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Audrey Hepburn Brings Ray of Hope to Vietnam
By Kathleen Callo, Los Angeles Times, November 14, 1990

Audrey Hepburn traveled to a remote, mountainous area of Vietnam this month to raise funds for poor children and help forge a kinder image of this isolated communist country.

Hepburn, who has worked since 1988 as a "goodwill ambassador" for UNICEF, said she wanted to remind people in the West that Vietnam was a country, not just a war.

"I would like to give a much more accessible, human picture of Vietnam than just the Vietnam War. It's a ghost that has to be laid" to rest, she said.

Hepburn flew in a Vietnamese helicopter to the remote northeastern village of Mo Vang in Hoang Lien Son province near the Chinese border early this month to visit ethnic minorities who are among Vietnam's poorest people.

She stopped at a simple wooden health clinic tucked in among rugged green mountains. The clinic was staffed by Vietnamese health workers trained and equipped by UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund.

They test people for malaria and treat others for goiter, an enlargement of the thyroid gland caused by iodine deficiency that produces a large swelling in the throat.

Ten million of Vietnam's 65 million people live in mountainous areas. The iodine deficiency disorder affects 35% of highland people because iodine is lacking in the soil, plants and animals.

The disorder causes cretinism or mental retardation among 2% of the 2 million people in the most remote mountain areas.

Few Westerners get to visit Vietnam's far-flung ethnic minority areas. At one point, village women in a thatched house on stilts swarmed around Hepburn to dress her in a colorful skirt and blouse of the Tay minority.

Hundreds of chattering village women then bustled along behind the sprightly 61-year-old actress.

Sixty percent of the people in Mo Vang suffer from goiter, one of the highest rates in the country, a UNICEF officer said. Several elderly retarded people, stricken by the disorder, sat staring from their thatched huts.

The UNICEF officer, Jean Dricot, said malaria was the main killer of children and pregnant women in the area.

Hepburn made a brief reference to a U.S. trade embargo that has denied Vietnam bilateral American trade and aid, as well as funds from international lending bodies and technology and investment from many Western countries.

"I'm not in the business of politics. I'm in the business of children," she said. "This country needs not just to be opened up (from sanctions), but knowledge-wise."

Otherwise, she said, "this generation of children will go down hill."