One of the unique aspects of the Vietnam Friendship Village is the two-way street of learning and growth that happens there. The Vietnamese residents, some now young adults, are enriched by interactions with volunteers from different countries and cultural backgrounds, and vice versa. It is not uncommon for U.S. citizens who travel to Vietnam to develop a deeper interest in the history of the American war there, and to awaken to a sense of responsibility for the damages that remain. Anna Tadio is one such traveler. She is an American high school student who experienced Vietnam, and the Friendship Village, on a trip with an organization called Adventures Cross Country. —Ed.
by Anna Tadio
Crossing the border into Vietnam, the first thing one notices are the overwhelmingly friendly people. From offers of help to the train station, to recommendations of where to eat a cheap authentic meal, I never once have felt the anti-American animosity that I am sure I would feel if my people were subjected to the brutalities that took place during the Vietnam War (or as they call it here the American War). Although the war officially lasted for 19 years, the most destructive attempt at preventing communism was the United States’ use of the toxic defoliant Agent Orange that is still permeating the environment today. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy authorized the beginning of Operation Ranch Hand, the U.S. Air Force code name for the use of this toxic herbicide.
Manufactured by Monsanto and Dow Chemical, Agent Orange was sprayed for 9 years. Over 20,000,000 gallons of chemical herbicides and defoliants were used to deprive the North Vietnamese of hiding spaces and food supplies. The concentrations of this chemical were hundreds of times greater than considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. U.S. helicopters and planes sprayed the countryside at 13 times what was recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. More than 20 percent of Vietnam’s forests were sprayed, including endangered mangrove forests. 4.8 million Vietnamese were exposed to Agent Orange and about 3 million people are now victims, including second- and third-generation offspring of those originally exposed. Hundreds of thousands have died and hundreds of thousands of others are struggling with major disabilities including children who are born each year with deformities. The Vietnamese victims have no way to pay for medical treatment or care for their severely disabled children while they try to earn a living.
For ten days I have had the unique opportunity to spend time volunteering at Friendship Village in the suburbs of Hanoi in northern Vietnam. This sanctuary for victims of Agent Orange was founded by a man named George Mizo, a U.S. war veteran who, while experiencing the horrors of the Vietnam War, became a peace activist and widely spoke out against the war in Vietnam. After suffering from a series of health problems, his doctors attributed his sickness to his exposure to Agent Orange. As a way to make amends with the people he spent so many years killing, and as a way to help those that the U.S. government still has not, he helped create a place for both young children and Vietnam war veterans to live, play, and receive medical care, emotional support and vocational training so that they may lead a somewhat normal life when they leave their safe haven. Children and veterans stay for different time periods, and they are not required to pay a dime. The village currently receives more than half of its funding from the Vietnamese government and receives another large chunk from international donors including the United States, Japan, France, Canada, England and Germany.
When I walked into the village, I observed a pleasant environment with light yellow buildings surrounding a huge park with a playground in the middle and a pond that at one time was the home of fish that the residents grew for another protein source. It felt peaceful. The relief I felt at seeing such a well-maintained establishment was washed away when the first resident came out to say hello. Luian, one of the residents, is half as tall as a full-grown Vietnamese woman, and her face tells a story of serious birth defects and emotionally stunted growth. She appears to be 14 and in reality is 29. She had a huge smile on her face and gave each of us American students a huge hug and grabbed someone’s hands. Other residents poured out of their classrooms to say hello, all smiling broadly. Some had clear disabilities and deformities while others seemed to be functioning quite well until I realized that one girl was deaf and others I had first thought were younger, were ten years older than my prediction. It was powerful to see how despite of all the difficulties they face on a daily basis, the kids we met seemed happy and were excited to welcome newcomers and volunteers to their little safe haven. The challenges these residents face include cleft palates, mental disabilities, deafness, hernias, extra fingers and toes, throat cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, prostate cancer, colon cancer, soft tissue sarcoma, lung cancer and liver cancer. I couldn’t help but wonder what their life is like when they are not playing in the wide-open spaces of Friendship Village.
I spent the week gardening on site, and doing research on Agent Orange to spread information to people around the world who do not know about this issue. While my impact was small, it made a difference in my life to see the openness and forgiveness exhibited by these innocent children who had no part of a “communist revolution” but are experiencing the consequences of the U.S. government’s actions over fifty years later. For people interested in visiting Vietnam, Friendship Village is a place of reconciliation and a place to give back to the people we harmed so many years ago, and who are still feeling the consequences of our actions today.