The United States earlier this month announced a contract worth up to $29 million to clean up dioxin contamination at the Bien Hoa Air Base in southern Vietnam, near Ho Chi Minh City, a consequence of U.S. use of the herbicide Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
The move is the most recent attempt to demonstrate cooperation between the two countries despite a still complicated relationship.
The nations now work together on trade issues, climate change, and legacies of the war, such as the dioxin spraying or the so-called Christmas bombings, 50 years ago this month, when America dropped 20,000 tons of bombs on Hanoi and Haiphong.
"This announcement represents the United States' commitment to our partnership with Vietnam," Aler Grubbs, the Hanoi-based Vietnam mission director for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said. "This contract will complete critical preparatory work, paving the way for the treatment phase of the project."
Some differences still remain between the United States and Vietnam, ranging from human rights to Bien Hoa itself, where the two have not been able to come to an agreement on a cemetery for former soldiers of South Vietnam, with which the U.S. was allied against communist North Vietnam in the war that ended in 1975 with a North Vietnamese victory.
USAID said it finished a similar project in 2018 to clean up Agent Orange and other chemicals that it sprayed around Da Nang in central Vietnam to defoliate the jungle used by communist forces to hide during the war. It said compared to Da Nang, Bien Hoa would require dealing with four times as much soil that has been contaminated with the chemicals, still linked to birth defects.
Similarly, samples of tilapia fish collected in Bien Hoa in 2010 continued to show levels of Agent Orange considered to be unhealthy, according to a report from the Vietnamese Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment and the United Nations Development Program.
"We look forward to applying our specialized expertise to meet the project's high safety and health requirements and technical specifications, and contribute to the overall success of the project," said Vu Van Liem, general director of VINA E&C Investment and Construction JSC, the local corporation that has received the contract to excavate the soil and prepare it for treatment over a period of four years.
Both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments are participating in the entire cleanup across the country, which is estimated will require more than 10 years at a cost of approximately $450 million. Washington said it expects to spend $300 million in the end and has allocated more than $163 million so far.
The two nations have come a long way since the war, though they continue to have issues of disagreement. America has applied pressure on the autocratic government of Vietnam on a routine basis to recognize the freedom of speech and to release political prisoners while Hanoi denies it has any.
In one of the more recent developments, for example, the U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said December 2 that Vietnam would be put on a "Special Watch List for engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom," along with Algeria, the Central African Republic, and Comoros.
"Countries that effectively safeguard [religion] and other human rights are more peaceful, stable, prosperous and more reliable partners of the United States than those that do not," he said.
"We will continue to carefully monitor the status of freedom of religion or belief in every country around the world and advocate for those facing religious persecution or discrimination."
Vietnam's Foreign Affairs Ministry did not accept being put on the watch list.
"Recently Vietnam has been finalizing the legal system and the policies on religion and belief," the ministry said in response on December 15.
"These efforts and achievements in ensuring freedom of religion and beliefs have been widely recognized by the international community."
However, while Washington was pressuring Vietnam on one problem, it was also trying to solve another. The Agent Orange remediation in Bien Hoa was about more than cleaning up a mess decades after war. It was also about looking toward the decades to come, showing closer cooperation, such as potentially on addressing environmental problems in the future.
"This marks the largest contract yet by USAID to a local Vietnamese organization," Grubbs said, "as we make a concerted effort to build Vietnamese expertise in this nascent area of environmental health and safety."