We had a unique opportunity to visit a highlands valley near Hue with Mr. Phung Tuu Boi, a botanist who has spent his entire career working on means to reforest the large patches of mountains and hill communities in Vietnam that were damaged by war and post-war poverty.

Of the many places he has worked, none has been as severely challenged as Dong Son Commune in the A Luoi Valley west of Hue. This village was home to an American special forces camp and small airport called A Shau. In the mid-1960s, American and Vietnamese forces fought repeatedly to control this valley as it was a key strategic corridor for the movement of people and supplies on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. After evacuating the camp in 1966, U.S. forces bombed the valley and used tactical herbicides such as Agent Orange to destroy vegetation cover that protected Vietnamese troop movements.

Boi looking out at hillsides recently planted, primarily in acacia.

Boi, a botanist with the Forestry Institute in Hanoi, first came to the area in 1978, where he encountered a landscape of hills bare of any trees, just the monotonous rust-red clays of laterite hills and mountains eroded into giant crevasses. This picture from a veteran website gives an approximate view of the U.S. Special Forces airstrip and camp at A Luoi in 1966:


This picture from CNN gives a view of the airfield after NLF and PAVN forces overran the base in March 1966:


Then, in 1969 after the Tet Offensive (1968), the U.S. military decided to retake control of this valley as a key corridor for the movement of supplies and soldiers from North Vietnam. These efforts resulted in one of the most devastating battles of the war between US and PAVN troops at Ap Bia Mountain, known by Americans as Hamburger Hill. This image, taken by an AP photographer at a different hilltop firebase, suggests the extent of clearing by herbicides, napalm, and bombing prior to the establishment of a hilltop firebase.


…so…the valley and surrounding hillsides were largely deforested and bare, with some spots contaminated by the runoff of chemicals such as Agent Orange. That was the situation facing people like Boi who, after the war’s end, arrived in the valley with a mission to reforest it.

During his work in the A Luoi Valley, Boi not only worked on reforestation but became close friends the with highland minority groups that make up most of the valley’s population: Pa Ko, Katu, and Ta Oi peoples. In the almost forty years that he has worked here, Boi has focused on the inter-related problems of responding to chemical contamination associated with Agent Orange, reforesting the hills, and especially helping these local minority villages to bring their populations out of poverty.

On our field trip to the A Luoi Valley with Boi, we visited with the District (County) government, then traveled to a local cultural house to see some of the traditional handicrafts of the native people here. Our guide from the district cultural affairs office, Ms. Loan, brought UCR students to meet some women involved in traditional weaving. Here, Jwyanza tries his luck at the “hip loom”.

Ms. Loan, herself a descendant of Vietnamese and Pa Coh descent, not only explained the handicrafts, but she also “gifted” us on our bus ride with some traditional Pa Coh songs! As we made our way to the historic airfield site, she also showed us a local set of waterfalls in one valley.

UCR group at A Tuc Ravine (Pa Ko country!) in A Luoi Valley
Here I am posing with Ms. Loan. She explained that the patterned fabric she wears is from the Ta Oi tradition, notable for the use of tiny ceramic beads. Also, I’m holding in my hand a small plant that produces brightly colored purple, green, yellow and red berries — this was a primary source for the plant-derived dyes used in the past. When I showed it to Boi, he said it was the first time he (a botanist!) had seen such a plant.

Upon reaching Dong Son village, we found the ruins of the former A Shau airfield. The circular ponds in the foreground are the remains of bomb craters from the war. Because this land was also saturated by tactical herbicides, the villagers have left it relatively untouched since the end of the war.
Bomb Craters in the Land at former A Shau Airfield, Dong Son Commune, A Luoi, Thua Thien Hue Province, Vietnam

While visiting the former airfield, Boi showed us the results of earlier research where consultants found that the herbicides sprayed here gradually washed into a nearby catchment pond. This area, designated as “A” on the maps Boi used, forms a small “hot zone” still contaminated with TCDD dioxin. (NOTE: We did not visit the “hot zone”) Samples from this area were measured with dioxin levels at approximately 800 ppt. While this reading is very tiny, it’s still about 20,000 times above the EPA’s recommended safe levels for drinking water in the USA.

Figures of the “hot area” – Zone A. Note that the black dots on this figure are the same water-filled bomb craters as depicted in the landscape view above.
At Dong Son, the Chairman of the Commune, Mr. Minh, greeted us warmly with a special drink made from a forest tree and a gift of Ta Oi fabric! At the meeting, students (with myself and Boi translating) engaged in a lengthy discussion about prospects for remediating the village area. He explained to us that many teams of scientists have been to visit Dong Son over the years; and Dong Son is widely acknowledged as a “dioxin hotspot” and one of the poorest villages in the entire province. Mr. Minh, the commune chairman, explained that the science of dioxin remediation was obviously important, but his #1 mission was to solve the crisis of poverty where more than 50% of the village’s residents–most of them upland minority groups–live below Vietnam’s poverty line. Second on the list was devising a way for the government to certify areas that were “clean” of dioxin. Remediating dioxin is one of the most technically challenging and expensive problems in environmental remediation — the science is still largely unresolved. Because the science of dioxin is still largely inconclusive, knowing that a place such as Dong Son is contaminated has a perhaps more damaging “social stigma” effect. Villagers in Dong Son are largely unable to sell their eggs, chickens and produce around the district — as buyers refuse to buy anything associated with Dong Son for fear of contamination.
UCR Student Meeting with Dong Son Commune officials, Ms. Loan, Mr. Boi and me assisting.

Despite these historic and continuing challenges, the people of Dong Son welcomed us with the same gracious hospitality as Vietnamese and highlanders do everywhere. We were very much touched by this, and on behalf of the group and UCR, I organized a personal donation of funds to support the village’s ongoing efforts in public health and especially early childhood education and medical testing. We also gifted Dong Son with a flag from UCR!

Thanks again to Boi, Ms. Loan, Mr. Minh and people of A Luoi Valley!

Besides simply bringing students to Vietnam and introducing them to Vietnamese history and culture, I was especially happy on this program for the first time to really bring UCR students up front and center with my own, ongoing professional research into the environmental legacies of warfare in Vietnam.  We traveled to a place rarely encountered by foreigners, especially Americans! More importantly, students had a chance to meet both local leaders struggling with the everyday needs of an impoverished community and an internationally recognized scientist and activist, Mr. Boi, who traveled with us and graciously shared his experiences and knowledge.
Here’s how the hills look today. Much of the green you see is the first generation of young tree saplings, mostly forest crops of an acacia hybrid designed to supply pulp and paper as well as construction materials.

Finally various shots of the group from the trip: