Central Vietnam’s deadly legacy provides a livelihood to many

By Hoang Tao   December 15, 2018 | 08:23 pm PT
At a time when poverty was rife and there were not many employment options, people scavenged on unexploded bombs despite the great risk.

In the central province of Quang Tri, a major battlefield during the Vietnam War, many scrap collectors express admiration or shake their heads when they hear the name Le Cong Hung.

The intense bombing during the war left behind 100,000 tons of unexploded ordnance (UXO) in the province. Poverty forced Hung to dismantle bombs to obtain iron scrap, and he gradually became interested in this job.

Hung, born in Nghe An Province, enlisted in the army in 1969 and fought in Quang Tri's Gio Linh District. When the war ended he married, quit the army and returned to his hometown.

Little did he know that life’s struggles would force his family back to his former battleground in 1984. 

As their efforts to farm failed, they emulated a neighbor and bought a metal detector to collect war scrap. This was in 1990.

Le Cong Hung talks about his youth and the career of defusing bombs. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Tao 

Le Cong Hung talks about his youth and the career of defusing bombs. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Tao 

Hung found a lot of bombs and, with his previous army experience, made a risky choice: to defuse them to get his hands on the copper and iron inside.

His so-called equipment consisted almost entirely of a hammer and a crowbar. He says: "There was no class to teach this. I watched other people do it and imitated them."

In his early days he used to dismantle 105-millimeter shells, which were the size of a human leg. He would use the hammer to scrape off the rust and then twist the shells to open them.  

"When I first opened the shells, I shook like a lizard with his tail cut off; my shirt was all wet with sweat." 

He successfully managed to open many shells later on, and gradually gained courage.

After many years Hung concluded that most artillery shells had the same structure, and were safe if he could remove the warhead.

The bombs would contain various kinds of explosives. Hung would use a crowbar to remove the explosives or sometimes burn the powder inside to get to the iron casing.

The toughest challenge was with rusty bombs that had lain in the ground for many years. The rust made the bomb cap stick tightly to the core and very hard to remove.

Bombs lying under water or in rice fields were the best: they would retain their color and iron casing, which fetched high prices.  

Over the years Hung defused tons of bombs and artillery shells, becoming a household name in his neighborhood. Many people hired him to dismantle shells, paying him VND50,000 to 100,000 ($2.15-4.31) for each. Some even gifted him UXO.

In the summer of 1994 a man from another neighborhood in the district gave Hung three 122-millimeter shells. He cycled to the area, carried the projectiles back home and prepared to disassemble them.

After the first blow with the hammer he heard a huge bang and passed out. Later, he regained consciousness and realized he was still alive. But when he tried to stand up, he saw his left foot was broken and his right ankle was injured.

Hungs left leg was seriously injured after a bomb went off when he was dismantling it. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Tao 

Hung's left leg was seriously injured after a bomb went off when he was dismantling it. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Tao 

Later he came to knew that the fuse went off and flew into a nearby bamboo fence. Since the gunpowder did not go off, he had lived to tell the tale.

Hearing the bang in the garden, Nguyen Van Giang, 65, immediately knew his brother was injured since Hung was the only one in the village to work with explosives at that time.

People rushed in, used a wooden door as a stretcher, tied it to two bicycles and took him to the district hospital. Two other people accompanied them to spell the riders when they were tired. Hung was in hospital for 20 days and removed the cast himself after a month.

Hung has witnessed many deaths from bombs going off. Once he advised three people not to dismantle a type of bomb, but they did not listen, resulting in one death.

After the accident Hung retired from the job, stayed at home and raised some chickens and pigs. Three years later he bought a metal detector for VND5.4 million ($232.51) initially to collect scrap. But when he still found many bombs, he started to miss his job, and eventually returned to it.

But he faced tremendous opposition from his family. His wife threw away his hammer many times, cried and even threatened to burn down the house to force him to give up the work. But every time he would buy new tools and get back to work.

Not until 2003 did he finally retire. "My wife and kids complained a lot," he says.

Pham Van Phuong, 55, of Cam Lo District was similar to Hung. When he was young he would often collect metal scraps, or remove the metal bomb wings to sell as scrap.

"When I was 17 or 18 I started to scavenge bombs and it grew into me," he says. 

"Seeing the shells on the ground, I felt unease if I did not bring it home and defuse it."

Pham Van Phuong and some metal scraps. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Tao 

Pham Van Phuong and some metal scraps. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Tao 

To mitigate the risk, he would often immerse shells in water before disassembling them. From the biggest bomb he ever handled, he salvaged 240 kilograms of metal. He would usually burn the explosives inside and carry the casing home to sell.

Many people dismantling bombs had died, and so after four or five years, he quit, he says.

"In the past we only had great millet or cassava to eat, life was very tough; so we had to collect bombs. Now I will never dare do it, even for gold."

Quang Tri is the province most severely contaminated with explosives and other war materials. Eighty two percent of its total area is feared to have unexploded bombs and explosives.

According to the Quang Tri Military Command, there are still over 100,000 tons of UXO under the ground or water, including bombs, mines, missiles, rockets, artillery and mortar shells, and other explosives. This has given locals a unique occupation: collecting war scrap.

In the 1980s many people living along the Ben Hai River, the line demarcating the divided country until the Vietnam War ended, scavenged scrap for sale. After 1990, when scrap metal on the surface of the land had run out, people began to use metal detectors.

According to statistics from Quang Tri's Legacy of War Coordination Centre, UXO has claimed 8,540 casualties in the province since 1975, 3,431 of whom died. Many of them were scrap collectors.

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