“Holy horrors, what is this place?” Was that my outside voice? Because I’d meant it to be my inside voice. Hung, my Vietnamese guide for the Red Delta region, led me from the entranceway of the gift shop and café to an informative gold framed plaque that he indicated I should read. But I was still gawking at a dozen deformed kids in the middle of the shop, hunched over the string art they were producing for purchase. Their rudimentary masterpieces, colorful sailboats and birds, covered the walls.
Hung tapped the plaque. “These youth are like this from Agent Orange, from the American War.”
That’s what the Vietnamese called the Vietnam War. I read as Hung gave extra details. Three generations later there were still mass birth defects from Agent Orange. Agent Orange was the herbicide sprayed over millions of acres of jungles and farmland by the American government and military to root out northern Vietnamese soldiers through chemical deforestation—ecocide. I looked at the shopful of present-day victims of chemical warfare. It was estimated by the Red Cross that several million Vietnamese had been affected. Why didn’t I know that the hideous birth defects were still occurring—that the mutated DNA caused by the poison was still taking prisoners?
Hung, soft spoken and polite, followed my gaze. “Many are mentally disabled. They can’t see, hear or speak. They’re taught a skill and given work here.”
Or they’re put on display here for tourists. That was my inside voice. A middle-aged Caucasian woman from a bus tour was taking photos of a teenage Quasimodo at the front table. The teen was doubled over, barely supporting the weight of his camel-sized hump. His head was mounted to his shoulders at a forty-five-degree angle. It was bizarre that Caodaists (followers of the third major religion in Vietnam) worshipped Victor Hugo. Another tourist was taking grinning selfies with a view of the disabled. “What the fuck?” Ooops, my outside voice. Selfies!
Hung tapped the plaque and left me to read, or perhaps left to escape my outrage and direct questions. I’d come to Vietnam as part of my book tour and signing, and had stayed to eat my way from the South to the North. But I was struggling with communication even though my various translators had great English. For example, I’d learnt that “this place has great bathrooms” actually meant “this place has shitty tourist food.” And when I’d explained to my guide in the Mekong Delta that I didn’t choose where I was going to eat based upon the toilet, she’d said, “Yes, I understand this.” I was delighted we’d straightened this out. Then she took me to a place with great bathrooms for lunch. Thankfully I’d already been eating local and had enjoyed a delicious barbecued rat in lemon grass and kumquat juice early that morning.
I decided to take a photo of the crafts, which seemed more respectful than snapping shots of the unwitting models of chemical warfare.
“No! Do not take photographs of the art!” An officious uniformed woman who’d been prowling the store’s perimeter had pounced.
“What?” It was fine to take photos of their freak show but not the crafts? Because that’s what this felt like, a carnival freak show for the tourists. Step right up and take a photo with Quasimodo. Something about this spectacle wasn’t right. Perhaps this was how they tried to get people to buy the massive pieces, by refusing photos. Did anyone lug one of these objets d'art all the way home so they could enjoy the memories of suffering and war crimes for years to come?
I felt like I was going to vomit. “Yeah, well if I can’t take a photograph, then I’m not going to write about this!” I snapped at the woman. That was stupid. What did that even mean to her? I marched out the exit but wanted a Vietnamese iced coffee for the rest of our drive from Hanoi to Ninh Binh, so slunk back inside to get one, then marched out again.
The wind had been sucked out of my sails and didn’t pick up for the rest of the day. I was quiet as our sampan’s oarsman paddled through the limestone tunnels of Tam Coc. Afterwards I lied to Hung and ditched my motorbike ride, complaining that I’d got too much sun on the boat. I hadn’t realized that Hung had been shading me from behind with a pink parasol until I saw the embarrassing photo after the fact. I’d picked through my lunch at a restaurant where a group of Vietnamese war veterans were dining—Ho Chi Minh’s soldiers were on a government sponsored daytrip. And for the finale, I’d turned down an opportunity to ride a water buffalo in an Indiana Jones-esque setting. Okay, I’d have turned that down even if I hadn’t been shell shocked by the guilt café.
Then, the next morning, I lied to Hung again. He’d asked me if I’d enjoyed the night market in Hanoi, and I said I had. In truth, I hadn’t left my hotel room. I’d curled up in bed and cried over the victims of Agent Orange. But I was getting the hang of the Vietnamese way of saying what people wanted to hear. The lie was a proud cultural breakthrough.
I was now in the bar and dining area of a cruise boat traveling full diesel ahead to Ha Long Bay. We were surrounded by picture windows. The karst mountains erupted vertically from the emerald water. Celine Dion was blaring over the sound system. No! They weren’t seriously playing—
“That’s the theme from the Titanic!” A woman from New Zealand, a few tables away yelled to her husband over the engine noise. “Titanic!”
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