Vietnam Villagers Find Profit, Risk in Bomb Hunting

January 7, 2004

In the early morning, in central Vietnam's mist-shrouded Dakrong village, Ho Hun, a farmer, kisses his infant son good-bye and begins his trek to the Truong Son Mountains near the former DMZ, or demilitarized zone. Carrying a shovel and walking in old flip-flops, he looks like any one of Vietnam's 60 million farmers. But Hun rarely farms anymore.

Like hundreds of other villagers along the DMZ, in the Quang Tri province, Hun is digging for live American bombs, which he will recover and sell.

On average, Hun finds at least one bomb a week. Last year, sale of steel from the bomb casings more than doubled his annual farming income to nearly U.S. $700.

Hun's new-found profession is a product of the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s, during which the American forces dropped millions of bombs. Many bombs came from B-52 aircraft and weighed hundreds of pounds each.

Some of the heaviest fighting occurred within the Quang Tri province, where North and South Vietnam met at the DMZ—a swath of land stretching three miles (five kilometers) on each bank of the Ben Hai River.

"More bombs were dropped by American planes in the Quang Tri province in Vietnam than in the whole of Europe in World War II," said Tony Edmonds, professor of history at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, and author of the book The War in Vietnam. "It's one of the most bombed places on the planet. Of course, 10 to 15 percent of those bombs never exploded—and are just rusting away in the jungle."

Prospecting for Bombs

For the last 20 years, villagers in the Quang Tri province have capitalized on the war, gathering chunks of metal and selling them to buyers in Hanoi who recycle it.

"I know digging up bombs is dangerous," said 27-year old Hun. "But I make much more money from this than farming rice."

Most days bring only a pittance for bomb diggers—usually less than U.S. $2—and sometimes the bombs take days to find and unearth.

For Hun, a typical workday starts with a two-mile (three-kilometer) hike to the heavily bombed Truong Son Mountains near Huong Hoa, known widely to Americans as Khe Sanh. Hun's favorite sites are where Viet Cong bunkers once stood. Bombs that exploded left huge, barren craters in the earth, where vegetation no longer grows. Bombs that failed to detonate penetrated the earth, leaving dents covered with a dense carpet of vegetation.

"Just getting to a digging site is dangerous," said Martha Hathaway, executive director of Seattle-based Clear Path International, an organization that helps UXO (unexploded ordinance) victims in the Quang Tri province. "Land mines are everywhere in this area and very few people that step on them survive because there are no adequate medical facilities nearby."

Continued on Next Page >>


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