TO her friends and neighbours she’s bubbly Brenda, but to the hundreds of Vietnamese orphans she loves and cares for she is Miss Lovely.

Not many grannies opt to live in a war-ravaged country, tear around on motorbikes and spend their leisure time chatting with former generals in the Viet Cong. But Brenda Smith, from Benfleet, is no normal nan.

She has just returned from her 15th humanitarian trip to Vietnam where she spent three months looking after orphans, helping out at hospitals in Saigon and embarking on hair-raising adventures.

Since 1995 Brenda has been visiting Ho Chi Minh City at least once a year to help out in its many orphanages and children’s charities.

Tragically, the country has millions of orphans. Many newly-born children are abandoned by their parents because of birth defects caused by a war, even though it ended decades before they were born.

During the Vietnam war, which ended in 1975, US troops sprayed more than 80 million litres of poisonous herbicides across the land aimed at destroying crops and wiping out jungle foliage.

The most harmful of all the chemicals used was Agent Orange with a staggering 45 million litres of this being sprayed across the country.

However, the chemical was laced with dioxins which are now known to be linked to cancer.

Due to this, at least 500,000 children have been born with defects and abnormalities since the war ended. Brenda, a gran of five from Fleet Road, Benfleet, said: “Every time I have been to Vietnam I’ve seen the effects of this criminal stuff. One of them is a young boy called Minanh who has become so special to me.

“He has horrendous skin problems and because he tries to scratch himself his hands and feet are tied to his bed. He just lays there all day tied up. It’s so awful.”

Brenda has got to know Minanh, now 13, over the years and always spends time with him during her trips. Simple things like taking him to the supermarket can brighten up his day.

Brenda first fell in love with Vietnam when she and her late husband Baz went on a charity cycle ride across the country in 1995.

They saw what orphans like Minanh were going though and set about raising cash to help them.

Sadly within six weeks of returning home Baz suffered a heart attack while on a charity swim in aid of the Vietnamese orphans, and died. The couple had been married for 15 years.

“I think Baz would have been proud that I’ve continued going to Vietnam. He loved the children as much as I did and was so touched by what we saw,” said Brenda, who has been made an MBE due to her constant charity work.

During her latest visit Brenda met several interesting characters, including a former general in the Viet Cong.

She said: “I couldn’t believe that me, Brenda from Benfleet, was having tea with this leader of the Viet Cong.

“He was actually really friendly and very welcoming.”

Brenda also spent a lot of time with Le Ly Hayslip. Her memoirs impressed Hollywood director Oliver Stone so much he made a blockbuster movie about her, called Heaven and Earth.

The 1993 film, starring Tommy Lee Jones, told Le Ly’s story, from her struggle as a teenager when the vietnam wore broke out through to her marriage to a US soldier.

By the time Le Ly was 15, she had been imprisoned, starved, tortured, raped, and abandoned as a traitor by the Viet Cong, for which she had loyally fought.

However, her experiences spurred her on to set up her own humanitarian charities in Saigon, including the Global Village Foundation, which Brenda has spent time working on.

Brenda said: “Le Ly was lovely, a bit scatty, but lovely!

“She does so much for children out there. It was a privilege to work with her.

“She gave me a copy of her book, which the film was based on, and wrote a lovely message in it for me. Her story is amazing.

“She lives in San Diego now, but goes back to Vietnam all the time to help the children.

“I got to meet some of her family as well.

“When I got back I bought the DVD Heaven and Earth and have watched it several times already.”

Brenda says she would love to live in Vietnam full time, but would miss her family too much.

She loves the way of life in the country and the fact despite being poor, the people have the “biggest hearts in the world”.

“They are so friendly and warm,” she added.

“Despite all the atrocities that happened to them, they always say, ‘we don’t have time to look back. We look to the future’ “They make such a fuss of me. The children run up to cuddle me and sometimes the whole village comes out to see a blonde haired visitor from England “They always laugh at me for saying, ‘everything is lovely’. They even call me ‘Miss Lovely!”