We are now so relaxed with them that Miss Hoa, in talking with our interpreter, pointed a finger at Bruce saying "bang bang" indicating that as a Viet Cong soldier they were on different sides on the war.....then we all hugged.
Our purpose was to deliver the generous donations from Bruce's buddies, veterans who served in the 4th Battalion, 23d Infantry, so many years ago and many of whom also suffer the effects of Agent Orange. These US Army veterans are generally compensated for any illness related to their Agent Orange exposure, but in Vietnam the support, if any, from the government is woefully inadequate. Nor of course has the US government or the chemical companies responsible for the manufacture of this dioxin stepped forward in any meaningful way to ease the suffering of these victims. There is however now an American funded project to neutralize the areas near Da Nang where Agent orange was stored.
Bruce was ably assisted in his communication by our friend Ni, (right front). Ni works at Reaching Out but volunteered to give us a hand during the meeting. The young woman Thuy (right top) is new to her job and her spoken English is sparse. She is replacing the lovely Phuong who has recently married and no longer works with VAVA. It was primarily Phuong, whose English we relied upon, who stick-handled our negotiations to work with VAVA to set up the idea of a micro-loan program...a "hand up" instead of a "hand out." With Ni's help yesterday, we were able to get agreement that the program will continue with this years' recipients of loans being, among others, a family for whom a cow will make a difference in their lives ensuring fresh milk and the possibility for breeding cattle. Another family will be supported in getting started in the fishing business.
After the formal counting and handing over of the cash and the writing of receipts (this agency does VERY meticulous paper work), Ni also helped us to deepen our relationships with Miss Hoa and Mr. Thinh, enquiring about one another's health and telling stories of our visits through the years. It helps that all of our old pictures are still under glass on the desk and on the walls of the office. Proudly displayed is a picture of one of our donors sporting the scarf made for her by a recipient who started a home based knitting business.
Never wanting to miss out Mr. Nguyet, an 84 years old resident of the Red Cross Centre just marched into the office and took a seat.
Nguyet and his wife live at the centre which is frankly quite dismal, with tiny, sparsely furnished rooms. The air circulation on this sweltering day was negligible and the foul orders from the communal bathroom at the end of the hall hung in the air. As always we were invited to their room. You see most of it in this picture.
What we find incredible is that despite the fact that Nguyet served for 65 years in the military on the side of the North, the victors, yet this meagre place with a small stipend is his only benefit. Because of their Agent Orange exposure they have no children to look after them. I think that even Ni was taken aback by their humble circumstances. She was particularly impressed with this photo, stashed under glass on the one small table. Nguyet's medals are impressive on the uniform which hangs still under plastic on one of the walls (you can see it just behind Bruce's ear in the photo above)
There is not an angry, resentful bone is this old, wizened body....still a proud soldier and gracious host.
After tea and cookies we said our good-byes...a very sober trio, Bruce, Ni and I.