55-year-old Bùi Trọng Hồng retired in 2002 after 30 years in the People’s Army of Vietnam, Quân đội Nhân dân Việt Nam. He has worked as National Technical Officer for Project RENEW’s EOD teams since 2008. In this interview, he reflected on his years of military duty and dealing with battlefield ordnance, and his more recent civilian service as an expert with several NGO projects.
Question: Nearly four decades after the war ended, you must still have strong memories of your years as a soldier in the Vietnamese army.
Col. Hồng: When I joined the army I first went through training, and then was assigned to the Engineering Command with the rank of private. My unit was responsible for opening roads and bridges, repairing transportation routes heavily bombed by US aircraft, and removing ordnance so troops could be safe.
I remember 1972, when I was still a private, as the bloodiest year of the war. The worst was in Quảng Trị Province, that summer of 1972.
Sometimes my unit suffered big losses. Sometimes, after a furious attack, only a few would survive. Several close friends from my home village died. Out of 10 friends from the same commune, only three of us survived the war. We still get together at Tết and other special occasions. Only two of us are left now; one has since died of illness.
Q: You must have had the same fears, worries, that all soldiers face in times of battle. Do you remember your feelings during those years of fighting?
Col. Hồng: I had no notion of what it meant to be alive during wartime. Only in April of 1975 did I realize that I had survived. During the fighting I could not think about it, I didn’t even consider the possibility of death.
I remember consecutive sleepless nights of bombing, and after the bombing came coordinated artillery attacks, so we had to dig in to shelters all the time. Wherever we went we had to dig holes for sleeping.
Q: Where were you when the fighting finally ended in 1975, when the Saigon government fell?
Col. Hồng: In 1973 the Paris Peace Agreement was signed and so the fighting decreased. When Saigon was liberated on April 30, 1975, I was in Tây Ninh Province, on Rte.13 at the B2 front. The previous month, in March, I had been in Buôn Ma Thuột. [Ed: That was the town which Saigon troops abandoned before the advancing People’s Army, beginning the precipitous collapse of the southern government.]
I remember very clearly the day the war ended, April 30th, 1975. I was extremely happy, overwhelmed with happiness. Now I could sleep without fear of bombs, I could go and move about freely wherever I wanted. It is hard to describe the emotion that day, it was just overwhelming.
On that day, when I knew it was officially over, the first thing I thought was, “I’m still alive, I have to go home now to continue my education.” That was my first thought. But life turned out different from what I expected. I got a new assignment, and so I stayed in the army.
Q: But the situation was very different from wartime, right?
Col. Hồng: In early 1976, I entered Engineering School to become an officer. I began training to learn the skills of a commander, how to take command of a unit. I was part of field trips to the border of Cambodia where landmines had been laid by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Our Vietnamese technicians studied the Khmer Rouge’s use of mines, and how they were made – they were produced by the Chinese. At that time they were all-new items. That was the period, particularly in 1978, when the Khmer Rouge penetrated Vietnam’s border territory many times, killing many Vietnamese and destroying a number of towns and villages.
So after the end of the American war, and since Cambodia, bombs and mines have remained a major part of my professional life.
Q: Expats working with Project RENEW all say you’re the best technical expert, the most professional, they’ve ever seen. Why do they say that?
Col. Hồng: Maybe because I’m open to learning, to listening to foreign experts, because even after my years of experience they might have something useful to share, something that I don’t know, and maybe I can also give them something that they don’t know. So the combination of the two, our shared knowledge, creates benefits for both sides, for our learning processes. I am very open to that, and willing to work with foreign experts.”
Q: You have much more experience than many younger professionals, and because of the widespread and huge levels of contamination in Vietnam, over the years you have had a lot of exposure to every kind of ordnance, right?
Col. Hồng: Yes, but before, in the early years after the war, all the munitions we had to deal with every day were brand new, so we could identify them easily because of their clear markings and good solid casings. But today that situation does not exist. Today it’s totally different. It’s much more difficult to recognize exactly what type of ordnance it is. And if you make a mistake it could lead to a tragedy.
Q: But you have worked for many years without an accident, and your teams of younger personnel also have never had an accident. How do you stay safe?
Col. Hồng: Confidence is a prerequisite for any technician. If you don’t feel confident about yourself, you cannot do the job.
In dealing with a piece of ordnance, you have to consider many factors – how long it has been there, whether it has been moved before – there are many questions to think about before you make a decision about what to do with a particular piece of ordnance.
Every EOD technician must undertake an analysis before taking any action. For example if I find many cluster munitions in one place, all unexploded, I have to consider many possibilities: I must have knowledge of detonation mechanisms, I have to analyze why so many did not detonate on impact, there are many questions to ask before taking any action.
Q: RENEW’s trainees and team members, much younger than you, clearly are learning from your professionalism, experience and skills. How do you feel about them and their work? What’s the most important lesson you can teach them?
Col. Hồng: The RENEW staff are very good. The trainees are fast learners, they understand quickly about munitions. But our top priority in the training is that they must be able to fulfill their duties correctly and they must keep safe. That is our top priority.
The best training methodology is to put them to work as soon as possible with basic skills. Later, in the long run, some will be upgraded and we will provide them with advanced skills and knowledge, and as time goes by they will become leaders. But first all must meet certain levels of capacity and competence. Then those who are more capable can move up to higher levels and be upgraded with advanced skills and knowledge.
Q: The NPA technical advisors say that RENEW deminers are the best they have worked with anywhere, and NPA has experience in nearly 20 countries.
Col. Hồng: I’ve only been to Laos, so I can’t compare with other countries. But to be honest our local staff is performing at a higher level than many others, so they certainly are more professional in my opinion.”
Q: After 30 years in the military, and now more years with RENEW, why do you keep doing it?
Col. Hồng: Since the war ended, I have always been haunted by the news reports about the numbers of deaths, the many people injured by explosives. During every meeting I attend of old military units from headquarters, Quảng Trị, Quảng Bình, and Huế, we always share sad news about new incidents in which people are killed and injured. This has haunted me for long time. It’s why I do this work.
Of course, working here also gives me some economic stability for my family. But the haunting knowledge of the huge numbers of people killed and injured is the most powerful motivation for me. It motivates me to continue.”
Q: Are you confident you’re making an impact?
Col. Hồng: Absolutely, we’re making progress.
After working with SODI, MAG, and now RENEW, I can say that what is being implemented by Project RENEW is the perfect model for Vietnam. Because it’s not just cleaning up bombs and mines, but also supporting survivors and teaching safety. This model does not exist yet in other provinces.
And the RENEW model is greatly appreciated by the local people. We have a telephone hotline and when people call in with reports of ERW, we respond as quickly as possible, usually within 24 hours. People really appreciate that quick response, because we remove the threat from around their homes without delay. We do not ask for anything from them in return, and so they appreciate our devotion to duty. They think it is very generous.
Q: You mentioned MAG (Mines Advisory Group) and SODI (German NGO), NGOs where you worked previously. They have also made contributions to the clean-up of Quang Tri over the years.
Col. Hồng: People in Quảng Trị Province are grateful not only to Project RENEW but to all international NGOs and donors who have provided technical and financial support to clean up ERW. The people here feel the highest appreciation toward all the NGOs.
Q: What about continuing challenges, the future?
Col. Hồng: Quảng Trị Province still has a long way to go to be completely free from bombs and mines, because the land is contaminated with every kind of munition used in war time – except for nuclear bombs. Even after we clean up a site, we have to revisit it because after a storm it might be covered again with munitions. That is one of our biggest challenges.
Q: Do you have any plan to retire from your work at RENEW?
Col. Hồng: When I find myself too weak to do the job, I will quit. But until then I will go on – at least until RENEW has enough professional teams to continue this dangerous work without me.
Q: Thank you very much, and good luck in your important work.