Aside from the Vietnamese of the delta region being rather lacking in stature, the other trait we have frequently commented upon is the disproportionately high number of deformed people we have encountered over the past few days.
Puzzled by the anomaly, The 0.5 and I had unsuccessfully tried to assimilate why this might be.
A lack of scanning during pregnancy or a poor diet were possible contributing factors, though why such an obviously high incidence was visible here in Vietnam and not in far less developed Cambodia suggested another, more powerful dynamic was at play.
In Saigon we were to get our answer.
Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City as it is now officially known in honour of the Godfather of Vietnamese communism) is the largest and most vibrant city in the country.
Capital of the south during the American War, it is an intense, hectic metropolis where two-wheelers rule roads which to any and all foreign interpretations, have no rules.
To cross a road in Saigon, is to walk into a nonstop flood of motorbikes and mopeds, holding the hope that your path will be avoided by the next twenty or so Hondas, Piaggios and Yamahas that will be bearing down on you with considerable speed.
To make a succesful crossing one must act like the helmsman of a yacht, making clear and deliberate actions so that any larger vessel is clear of your intentions and thus has the means to avoid you.
No eye contact, no hesitation, just cross.
I’ve heard a statistic that there are 15,000 road deaths in Vietnam each year. This is an extraordinarily high figure, though on the strength of a few days casual observation I can believe it.
Feeling under the weather and lacking energy, I rest up on our first day in the city, saving my energies for a visit to the War Remnants Museum the following day.
As the name suggests, the museum contains artefacts from the civil war that tore this country apart during the 1960’s and 70’s.
In the museum courtyard, downed Huey helicopters sit alongside tanks and captured heavy artillery whilst inside, a blatantly biased display of propaganda makes a tour of the museum almost painful to endure.
The museum tells a sorrowful tale, but sadly one whose power lost in an ocean of biased “party speak”.
America is portrayed as the evil empire, fighting an unjust war against the great people of Vietnam.
There is a truth in this view, which I choose not to discuss here, but the way it is presented to a predominantly well-educated, foreign audience is little short of pathetic.
The saving grace, a section titled “Requiem”, was an almost unbiased exhibition of high-quality, international photo-journalism from the conflict.
Requiem displayed many powerful images of war and its consequences. Some photos were recognisable to me such as “Near Khe San” taken by the British photographer Larry Burrows.
The images were taken by 134 photographers killed during the conflict including a total of “16 American reporters, 12 French reporters, 11 Vietnamese reporters of the former Saigon regime”.
The Government authorised narrative also informed visitors that amongst the display were images taken by “72 Vietnamese revolutionary martyr-journalists”.
For me, that last comparative description sums the War Remnants Museum up in a nutshell.
Schooled as we are to query facts and opinion, I was not the only one cynically muttering about what we were being told was an unquestionable truth.
How much more powerful would the terrible story of Agent Orange and the Napalm campaigns be if told from a genuinely neutral point of view?
I knew of both Agent Orange and the US military “scorched earth” campaign before arriving in Vietnam. What I didn’t know was that the defoliant chemicals used at that time, and specifically the Dioxin in the concoctions were having devastating effects upon the Vietnamese population to this very day.
Those deformed people I mentioned?
Between 1962 and 1971, the United States military sprayed over 75 million litres of chemical herbicides and defoliants in Vietnam, eastern Laos and Cambodia with the goal of defoliating rural and forested land.
It was thought such actions would deprive guerrillas of food and cover and clear sensitive areas around US bases.
To date it is thought that as many as 3 million Vietnamese have been affected by Agent Orange. It has been suggested that since the war, 5 out of 100 Vietnamese children have been born with birth defects.
As well as mental deficiencies, the effects of Dioxin include cleft palates, extra fingers, grotesque deformities to limbs and other congenital disfigurements.
Whilst medical science has yet to conclusively blame the US defoliation campaign for this anomaly, it is difficult to look beyond it as a cause.
Though the Vietnamese Government are certain of the cause and keen to tell us about it, the pitiful street beggars of Vietnam are perhaps a better testament to the link.