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Vietnam Villagers Find Profit, Risk in Bomb Hunting

Zoltan Istvan
National Geographic Channel
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."

Risky Business

Bomb hunters can be broken into two groups: those with the money to afford cheap metal detectors, and those who search for "dents" in the earth, then dig, hoping to find something.

Hun doesn't use a metal detector. When he finds a signature bomb depression, he begins digging cautiously. If he unearths a live bomb, he calls in a village "expert"—often bearing only a hammer and a screwdriver—to dismantle it. Both the metal and the explosives inside the bomb are sold.

Just ten years ago, many villagers avoided collecting live bombs because they were so dangerous. As the easy pickings of war shrapnel disappeared from the jungle, poor villagers reconsidered; today many metal collectors concentrate specifically on finding live bombs.

"About 5,000 people in the Quang Tri province have died from unexploded ordinances since 1975," said Hathaway, who's worked in Vietnam for almost 10 years. "It's ironic that as scrap metal disappears, the metal hunters are going for the live bombs—which is about as dangerous of a job that's imaginable."

Depending on the condition of a bomb, five pounds (two-and-a-half kilograms) of metal fetches about U.S. $1.

Eight Million Tons of Bombs

"This is why if I get lucky, and find a really big bomb, I can feed my family for over a month," said Hun, who has recovered bombs measuring half his height.

Many of the bombs America dropped from the air near the DMZ were over 50 pounds (23 kilograms) and 3 feet (90 centimeters) long. While rare, some bombs, like the "Seismic" bomb, known for destroying everything on the ground within a 100-meter (330-feet) radius, weighed 15,000 pounds (6,800 kilograms).

"In all, about eight million tons (17,637 million pounds) of explosives and ammunition were dropped or fired on Vietnam," said Hathaway. "Much of that was concentrated in the Quang Tri province."

Successful bomb hunts have improved the fortunes of a few poor farming families. Frequently, though, these quests destroy them.

"I stepped on a land mine while working in my rice fields," said Ku Men, who lost his left leg below the knee and is unable to find work. Ku Men, who used to routinely find and collect bombs and scrap metal in his fields, now lives in one of the most impoverished areas of Dakrong. "Digging for bombs and collecting war metal might make good money, but believe me—the danger involved is not worth the risk."

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