggles of poor farmers against the amoral caprice of nature. She sings of the painful longing for a husband who disappeared in the forests of the Truong Son Mountains. She sings of the beautiful women of Quang Tri whose love and charms alone would end wars forever. Phuong is noticeably moved by the tinh cam (the "impassioned sentiment") of Hong’s medley of folk songs. Hoa is staring out the window absorbed in the lyric. After we clap our appreciation, Madame Hong remarks to me, staring at me with bleary eyes, "Mr. James, I am so sorry if some of the lyrics may offend the Americans. It is about a war that happened a long time ago. Please forgive me."

Phuong turns to me and proposes the inevitable, "James, how about a song? Hoa tells me you can sing a Vietnamese song." Hong chimes in "Yes, that would be wonderful, please!"

I knew a few Vietnamese songs, foolish songs about lovely maidens in the bamboo grove, about lovers walking in the park and trying to feed each other ice cream before it melts, etc. I just cannot bring myself to sing one of these foolish songs. My mind is in the village where the mothers are nursing their helpless children and at the edge of the pond where fathers catch dioxin-contaminated fish for their families. I wonder how the architects of Operation Ranch Hand would deny this. I tell them that my silly songs would be an insult to Hong’s beauty and the profundity of her songs. I have performed this medley of frivolous songs probably a hundred times, but now that I have reached the moment when these songs needed most to be sung, I can’t do it. I am now unable to make up excuses either. Hong looks on in anticipation, still smiling. I am tied up in a knot, staring out the window looking for a distraction, unable to get her apology out of my tired mind. Then Hoa nudges me with her elbow in the side. "James, just sing". Hoa knows something I don’t know - about the passion of Vietnamese women, about a courageous people whose lives were shaped by their sacrifices to a cause they could not refuse. By simply having lived longer on this planet, she knows more than I do about the humanity entailed by the simple exchange of song. Finally I give in to her nudge, "Yes, sister, yes, I will sing. But, I will only sing a short song, because I am not a good singer and my Vietnamese is not very fluent." Beo dat may troi…It is the silliest, one line song that I am able to sing – about purple hyacinths floating on the lake where lovers row their boats. Madame Phuong claps enthusiastically. Sister Hong grabs my hand and holds it up between us saying, "Thank you mister James, thank you, that was beautiful…I…I…can’t tell you how much I appreciate that."

I see Thuc’s face in the rear view mirror. He is smiling in a way that is unknown to his usually stern face. For two years he has wanted me to know about this, and his mission is now complete.

 






James MacNeil says: "The piece is a bit of creative non-fiction from my days in Vietnam (1994-97) when I was living there and working on a public health/family planning education program. It is one of several vignettes that I have written, and I am hoping to publish them as a book. My goal is to bring the beauty, the tragedy, and resilience of Vietnam to life through the lives of my close friends and colleagues." James MacNeil currently lives and works in Boston for a nonprofit that does development and education work in 20 countries. Please write to him in care of Offcourse.


 

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