THACH SON, Vietnam (AFP) – Gazing at the Soviet-era factory that looms over his northern Vietnamese commune, Quang Van Vinh remembers what the farmland here looked like before it became known as a "cancer village."
"This used to be a vast garden of bamboo, banana, jackfruit and longan trees," says the 62-year-old, visiting his long-abandoned childhood home, now a muddy wasteland of brick kilns.
"It's sad that there's almost no sign of life anymore."
Vinh says things changed quickly in the Red River village in 1962 after the Lam Thao fertiliser plant was built and started pumping wastewater into streams and rice fields, and black smoke into the sky.
"You could smell the factory's smoke everywhere," he says. "People started to cough. All those trees died. Local people didn't know why. Then the authorities moved us all out about 15 years ago."
Vinh says his son died of throat cancer in 2000 aged 23.
"I really think my son died of cancer because of industrial pollution," says Vinh, though he has no scientific proof to back his belief.
Dr Le Van Ton, the head of the local clinic, says the annual death toll from cancer in the commune of 7,000 has climbed almost every year for nearly a decade -- to 15 deaths last year from three in 1999.
The doctor says he is now treating 41 cancer cases, including a primary school student.
"Most of the cancer victims in our commune used to live in areas close to the factory," he said.
A few years ago, Thach Son made national headlines as a "cancer village".
Government officials came, took water samples and looked at health statistics, said people's committee deputy chairman Nguyen Van Thang.
Then they left and the commune has not heard from them since, he added.
Like many developing countries, communist Vietnam has opted for rapid industrialisation that has created prosperity but also left an often catastrophic toll on the natural environment and public health.
Vietnam now has hundreds of industrial parks and thousands of factories, and less than one third of their liquid waste is treated before it is discharged into waterways, the government says.
Environmental inspectors must announce their factory visits in advance, and fines are so low that many companies prefer to pay up rather than fit expensive air and water pollution control systems.
Many rivers and streams in the biggest cities, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, where many houses have groundwater wells, are garbage-strewn open sewers which, local scientists say, have become biological "zero-life zones."
A cholera outbreak last month, only the country's most recent, sickened 23 people in central Nghe An province. It was traced to bacteria in fish and oysters harvested from the polluted Mai Giang River.
Vietnam, unlike China, has not yet seen protests against factories or other environmental issues, but its leaders have woken up to the fact that environmental carnage can no longer be ignored.
Some analysts now point out that, even in purely economic terms, the costs of pollution are starting to outweigh some of the gains brought by industrialisation.
"Now environmental pollution is threatening to undercut economic gains," wrote To Kim Lien of the Asia Foundation in a recent report.
"Negative effects on human health, water and soil are causing losses in agricultural and aquacultural production among other revenue sources."
In recent months, authorities have launched an unprecedented crackdown against several major polluters -- showing both a new will to act, and the limitations of Vietnam's environmental laws and enforcement agencies.
Taiwanese food additive maker Vedan was caught in early September allegedly dumping 100,000 cubic metres of untreated effluent a month through hidden pipes into the southern Thi Vai River, killing a stretch of the waterway.
Local residents had complained for more than a decade, but the government acted only after shipping companies said they would no longer dock at a nearby river port because the pollution was corroding the hulls of their boats.
The environment ministry in early October ordered the MSG-maker to stop discharging wastewater, but provincial officials several weeks later said they did not have authority to act against the company or close it down.
A press report last week said Vedan had scaled back its wastewater discharge, but the company declined to comment when contacted by AFP.
Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung told the national assembly this month that Vietnam had to protect the environment but, in the Vedan case, also needed to think of protecting the thousands of factory jobs at the plant.