Perhaps Vietnam is one of the few countries that has suffered greatly from wars and was always invaded by others although its people wanted to live in peace. The long history of being attacked makes its government afraid of everything. They are afraid of foreigners getting into the country, they are also afraid of their people going outside the country.
Every time I travel, I am recognized as the first Vietnamese friend my companions have met. And the first thing they knew about my country is the Vietnam War. Yes, it was a big war. Regardless of which side was wrong, here are some facts: The U.S. dropped 6.3 million tons of bombs on Vietnam. Four million soldiers and some two million Vietnamese civilians died. The U.S. military sprayed more than 19 million gallons of the herbicide dioxin Agent Orange over 4.5 million acres of land in Vietnam from 1961 to 1972 to remove trees and dense tropical foliage that provided cover.
Forty-two years, after the Vietnam War, ended its remains are still ubiquitous in Vietnam. Nearly 5 million Vietnamese have been affected by Agent Orange, including 150,000 children born with birth defects. Some foreign friends have asked me how the Vietnamese people restarted their lives and rebuilt the country after the war. I responded briefly: we restarted at the end.
I was born and raised in a rural hamlet called Lai Bang, which belongs to Huong Van village, Thua Thien-Hue province, Central Vietnam.
As every kid in my hamlet, I often ran along our rice fields after it rained to collect bullet shells. Bullet shells emerged from the ground in plowed fields after heavy rains. Kids would collect bullet shells. Adults collected other things, which were much more dangerous: bombs and mines.
As every adult in our village, my father bought a machine called a metal detector. It helped him recognize where bombs and metal shards from the war were located.
One day, my father left home early with his metal detector. Not many hours later, we heard an explosion. My uncle ran home in a panic and told my mom that my father was wounded by a bomb. People in the village went to rescue my father. Pieces of his clothes were scattered on the vacant land near the hill. His body was full of cuts. His eyes were covered by dust. He was lying on the ground.
My mother packed her stuff to go to the hospital not knowing how long she would stay there. The 6-year-old me had to take care of my sister, who was just 9 months. That day, the doctor said that my father might be blind forever. He needed a corneal graft and infelicitously, it cost a lot of money.
As Americans thought that Agent Orange would help defeat Vietnam, I once thought that the bombing accident would shatter my family. However, Vietnamese people seemed strong enough and my mother was stronger than I thought. Every night when she got home she gave my sister a quick breast feed then went out knocking on every door in my village to beg for a donation. She also begged the doctors in the hospital to help cure my father’s eyes. Her tenacity eventually came to fruition.
It took my father six months to recuperate from the accident. To this day, he still feels pain if the weather suddenly changes.
Now, you might misunderstand or assume that we collected bullet shells and bombs to obviate the dangers.
My answer is, we did not think too much about protecting our village from hazards in the time of dearth. We needed food to survive. And that is why we collected bullet shells and bombs to sell to recycling companies. One kilogram of scrap metal was sold for 3.000VND (around 13 US cents). Making $US1 per day was enough to feed the whole family.
To this day, many families in rural villages still do this. The bombs then will be sawed by people to get the trinitrotoluene, which is used to catch fish. The shells are sold to recyclers. Every year, around 3,807 people are wounded due to bomb/mine accidents. The leading cause is the need to make money. Many deaths occurr, however, people still do not stay away from this dangerous career. Perhaps, they are not perspicacious enough to understand that a bomb is still a bomb no matter how many years it has been underground. Perhaps, the demands of survival do not let them think that sawing a bomb is a stupid idea.
That is why I said we restarted at the end, without a metaphor.