Legacies of War: Unexploded Ordinance (UXO) + Land Mines

Landmines and UXO have wreaked havoc across South East Asia, as can be seen from this photo in Cambodia

Landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) are still deadly threats many encounter on a daily basis. A significant number of people missing limbs can be seen in the countryside and the city streets, often begging or selling lottery tickets. According to the Viet Nam News, "statistics show 20.2 per cent or 6.6 million ha of land are affected by unexploded ordnance in Viet Nam. About 104,000 people have been injured or killed this way since 1975."

In total, perhaps six million unexploded bombs are still scattered across Vietnam, one of the most heavily bombed countries ever. According to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, about one-third of all casualties related to unexploded wartime ordnance in Vietnam are from cluster bombs. Because cluster bombs are designed to scatter, they often hit civilian as well as military areas, and because of their wide range, they are extremely difficult to find and account for.

It's not only bodily injury and death that are the result of buried landmines and UXO. The threat of unexploded munitions can discourage people from cultivating their land, which reduces productivity and impedes regional development.

The effect of poverty

The Vietnam War

The Years Before the War

The seeds of the Vietnam War were sown in 1945, when the country was divided into the two halves that would see millions die before reunification in 1975. The end of World War II ended the short Japanese occupation, and Ho Chi Minh declared an independent Vietnam. A few weeks later, the French, who had been temporarily ousted from their colony by the war, returned to, as General Jacque Philippe Leclerc famously declared, “claim our inheritance". Ho Chi Minh accepted the French presence as preferable to aggression from China, but the Vietnamese would continue to fight for independence until they achieved it in 1954.

Under the Geneva Accord of that year, hammered out between France, Vietnam, Laos, China, Cambodia, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom, foreign involvement in Indochina affairs would cease, and the country was divided at the seventeenth parallel. The South was ruled by the staunchly anti-Communist Ngo Dinh Diem, the North by the Communist Party. The next few years would see the slow infiltration of the South by Communist forces, increasing evidence of Diem’s corruption, and the expansion of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, used to move people, weapons and supplies from the North to the South. By the end of 1960, the campaign to ‘liberate’ the South was in progress, and the National Liberation Front (‘NLF’, later to become widely known as the Viet Cong) had been founded.

The US Enters the War

Rail Travel + Train Timetables

Travelling by train offers some beautiful scenery
Photo credit: andystoll
By far the most relaxing, comfortable and enjoyable way to get around Vietnam is by train. Not only are the sleeper beds comfortable enough to get a proper night's sleep, but the scenery is beautiful and the contrast to a hot drive on Highway 1 is huge.

The main train line runs North-South from Hanoi to Saigon, for the most part running along or near the coast and stopping at major destinations such as Ninh Binh, Hue, Danang, Quy Nhon and Nha Trang. It currently takes around 30-35 hours to travel from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City or vice versa, a distance of over 1,000 miles.

Additionally there are several smaller train lines and routes: from Ho Chi Minh City to Phan Thiet (for Mui Ne), from Hanoi to Halong Bay, Hanoi to Hai Phong, and from Hanoi past Lao Cai (for Sapa) up to the Chinese border and on to Nanning, in Guanxi Province. There used to be more train lines in the country such as the link from Ho Chi Minh City to Dalat, but sadly many of these have fallen into disrepair.

Money - Vietnam Dong

The official currency in Vietnam is the Vietnamese Dong (VND). Although a handful of places will accept payment in US dollars most people would much prefer to be paid in Dong, so it is important to keep a good supply of local currency while travelling in Vietnam.

The currency is effectively pegged to the dollar, with a small trading bracket of 5% permitted - however the market usually pushes to the far side of this bracket, and the result is the exchange rate is usually around 17,500 Dong to $1 US with only a small fluctuation.

Despite the market pressure the government is reluctant to devalue the currency so although the rate may vary slighly it is likely to be similar when you come to visit the country.

Current Exchange Rate

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Notes and Coins

Vietnamese Dong NotesVietnamese Dong comes denominated in bills of between 1,000 and 500,000 Dong. For simplicity's sake people often leave off the 'thousand' when quoting prices so we shall do so here: notes are available in denominations of 500, 200, 100, 50, 20, 10, 2 and 1 thousand, as well as a 500 Dong note, while coins come in 5,000 , 2,000 and 1,000 as well as 500 and 200 coin.

Most Vietnamese people prefer notes to coins and occasionaly may refuse to accept a coin. It is very common that ripped or torn notes are refused, but faded or discoloured notes are usually fine.

in general people prefer notes to be shiny, new, crisp and unfolded. Traditionally money is given at the New Year, at weddings and other family occasions, and fresh new notes are considered 'Lucky', while grubby, crumpled soggy notes are very much frowned upon.

When paying for goods or services it is polite to straighten the notes and to hand them to a vendor with two hands, making eye contact as you do so. When giving gifts in Vietnam you should also present them with two hands and make eye contact.

Travel Money - ATMs & Travellers Cheques

Many travellers are concerned by the safety of their money when travelling, and travellers cheques are a popular option for those who do not like carrying around cash or cards. Sadly, it can be quite difficult to cash travellers cheques in Vietnam and many major hotels will only exchange currency for current residents - so unless you are staying in five star hotels throughout your trip this may be difficult.

Thankfully Vietnam's ATM network is expanding rapidly, and it is rare to visit a town that does not have an ATM facility of some kind. Most ATMs will accept Visa and Mastercard debit or credit cards - but be wary of high charges fromyour bank if you make a withdrawal on a credit card. The Plus network is also widely supported but there are a couple of banks that do not accept Plus cards so you may need ton shop around.

Most banks will only allow you to withdraw a maximum of 2,000,000 VND, or just over $100, but ANZ and HSBC machines will allow you to withdraw up to 4,000,000 VND, which should reduce your trips to the cashpoint and cut down on fees at home. It is common practice for ATMs in Vietnam to charge for withdrawals from non-customers which will be in addition to your own bank's fees - this is generally around 20,000 Dong or roughly $1 per transaction, though a couple of banks charge 30,000. HSBC has a charge of 1% which can be up to 40,000 VND on a withdrawal of 4 million dong.

If you are worried about having your own bank cards stolen an increasily popular option is to arrange a pre-paid credit card before you leave home. Many provider issue special cards for travellers, with favourable exchange rates and insurance against theft or loss, offering a convenient and safe way to carry your money in Vietnam

Health + Safety

Food, Drink & Ice Cubes

The food and drink in Vietnam is fantastic, and it would be a great shame to miss out on some of the delicious treats available over fears of food poisioning. That being said, a few basic precautions won't hurt:

As a developing country Vietnam's water supply is in poor shape, and certainly not fit to drink, except in Dalat where fresh spring water is treated and delivered to the town. You should only drink filtered or boiled water while in the country to avoid infection.

However, unlike many developing countries ice is usually frozen at a central plant before being distributed to restaurants, bars and even street stands, and the water used is filtered and pure, meaning you can enjoy cold drinks and fruit juices without worrying about your health.

Santiation standards in Vietnam are better than in other developing countries in Asia, and food poisioning is far less common. The usual precautions are sensible - eat at busy restaurants (full of locals, not tourists!) as nobody likes getting sick and locals won't return to places that poison them, and if something looks like it poses a risk, don't eat it.

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