In 1969, at 27, the young Quaker with curly cinnamon-colored hair arrived in Vietnam as a worker for the American Friends Service Committee.
Lady Borton is an almost 50-year veteran of service in Vietnam. She still provides it, riding her bicycle through the streets of Hanoi at age 75.
She divides her time between Hanoi and a farm in Athens County, Ohio.
In 1969, at 27, the young Quaker with curly cinnamon-colored locks arrived in Vietnam as a worker for the American Friends Service Committee. The organization promotes peace and justice and regards no one as an enemy.
Quakers have traditionally worked on all sides of a conflict, she said. “We had projects in North and South Vietnam, and we provided civilian aid. I was a teacher.”
As a woman without a flag, she was pretty free to move about Quang Ngai province from 1969 to 1971.
“The greatest danger I felt was being run off the road by American vehicles,” she said during a recent interview at Hanoi’s Silk Path Hotel.
From the classroom, her interests took her into villages, hospitals, conferences and factories that assembled artificial limbs. She organized aid efforts, drove patients to and from hospitals, and worked on crews cleaning contaminated land.
“I never asked Vietnamese where they stood politically. We treated anyone, without taking sides. Our patients were peasants, many of them child amputees who had triggered mines or cluster bombs while tending water buffalo.”
Her time among the “boat people” — refugees who fled in the wake of the Communist takeover of the south — resulted in “Sensing the Enemy,” one of her four books.
More than a year after the much-publicized 1968 massacre in My Lai, Ms. Borton accompanied the first Western journalist, a reporter for Newsweek, to My Lai. Although massacres of villagers were common, the one in My Lai in 1968 became notorious and was the focus of coverage that other incidents didn’t get, she said. She said he was only interested in the massacre everyone in the U.S. had heard about, but massacres of villagers were common.
Ms. Borton said she is still not fluent in Vietnamese, but she is proficient enough to have translated works by Ho Chi Minh and a memoir by Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the People’s Army commander considered by many to be one of the most brilliant military tacticians of the 20th century.
She has found so many roles to play in Vietnam that even with the country’s economic upswing in recent years, there is still work for her to do.
“My favorite project right now” — she rooted around in her pack and produced a plastic bag of rubber tips for canes— “is to dispense these.”
“We have a lot of old people walking around with bamboo canes, which are very dangerous” because they slide. “I give these out.”
Her friends also keep her in Vietnam, and among them are American veterans who return.
She met Marine Col. Chuck Meadows in the late 1990s when he returned to Vietnam on a mission to repair damage the American war had caused. He had just become the executive director of PeaceTrees Vietnam, an organization that helps the Vietnamese find and safely dispatch unexploded ordnance left over from the war. When a place is cleared of mines, the group plants trees there.
Disposal teams have cleared “tens of thousands of acres of land that can now be productive,” Col. Meadows said.
Ms. Borton and Col. Meadows caught up recently in the lobby of the Silk Path Hotel.
”We come from diametrically opposite backgrounds,” he said, “but we formed a bond.”
Another connection is Mike Fey, who was drafted in 1967 and served with the U.S. Army’s 1st Air Cavalry Division in Quang Tri province. He packed a Kodak Instamatic camera in his duffel.
After the war, he became a dentist. An altruistic bent led him to PeaceTrees, based near his home in Seattle. He met Col. Meadows and joined the board. A colleague suggested he could help out at a dental clinic being developed in Hanoi.
There, he became friends with Ms. Borton, who encouraged him to make a book of the many photos he took in Vietnam.
“I will always be grateful for her nudging and encouragement,” he wrote in his book “A Faraway Place: Revisiting Vietnam.”
In 1989, Ms. Borton persuaded the Vietnamese government to allow her to live with a family in a village. She intended to write about ordinary people, to help Americans understand village life and the role women played during the war, especially in helping the Viet Cong.
“They were all over our bases, listening, reading, then going back and telling the brothers,” she said. They also carried weapons beneath benign cargo in the baskets of their bicycles.
She elicited those and other stories throughout the 1990s and wants to continue gathering the stories of elders.
“Some are too sad to tell, but we need to know them,” she said.
It’s an often repeated belief that the Vietnamese have gotten past the American war, but Ms. Borton said not all have: “A sadness continues because someone’s grandfather remembers.”