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After The Typhoon

Development (Aid)

new internationalist
issue 216 - February 1991

After the typhoon

Good for water buffalo, at least: two weeks after the typhoon, the fields are still flooded.
Photos: Chris Brazier

We've hit the long road south which will eventually take us to Saigon and I'm full of optimism, glad to be leaving another round of meetings in Hanoi. I am enraptured again by the routine beauty of the Red River Delta's ricefields. As we move farther south and Vietnam narrows into its slim centre the hills of the Annamese Cordillera gradually sidle up to the road.

These hills are breathtakingly lovely: limestone outcrops that rise sheer out of nothing to a rounded summit. From a distance they interlock and counterpoint in delicate shades of grey and green, the farthest ones threatening to merge with mist or sky. My image of Vietnam had room for little besides warfare and poverty. Yet parts of it are as beautiful as anything I have seen anywhere in the world.

Other parts, it is true, are less naturally endowed and the landscape seems to affect my mood as we move into the poverty of the Central Provinces. Now the hills are barren; the land poor and marshy, often unable to support rice; the houses are of mud and thatch instead of the brick of the Delta. This narrow strip joining north to south is Vietnam's poorest, bleakest heart - the traditional image is of the middle of the peasant's shoulder pole which has none of the bounty of the produce carried at either end (the Red River and Mekong Deltas) but which has to bear their weight.

I pay a visit to Ho Chi Minh's birthplace, a suitably spartan peasant house. Vietnam's first President and the very symbol of its independence, he now transcends politics as a sort of national father-figure referred to by everyone as 'Uncle Ho'. I've been trying to get some sense of whether Ho is held in diminishing respect in these changed times - like Mao Zedong in China. But there is little sign of it: even people highly critical of the Government still have the utmost respect for Ho Chi Minh, saying that his ideas were betrayed by his successors.

Back in Hanoi I'd visited Uncle Ho's mausoleum and museum. The first was closed, his body reputedly being refrozen, but I wandered around the second, an echoing stone cavern of a tribute which Ho himself would surely have disliked. Throughout his life he was unpretentious and ascetic, shunning personal comfort in his dedication to the idea of freeing his people. When he became President he refused to use the palace offered him and lived instead in the modest house in the grounds. He made many mistakes and was prepared at times to be ruthless in pursuit of his objectives. But he was certainly one of the greatest figures of the twentieth century, whom Westerners would do well to know more about (see simply).

Arriving in Vinh, the capital of Nghe Tinh province, my spirits sink again. It is renowned as the least attractive city in Vietnam - and I am not inclined to dispute the judgement. Substantially destroyed by American bombs during the War, it was rebuilt by the East Germans in the early 1970s and its Stalinist apartment blocks bear witness to that era of 'architecture for the masses' which we can hopefully now consign to the past.

Binh, Tam (our driver) and I have a somewhat gloomy evening meal together. Tam says all he thinks about on such occasions is how much he'd like to be back with his wife and family. Binh says that her four-year-old son was more upset at her leaving this time than he ever has been before; while her husband has been working in East Germany for two years. And I'm thinking of my family too - I've travelled a great deal in my life but this is the first trip I've made since I became the father of two small children, and that makes being away feel entirely different.

Next day we drive the short distance to Ky Anh, a district of Nghe Tinh which is targeted by Oxfam UK. Voluntary agencies are only now beginning to work in earnest in Vietnam, having just been granted permission to open permanent offices, and they work at present by targeting just two or three needy districts. I read the details of Oxfam's projects in Ky Anh as we head towards it and am a trifle alarmed to read about the need for a special anti-malaria initiative.

Now I am not keen on mosquitoes at the best of times. I am in general loath to take the life of even the tiniest creature on this planet: I regularly rescue drowning insects and will always trap flies or wasps with a glass and set them free outside rather than kill them. But everyone draws the line somewhere and I'm afraid mosquitoes are definitely beyond the pale. Everything in the ecosystem is supposed to have its purpose but what on earth do mosquitoes contribute beyond a deadly disease or three? Faced with their relentless blood-hunger as the alien dark of a tropical night approaches I have often been persuaded that it is them or me and have been transformed into a clinical killer.

Tu, Lan and family - with their new house.
Photos: Chris Brazier

Given this phobia it is somewhat disconcerting to read that I am heading for the malarial heart of Vietnam. I read that 50 per cent of cases are of cerebral malaria, which can often be fatal. And when I am shown into the guest room in Ky Anh's district headquarters I notice that the bed has no mosquito net. Ulp. Worse still, when I investigate the Western-style toilet the stagnant water in the bowl is full of tiny wriggling worms and has a host of fully grown mosquitoes sitting on the surface. I shut the lid rather smartly as one prepares for take off and wonder if I can make it through 24 hours without using a toilet. Double up.

A mosquito net happily appears later but it is Mr Din who really revives my spirits. He is President of the Ky Anh People's Committee-and thus the most powerful man in the district. But you would never know it from his demeanour. He is in his fifties with a shock of white hair and a very gentle manner. He seems like one of those rare people to whom age has brought wisdom. I instinctively trust and like him.

Mr Din takes me on a tour of the area to show me the devastation wrought here by a typhoon just two weeks before. The wind whipped up the level of the sea to the point where it overwhelmed the long dyke protecting the paddy fields. Ironically one of Oxfam's main projects in the district is the rebuilding of this sea wall to a greater height and strength. The typhoon demonstrated the vital need for this reinforcement at the same time as it destroyed much of the work in progress. Near one major breach of the dyke a stone engraved with the word 'Oxfam' lies on the ground, looking uncomfortably like a gravestone.

The flooding of the paddy fields is still visible but the long-term problem is the sea salt which has eaten into the soil and will drastically reduce the rice yield for the next few years. Mr Din is concerned that I should understand what a tragedy this is for the people of Ky Anh. He takes me round a school that has been half-demolished by the wind; in a classroom that is still standing, roofless, the lesson from two weeks before is still chalked up on the blackboard.

Finally we visit Ky Ha, a village of salt farmers which has borne the brunt of the storm. Many people's homes have been utterly destroyed - I interview one family in front of the house that they have only just finished rebuilding. A simple two-room structure with a thatched roof, its mud walls are still wet to the touch. Nguyen Van Tu, the 29-year-old father, is inevitably the one to do the talking.

'On the night of the typhoon there was a mighty wind and the sea started to rise with great speed - within half an hour everywhere was flooded. All the animals in the village drowned - there was nothing we could do to save them. Nor could we save any of the things in our house. All we could do when we saw how the sea was rising was to pick up our children and set out into the darkness towards dry land. I had to force my way through water that was up to my neck in places, carrying both our two boys who were crying madly.'

Having eventually reached dry land, exhausted, Tu and his wife Lan immediately started building a temporary hut in which they could spend the night. Just this one fact puts me in awe of these people's self-reliance and resilience in the face of adversity. Would we in the West be capable of building ourselves a shelter after such a trauma? Hard to imagine, coming as we do from a world where there are emergency services and secure, comfortable buildings in which the stricken can recover.

Mr Din and Binh above the waterlogged rice fields - as the media circus moves on.
Photos: Chris Brazier

Despite the subject-matter there is a light, humorous feel to my conversation with this family. This is hardly surprising given that it is being conducted in the middle of an audience of at least 200 people, all pressing round ten deep. Everywhere we have been in Ky Anh we have attracted attention; children have jumped onto the back of Mr Din's jeep, shrieking with glee. But there has been nothing like the media circus we are staging here in Ky Ha.

The waves of people have to be parted as I move on to the 'house' next door. Nothing remains of it except a solitary wooden chest in the middle of what used to be the floor. I try to talk to 68-year-old Hiec, whose house it was, about the night of the typhoon. She tells me that she was saved by her son, who carried her through the floods on his shoulders. But she is understandably too thrown by the situation to say much more.

As I am talking to her something happens which changes the atmosphere completely. A very thin old man with a traditional goatee beard comes up to Mr Din and clings to him, crying piteously. 'Save me, save me please. I'm ill and so hungry.' Mr Din leads him gently away from the crowd, talking to him sympathetically. I have no appetite for any further interviews.

Later Mr Din tells me that the old man's house has been destroyed and he hasn't the strength to work. Neighbours haven't rallied round to help him, perhaps because their own troubles are too pressing, and he is becoming desperate. Mr Din says that after a visit like that he is so affected that he can't sleep for knowing that these people are his responsibility. I believe him.

I am used to thinking of leaders, even local ones, as oppressors in some way, people liable to abuse their power or benefit materially from their position. But it is as well for me to be reminded that there are local leaders like Mr Din. Formerly a teacher, with his education and ability he could clearly have left the poverty of Nghe Tinh for Hanoi or Saigon and lived a much more comfortable life. Instead he has stayed here working hard to uplift his local community. His home may be substantial by local standards - brick-built and with a timber roof. But it is still bare, with earthen floors and no electricity.

I have made my own tribute to Ho Chi Minh. But it is people like Mr Din who are most worth celebrating - those who all over the world at this very minute are working unselfishly for the development of their local community without hope of recognition or material reward. And I think Ho Chi Minh would have agreed.

When I take my leave of Mr Din the following day I give him some money to distribute to the people of Ky Ha as he thinks fit and I have complete confidence that he will make the right decision about how to use it. By now I have grown used to being more fulsome in my expressions of gratitude and solidarity than I am wont to be - this is the Vietnamese way. But I am not just adapting to local custom when I say that I will carry Ky Anh with me for ever. What I don't tell Mr Din is that I would trust him with my life.

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