Coffee, after the war

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A former soldier scarred by Agent Orange now enjoys a quiet life running a Ho Chi Minh City coffee stand

 
Tran Tan Hung, a former soldier, mixes coffee at his Ho Chi Minh City drink stand, where customers who fought on both sides of the war gather for drinks and laughs

The coffee seller pulls up his shirt to reveal two small rashes on his back.

"They broke out a few days ago. I couldn't sleep."

Tran Tan Hung, 64, says he has been feeling better in the days since the rash broke out.

His wife applies traditional herbs to the rashes everyday.

Hung, sitting next to his coffee cart that is filled with glasses and bottles, begins explaining the benefits of the herbs when his daughter comes to ask for money to pay the gas delivery man.

"Bring him here. I'll give him the money myself," he says.

The daughter runs off.

The father's eyes follow her.

"She's a smart kid," he says. "She doesn't have it."

"It" is Agent Orange poisoning.

The toxin entered his body during the American war and has not shown its effects on his 12-year-old daughter.

It affects his two sons, though.

Both in their twenties, they are mentally retarded.

It's an old story: the US sprayed some 80 million liters of herbicides, including 20 million liters of Agent Orange on Vietnam during the war to defoliate trees, remove cover and destroy crops used by the Viet Cong, or the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam.

Agent Orange, named after the color of the stripe on barrels in which it was stored, contained tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (known as TCDD), one of the most poisonous chemicals ever made by man.

According to US military estimates, an estimated 2-4 million citizens and soldiers were affected by the chemical.

Current data show that roughly 10 percent of the total land area in southern Vietnam was hit by Agent Orange.

In some southern provinces, 50 percent of the land was completely stripped by the defoliant.

It has caused cancer in those exposed directly to it while often afflicting children born to exposed parents with mental retardation.

"We saw the planes spraying. It looked like mist over the forest," Hung says.

"The next day we woke up. The trees were all branches."

Originally from the northern port city of Hai Phong, Hung moved south to fight in 1964.

His unit crossed the Truong Son mountain range, where the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail carried supplies from north to south.

He fought small battles in the central highlands province of Lam Dong.

He was then stationed in a forest at the edge of the mountain range as part of a logistics team.

"We stayed there for 11 years, building roads and bridges, taking care of the warehouses," Hung says.

"The chemicals must have gotten into the streams.

We drank water from the streams."

Some of his comrades are dead, some alive, and some he has not heard of since the war ended.

For the past 18 years, Hung has sold coffee from a cart on a grassy median divider between two apartment buildings on Ho Chi Minh City's Phan Xich Long Street.

The cafe is popular in the neighborhood.

Every morning, old men who fought on both sides of the war come for a cigarette and coffee.

They sit until the sun is high.

"He likes sunlight," Hung says, thrusting his chin toward a man who does not budge when the first rays of noon sun splash on his bald head.

The man is 70-year-old Pham Tan Loi, an interpreter for the Americans during the war.

"Good thing I didn't know him [Hung] then," Loi says.

"He would have shot me."

The two men look at each other and laugh.

Last month, a Vietnamese testified before a US House of Representatives hearing on Agent Orange for the first time.

The event was titled: "Our forgotten Responsibility: What Can We Do to Help Victims of Agent Orange?"

"We don't know what happens in the American political world, but "˜forgotten responsibility'? "˜Victims'?, That is acknowledging a lot," said Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong, former president of HCMC-based Tu Du Women's Hospital, after returning from the US

Phuong said that for a long time, the US had denied responsibility for the damage Agent Orange did to the Vietnamese environment and people.

In some places, especially former US military bases and storage sites such as the Da Nang and Bien Hoa airports, the soil and water are seriously polluted.

Last year, President George W. Bush promised US$3 million to fund environmental clean-up.

The funds have yet to be distributed.

Vaughan C. Turekian, Chief International Officer for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told the House hearing it would cost $15 million to remove dioxins from Da Nang alone.

Phuong said some congressmen are interested.

"They told me to give them a number," she said.

"This is a good sign."

A lawsuit the Vietnamese Organization for Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA) brought against the companies that manufactured the herbicides has been rejected by a US court of appeals.

In 2005, the suit was dismissed by the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York on the ground that there was no legal basis for the plaintiff's claims.

"If we fail in this generation, we'll continue to sue in the next," Phuong, who is also VAVA's vice chair, said.

Hung says he has a "light case" of Agent Orange poisoning.

The rashes rarely occur.

"It got serious only once, in 1980.

Mucus leaked from the rashes and covered my face."

He is healthy now.

"But he's old," his wife says.

"He can't sell the coffee by himself."

Every morning, Hung's sons carry the glasses and bottles from the apartment and set up the cart.

"They can't tell the time or one color from another," Hung says of his sons.

"But they're very strong."

When business is slow, the young men sit on a stone bench in the park, sometimes talking, sometimes smiling.

"He is lucky to have them," the mother says.

"They're his arms and legs."

Hung tells his customers a piece of good news: the government has increased his sons' monthly allowance.

They receive VND318,000 (US$19.70) every month now.

Hung gets VND374,000 ($23.17).

"They're almost catching up with me," the father says, laughing.

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