By Stewart Truelsen
The Farm Bureau fact-finding mission was warmly received by the Vietnamese farmer at his farm in Cu Chi, a rural area northwest of Ho Chi Minh City. There was a curious mound of dirt and a Vietnamese flag stuck in the middle of it in the front yard.
The farmer was teaching himself English and had written American phrases on a blackboard to help him study. He and the Farm Bureau group, consisting of AFBF President Dean Kleckner, five state presidents and two staff, sipped tea and talked about the things farmers talk about--crops, weather, prices. Twenty-five years ago they were on different sides of the fence. The farmer was a North Vietnamese combatant. The high mound of dirt on the farm marks a battlefield. The area around the farm was tunneled by the Viet Cong.
It takes getting used to to be in Vietnam, especially Hanoi. The Vietnam War made an indelible mark on a generation of Americans. The "Hanoi Hilton" where American POWs were imprisoned has been torn down and a real hotel is being erected in its place. There is a U.S. embassy in Hanoi and a consulate will open in Ho Chi Minh City this summer.
The Charge d Affaires at the embassy, L. Desaix Anderson, says a trade agreement will be negotiated with Vietnam, but no issue is higher on the American agenda than accounting for MIAs. Anderson told Farm Bureau every crash site will be revisited this year in hopes of finding remains.
Vietnam is still a communist country but economic growth seems to be more important than political ideology at the moment, and agricultural development is key. Vietnam has a farmers' association and an extension service, but the country is woefully behind the times. They use water buffalo instead of tractors. Farms are pitifully small and the work is done by hand. Farm commerce moves by motorscooter or bicycle.
Officials at the Ministry of Agriculture say their farmers are desperate for capital and knowledge. They would love to have technical assistance from the United States. Vietnam can be a market for U.S. wheat, feed grains and cotton, but is not yet eligible for PL480 shipments or GSM credits. In the wet markets in Ho Chi Minh City, U.S. apples and grapes are prominently displayed and U.S. beef is now being imported for the hotel and restaurant trade.
With 73 million people, Vietnam is a promising market. More importantly, agricultural trade may be a foundation for better relations between our two countries. The Farm Bureau group was struck by the young children they met in rural areas who smiled and giggled and were eager to try out the one word of English they all knew, "Hello."
These children are the future of Vietnam, and that future may help us all ease the pain of the past.
Stewart Truelsen is director of broadcast services for the American Farm Bureau Federation.