Journalists shine new light on Viet Nam

While in Los Angeles last weekend helping my mother with unpacking and organizing after a big move, I got a call from my father-in-law, Earl, who lives in a suburb of Washington, D.C. He had tracked me down to tell me about a great article by Kristin Henderson that was published in the Sunday, March 27, 2011 issue of the Washington Post Magazine. Earl was excited because the article, titled Spring travel: Old war wounds give way to a new Vietnam, includes a passage relating the author’s visit to the Friendship Village, with the account serving as a vehicle for educating readers about the continuing effects of Agent Orange in Viet Nam. Earl read to me over the phone:

In Vietnam, Friendship Village is one of the few places where Agent Orange sufferers can access rehabilitation, education and vocational training. It was created by American, Vietnamese and French combat veterans, former enemies healing each other. A visit to Friendship Village felt like the right thing to do, a guilty American obligation. And we’d been told that, with a little advance arrangement, visitors were welcome to join in the daily life there, just as we were welcome to join the exercisers who rise at dawn to circle Hoan Kiem Lake in old Hanoi. But sitting beside my husband as we drove through the gate, I worried that a facility full of the collateral damage of an old war might not be the most uplifting place for a man who had recently been up to his neck in the damage of a new one.

Sure enough, one of the first volunteers we met told us about children who’d been brought here with “box syndrome” — arms and legs they couldn’t extend because they’d been born with so many disabilities that their families, not knowing what else to do, had kept them in a box. Another volunteer’s handwritten notes described whole families afflicted with disabilities.

It should have been a depressing place. And yet, in a sewing studio, as a young woman with stumps instead of hands deftly laid out fabric and marked it with a pattern, her quiet satisfaction was infectious. She’d learned how to do that here, and with skills like that, she could live her own life.

In the clinic, Vietnamese army doctors and nurses were running a one-day checkup. One of the doctors was making a ticklish child with twisted limbs laugh. Children come here for a year or more. Vietnamese veterans of the war come here for treatment, too, a few months at a time. A wiry vet with a lined face smiled at us as he shuffled past clutching his medical paperwork.

In a colorful classroom, the children were excited about my husband’s camera. A volunteer from Switzerland helped a smiling, birdlike girl named Lien form her fingers into that universal “V” that signifies both victory and peace as the camera clicked. Outside, the rain slowed to a drizzle.

Friendship Village is always in need of donations of money and time. The Swiss volunteer was here for the summer. An American family from Chicago was here for a week, the teenage daughter working with Lien in the classroom, the son outside with a group of Vietnamese children who laughed as they swept up debris from the storm and flung water at each other.

As one of the most prominent Agent Orange-related facilities in Viet Nam, our Friendship Village in Van Canh, near Hanoi, has for years been on the “go to” list for tourists with a conscience, and has received plenty of news coverage, especially around those dates that mark various anniversaries of the end of the American war. Lately, additional attention is being showered on the village thanks to the Make Agent Orange History campaign and the journalism fellowship program called the Vietnam Reporting Project. The latter was the impetus for Connie Schultz’s excellent series of articles published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in January. I don’t know if Kristin Henderson is connected to either of these networks, but I am grateful to all the journalists who find their way to Viet Nam and to the Friendship Village, and then write personal accounts of their experiences. I am grateful to all those who, in their writing, recognize Viet Nam as a beautiful country, not a war, and call attention to the lingering effects of Agent Orange on its environment and its people. Together we can make a difference.

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