Thị Hoàn's Letter and the Market Girl

Vietnam's flag
Asia » Vietnam » Southeast » Ho Chi Minh City » District 1
February 15th 2014
Published: February 17th 2014
Edit Blog Post

Instruments of War 2Instruments of War 2Instruments of War 2

Captured US military devices outside the War Remnants Museum - Ho Chi Minh City
We had just finished a somber walk through the War Remnant's museum - the sky outside was an ominous shade of grey as the staff impatiently ushered us through the entrance gates - the sounds of the traffic seemed more dense than usual in the thick humid air. We had made it about two-thirds of the way back from the museum when the sky finally opened up and furiously pounded the streets below - the moment seemed cinematic almost, though I can't necessarily say why. We sprinted through the park, backtracking across the street to the large Ben Thanh market to seek refuge until the skies might relent. As we wandered through the market we realized how the infatuation we had once felt for all of the tourist items and trinkets had dissipated after more than a year living in Asia, it all struck me that afternoon as some peculiar game.

The statistics and images I had viewed in the War Remnants Museum weren't necessarily new as I had read many accounts of the horrors of this enduringly brutal conflict, but that doesn't prepare you for the feeling of standing amongst some of the god's most artistic renderings of natural
Thi Hoan's LetterThi Hoan's LetterThi Hoan's Letter

Tran Thi Hoan's letter to US President Barak Obama - displayed in the War Remnants Museum.
aesthetic beauty with the knowledge that your own country deliberately sprayed upwards of 100 million liters of toxic chemicals over these lands, affecting not only poor farmers and their children, but monkeys, snakes and fowl, fish and turtles, trees and grasses; or for that matter sitting crunched in the back seat of a tiny van with a Vietnamese English teacher who was born into a village of rubble, recounting his childhood as we passed together over the DMZ line. No matter how much we know from books and films, there is something about setting foot in a place, gazing out across the landscape and breathing the air, making confused but earnest and genuine eye-contact with a stranger in a strange land, and perhaps sharing a smile - all of which is necessary if we are to truly affirm the place's existence within the tiny branches that comprise the structures of our cognition. When I left the museum, I no longer understood the statistics, so much as I felt them in much the way I feel my stomach turn in a moment of fright - these weren't statistics, they were and they are life itself, a complex web which envelops and
Spraying Agent OrangeSpraying Agent OrangeSpraying Agent Orange

Monsanto's products raining down from US planes onto the Vietnamese landscape. As many as 20 million liters of Agent Orange alone were among the chemical cocktail sprayed indiscriminately throughout South East Asia. Photo from the War Remnants Museum.
integrates us all, whether or not we choose to view it in this way.

As we wandered the maze of vendors we came across a small stand with some figurines of Vietnamese women in rice farming hats. I recalled our trip home the previous October, when we had shown my mother pictures from a Karen Hill Tribe Village in Mae Hong Son, North Thailand. These women, refugees of political oppression and instability in North-Eastern Burma had fled to Thailand seeking sanctuary, but unable to gain permits to work, they lived in an uneasy limbo in small 'refugee camps' where charity and the sale of small trinkets was their only means of living - short of small-scale agriculture and scavenging of small fish, snakes, frogs and insects. One of the things they had fashioned (or perhaps had been produced in a factory in China or Bangkok and were now being used to coax money out of well-meaning but fool-hardy visitors for the sake of wealthy Thai's exploiting the Karen's hardships) were small wooden statues of the women with the rings around their neck. My mother had noticed a photograph of the statues and was beside herself that we hadn't had
Hoan visits a child in the hospitalHoan visits a child in the hospitalHoan visits a child in the hospital

Tran Thi Hoan visits with a child at a hospital. She had dreamed of becoming a doctor. Photo courtesy of
the foresight to purchase one, as it was a unique find (and she was right, in all the rest of our travels we were never to come across one again). I thought to myself that maybe one of these Vietnamese statues would help fill the void left by the lack of the Karen statue.

I approached the young girl who was selling the statues (one of several dozen peddling trinkets for foreigners in this market alone) and inquired about the price. The girl was young, college age maybe - with striking beautiful features - I wondered if she was the type who would struggle through life as a trinket peddler, or if she would find herself forced, eventually, to marry herself off to one of the slack-jawed old slobs in Pattaya t-shirts who trolled countries like this with bulging eyes and bellies, a pocket filled with cash. Looking up with her bright eyes and casual English, I likened her to someone I might come across with a chemistry book in hand studying abroad in America - and I was surprised to see her trapped here in the prison of knick-knacks. When i asked to see one of the statues
Photo of a photoPhoto of a photoPhoto of a photo

As displayed in the War Remnants Museum - children studying outside of a bunker-school. The girl on the right reminded me so much of the market girl.
it caught me attention that as she moved toward the shelf her body lurched uneasily from side to side, her entire frame swaying as she shuffled across the floor. I realized that the girl had only one foot, and then watched in still further surprise as she reached up to take down the statue, grasping it assuredly with two rounded nubs where you would expect to see hands. I cannot describe, and yet will never forget, the imprint that the moment made on me. She told me it would be 100,000 dong or $5, but she would make it cheaper if we bought the slow-drip coffee filters that Tara was examining. She looked up with hopeful eyes and a clear smile, still clutching the tiny statue. We bought it, and a few of the coffee filters, I handed her the money which she took in the same way she had grasped the statue, and in a sweet, confident voice said 'thank you very much.' There was nothing else to say or do, and so we left the stand.

I had just come across one of the 150,000 Vietnamese people who suffer birth defects - now into the third generation,
Instruments of War 1Instruments of War 1Instruments of War 1

Outside the War Remnants Museum
as a result of dioxin poisoning from Agent Orange and other wrathful chemical concoctions. As we wandered around the market more and more of the things I had read surfaced as the forefront of my cognition:

U.S. bombing campaigns alone had destroyed more than 2,900 schools, destroyed 1,500 of 1,600 irrigation projects, killed 40,000 cattle and killed or injured at least 200,000 people. We destroyed more than 450 pagodas and shrines and more than 480 churches, destroyed in whole or in part more than 350 hospitals and almost completely eviscerated every meter of the bridge and sewage systems. In addition tens of thousands had died or been injured by bombs after the wars end in Vietnam alone, not including the numbers killed by unexploded ordinances (UXO's) in Laos and Cambodia where our secret bombing raids had taken place. And perhaps most tragically, we had dumped nearly 100 million liters of toxic chemicals including the nefarious Agent Orange on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia over a period of 10 years, decimating the fragile ecological balance, poisoning the land and water and directly affecting millions of Vietnamese people who were tragically caught in the cross-fire of US - Soviet warfare. While this
Plants React to Dioxin 1Plants React to Dioxin 1Plants React to Dioxin 1

Sadly, this was the INTENDED result. Photo from the War Remnants Museum.
period of brinksmanship between the two world superpowers is typically referred to as a 'Cold War' because 'no weapons were actually fired,' the proxy wars that played out across much of the third world contributed more death and destruction than the first two World Wars combined. Since the end of the 'Vietnam War' - as it is known in America alone, at least 150,000 Vietnamese children have been born with birth defects, a number that the Vietnamese government argues is closer to a half-million. I had tried to wrestle with that number in my mind for many years, but seeing this one young girl in front of my eyes, it helped me to understand the power of the tragedy that even one single person was forced to endure a life so destructively hampered by forces unleashed well before she had even inhaled her first breath.

It was not until after my encounter with the market girl that I re-read the body of a letter I had photographed at the museum. It was the text from a letter that a young girl named Tran Thi Hoan had written, and it had been addressed to President Obama on March 19, 2009.
The Market Girl's StatueThe Market Girl's StatueThe Market Girl's Statue

In it's new home on a shelf in my Mom's house.
In the letter she appealed to the President for aid to the Vietnamese children who were suffering with unimaginable birth defects and conditions as the result of US chemical spraying. She had been one of the plaintiffs in a case brought against 37 chemical companies responsible for the manufacture of the poisons unleashed on Vietnam, among them the chemical giants Dow and Monsanto. The US courts - who have rightfully awarded settlements with an average of $1,500 a month to US Servicemen and family members affected by Agent Orange - refused to hear the case. The courts argued that the companies are protected by their contracts with the US government, and that the chemicals had only been 'intended' as a defolient to protect US troops from ambush.

Nevertheless, we can not accuse the United States of completely turning a blind eye to the issue. As Vietnam's economic strength and thus importance as a source of foreign investment for US capital rose in the 1990s, the United States suddenly became interested in improving relations with it's former adversary. As part of the rapproachment the United States began providing funds to clean-up the environment and provide basic services for those harmed
Hoan in Washington DCHoan in Washington DCHoan in Washington DC

Tran Thi Hoan during her trip to testify in the case the courts refused to hear. Photo courtesy of
by the decade of poison-rain - about $60-million between 2007 - 2012 (or about 1 / 16,000th of our annual defense budget). And in 2012, nearly 40 years after the 'fall of Saigon,' the US government finally agreed to a further, albeit paltry, $47 million to help clean up the area around the former US military base in Da Nang, where dioxin levels in the soil are 180-million times higher than the level deemed safe by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

It wasn't until I sat down to write this blog that I again reviewed the plea for help sent to President Obama by Thi Hoan. As I read it I was struck by a remarkable irony - Thi Hoan had wanted to go into the field of medicine, but was discouraged from attending medical school because she had been born with no legs and without a left hand. Hers was the story of a girl who had been affected by the poisons which had rained down upon Vietnam alongside written assurances to the people that the chemicals were completely safe. I wondered what the story of the Market Girl had been - what were her dreams and aspirations,
Plants React to Dioxin 2Plants React to Dioxin 2Plants React to Dioxin 2

Photo from the War Remants Museum.
what might her life had been if she was born in a place without venom in the soil. It was only then that I began to glimpse the enormity of the number 150,000 as it relates to real people born after the war with birth defects, themselves only a tiny fraction of the greater horrors of the war. We should view it as an opportunity for self-reflection to consider that face to face with the number 150,00 as it relates to real living people with disorders too horrible to describe in writing, many of us just shake our heads, and others seem not to care too much at all.

If we contend that the majority of human hearts are fundamentally good - as I myself want to do - then we have to wonder where along the line the disconnect is forming. Are we as a society evil, apathetic, or simply becoming out of touch with the very qualities that make us human? Why don't we seem to care that the manufacturers of these poisons and the government that unleashed them will not divert a small trickle of funds that would help relieve those who continue to suffer unimaginable hardships, especially after we, even if well intentioned but ignorant, allowed the crimes to be perpetrated in our name? Is the disconnect simply a product of our increasingly complex and busy lives, or the mechanism of socialization employed by those who might manipulate us to overlook such threats to humanity, whether for political, ideological or material gain? If the latter is the case, then I believe it is at least possible to hope for a more just, compassionate and ultimately sustainable world - should we choose to free our own minds. And yet I watch today as the same Monsanto that shattered Thi Hoan's dreams shirks responsibility while shelling out more than $8-million on a propaganda campaign in California to convince voters to undermine their right to know what is in their food, and a further $5-million to do the same in Washington state. While there may be no such thing as objective truth - it seems there are indeed interests who want to control our access to knowledge, to prevent our access to the tools we need to access our own truths. And meanwhile there is Thi Hoan, and there is the Market Girl, and thousands of others -

The phrase stayed in the American lexicon long enough for Bush to threaten Pakistan with it nearly 40 years later.
they continue to exist, even though we can't see or even imagine them. If we could, I think we might reach out a hand.

Additional photos below
Photos: 17, Displayed: 17


18th February 2014

The art of war...
A very thoughtful and beautifully written blog Dan. You voiced many of the feelings we had when we visited the museums of war in Vietnam. Enjoyed reading it very much :)
20th February 2014

Awesome guys, great to hear from you again - as you can see I've fallen a bit behind in getting my thoughts from paper onto the blog. Hope you are both doing great whereever you are now!
20th February 2014

Great blog!!
21st February 2014

Great bertN thanks for reading, glad you enjoyed it!

Tot: 1.211s; Tpl: 0.09s; cc: 12; qc: 58; dbt: 0.0361s; 1; m:saturn w:www (; sld: 1; ; mem: 1.5mb