The Guilt Café in Vietnam — Page 2
By Kirsten Koza



Then, like two ten-bedroom mansions trying to merge into the same lane on a highway, our cruise boat t-boned another cruise boat. I grabbed the table to stay in my chair for the mightiest game of bumper boats ever.

Ship in Ha Long Bay

Through the open doors of the stern balcony I heard the two captains screaming at each other. I could see the captain of the other boat gesticulating wildly at our captain.

“You don’t need a translator to understand that.” I said to Phillip, an Australian man sitting at the table beside mine.

“I believe we had the right of way,” Phillip responded.

Regardless, the two ships were the only two objects within a mile of each other. Would we have to return to the dock? Nope, we’d butted in front and were leaving the shouts of the other captain in our wake. I refused to say anything about Asian driving. I wouldn’t go there. I took a beverage outside to the bow and joined the couple from New Zealand on a bench. They were talking about Asian driving.

I think after being in Vietnam, I have a better understanding of why Asians drive the way they do when they come to New Zealand.” The husband took a swig of beer as my stomach tightened in automatic response to possible racism. “But it seems to work for them here in the chaos of traffic. I don’t know how, but it works,” the Kiwi said and I relaxed.

For the most part, it did work, aside from ships colliding and the motor bike accidents I’d seen. The mass of scooters moved swarm-like. Individuals didn’t signal or perform shoulder checks. They expected those around them to see or anticipate their next move. They cut each other off, and from Saigon, to Hue, to Hoi An, to Hanoi, I’d only witnessed one attack of road rage. It was just a different style of driving. I’d try not to get so bent out of shape when Asian drivers cut me off in Toronto.

Shrimp steamed vodka

My conversation about the differences between “us” and “them” continued back in the dining room, this time with the Australian family. “Did you stop at one of those Agent Orange gift shops?” I asked them as the chef steamed our shrimp in three bottles of vodka.

The Australians had also been taken to a guilt café. “I told my guide I didn’t want to go to another one again as long as I lived, but he took me again today. I’m having difficulties communicating. My guides say yes to my requests, and then the opposite happens.”

“Yet they’re very direct about things we wouldn’t be direct about.” Michelle, the twenty-something daughter said, “Like making totally inappropriate comments about your appearance. A female guide told me to lose weight if I wanted to get a husband.”

“God! I’ve had rude comments from a female guide, too!” I commiserated.

Foot Bone Connected to the Butt Bone

Michelle and I were poring over a massage menu for an after-dinner treat. I selected the foot massage because it was the cheapest. Plus, I was feeling bloated after gorging my way across Vietnam and didn’t feel like taking my clothes off to have an eighty-pound masseuse tell me she couldn’t feel my muscles through my fat.

I went to my cabin and quickly washed my feet. There was a knock on the door as I toweled off. I let the woman in and sat on my bed as there was nowhere else to sit.

“Take off your pants,” she said.

“Oh, uh, I just ordered the foot massage.”

“Yes, foot massage. Take off your pants and lie on the bed.” 

This wasn’t going how I expected. I pointed to my bare feet. “Feet,” I said. “I ordered the foot massage.”

“Yes, feet start here,” she informed me, pointing at my navel. Since when did feet start at your belly button? What the hell was going on here? “Lie back.” She arranged her basket of oils and I lay back on the bed looking at the wooden ceiling. Then she straddled me on the bed. What the…?

Hung met me at the harbor the following day. I was going to tell him about my foot massage which involved a lot of bum rubbing but decided instead to remind him that I didn’t want to go see more deformed people assembling souvenirs, but wanted to buy bottles of Hanoi vodka to bring home.

So, when we entered a huge department store, and I saw rows and rows of sewing machines manned by victims of Agent Orange, I lost my strength. I just wanted to go to a little mom and pop grocery and buy vodka.

Carneys and Counterfeits

For a while I sat in the tour bus bay inhaling fumes instead of shopping. I couldn’t see my guide. I went back inside and ordered an iced coffee and shuffled passed overpriced bottles of snake wine containing dead cobras and imagined arguing with a customs official that it was no different than a mezcal worm.

Cobras in Alcohol

And then I saw the table of books. Stolen books! There were Lonely Planet guides, and copies of Eat, Pray, Love. The badly printed covers were the first clue that they were forged. The interiors were photocopied. The books were cheaply bound and were being sold as new originals. I’d seen street vendors selling similar copies in the backpacker district of Saigon, and even they knew it was wrong. The vendors wouldn’t let me photograph the books, especially when I said they were by friends of mine. It bothered me more in this massive department store. I was emotionally conflicted because the American government still hadn’t coughed up compensation to the Vietnamese for the ongoing atrocity. But I now knew why these tourist traps offended me. I was sure they were being run by people who had no problem exploiting others for profit. Step right up and take a photo of Quasimodo.

“This really is the Little Sweatshop of Horrors!” It was my outside voice. But I didn’t care.


Kirsten Koza is an adventurer, humorist, journalist, photographer and author— affectionately dubbed “the Canadian lunatic.” She’s the author of Lost in Moscow and edited Travelers’ Tales most recent humor anthology, Wake Up and Smell the Shit. She’s had over seventy stories published in books, newspapers and magazines around the world. Kirsten is currently in Southeast Asia, eating.

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Related Features:
The Mountain Men Who Don't Exist in Kyrgyzstan by Kirsten Koza
Soldier and Savior in the Cambodian Minefields by James Michael Dorsey
The Chaos and Grace of a Scooter Ride in Vietnam by Debi Goodwin
Blood Rites in a Taiwanese Temple by Steven Crook


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Lost in Moscow: A Brat in the USSR

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