I went to Hanoi expecting to be filled with anger and rage only to leave it with a sense of hope and peace. That was in November, 2012 – my first time to visit the Vietnamese capital – during one of those business trips that I often mix with some leisurely sightseeing. Hanoi was on my must-see travel list. I was intrigued by the city’s French Indochina sine qua non. Unlike its southern counterpart – the brash, ambitious, and masculine Ho Chi Minh city – I found Hanoi refined, mystical, and feminine.
I found Hanoi refined, mystical, and feminine.
But my impression of Hanoi had to take a back seat while I sat in the cab with other journalists on a Friday afternoon. We were on our way to a center that is now home to victims of Agent Orange.
Agent Orange was a dioxin-contaminated herbicide used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. The chemical warfare was meant to destroy Vietnamese forests and deprive “the enemy” of food and a hideout.
The war ended forty years ago, and yet millions of innocent Vietnamese continue to suffer from the harsh effects of Agent Orange. That’s because Agent Orange is a persistent organic pollutant that does not degrade easily. It seeped through soils and watersheds, contaminated the human food chain and debilitated those who were exposed to it. Victims still suffer from various associated illnesses, including leukemia, prostate cancer, Parkinson’s disease, spina bifida, and mental retardation.
Vietnam’s agent-orange victims still suffer from associated illnesses, including leukemia, Parkinson’s disease, spina bifida, and mental retardation.
The Agent Orange victims are sick, they spend a lot of money for medication, and they have no means to support themselves. While the U.S. government announced last year that it will finance the clean-up of known toxic hotspots, much more still needs to be done to heal the wounds of the war. Like compensating the millions of Vietnamese victims or publicly apologizing for causing so much suffering.
These were the thoughts going through my head as we travelled to Ha Ta province, an hour’s drive south of Hanoi and site of the Vietnam Friendship Village. That village is home to more than 100 children and 40 war veterans suffering from mental and physical ailments caused by exposure to Agent Orange.
Arriving there, however, mellowed me. I was thinking that perhaps the physical environment was enough to sooth my agitated mind. Trees, herbs, and flowers decorated the grounds, clean, quiet and just away from it all. In fact, if I didn’t know that I was visiting a center for Agent Orange victims, I would have pegged the place as an ashram – a place to meditate, do yoga, and undergo spiritual transformation.
The students in the village don’t only learn how to read, write, and count, but also learn vocational skills such as silk embroidery.
The school building is perhaps the main feature of the village. We interviewed the teachers and got to know the students. The students in the village don’t only learn how to read, write, and count, but also learn vocational skills such as silk embroidery, sewing blouses, and making decorative plastic flowers. Such skills are crucial, if only because this is the only way for them to set up a small business and support themselves as they’re not likely to get traditional employment. But perhaps, more than anything, the village is meant to give hope. By providing education and healthcare, the village is helping Agent Orange survivors to make a better life for themselves despite their circumstances.
By providing education and healthcare, the Friendship Village is helping Agent Orange survivors to make a better life for themselves.
It was the spirit of hope that allowed me to reach out to the students of Friendship Village – looking at their drawings, smiling at them, talking to them even if they could only smile and could hardly say anything. They gamely posed for the camera and were amazed when I showed them their own images snapped by my digital camera. One even borrowed my camera and took photos of himself and his classmates, who ran around the classroom hamming it up. It was a fun day full of hope, and even encouraged one of my journalist friends, Avie, to consider volunteering there.
They gamely posed for the camera and were amazed when I showed them their own images snapped by my digital camera.
Avie told me that she found peace in Friendship Village. While I admit that I have no intention to volunteer there, I also experienced some sense of peace during my visit. And this is something that I seldom feel, especially when covering stories that to me reek too much of suffering and injustice.
I suppose I was right: in a way, the Friendship Village is like an ashram. It leads to transformation and positive vibes. The village itself was established to heal the wounds of war – it was launched by an American war veteran in 1988 and receives donations from all over the world. And while I still believe that justice needs to be served, in the meantime it’s enough to have hope and forgiveness, and do any small thing that we can to help Agent Orange survivors.
Prime Sarmiento is a Southeast Asia-based journalist who reports on science and travel. She is the co-founder of The Gypsygals, a multimedia site that offers practical advice and inspirational stories to solo female travelers at www.thegypsygals.com.