Vietnam Diary 7: Return to Ben Tre

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BEN TRE — ; I had been in and out of the Mekong Delta cities of My Tho and Ben Tre several times during the Vietnam War. But my most disturbing experiences there followed Viet Cong attacks on the two cities in the pre-dawn hours of Jan. 31, 1968.

During the Tet, or Lunar New Year, holiday the Viet Cong violated a truce and simultaneously struck more than 100 of South Vietnam's cities and towns. U.S. and South Vietnamese forces defeated the Viet Cong in every case. But the damage left by the attacks and counterattacks was horrendous.

All I have from my reporting at the time are a couple of old newspaper clippings. In one story from My Tho, 40 miles southwest of Saigon, I described how the people "buried their dead, bandaged their wounded, and picked through the rubble of what had been a thriving market city until the Viet Cong came to 'liberate' it." One out of every three or four people had their homes destroyed or damaged.

...the war had "pretty well chewed up" once-beautiful Ben Tre.

In Ben Tre, just a few miles further south, the damage was much worse. "About a thousand civilians caught in the fighting between the Viet Cong and Americans were killed -- twice the number of dead suffered by both the armies combined," I wrote in a UPI piece published by The Guardian in London.

As an American soldier who lived through the fighting told me at the time, the war had "pretty well chewed up" once-beautiful Ben Tre.

I'm now returning to see how Ben Tre and the surrounding province are doing 30 years after the end of the war. I also want my son Matt, who is with me, to see one of the most beautiful parts of Vietnam.

Visits with Villagers

Our starting point is the village of Phu Tuc, where we talk with people of all ages — ; a few in their 50s and 60s who claim to have been guerrilla fighters or their supporters and one boy as young as 12 checking small fish traps in a canal. Just as in Saigon, I find people extraordinarily friendly.

Young boy in Phu Tuc with his fish trap Photo: Dan Southerland

And they seem relatively relaxed despite any number of challenges, from annual floods to population pressures and environmental degradation. Now added to these is the threat of bird flu, which experts fear could turn into a pandemic in places such as the Mekong Delta.

We see chickens roaming everywhere. So I ask a few villagers about the bird flu that has already claimed more than 40 lives in Vietnam. No problem, they say, bird flu is not a problem here in the south.

It's a problem in the "northern region" of Vietnam, they say.

After my departure from Ben Tre Province, the Vietnamese authorities report that bird flu has caused the death of one person in the province, but not in the district we were in.

Difficult Conversations


My most somber conversation on this Delta trip is with Le Thi Chim, 62, who says that she was a guerrilla fighter. Two of her children, she says, were killed by an American bomb during the fighting at Tet in 1968. She suffered wounds to her head, arms, and leg but now appears to be in good health.

During our talk at a table inside her home I listen quietly. I feel that there is little I can say.

We also visit the home of a 10-year-old child, Nguyen Thi Hong Giam. A local school official claims that she has birth defects caused by Agent Orange, the defoliant sprayed by American planes to deny cover to Viet Cong guerrillas.

Ms. Giam's arms are shortened and deformed. But to date there has been no research proving whether such deformities are caused by Agent Orange.

Her father and mother both work on construction sites in Saigon. We speak with her aunt, who doesn't discuss her niece's deformities but emphasizes that she's an excellent student.

Ms. Giam, wearing a T-shirt that says "Bushels of Love," shows us her school notebooks. She writes in a neat, careful hand.

Her home appears to be one of the most ramshackle in the village, but her demeanor is serious, dignified.

Then we move on.

Matt begins to check out what lies ahead on Ben Tre Province's dirt and gravel roads.

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