a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Three weeks in Vietnam; 2004

By Scott Beveridge

(Note: The following excerpts are taken from a journal I kept in Vietnam while there as a temporary correspondent for the Observer-Reporter newspaper, working under a 2004 World Affairs Journalism fellowship. The program was administered by the International Center for Journalists in Washington, D.C. This journal has been tucked away in a drawer where it has rested, unread, for the past decade. To start at the beginning of this story scroll to the bottom of this blog post.)

Ancestor worshippers at the Temple of Literature in Hanoi in 2004. Scott Beveridge photo

July 3, 2004

This morning I was on my own, without a guide or translator, with plans to tour the Temple of Literature in Hanoi dating to 1070.

The day began with a hotel breakfast featuring a weird fruit the size of a large cherry. It's covered with hard bumps and had a mildly sweet, jelly-like center.

I made a note to find out its name before hailing a cab, shortly after blowing out an electric fuse by using the wrong electrical adapter in my hotel room to recharge my camera's battery.

Soon I was hovering over a crowd of Vietnamese visitors who were pushing and shoving their way to the booth to purchase a ticket to visit this temple. Frustrated, I did the same until I had my pass purchased.

People everywhere were burning incense, play money or paper replicas of cell phones in communal burn pits to send smoke and messages to the heavens and their departed ancestors.

Others leave fruit, money and gifts at the feet of the many statues there of Buddha. Rows of visitors also rub large statues of turtles at shrines to revered deceased educators.

Youngsters laugh at me sweating like a pig. Some reach out to rub my Buddha beer belly for good luck.

Later my guide escorts me to the home of a New York physician, Dan Rapoport, who's living in the upscale foreigner's district of Hanoi. He's expected to coordinate the first-ever scientific analysis that meets medical standards on Agent Orange contamination. He wanted to test the blood of women with children to compare their dioxin levels.

I received another tip that afternoon from an American transplant in Hanoi that a few children had recently been injured by U.S. ordinance discarded during the war, a small bomb that had exploded while they were playing in a dirt pile in Danang. He handed me a newspaper clipping explaining the tragic story in Vietnamese. I packed it in my camera bag.

It became my goal then to find these children in the city in Central Vietnam, once a U.S. military stronghold, where I'm expected to arrive the following day.

July 2, 2004:

A polio survivor works in a Hanoi clinic run by an American Vietnam War veterans group that is removing old, deadly bombs in Vietnam. (Scott Beveridge photo)
HANOI, Vietnam – It was a pleasant surprise to have found a Vietnamese woman and her two young children waiting for me in the hotel lobby, a U.S. employee who had already prepared for us a busy agenda that day.

Our first stop was a tour of Bach Mai Hospital, much of which was destroyed in the U.S. 1972 Christmas bombing raid over North Vietnam.

The patients here on this July 2004 day shared dingy wards with muddy yellow-painted walls in a building without air conditioning and dating to 1911. They hour away the time on cots beside windows without screens on a day when the temperature outside neared 99 degrees Fahrenheit.

The heat and humidity, "It felt like hell," I penned in a journal I kept on this journalism assignment to report on the charitable work of Vietnam Veterans in Pittsburgh.

I was here, though, with Nguyen Thu Thao, a program officer for the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that had a clinic in this hospital.

The VVAF was founded in 1980 by Bobby Muller, a U.S. Marine who was paralyzed in the war and among the first Americans to return to this country during peacetime. Its work then involved getting medical treatment to Vietnamese citizens who have lost limbs in accidents and eventually removing unexploded U.S. ordnance left behind from the war.

We rounded a corner and stepped inside the clinic, whose walls had been freshly painted white. Those without portions of their limbs were receiving massages while children waited to be seen by the staff.

Two young men were nearby finishing work on artificial legs and arms. One of them was a polio survivor while the other one suffered nerve damage when a physician injected a needle in the wrong place when he was 3 years old, my guide explained.

They were happy to be working there, earning 700,000 Vietnamese Dong a month, the equivalent of $58 in U.S. currency. That was $18 more than the average, semi-skilled Vietnamese worker was earning here at the time.

In a country with many contradictions, we later shared tea at a lunch of fresh banana flower salad, seafood, sauteed beef and vegetables over fried rice, and fried fish with five spices in a trendy restaurant. 

July 1, 2004, continued:

Malcom Zelenick displayed his musical talent while seated next to his stepfather, Regis Comer, circa 1962, in a photo likely taken in their home in New Eagle, Pa.

HANOI, Vietnam – Malcom Zelenick accompanied me to Vietnam in the summer of 2004 if only in a photograph of him as a smiling teenager seated beside his stepfather.

I leaned that image against a bud vase holding three freshly-picked red roses on the desk in my room after checking into the French-Colonial-style Hoa Binh Hotel in Hanoi.

It honored a boy I once admired, one who would enlist in the Army in 1965, only to die two years later by enemy fire in the Vietnam War.

Malcom was intertwined in this story in uncanny ways. His death still haunted me when I arrived in Vietnam as a temporary correspondent.

My immediate task, though, was to find out if any children had recently been unintentionally injured by exploding U.S. ordnance left behind by U.S. soldiers, and if any of the victims qualified for assistance from Vietnam War veterans in Pittsburgh.

While I had prearranged for a driver to meet me at the airport, he didn't show up as scheduled and I nervously hailed a cab.

The cabby soon shot down a dirt road, dust flying behind the taxi's wheels, while Soviet-era trucks and modern motor scooters competed for space on the ancient, narrow roads.

My driver soon pulled into a decrepit building, leaving me to fear I would be robbed and dumped on the berm. Later I would learn taxi drivers here were poor and only purchased enough gasoline for their vehicles to drive from one location to the next.

"I can't wait to explore," I wrote later in a journal I kept on this journey after safely arriving at the hotel.

The clerk behind the desk confiscates my passport to alert the state police that a foreigner has arrived here.

The first thing that struck me here was the smell, an odor similar to the interior of a sauna room, only one where monsoons repeatedly drench old wooden buildings that steam dry under the next scorching sunshine.

After having not seen a sunset in the past two days, by then it was nearing midnight and I had a 6 a.m. wake up call to hit the streets running on this fellowship.

"They say when you travel to exotic places you can sleep when you get home," I penned in my journal.


July 1, 2004:

A photo I snapped in Hanoi in the summer of 2004 upon meeting Thao Griffiths, a woman who would send me on a journey south to Danang in search of children recently injured in an explosion while playing with U.S. ordnance dating to the Vietnam War. 

APPROACHING SEOUL, South Korea – The Korean Air flight attendants sounded as if they were part of a small chorus as they conversed with passengers, who unlike me, understood their native language.

With sleepy eyes, I thought it was odd when their tone turned soft and monotonous while they spoke familiar words to the U.S. passengers on the plane that had departed from Chicago.

"The flight attendants worked nonstop," I jotted down in a journal I began that July 1, 2004, afternoon following a turbulent flight and while awaiting a connection to Hanoi.

"It was weird to hear them sing-song their pretty language to the many Korean passengers (onboard) and speak to me in a dull English prose," I noted that day.

It was more than 18 hours after I had left my hometown near Pittsburgh on an all-expense-paid fellowship awarded to me by the International Center for Journalists in Washington, D.C., for having a compelling story with a local angle to report from abroad for my employer, the Observer-Reporter.

I was en route to Southeast Asia to investigate the work of the Friends of Danang, a group of Pittsburgh-area Vietnam War veterans who had been raising a lot money then to build schools and medical centers where they once served during battle in Danang.

That day I somehow managed to set aside my fears and anxiety about traveling to a country where I narrowly missed serving my nation in war, one where I didn't understand a lick of its language.

I was confident after having spent the past year researching the war and Vietnamese history as an unconventional graduate student at Duquesne University, and felt up to the task before me.

"Anyway, I'm chugging back a beer waiting for the 4-plus-hour flight to Hanoi," I wrote in the diary, where I would pen a second entry later that evening in Hanoi.

"I can hardly keep my eyes from sealing shut," I noted, heading into Vietnam with a tourist visa that could land me in Vietnamese custody for being there illegally under the guise of a journalist.

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