George Black has written a brilliant book about the war in Vietnam and the modest heroes who spent decades helping the Vietnamese in dealing with the lethal legacy of Agent Orange and unexploded bombs and mines from the longest war in the 20th century.

” Our Green Berets will nail the coonskins on the wall,” 

Reportedly that’s how the US president Lyndon B. Johnson saw the war in Vietnam, when he inherited John F. Kennedy’s intervention in a country and a conflict that the U.S. decisionmakers did not know much about in the first place.

Instead of the coonskins that Johnson imagined, 58,220 names found their way to a huge black wall in Washington D.C., a memorial for the American soldiers who never came back. The wall would have to be extended for several miles, if you want to add the at least 2 million Vietnamese who perished in the longest war in the 20th century. 

Thousands of books, documentaries and movies have analyzed the tragedy of America’s war. Author George Black has taken up the daunting challenge of writing another book, I assume to shed new light on the war and deepen our understanding of this monumental tragedy and the aftermath. With Black’s 500 page ‘The Long Reckoning’ he succeeds in doing just that. Brilliantly written as well. Serious work it is, and Black even throws in a select cast of heroes and a few villains to capture his readers. He succeeds indeed. 

Dehumanizing the enemy

Black has more than a point in highlighting the (in)famous Johnson quote in his stunning account of the war in Vietnam and its equally lethal aftermath – the deadly long-term effects of the dioxin contaminated Agent Orange and other herbicides sprayed in huge quantities on Vietnam and parts of Laos and Cambodia as well. 

One point is Johnson’s obvious ignorance and its fatal consequences. Secondly, it’s about dehumanizing the enemy.  You cannot afford to imagine the farmers down there in the paddy fields and villages with their kids and grannies, when you throw four times as many bombs on a small Asian country as all warring parties did during the entire VWII. 

How can you get 19-year-old American kids (the average age of the GI’s) to burn down village after village, if they see people instead of commie coons?

Surely, Vietnam was a very scary experience for the GIs ‘humping the boonies’ in Vietnam’s countryside, under permanent threat from hidden snipers and booby traps with bamboo sticks smeared with buffalo feces to maximize infections in the body of the unfortunates, who fell into them. 

Listening to the veterans

Once you sit down with Vietnam vets, they might tell you about their Vietnam – the days of boredom broken by hours of terror, whenever their elusive enemy chose to strike. If you listen long enough you might get to the point that you understand, why platoon leader William Calley ordered his men to move down some 500 unarmed villagers in My Lai. Not the same as condoning this unspeakable act of course. 

You might even understand why the infamous unit ‘Tiger Force’ proceeded with dozens of other My Lai’s in Quang Ngai province, without ever being court martialed for their crimes. It was murder in the name of war.

You cannot help sympathizing, when you follow one of Black’s main characters, marine Manus Campbell through his ordeals in the jungles at the 17th parallel and its Demilitarized Zone (nick-named Dead Marine Zone by the GIs who fought there). And yes, readers are likely to continue sympathizing with Campbell, as the war time experience continues tormenting him for decades, as he slowly recovers from alcohol and drug abuse, returning to Vietnam to assist Vietnamese children in dire need.

Part one of Black’s book is devoted to the war itself, relying to a great extent on previous works by prominent wartime journalists and scholars like Bernard Fall, Stanley Karnow, Fredrik Logevall, Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, and many others. They are all duly credited of course in extensive notes. Even though well-versed readers might argue that nothing is new there, Black’s account of the war is an incredible well written condensation of the American war in Vietnam, including disturbing observations which might keep you at the edge of your chair, as you read on. 

Westmoreland’s nuclear attack plan.

You will encounter general Westmoreland secretly planning a nuclear attack under the codename ‘Operation Fracture Jaw’, fortunately to be stopped by the White House. 

Cynicism and callousness are not left to the US military brass alone. Here is what happened on the other side, while thousands of young women struggled to keep the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail operational for the North Vietnamese army, in between the massive bombings of the network to stop the supplies of men and weapons to the war in the South:

“Abusive officers extracted sexual favors, and a small number of the young women sold their bodies….in exchange for food.”  

This sad and outrageous example of all-too-common abuse during the war does indeed demands its place in historic accounts, if you ask the Vietnamese ‘volunteers’ who participated on the Northern side and came back alive from the war zones in the south.  

Don’t take Black’s or my word for it – read on in Bao Ninh’s ‘Sorrow of War’, and Dang Thuy Trâm’s ‘Last Night I Dreamed of Peace’, for a brutally honest close-up of the casualties of war. Add insult to the injury with the fact that the surviving female volunteers from the North were denied the meager military retirement benefits after the war, because they were considered civilians.  

Thousands of these volunteers were buried along the Truong Son Trail, the Vietnamese name for the transport network, which also spread into neighboring Laos and Cambodia.

Black has included a telling incident, which illustrates the enigmatic power struggles in the top echelon of the Communist party – the disagreements on how to wage war against the Southern regime and their American allies almost took the party leadership apart. Disagreements which are rooted in the arguments back in the 1950’ies when the Vietnamese leaders argued about the strategy in their liberation war against the French.

After years of arguing between party secretary Le Duan and commanding general Vo Nguyen Giàp and their respective followers, the general was forcibly retired into oblivion:

“The greatest insult of all came in 1984, when the party made a documentary to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Dien Bien Phủ, and not a word was said about Giàp, who had commanded the victorious Vietnamese forces.”

Giàp himself outlived all his enemies. When he died in 2013 at the age of 103, tens of thousands of Vietnamese lined up in the streets to pray for their hero. 

Coping with the legacy

Black has devoted Part 2 and 3 to the legacy of the war, building his story around three Americans, who are very well known in Vietnam for their admirable efforts in the past three decades to address the legacies of war: Lady Borton, Chuck Searcy, and Charles Bailey.

They are known to be very modest about their personal role. However, the fact is that they more than anyone deserve credit for the change of US policy from denial of responsibility to very large assistance to the ongoing efforts of addressing the legacy of Agent Orange and unexploded bombs, mines and grenades in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. 

Lady Borton has been closely involved in Vietnam, since she was a young relief worker during the war. Over decades, she has worked on countless humanitarian projects all over Vietnam, a strong and at times a very lonely advocate for continued assistance to Vietnam during the US led embargo that followed soon after the war ended.

At one point a Canadian environmental consulting firm, Hatfield, arrives in Vietnam to assess the extent of dioxin contamination in the sprayed areas. Team leader Tom Boivin remembers well his first encounters with Lady Borton:

“She covered our asses, never took any credit, never asked to be paid…She was our technical assistant, our bodyguard, our translator, and interpreter. She could do anything from taking liver samples from a tilapia to getting the ear of a prime minister, and everything in between. I think of her as a kind of Mother Teresa, who also happened to like knocking back tequila shots in the evening.”

The funding that made Hatfield’s survey possible – this is where George Bailey comes into the picture. As the country director of Ford Foundation Vietnam, Bailey was funding the very first credible Agent Orange related investigations and many other subsequent assistance projects for the Agent Orange Victims in Vietnam. 

In the words of Tom Boivin according to Black: “If it wasn’t for Charles Bailey, none of this good shit would ever have happened.”

As evident in Black’s record of events, none of ‘Bailey’s good shit’ would have happened, if it wasn’t for Chuck Searcy.

Searcy’s war

Searcy joined the war as an intelligence analyst for the US army in Saigon. Like other disillusioned returnees he joined other veterans against the war and devoted all his energy to protest the war, antagonizing his own parents in the process:

“His parents, who by this time had moved to South Carolina, couldn’t face their neighbors. We don’t want to see you anymore; we want you out of the house.”

Searcy returns to Vietnam in the 1990s and gets involved in the clean-up of Vietnam’s most devastated province, co-founding Project Renew (check this link for my report from a project visit in 2022).

Upon his arrival in Vietnam in 1998, Bailey invites Searcy for lunch. 

“Searcy did most of the talking, while Bailey listened, sphinxlike…. He told Bailey that while they had been able to make some progress on disabilities, the impasse over Agent Orange was their greatest frustration: no one in the American government would even talk about it…. An institution like Ford could make a real difference; the foundation’s size and reputation would make it hard for the government to ignore them.”

Searcy and Bailey were up against formidable resistance. 

Ambassador Burghardt’s propaganda campaign

Black has dug out a leaked memo from the US ambassador to Hanoi at the time, Raymond Burghardt, who was well known for his arrogance towards the Vietnamese in general:

The Ambassador intended to give priority “to counter the Vietnamese propaganda campaign that hinges on non-scientific but visually effective and emotionally charged methodology…. Allegations of adverse impact of Agent Orange/dioxin are grossly exaggerated and unsupported by any objective measure,” according to ambassador Burghardt. 

He was not the only senior US diplomat involved in this kind of slander. As a young journalist, I was subject myself to harassment from unnamed diplomats of the US Embassy in Copenhagen, calling my editors with accusations of Vietnamese communist propaganda.

The decades of US denial of the devastating effects of Agent Orange becomes even more outrageous when you look at the early history. Black takes note that back in 1965 the prominent Harvard molecular geneticist Matthew Meselson stated that the dioxin contaminated herbicides ‘was 100 times more poisonous than the most powerful nerve gas.”

The chief toxicologist of the manufacturer, Dow Chemicals, stated according to Black that dioxin was ‘exceptionally toxic’ to humans.

Many other scientists raised voices of serious concern – they were all ignored by the US government and the Pentagon.

Despite the formidable obstacles Borton, Searcy and Bailey just kept working the ropes whenever their saw an option to lobby for their cause in the Administration, in Congress and in the media. At the same time, they kept launching relief projects on the ground.

‘Confrontation won’t get us anywhere, dialogue might work´, Bailey once told me, as he gradually managed to put Agent Orange on the agenda, where it mattered in his own Ford Foundation and in Congress. 

The breakthrough

A breakthrough was when Borton/Searcy/Bailey captured the interest of Senator Patrick Leahy, a senior member of the Senate’s Appropriations Committee. In time this led to massive funding to deal with the legacies of war in Vietnam.

Next came step-by-step changes in the official policy of the US Government. A new generation of US diplomats in Hanoi pushed for US assistance to clean-up of dioxin hotspots, like the former US air force base in Da Nang to be followed by an even more severe contamination in Bien Hoa, running into hundreds of millions of USD. 

Ambassador Ted Osius, serving in Hanoi 2014-2017, gained much respect among the Vietnamese for his tenacious efforts ‘to do what’s right’.  A watershed event, which Osius probably had a hand in, came when President Obama addressed the Agent Orange issue as the first US president ever, in his ‘Remarks to the Vietnamese People’ – a de facto official statement during his visit to Vietnam in 2016. Check this link for more on Ted Osius and his own fascinating story and his involvement in the amazing development of US-Vietnamese relations in the recent decade: Nothing is Impossible. 

Dealing with the lethal legacy of the war in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia will be an ongoing project for decades to come. George Black deserves the greatest praise for telling us, how this came about and the crucial role of the modest heroes, who spent most of their adult years to make it happen – this certainly also includes the final chapters on Agent Orange in Laos and the groundbreaking efforts by Susan Hammond of the War Legacies Project, carried out under immense difficulties.

When I share this review in a mail to Lady, Chuck, and Charles, I anticipate the reply from them: “Great book, indeed – but really, there are so many others involved in this. Don’t exaggerate our part, please.”

True enough, and Black is mentioning some of the most important Vietnamese counterparts and partners on the ground, like doctor Le Ke Son, who co-wrote the book From Enemies to Partners with Bailey, and Hien Ngo working with Searcy in Quang Tri on OXU-removal.

Missing Dr. Phuong

Curiously, one very important Vietnamese Agent Orange activist is missing from the cast: Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phuong from the Tu Du Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. She traveled around the world in a desperate call for help, I witnessed this on her European speaking tour in 1982.

  Later, she testified twice in the US Congress, bringing along her stepdaughter Hoan, born without lower legs and with one arm only. Together they wrote a personal letter to President Obama to ask him for assistance to the Agent Orange victims of Vietnam.

In her late seventies, now dr. Phuong still steps out from retirement to perform complicated surgeries on pregnant patients and continues her advocacy.  

Check this link for a brief update on her tireless struggles going back 5-6 decades to make the world aware of all those countryside girls coming in from the sprayed areas, dying in her ward. 

George Black: The Long Reckoning – A story of war, peace, and redemption in Vietnam. 478 pages. Alfred A. Knopf.


Vietnamese author Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s new novel DUST CHILD is a heartbreaking masterpiece. Her readers will shed their tears and smile their way through this epic page-turner about the living casualties of America’s war in Vietnam.

Honestly, I did not expect Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai to do it to me once again. Less than three years ago I picked up her first novel The Mountains Sing and sat down to read a chapter or two on a Saturday morning in Hanoi. I got so caught up by the opening chapter taking me straight into the infamous Christmas bombings of Hanoi in 1972 that I could not put it down until I finished the last page in the early hours of Sunday morning.

After a few hours of sleep, I sat down again to share my amazement on my blog with these observations on The Mountains Sing. No wonder that this beautiful story has traveled the world since then in 16 different languages.

Yesterday, the exact same thing happened with Dust Child. Again, I could not put it down. Again, I am sitting here after too little sleep to share my experience with others.

Dust Child and The Mountains Sing are similar and different at the same time. Both novels are generation spanning tales of the destructions of war and its countless victims. Both offer their readers a unique insight in Vietnamese history and culture, including Quế Mai’s irresistible sharing of classic Vietnamese proverbs – like ‘Rough seas make good sailors’ and ‘Life is riding high on an elephant, then low on a dog’. 

The differences are harder to pinpoint, but nevertheless very real in their impact on this reader. The Mountains Sing made me smile more often than sending chills down my spine, when confronted by the tragedies of war.

It’s the other way around with Dust Child, named after the thousands of children born during the war by Vietnamese mothers and American fathers. In Vietnamese they are referred to as ‘Dust of Life’.

Here is how they are treated by neighbors in Quế Mai’s words: “Hey you black American with 12 assholes. You lost the war. Why don’t you go fucking home.” The words of a Vietnamese man, while kicking a small kid, born in the very last days of the war. 

The first 300 pages of Dust Child leave you with very little hope for the main characters: The countryside sisters Trang and Quỳnh, who are lured into the seedy girlie bars of wartime Saigon ending up in prostitution, being paid USD 3 for ‘long time services’.

The baby in a tree

We meet the homeless orphan Phong, found 3 days old hanging in a tree in a bag, and for the rest of his life rejected by the post-war community because of his ‘ugly’ black skin and afro-hair, inherited by his American soldier father. Then there is Dan, the all-American college kid, turned into a miserable monster as a helicopter-pilot in the killing zones of the Mekong Delta. Dan returns to Vietnam in search of the love of his youth, with his frustrated wife Linda screaming on the sidelines. 

Somehow, Quế Mai manages to inject beauty and compassion in her heartbreaking story. As a reader, you cannot avoid taking sides with the characters, as they refuse to accept defeat and continue their uphill battles to get a better life.  I shall not disclose here who succeeds, and who never had a chance. Read for yourself, please.

Quế Mai’s novel is fiction, of course, but is based on meticulous research, in which she spent years interviewing former bargirls and Amerasians, desperately trying to connect with their unknown fathers in the US.

Unfortunately, the tale is all too true.

Working as a young journalist in Vietnam in the early 1980’ies, I remember all too well, how real this tragedy unfolded after the war. One scene is forever in my memory for the past 40 years.

It was an early evening in Saigon just before the 8 pm curfew. Out of nowhere a young light-skinned girl grabs my arm, pleading: “Daddy, daddy give me dollar.” Then offering her body for USD 5. There were hundreds like her living on the streets.

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s Dust Child deserves a readership, at least as wide as her bestselling The Mountains Sing. 

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai: Dust Child. 339 pages. Algonquin books of Chapel Hill.

With the author in Hanoi, 2022

Người Anh Không Tên – The man with no name

Tôi nhìn bức ảnh

Ta gặp nhau 36 năm về trước

Cũng tháng này

Khuôn mặt anh màu đen và trắng

Chiếc áo cũ sờn

Che gió sương

Buốt giá ẩm ướt của đông Hà Nội

Tôi nhớ niềm tự hào khiêm tốn của anh:

Nhớ trận chiến cuối vào buổi sớm

Anh cho tôi xem chiếc bản đồ

Những mũi tên đỏ ghi dấu

Hàng nghìn người lính ngoan cường bước vào cuộc chiến sau cùng

Các anh quá trẻ

Với những ánh mắt quá già

Vì những năm liên miên khói lửa (bom đạn)

Với những tấm thân khô xác 

Vì triền miên các bữa lương khô

Những người con oanh liệt hào hùng

của Nam Định, Thái Bình, Hải Dương, Hoà Bình, Ninh Bình

và vô số nơi khác trên phương bắc

Hàng nghìn người bỏ thây dọc theo đường mòn Hồ Chí Minh

Vẫn nghe tiếng khóc than của một đội quân khác

những người nhà mòn mỏi đi tìm

Những mảnh hồn của các vong linh đi lạc

Rải rác trên mảnh đất tổ tiên

Tôi biết anh ra trận từ năm 14 tuổi

Theo tiếng gọi của người thầy

người đã trở thành một vị tướng giải phóng quê hương

Cả đời anh là những cuộc chiến triền miên không hồi kết

Anh cho tôi

Trái ngọt của vinh quang

Với một nụ cười thật đẹp

Tôi bật khóc

Tôi không tưởng tượng được một anh hùng lại khiêm nhường như anh

Anh không mảy may thể hiện

Những quả đắng thời bình

Mà anh phải chịu

Hay những tranh chấp vô tình giữa chính anh chị em

Chẳng lẽ anh không hề biết

Cuộc đời chứa chất những gì

Những đau thương kiểu khác

Không đổ máu

Nhưng còn đau đớn hơn 

Anh bỏ lại hết

Anh đã lạc mất các chiến hữu, gia đình và bè bạn

Anh dõi theo họ từ xa, từ hàng chục năm rồi

Đắng cay đã trở thành dấu ấn của anh

Để chúng ta đều thấy

Anh đã mất nơi xứ người

Có bình yên, tôi tự hỏi?

Phải chăng

Tôi sẽ sớm gặp lại anh

Một linh hồn lang thang 

Nơi Hà Nội phố

Đi tìm chính tên anh. 

In English:


I look at the photo

Our meeting 36 years ago, this month.

Your face in black and white.

The well worn jacket took the brunt 

of Hanoi’s freezing, humid winter.

I remember your modest pride:

Remembering the final attack in the morning hours

You showed me the map

Red arrrows indicating

How thousands of battle hardened soldiers

entered the enemy’s last stand.

Soldiers so young, their eyes too early aged 

through years of endless combat

Bodies like walking skeletons from years of jungle rations.

The victorius sons and daughters 

of Nam Dinh, Thai Binh, Hai Duong, Hoa Binh, Ninh Binh

and countless other places far up north.

Thousands were left dead along the Ho Chi Minh Trail

still mourned by another army of grieving relatives

looking for the remnants of Wandering Souls

roaming the land of their ancestors

I knew you had gone to war at the age of 14

You answered the call from the school teacher

who had become a famous general to liberate his land

Your entire life was spent in a war without fronts

You shared with me the fruits of victory 

with a smile so beautiful, I almost cried. 

I did not imagine that a war hero could be as modest as you

You gave me no clue of the bitter fruits waiting to poison you in peace time

Not a single hint of merciless struggles among brothers and sisters.

Could it be you did not know what life had in store for you

A different kind of suffering, bloodless and all the more painful

You left it it all behind

You were lost to former comrades, friends and family.

You watched them for decades, from afar.

Bitterness became your trademark for all to see

You passed away in foreign lands

In peace, I wonder?

Or will I meet you soon again

A wandering soul in the streets of Hanoi

Looking for your name.


Following an all-women demolition team in Quang Tri as they clear the land of unexploded bombs, mines and grenades

” These old grenades are too unpredictable to be removed. It is safer to blow it up right here. You need to move away at least 200 meters, while I prepare the explosives. My team will warn the villagers to stay away, until they hear the detonation.

We do as we are told by Trinh Thi Hong Tham (32). She is the leader of one of Project RENEW’s two all-women demolition teams, working to clear Quan Tri province of the deadly legacy of a war, which ended almost 50 years ago. Hundreds of thousands of unexploded bombs, mines and grenades are scattered all over the province.

We watch from a distance, while Tham is placing the explosives next to the old grenade. Then she rolls out the electric cord as she moves away from the grenade.

“A farmer called our hotline yesterday. He followed his goats into the bush along the dirt road and stumbled on the grenade.”

Tham nods towards her colleagues and activates the detonator. The boom echoes towards us along with black smoke, filled with dirt and pieces of vegetation. The danger has been removed, this time.Since the war ended in 1975, more than 104.000 Vietnamese have been killed by unexploded ordinance.

Tham: “We are just as capable as men.”

“Since I was a small child, I have lived here on land infested with unexploded bombs, grenades, and mines.  I will never forget, how I witnessed the death of our neighbor. He was tending his field when he encountered a cluster bomb. He left behind his mother, his wife and two small children. It is this kind of tragedies that motivated me to join Project RENEW.”

The project’s development and communication manager Ngo Xuan Hien carries with him his own trauma: “I think I was around 8 years old. One day while I was playing with my friend Ly, his parents told his older brother to go into the forest and collect some firewood. Suddenly we heard thar frightful boom. He was dying when we found him. The bomb had torn his stomach open. I could see his lunch, grain of rice and vegetables coming out of his wounds. This gruesome sight has been with me since then.” Hien’s voice is shaking from emotion.   

Tham and her female colleagues do not care much about the prejudice they sometimes meet, when ‘doing a man’s job´.

“I have been with Project RENEW for seven years now. My colleagues and I have proved that we are a just as capable as men in doing this job safely and efficiently. You need to be healthy and resilient, working in scorching heat or torrential rains. You must walk long distances in the bush sometimes, carrying heavy tools. You must be prepared as well to deal with leeches and snakes.”

Another deadly legacy is the long-term effects of Agent Orange, the dioxin contaminated chemicals sprayed by the US Airforce during the war in an attempt to locate the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail and the hidden bases in the thick foliage of Vietnam’s jungle. Almost 50 years after the last sprayings Agent Orange still has a very serious impact on Vietnamese families. There is a large number of 2nd and 3rd generation victims in Quang Tri and elsewhere in southern and central Vietnam. More than 72 million liters of Agent Orange were sprayed during the war.

“As women working in the contaminated areas, we are worried that this will affect our children. I am fortunate because I get regular medical check-ups as staff member of Project RENEW.”

Phoung is alone with three handicapped children.

In a small visit a few kilometers away, I find evidence, that Tham has every reason to be worried about Agent Orange. Vo Thi Phuong (48) is alone with 3 severely handicapped children, mentally and physically. 

“My husband had an accident some months ago, and he is still in hospital. I am alone with our children most of the time, even though my mother in-law tries to help me. She is old and frail now, so she cannot do much,” says Phuong.

According to Project RENEW there is more than 200 children in the area with similar disabilities, presumably due to Agent Orange exposure.

With funds from Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, the US State Department, Norwegian Aid, and private donors Project RENEW has worked for more than two decades to address the legacy of war in Quang Tri. The results are impressive, indeed: More than 120.000 pieces of unexploded ordinance have been removed safely, except one deadly casualty.

A total of 18,5 million m2 of land have been cleared and given back to the communities for further development. However, the remaining task is staggering: 549 million m2 of land is still confirmed hazardous.  In addition to the land clearance more than 200.000 people have gone through risk awareness programs in the province.

There will be dangerous assignments for Tham and her colleagues for decades to come. Support will of course be needed, as they move along.

RENEW stands for ‘Restoring the Environment and Neutralizing the Effects of War.  Please click PROJECT RENEW to learn more. 


Vietnam’s “Victory Day”, 30 april is also a great yearly opportunity to pay respects to my long time friend, the late Jens Nauntofte.

He was one of only a handful of Western journalists who chose to stay behind, when Saigon fell on 30 April 1975. He could not bring himself to leave behind, what he believed would be the greatest story ever to file to national Danish Broadcasting.

The following weeks became an experience of a lifetime as the new regime emerged, but also the ultimate frustration for a journalist, when all international communication lines were cut off. Jens were unable to share these great historic moments with his audience back in Scandinavia. In stead, he noted down all that he witnessed in his personal diary.

His observations were not for the faint hearted. One morning he witnessed a former officer from the army of South Vietnam, pouring gasoline over himself. Next the officer torched his body in a horrific demonstration, reminding the spectators of the famous buddhist monks who sacrificed themselves in the streets of Saigon in vain protests against the repression of Buddhists during President Diem’s infamous regime.

In 2013, Jens posed for my fun-shot below with a wartime photo of himself in front of his old hang-out, the Continental Hotel on Lam Son square. Jens had at times been able to secure for himself the same room as author Graham Greene did in 1950’ies, while he worked on his great novel ‘The Quiet American’.

Later that night Jens and I went to Augustin, his favorite restaurant – drinking too much wine, while Jens once again shared his treasure of memories from the longest war in modern history.

The 2nd photo is of a VNA cabin attendant en route to Saigon posing with the published edition of Jen’s 1975 diary “Yellow Star over Vietnam.”

This souvenir shot was my greeting to Jens in 2015 on the 40th anniversary of the end of the war in Vietnam. Coincidentially, the cabin attendant’s name was Nhu, just like the enigmatic young Vietnamese woman, who worked as an assistant for Jens in the final days before the fall of Saigon. In the diary, Jens refered to her as his ‘Mata Hari’, because he suspected that she reported his activities to the underground communist network in Saigon. Nevertheless she was a very good fixer for a young foreign journalist trying to find his way through the chaos in war torn Vietnam. Nhu disappeared suddenly without a trace, and Jens often wondered about her fate.

Jens is sorely missed today, professionally, and even more, personally.


The SOHA magazine has kindly invited me to share these memories from the Chinese-Vietnamese conflict. Here is a link to the Vietnamese version. Below is the original English text.

The Chinese aggressions against Vietnam did not end in 1979, when China withdrew from the war in Lang Son. Here is what happened 5 years later, in June 1984, when a Danish journalist suddenly found himself under fire from Chinese artillery in Ha Tuyen

By Thomas Bo Pedersen

Photos: Ole Johnny Sorensen


I begin to understand that we are under fire, when the young Vietnamese soldier throws me on the ground, covering my body with his own. A whistling sound above our heads and then the detonations some 20 meters to my left. My heart is racing, my adrenaline surges crazily trough my body as panic takes over. My first time ever under fire.

As pieces of stone, wood, leaves and dust settles around me, I look for my photographer. He is also on the ground a few meters to my right. Like me, his body is covered by a young Vietnamese soldier, who is holding on to his arm, with blood seeping through his fingers. He must have been hit by shrapnel from one of the grenades.

Just an hour before, I had posed this question to the Vietnamese official, now lying there on the ground next to me, vice-chairman Pham Dinh Di:

“In interviews with Western media the Chinese government has claimed that China needs to defend itself against Vietnamese provocations?”

Now I realize, why Pham Dinh Di had looked at me in absolute disbelief.


We had left Hanoi very early the same morning with our Vietnamese military escort. To my surprise, our interpreter Le Hoai Phuong and her colleague from the foreign ministry presented me with flowers and a cake, to celebrate my 29th birthday – at 4.00 am. 

“We saw in your passport that it is your birthday, so we wanted to celebrate with you, since you are a far away from your family,” Phuong said with a shy grin. 

Little did I know that I was to receive another birthday surprise later that same afternoon, a deadly gift from the Chinese army. 

Vice chairman Pham Dinh Di and myself after the attack.

As we leave Hanoi and drive through the Red River delta, it looks like it will become a typical hot and humid summer day in Northern Vietnam.  

It had taken us more than one hour to cross the famous Long Bien Bridge, crammed with thousands of bicycles, other thousands of people walking on their feet, and just a few cars.  In those days Long Bien was the only bridge connecting Hanoi with the provinces, a lifeline supplying the capital with food and commodities.

The destruction of war is still very visible in the Red River delta that morning, nine years after the end of the war.  Here and there the green rice fields are scarred by barren moonscapes with huge circular holes, some turned into ponds. 

The soil had been pressed so hard by the detonations of the American bombs that it was impossible to grow anything there.  The bombings in Vietnam had escalated into incredibly numbers: Four times as many bombs had been used in Vietnam than during the entire WW II.

A few hours on the narrow country roads, and then we leave the delta and head into the first range of green mountains, our car comes to a halt at a military control post. Once approved for onward traveling the remaining trip will be in a military convoy.

Into the war zone

“It looks like we are heading into a war zone,” my photographer notes with a nervous grin, as we slowly move forward on the narrow mountain road towards the Chinese boarder. The landscape is stunningly beautiful with green mountains all around us, contrasted by the deep red soil of the dirt road we are riding on in a military convoy with dozens of trucks carrying young Vietnamese soldiers and military hardware to the border.

Back in Hanoi, we had heard the rumors of recent Chinese attacks across the border, mainly by artillery barrages. 

“The Chinese generals remember the lesson we taught them in 1979, when many of their soldiers were killed by our strong border defense. Now, it seems they only harass us from time to time with medium range artillery fire over the border. I have a brother, who just came back from the border on a short leave. He says that it has become much more intense in the past couple of weeks” a Vietnamese source had told me a few days before over very strong coffee and the customary cigarettes back in Hanoi.

It had taken some persuasion to get permission from the authorities to visit the border areas. During an interview with the head of the international department of the Central Committee, Le Mai, I tried my luck with some very direct questions on the status of the Chinese-Vietnamese relations, including a request to see for myself, what the situation was really like in the border areas. Le Mai agreed to bring forward our case to the military command, and just a few days later, we got the permission to visit and took off before daybreak on June 1, 1984.



Suddenly, we are hearing distant explosions. 

“I hope it is just a training exercise,” interpreter Le Hoai Phuong says with a nervous grin. The tense looks of the soldiers around us tell us that Phuong’s hopes might be all too naive, but after a few more explosions the guns become quiet again. 

We stop for lunch at a small village, the villagers are obviously poor, but they take good care of us, with fried chicken, vegetables, and rice. A bit of fresh sugar cane with the bitter green tea, and then we are off again to cross the last mountain range to reach Ha Giang, the border town which has been repeatedly under fire in the past couple of weeks according to the rumors.

Pham Dinh Di one of the many damaged houses.

10.000 people evacuated

Ha Giang seems totally deserted. The streets are empty, the shops are closed. There are no sandals or well-worn shoes on the doorsteps, the normal evidence that people are at home.  A small group of men in civilian clothes are waiting for us at the provincial chairman’s office. Deputy chairman Pham Dinh Di greets us with a grin all over his handsome face.

“Welcome to Ha Giang. You are the first foreigners visiting us here. I am afraid we cannot show you how lively our town really is. After the artillery shelling has become more intense, we have evacuated almost everybody – about 10.000 people.”

We are invited to sit down in a very simple office on bamboo stools, having the customary green tea along with the dry green bean cake, which is always hard for foreigners to swallow. 

“During the first attacks two weeks ago, we had to rely on our local self-defense militia, in case the Chinese would launch a real invasion attempt. But so far, we have only suffered artillery bombardments. In the past week several units from our Quan Doi Nhân Dan have arrived. I promise you it will become very costly for the Chinese army, if they try to invade our country again.”

“In your opinion what are the reasons for the present conflict between China and Vietnam?”

“You should ask that question to the Chinese! I assume that they are frustrated to see that their ideological and economic war against our country has failed completely. So now they are trying to increase the pressure on us by military means, just like they have done many times before for the past 2.000 years. They never succeeded, and we will do everything we can to make sure that they will also fail this time.”

Pham Dinh Di invites us to join him for an inspection tour to assess the damage of the bombardments that we heard from a distance on our way to Ha Giang.  We join him in a military jeep. We follow an army truck full of armed soldiers, assigned for our protection. As we move closer to the border, half destroyed houses start to appear. 

The dead children of Lang Suu

We make a stop in Lang Suu village, 4 kilometers from the Chinese artillery positions.

“This is the site of the very first surprise attack. The kindergarten was hit, three children were killed, and four others seriously wounded.”

Pham Dinh Di points towards a big burned-out spot. The structure on it is almost completely gone, except for some blackened pieces of wood and a few charred bricks.

“This was the central food storage of the village. Unfortunately, it was full, so almost the entire spring harvest was lost, “says Pham Dinh Di.

He takes out his notebook and reads aloud.

“This is my record of the destruction in the past 3 months due to the Chinese bombings. 28 of the 31 villages have suffered major damage. 15 percent of the harvest has been destroyed. 38 civilians have been killed, 36 people seriously wounded.”

Pham Dinh Di takes us to the local power station. 

“This is one of the most frequent targets. We just finished repairing it once again, and now our electricity supply is back. I am sure we will see a new attack soon on the power station. The Chinese know of course that it is of vital importance to us.”

Photo: Ole Johnny Sorensen.Artwork: Pham Trinh Phuong Thanh.

Running for our lives

This morning, my photographer is doing the only shooting in the seemingly peaceful mountain valley. If not for the clicks of his Nikon, it would be a blissfully quiet afternoon right there in the beautiful green scenery. Pham Dinh Di is pointing to the mountain range right in front of us. 

“There is a Chinese artillery unit right there, I….”

He is interrupted by a BOOM, one more BOOM, and then the third one.

“Xuong!” a soldier yells, and we don’t need the translation at all, but get down on the ground immediately, before the grenades come whistling and detonates some 20 meters away.

After that first artillery barrage, we huddle together in a ditch. The water immediately soaks my pants. Pham Dinh Di offers us a survival training course on the spot. 

“We need to get away from here before they are able to adjust the shooting to hit us directly. When the soldiers give the signal, we run as fast as we can. If we hear the boom again, you need to stop running and lay down flat. You will have a much better chance of avoiding the shrapnel. Most people get killed when they try to run away in panic.”

“Go, go!”

Somehow my sandals get stuck in the muddy ditch, and I run like crazy on bare feet.  All too soon, the pain of the sharp branches on the ground slows me down too much. Two soldiers grab my arms and forces me to stay on my feet at their pace. 

Then the BOOOM, BOOOM, BOOOM again.

I am down on the ground on a dirt road with my face buried in red soil and my bodyguard on top of me. As soon as the detonations are over, we get on our feet again. Then two or three more times, until our ordeal is finally over.  

I look at my watch, but have no real idea, for how long we have been under fire. “Around 45 minutes,” my photographer estimates. He has lost a very expensive camera lens somewhere during our frantic escape; Two soldiers are slightly wounded by shrapnel. Today’s modest casualties.

From somewhere a couple of bottles of warm beer appears. We toast each other.

“Congratulations. You had your first war experience today. I could see you were scared. Honestly, I think we all were. I don’t think you ever get comfortable with enemy fire,” Pham Dinh Di says with a grin.

One more event, a pleasant one, is awaiting us in Ha Giang: A simple but very delicious birthday dinner with live performance of the local militia. Men and women.  It is all about glorious victories in historic battles against the Chinese.


Two days later, I find myself back in Hanoi, I have been granted an interview with Vietnam’s legendary foreign minister Nguyen Co Thach.

He receives me with a hearty laughter:

“Tell me please. What do you prefer: Chinese or Vietnamese hospitality?

Co Thach knew all about our border experience from that morning’s edition of the Nhân Dannewspaper. 

Phuong laughs just as heartedly as the foreign minister when she translates the headline for me:


Nhan Dan newspaper on the attack.


Today, I happily hand over my blog to gallerist Hoang Minh Chau.

Two years ago, I chased the elusive carnivore Nepenthes plant and finally spotted it in the jungles of Borneo. Then only yesterday, I spotted the Nepenthes again in Chau’s new gallery in the 123 alley of Nguyen Din Thi street, this time in a collage called ‘Oblivion’ made by South African artist Nachita Taranto.

Oblivion by Nachita Taranto

Here is the interpretation of Oblivion in Chau’s own words:

“Ah something mischievous and playful going on here! Nepenthes is a very strange and interesting plant, known for its ability to attract a variety of preys including insects, lizards and even rats. In this quirky collage, it’s not the insects but the two sexy girls (one in tartan skirt and one in sequin tights) who seem to have fallen and get trapped in the pretty-looking vase-shaped pitcher plant.

It’s very common that each flower or plant is given its own symbolic meaning and the pitcher plant is no exception. It symbolizes emotional healing, protection of oneself, dreams and illusions. The name “Nepenthes” itself in Greek means “No sorrow”.

So what’s happening here with the two chicas? Are they purposely taking a break and hiding from the world? Are they trapped in their inner world of illusions? Are they trying to forget everything and having no clues what’s going on? Are they intoxicated and indulging in delightful decadence? Are they looking for something special inside and trying to escape from the the mundane of everyday life? Were they seduced, fallen and then trapped in their own fantasy world of love and dreams? Will they still come out sane and purified?

Like any other modern artwork, the interpretation is yours to come up with. It’s an unexpected quick play of painting and imagery that creates a super eye-catchy, off-beat surrealist vibe artwork. Probably, Nachita’s cleverness and sense of humour is something we appreciate the most from seeing this recent creation.”

The Nepenthes predator as I found in the jungles of Borneo in 2020.


– This morning 30 years ago a young Karen guerilla, called ‘Tiger’, smuggled photographer Ole J. Sørensen and myself into Burma, taking us to Manerplaw, the legendary stronghold of the Karen guerillas. They had fought the Burmese army since World War II. 10.000 figthers were living in a primitive bamboo village on the slopes of The Mountain of The Sleeping Dog.

During World War II, The Karen had fought the Japanese army in Burma, and in return for their support, the British promised the Karen to support their claim for their own homeland, once the war was over.

Just like the US broke their promise to Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese guerillas to support Vietnam’s independence in return for their support against the Japanese, the British broke their promise to the Karen in Burma. 

When I met the Karen in 1991, they had tenaciously fought the Burmese military for more than 40 years.

During the following days Tiger took us deeper into jungle to visit the Burmese students, who had fled the massacres in the streets of Rangoon, when the army had cracked down on their protests against the harsh military rule. The memory of these starving and frightened youngsters has stayed with me ever since.

Like many other guerillas, Tiger was sick with malaria and frequently shook with nasty fever attacks. Nevertheless he insisted to stay with us on the muddy trails in the damp and cold mountain forest.

A few weeks later after Tiger had taken us back to safety in Thailand, the Burmese army launched a surprise attack on Manerplaw, and many Karen guerillas died in the vicious battle. I have often wondered if Tiger survived the slaughter, but I was never able to obtain any information about his fate. 


Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh

My remarks to Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh at a dialogue meeting in Hanoi 9 September 1021

Excellency Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh,

Distinguished representatives of the Government of Vietnam,

Ambassadors of the European Union memberstates,

Fellow company representatives,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am grateful for the opportunity to share with all of you my experience in these challenging times as managing director of Mascot International Vietnam.

First of all, I would like to thank the authorities and people of Hai Duong province with all my heart for the assistance Mascot received to get through COVID wave 3 in February, when we were the epicenter of the pandemic in Vietnam.

At Mascot we will never forget what Hai Duong did to help us through the crisis in those days. As a result, our losses were reduced to a minimum, because we were able to maintain production with a minimum loss and keep the entire supply chain running, including import of raw materials and export of our finished goods. We got clear and consistent advice from the Hai Duong authorities on the necessary preventive measures. Even though we were right there in the epicenter, we managed to run our business, without a single infection among our staff. Once again, thank you to our friends in Hai Duong. What we managed to do during the 3rd wave, saved us a lot of trouble in the 4th wave.

As we all know, the challenge at hand now is much greater. The numbers, especially in the South, are staggering. The potential threat to the rest of the country is real and frightening to us all. Understandably, we are all very tired of this pandemic, after dealing with COVID for more than 1,5 years. Whether you look at it as a company or as one of the millions of people, suffering the consequences in this country and elsewhere, it is easy to get frustrated and even angry with the restrictions imposed on us.

Therefore, we should all keep in mind, that there is only one enemy in this war, the virus! All of us in this room have the same shared interest to do our part to win this war, no matter where we are coming from.

Prime Minister, let me assure you, that as a company we shall follow to the letter the measures, decided by your government. We understand that it is in our own interest to do so. I am confident that the government of Vietnam is considering carefully, before they take action to impose restrictions that may make life even more difficult for the companies and our staff. Today’s dialogue is evidence that you are willing till listen to us as well. Therefore, please allow me to share some observations and ideas with you all.

Prime Minister, I think we all agree with your statement that in this pandemic the health of the people comes first. I would like to put it to you that ‘economic health’ is a very important second. We need to ensure that Vietnam will continue to have the strongest possible economic foundation to get back on its feet from this pandemic.

In the short term it is essential to keep production, including the international supply chains, running as best as we can. Whatever happens, please keep the ports of this country open for the sake of all. The 3s-principle is not applicable to large scale manufacturing for very practical reasons. We cannot accommodate thousands of workers 24/7 and keep them separated from their families for weeks or months.

It makes good sense to focus vaccinations on the major industrial and population centers as a way forward towards normalizing the situation in order to stay healthy – physically as well as financially. A comprehensive vaccination plan must also include the required documentation, vaccination passports, so that fully vaccinated people are able to move around. In Europe they are now very successful with a digital solution. The passport is never more than one click away on your smartphone. This would also be a very useful tool, if the government decides to re-open air traffic for vaccinated travelers.

Hopefully, Vietnam will soon have the enough vaccinations available. At our company 95% of staff have registered for vaccination already, and I think you will find the same kind of positive response in most other companies. 

Basically, the most efficient means to secure economic health is to make it possible for businesses to function as normally as possible. 

Prime Minister, this brings me to my final point for your consideration. How to ensure the economic health in the business sector. My concern is not so much the larger FDI’s, such as the company I represent. We will be the last ones to go under.

My immediate concern is our small and medium-sized suppliers here in Vietnam. They fought as hard as anybody in the war against COVID, and most are still with us. I am afraid that many of them will not be able to survive much longer, unless massive support becomes available.

It is my hope that the Government of Vietnam will give top priority to a relief package for the SMEs in this country along with the normalization of the economy. It could be a CIT/PIT tax holiday, suspension of VAT or postponement of payments to social security funds. Or even salary subsidies from the Government to certain badly hit sectors under very specific and strict conditions. I know that it will be a cost in the short term, but the long term costs of not doing it, can be of much larger proportions.

I understand that the government of Vietnam is frantically busy addressing the immediate health risks of the pandemic. Nevertheless, I ask you to consider the economic health issues, while we still have time to safeguard the more vulnerable parts of the business sector in Vietnam.

Prime minister, excellencies, ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you very much for your time.


Lukningen af DANIDAS enorme bistandsprogram i Tanzania er en oplagt anledning til at diskutere hvad der egentlig kommer ud af udviklingsbistanden.

Den forestående lukning af Danmarks ambassade i Tanzania og det gigantiske bistandsprogram (Ialt DKK 17 mia. gennem årene, tror jeg) kalder minder frem:

Pudsigt nok sluttede min journalistiske karriere i 1994 med denne artikel om DANIDAS bogstaveligt talt livsfarlige projekt med Tanzanias statsbaner. Kilden til historien var Danidas egen dybt bekymrede miljø-ekspert, der så blev sparet bort i den følgende nedskæringsrunde, men bistanden til Tanzania fik lov at fortsætte i yderligere 30 år.

Tanzania er om noget især socialdemoratisk arvegods i dansk ulandsbistand, understøttet af Mellemfolkeligt Samvirke, en af Danmarks mest magtfulde ngo’er, og det går helt tilbage til salig præsident og frihedshelt Nyrere’s regeringstid. Det siger meget om inertien i Ulands-tankeren Danida, at det har taget så mange år at justere kursen.

At det sker, skyldes i høj grad ‘hjælp’ ude fra i den forstand, at det er blevet helt umuligt at forsvare udviklingsbistand under Tanzania’s nuværende autokratiske præsident Hassan og såmænd også dennes forgænger Magufuli. Når alt kommer til alt, bør diskussionen om hvad der skal med dansk ulandsbistand handle om mere end blot enkelt korrupt og udemokratisk land som Tanzania. Det kunne være nyttigt med en gennemgribende diskusssion af, hvad der egentlig er opnået med Danmarks storstilede ‘programsamarbejds-koncept’ med nogle få udvalgte udviklingslande.

Ideen var fantastisk: At vi ved at fokusere bistanden, kunne opnå reelle og bæredygtige resultater – ikke bare bekæmpelse af fattigdom, men også fremme af demokrati og menneskerettigheder, herunder kvinders rolle i udviklingsprocessen, bedre miljø m.m.

Som tidligere embedsmand i Udenrigsministeriet skal jeg ikke skjule mit personlige medansvar: I Bangladesh baksede jeg med et transportsektorprogram til DKK 1,2 milliarder og i Vietnam et tilsvarende program til et par hundrede millioner. Jeg vovede aldrig pelsen og sendte en kritisk rapport hjem.

Hvem tør holde de flotte mål op mod den faktiske virkelighed hos Danmarks samarbejdspartnere i: Tanzani, Kenya, Eritrea, Mozambique, Sydafrika, Niger, Burkina Faso, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Bolivia – det var dem jeg lige kunne huske. En fordomsfri og grundig analyse heraf skylder man de skatteydere, der betaler gildet.