US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis toured a former Agent Orange storage site in southern Vietnam on Wednesday, during a visit to boost ties with its former foe and counter China’s military assertiveness in the region.

It was Mattis’ second visit to Vietnam this year and served as a reminder of the disturbing legacy of the war that has left hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese with serious birth defects and cancer.

The Defense Minister flew into Ho Chi Minh then visited Bien Hoa airport, a site from which US forces sprayed millions of liters of the toxic defoliant during the 1960s up until 1971 in a bid to eliminate tree cover and expose Viet Cong forces during the war.

At Bien Hoa, the defoliant is believed to have seeped into the groundwater and local food chain. It has been linked to severe mental and physical disabilities across generations of Vietnamese.

Clean-up effort

Under a 10-year remediation effort led by development agency USAID, work is set to start next year on cleaning up Bien Hoa, one of the largest dioxin “hotspots” remaining in Vietnam, AFP reported.

Vast amounts of Agent Orange were stored at Bien Hoa in large fuel containers during the war, and under a 1972 operation called Pacer Ivy the US military began pulling the chemical from Vietnam for storage and disposal outside the country.

The pledge to clean up the site came under the administration of Barack Obama, and will cost some $390 million, officials said.

Hanoi says up to three million Vietnamese people were exposed to Agent Orange, and that one million suffer grave health repercussions today, including at least 150,000 children with birth defects.

An attempt by Vietnamese victims to obtain compensation from the United States had little success, and the US Supreme Court in 2009 declined to take up the case while neither the US government nor the chemical manufacturers have ever admitted liability.

“We had promised to help… so this is America keeping her promise to remediate some of the past,” Mattis, whose older brother served in Vietnam during the war, told reporters this week. I just want to get eyes on [the site] so when I go back and I talk to Congress, I can tell them my impression with actually having seen the site,” Mattis said ahead of the trip.

Ties between the former foes have warmed considerably since the end of the war and today Washington is one of Hanoi’s closest political and military allies and trading partners.

In addition to Bien Hoa, the US and Vietnamese have identified two other “dioxin hotspots” – Danang and Phu Cat airbases. A project to clean up Danang has just been completed at a cost of $110 million. The Bien Hoa cleanup operation is four times the size of the one in Danang, the USAID official said.

(FILES) This file photo taken on November 30, 2017, shows prominent Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (C) attending her appeal trial at a local people's court in the central coastal city of Nha Trang. - Dissident Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh -- known by her pen name 'Mother Mushroom' -- was released from prison on October 17, 2018 where she was serving 10 years for anti-state propaganda, an embassy source and close friends told AFP. (Photo by - / Vietnam News Agency / AFP)
A file photo taken in late 2017 shows Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, center, at a trial in Nha Trang. Known as ‘Mother Mushroom’, she was released today and allowed to fly to the US. Photo: Vietnam News Agency / AFP

‘Mother Mushroom’ released

Meanwhile, a dissident Vietnamese blogger known by the pen name “Mother Mushroom” was on her way to freedom in the United States on Wednesday after being released from prison where she was serving 10 years for anti-state propaganda, sources told AFP.

It is rare for political prisoners to be released early from jail in Vietnam, a one-party state whose conservative leadership has waged a brutal crackdown on critics over the past two years.

But Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh’s release came as US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis visited and Vietnam has been keen to build ties with its old foe as it nervously eyes the rise of its giant northern neighbor China.

Mother Mushroom, a name that came from her daughter’s nickname was “mushroom”, became one of Vietnam’s most outspoken critics before she was put behind bars, thanks to her writing on taboo topics such as deaths in police custody, the environment and politics.

She was freed from jail Wednesday and put on a flight to the United States, an American embassy source and friends told AFP.

Mother Mushroom was arrested in October 2016 after visiting a fellow activist in prison, but even from jail she remained steadfast in her opposition to the communist government. Her family said she held several hunger strikes, most recently in July.

Quynh became a cause celebre and received an International Woman of Courage Award in 2017, presented to her in absentia by US First Lady Melania Trump. Months later, Quynh’s young daughter penned an emotional letter to Mrs Trump appealing for her mother to be freed.

with reporting by Agence France-Presse