Things Have Always Been Terrible

A series in which I make you feel less lonely, realizing how many other pandemics humans have lived through.

Vietnamese Plagues of the 1960s

I have a special place in my heart for the people of Vietnam. I grew up knowing a refugee family who had been sponsored by our church, and I’ve ended up having friends who were also Vietnamese refugees over the years. When Trump was elected, it was a friend who had escaped Vietnam who was able to tell me, shit happens.

The people of Vietnam had experienced plague before, particularly in the early 20th century. But the 1960s were hellish because of war, and on top of that, plague was sickening people.

It was just a terrible time. Extra terrible.

In the late 1950s, South Vietnam went from having 15 cases of plague a year to having 4,000. As the war heated up, and Vietnam was bombed, both people and rodents who carried plague ran for shelter. Bandicoots especially carried plague. The Encyclopedia refers to them as “large rats.”

This is a bandicoot. Now try to forget you ever saw it.

Our Encyclopedia also states that “In Long Khanh province, pneumonic plague infected six people in one family within a very short time.”

Wait, we have vaccines! you say. Well, it depends on who you mean by “we.” There were huge pushes to vaccinate, when people could get vaccines. American soldiers received vaccines for bubonic plague (though not its cousin, pneumatic).

And DDT was used to kill animals who might spread plague.

Let’s talk about DDT. Let’s talk about you and me. Let’s talk about all the good things and the bad things that may be. DDT kills so, so well. It was DDT’s effects that caused Rachel Carson to write her famous book Silent Spring, and by 1972, the use of DDT was limited in the United States. In the 1970s, plague was in the United States, and DDT was used here to control plague-bearing fleas in California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada.

Between 1964 and 1974, at least 100,000 people in Vietnam got plague. Maybe as many as 250,000.

A rat who may or may not have plague has gone to that big maze in the sky , and has his body disposed of by these men in Vietnam in 2014.

The Encyclopedia notes that “the war spurred the development of a longer-lasting freeze-dried vaccine,” which led me to research freeze-dried vaccines. Vaccines were first freeze-dried in the 1940s. And as with so many parts of vaccination history, smallpox went first.

As recently as 2005, American and British scientists were working on new vaccines for plague. Although it has been well controlled in the U.S. and Britain, people are still suffering from it. And there is some concern that terrorists might use plague as a weapon at some point.

You might want some glutinous rice cakes for yourself, or your ancestors, for Tet Doan Ngo. I’d give it a try.

All this talk of plague led me to some fun facts: Vietnam, along with some other Asian countries, has a holiday for pest killing. It falls at the end of spring and the beginning of summer. It could be translated as “Killing the Persons’ Inner Insects.”

I’m going to ponder this idea of “inner insects,” because I feel sure I have some. Like the one that eats away at my heart when I hear about January 6th.

One might celebrate with spiritual cleaning, or smoothies, or one might offer one’s ancestors some arecanuts or banhu u la tre. Foods for this holiday are supposed to help rid your body of parasites, bugs, or other nasties.

People reenacting the Doan Ngo ritual of fan giving, practiced from 1428 to 1789. The king gave fans to his managers. Yeah, it doesn’t sound super fun to me, either. It sounds like Secretary’s Day. But prettier.

I think we should have a pest-killing holiday, too. We can offer friends fly paper, ant traps, and air purifiers, wasp spray and citronella candles. And cats. Maybe in June.

Here’s a story of Doan Ngo to wrap things up, from the Vietnam Discovery website:

There were two very cool brothers who everyone loved. However, also in that village, they had two snakes, Thanh Xa and Bach Xa. After the snakes died, they turned themselves into beautiful women. Ha, ha, no misogyny here.

The brothers became agoraphobic and anxious. The local people worried about them.

A traveling holy man happened by, and heard what was going on. He got busy making the brothers a special potion. The brothers drank the special potion, and somehow this forced the wives/snakes back into their snake form. Apparently the snakes were so embarrassed by this turn of events, they proceeded to disappear.

And you guessed it! This happened on the Killing the Persons’ Inner Insects Day.

So if you feel agoraphobic and anxious, consider drinking a potion to fight the insects inside you, or maybe do this metaphorically with the help of your therapist.

This is Tam. She sells betel leaves and arecanuts at Ba Hoa Market in Saigon. I like her vibe.

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