Listen to an excerpt of a taped letter that civilian surgical team member David Morris sent home to his family from Qui Nhon during his second year-long stint in Vietnam in 1974. There were no phone calls home during the Vietnam War – taped letters were cutting edge communication. In this clip, Morris invents the term “cassetting” to describe the process of recording a letter, and contrasts the verdant lushness of Qui Nhon on his first trip to Vietnam in 1972 to the desolate, war and defoliant-ravaged town that he returned to two years later.
Hello everyone, or anyone that’s there in 463. We refer to New Zealand as ‘back in the world’, so hello to anyone ‘back in the world’.
Kit, thank you very much for your letters, and the cassette that you sent. The letters take about eight days, and the mail service seems to be very good indeed.
But it is very interesting today; we drove back up the main road, right up to Bong Son. And it is a drive I went on two years previously before the big outbreak of war in May and April 1972 while I was here. Now two years ago when I went up that road it was a busy road; there were people, there was traffic. Beside the road, the houses were there, families. Passing away from the road, there were the rice paddies, rice-growing, people working in the fields. And this Binh Dinh province is meant to be one of the great rice bowls of this part of Vietnam. And it was not difficult to believe this when I saw it two years ago because there was rice fields everywhere.
At Bong Son two years ago it was a very very pretty town, and I remember thinking how much prettier it was than Qui Nhon, and that the people, the doctors from New Zealand who had worked up there had said the same, how much they had enjoyed it. And trees. It was a very nice hospital; much cleaner and smaller, but a very good theatre block, and certainly enjoyed Bong Son.
So, today I went back, after probably four months of war, about a year ago in the same area. Mortars from the VC and bombs from the Americans. Well it was totally different really. The road was quiet. Every little village we came to, not very far north from Qui Nhon continuing right up to Bong Son, every house had been marked by war. Either the roof was off, the wall had obviously gone, and had been replaced; there was just a base left. Or there was a whole village had obviously just been wiped out. There were a few scanty and dispersed areas of new villages just starting; maybe 100 people, whereas I’m sure previously there’d been, say, 500. There were hardly any people walking on the road. And we were in many stretches of road the only car. The rice paddies, you could see that they’d been left; they’d all dried up, they weren’t flooded as they should be at this time of the year. Apart from a few very discreet areas around where an army camp was. But the big areas I can well remember, and I have photographs of, that were full of rice now had been dried up, overgrown.
The hillside, this quite hilly further up, and the last time I’d remember noting the defoliation. There was just scrub; a bit like a sort of low tea tree rubbishy type of stuff over the hills. And that was still there; there’d been no new growth. It was a very very desolate and sad drive really. This must be one of the most fruitful areas for growing, and yet the people, so frightened of what lies ahead [sniffs], were not growing anything, and nature, its fruit turned black by defoliants, has been unable to get again at the soil; unable to a good forest, a good bush growing again. And some parts of the hillside, not only have they been the action of defoliants, they are scarred with great big cracks of just dry ground, which is a result of the bulldozing, which is in fact worse than the defoliant. Hugh bulldozers were used to clear sides of hills, and this will be something that will never be able to be corrected. It is like erosion in New Zealand; once you’ve lost the top soli and you have these huge scars coming down the hillside, nothing can grow there because there’s no topsoil for the little seeds to start on. And these large scars, which were there last time, are still there and no regeneration at all. And the passes that were once, I suppose, much more beautiful were now just rubble. There’s twisted iron, and discarded rubbish dumps scattered along the way.
Bong Son itself was a lovely little village. There wouldn’t be one house that hasn’t been injured by the war and by the bombing in some way. So it was sad. There’s still this total desolation of the countryside. When people say that Vietnam was bombed back maybe five, ten, or fifteen years, I didn’t really believe it last time. I remember coming back to you and saying that the [Vietnamese] countryside is still a lovely place; that there are only pockets of war. Well, maybe I have just seen one of the pockets. But it’s a very very big pocket covering a whole province where there once lived two million people. And it is so much worse now after this latest war of a year ago than it was when I’d seen it previously, that it’s back fifteen –parts of it would be back 50, 100 years – and the hillsides probably never will be able to return to their previous foliage. There’s no bird’s, there’s no life; it’s just a green, sort of, rubbly oasis. So I think I have to stop saying Vietnam is a lovely place because this is what’s happened to it.
Reproduced courtesy David Morris