April 18, Wednesday: On our first full day, we first met with Mr. Nguyen Van Kein, Vice President of The Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations (VUFO), and Mr. Bui Van Nghi of the Vietnam-U.S. Friendship Society. These types of meetings are very formal, set in nice rooms (air conditioned, thankfully), with comfortable chairs arranged with two at one end for the principles, and the rest facing each other across the room, bottled water set on tables between each pair of chairs. Introductions are made and niceties delivered all-round, before business is undertaken. In this case, VUFO is in charge of maintaining relations with all of the NGOs working in Vietnam, and the VFP chapter is working towards getting NGO status here so they can be more effective in their work with remediating unexploded ordnance (UXOs) and Agent Orange left over from our little adventure in the 60s and 70s. The USFS is our official host on the tour, with Mr. Nghi having made most of the difficult arrangements.
Following a wonderful lunch at a wonderful restaurant in a wonderful old villa in a wonderful old part of wonderful Hanoi, we met with the snakes at the US Embassy. It was enough to put you off your feed. We met with a woman who is the Deputy Chief of Station (Numba Two Honcho), and a couple of aides–one related to science issues and the other the military attaché, and received (not passively, I am happy to report) the US official pronouncements about how corrupt and incompetent the Vietnamese are, and how they abuse human rights. We did discuss the primary issues on our minds, AO and UXOs, and they made it clear that they would be happy to do more in those areas, but that Congress has to throw more money. We suggested that for a start, even without additional funds, they could be more respectful of the Vietnamese. The official dismissal of the scientific work on AO’s health effects presented by the Vietnamese is one example of our continuing arrogance and unwillingness to face our responsibilities for the damage we inflicted on this country. It went on like that for about an hour. We did refrain from breaking up the furniture–but only barely. The young science guy seemed genuinely baffled when I suggested that human rights abuses in Vietnam were no worse than those in the US. Clueless in Hanoi–could be a new hit movie.
Following this crude little interlude, we had a second crude adventure visiting the Hoa Lo Prison museum, a venerable Hanoi institution with a long history dating from 1896 when the French opened it to deal with restive Vietnamese. Most of the prison was destroyed several years ago to make room for Hanoi Towers–kind of a real Hanoi Hilton. Actually, all of the prison was slated for destruction, but outcry from the public prevented its complete destruction. What is left makes it clear that it was a really nasty place. For example one of the guillotines they used is still on display along with some photos of heads in baskets. Most of the museum is devoted to the ways the French dealt with uppity Vietnamese, and the resistance offered by people in their clutches. There are two sections of sewer pipe on display that were used by prisoners in famous breakouts. Only two rooms are devoted to US POWs, and our time was so short that I only got to see one of them. They have Alvarez’s prison uniform and McCain’s flight suit on display (clean and hung on hangers), and photos of all the B-52 pilots shot down and captured during the 1972 Christmas bombing.
Tomorrow we visit Uncle Ho. Onward!