Dateline: Vietnam

Farmland south of Danang
 Farmland south of Danang

‘Desperate’ Food Crisis In Danang

Published in American Report, April 29, 1974

By John Spragens, Jr.
Special to American Report

SAIGON — In central Viet Nam rugged mountains reach out to the sea, and where there is farm land it is crowded into a narrow strip along the coast. Life has always been harder in the center than in the richer deltas of the Red River in the north and the Mekong in the south.

But this year the situation is desperate. People are saying that they have not seen such hunger since 1945, the year of Japanese occupation, when there were two million deaths in northern Viet Nam.

Phan Xuan Huy, a 33-year-old representative in Saigon’s National Assembly, recently released a report on a visit to his constituency, the city of Danang. It gives such a vivid picture of the situation that it bears quoting at length.

“During the period of the American troop presence, the city of Danang, thanks to services provided to American troops, such as supplies, labor, prostitutes and black marketeering, enjoyed a false prosperity. This was also the period, from 1965 to 1972, when the fighting was the most bitter, and for that reason Danang had to receive a gigantic number of refugees from Quang Nam and Quang Tin provinces. They did not come to Danang through any program set up by the government; instead they came sporadically to sell their labor to the American troops.

“At the same time the local people in districts II and III saw their ages old occupations, farming and fishing, disintegrate, partly because their land was seized to build airports and military bases, and because areas of the sea, such as that along Son Cha mountain, were declared off limits, and partly because they could make more money working for American agencies. When the American troops withdrew, the economy of Danang took a nosedive, and now there is starvation in the city.”

In a hamlet of firewood sellers and fisher-folk, Representative Huy met a 60-year-old man whose son had been killed in the war. His daughter-in-law was trying to support him and her three children.

“When he met us, Mr. Loi had been hungry for some time. Saliva ran from the corners of his mouth and he couldn’t speak. When we asked him questions, his arms and legs trembled. The person next door told us that Mr. Loi had been eating only one meal of thin rice gruel a day, and sometimes only once every other day. When his daughter-in-law could sell some firewood or catch crabs they might be able to have a meal of rice.”

In that one hamlet, Representative Huy found 25 people suffering in similar circumstances. In another district people were reluctant to speak openly with him about their sufferings because “they were trying to save face." But a nurse who sometimes came to the area told him of one family she knew who were driven to collecting the water others used to wash their rice before cooking. They let most of the water evaporate, then made a thin soup, adding scavenged leaves.

Some other cases from the same hamlet:

“Mrs. Le thi Thiet, 53, husband dead, six children, oldest son in the army but sends no money home. The next son quit school to sell bread, and each day they eat one meal of rice gruel or the unsold bread.

“Mrs. Le thi Thi, 47, crippled, has two small children. One sells bread. The other works as a servant and usually comes back at meal time or visits neighbors’ houses.

“Mrs. Dang thi Ky, four children and caring for six grandchildren whose father died in the war and whose mother is also dead. Her husband used to work as a guard at an American agency, then was unemployed. He sold bean curd for a while, but had to quit because the price of sugar rose too high. He sold noodles for a while, but had to quit that, too. Now he sells roasted corn. They eat rice gruel once every other day.

“Le thi Nhut, three children, oldest son in the army but sends no money home, cares for two additional orphaned grandchildren. They live thanks to a widowed daughter who has two children. The old mother and her daughter sell bread, and they eat two meals of rice gruel a day.

“Le thi Thoi, four children, cares for her aged mother, lives by selling vegetables at the market, usually eats rice gruel with the wilted vegetables that no one will buy. Savings used up because market taxes are so high. According to Mrs. Thoi, she had savings of 7,000 piasters (about $11), but because she often had to pay 500 piasters market tax, there were many times she had to take a loss on the day's trading.”

The effects of the economic depression have reached even the lower level of civil servants. Representative Huy talked with one high school principal who said that so many students had dropped out of school that classes had been consolidated, and that he himself had given up 10 hours of classes a week. Since teachers are paid according to the number of hours they teach, this had created a considerable hole in his family budget, so that he had had to give up his slim breakfast.

Reports from other parts of central Viet Nam confirm that the situation is widespread. In Quang Ngai province people are foraging for leaves in the forests, and often have only a thin soup made with these leaves to fill their stomachs. In other places people choke down chopped banana stalks. Malnutrition is evident, and there have been cases of death from eating poisonous plants.

Saigon has taken advantage of its economic plight to encourage sympathy for its requests for continued foreign aid. Daniel Parker of the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) held out a gloomy projection of what would happen if the AID budget request is not granted. “Prices,” he told Congress, “would skyrocket and living standards would be further depressed.”

The assessment by the Saigon and U.S. governments rests, however, on an assumption that is not shared by all. As Parker expressed that assumption, “The government of South Viet Nam has taken every reasonable step within its power to deal with its economic problems in a rational way.”

Opposition politicians and journalists here point out that Saigon wants to use the aid to maintain the remnants of a false economy which has supported masses of people from the countryside now living in cities and in refugee camps.

Saigon has rested its strategy for the current phase on a combination of aid and attempts to attract foreign industrial investment to the urban areas in order to normalize the current population distribution. But they have had to keep up their military activity in the countryside to prevent people from leaving the cities for their farms. The fighting has scared investors away, and now Saigon is scrambling to maintain enough aid programs to take the edge off economic discontent.

One outspoken critic of maintaining what war planners used to call “forced urbanization” is opposition representative Ho Ngoc Nhuan. There is a tendency among some Americans, he points out, to see this “urbanization” as normal. “But I want to emphasize," he continues, “that it is absolutely abnormal.”

In some areas Saigon has yielded to popular pressure, and has allowed people to return to their old farm lands. Although the land is overgrown with weeds, pitted with craters from bombs and shells and seeded with deadly unexploded ordnance, it has been exhilarating to the farm folk to sink their hoes into the good earth again.

But there is a catch. The people are allowed to remain only during the daytime. At night many of these areas turn into a no-man’s land, showered with "harassment and interdiction" fire from nearby ARVN artillery bases.

Saigon remains nervous about people returning to the land. “What they’re afraid of,” one opposition journalist remarked, “is that the people will go back to stay — that they’ll go over to the other side.”

In some areas that is exactly what is happening. In spite of police efforts to prevent their movement, and in spite of nightly shellings and skirmishes over their farms, people are beginning to trickle back. In a village of Hre minority people in Quang Ngai province, nearly one family in ten has left the refugee settlement for farm lands controlled by the “other side.” If they find life is better there, others will be encouraged to follow.

People’s sentiments are reflected in a verse from a folk song Representative Huy heard often during his trip:

“Life here is hardship on every side.
“Put the kids in a basket and turn back to the farm.”

Copyright John Spragens, Jr.

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