One of the first sights I registered on arriving a few days ago in Hoi Anh was a low, attractive building. It stands close to the river and old town, fronted by a leafy courtyard, and is clearly institutional; a school perhaps, or small hospital. Closer inspection showed it to be a refuge for disabled people of all ages as well as those whom life has left, aged and homeless, with neither family nor friends to support them.
Which was of interest to me on two counts. One, I developed such graphic design skills as I possess working on disability and social inclusion issues. Two, I spent a big slice of my childhood in care, so consider myself more sensitive than most to the prevailing atmosphere in such places. Being in the near absolute power of folk – ‘ordinary’ folk, not monsters – who do not love you endows what I see as a healthily realistic appreciation of the human condition.
Suffice to say I’d mentally filed the location, together with the fact those glimpsed in the courtyard – many of them amputees, some literally faceless, a few clearly not the full shilling upstairs – seemed a happy crew. If you ever visited comparable institutions in the UK you’ll know that’s no small thing.
On Sunday I returned, waltzing in through the gates unchallenged. Motive? Nosiness, make small donation and if but only if it felt right, take a few pictures that may be of some use to the place.
For ten minutes I strolled around that courtyard: waving, high-fiving – where there was a hand to connect with – and flashing smiles returned in most cases with interest, though of course there were a few vacant stares too.
(I invite you to contemplate the likelihood of getting away with this in the west. One, I’d never get through ‘security’; two, in the unlikely event I did you can bet I’d fast be accosted by tight-lipped officialdom – the “can I help you?” sufficiently laced with venom to ensure its subtext landed: “WTF do you think you’re playing at?”)
Finally someone showed up from the other side of the counter, a pleasant woman in her thirties with toddler in tow and a smattering of English.
I managed to convey what I was about, something she wasn’t entirely unaccustomed to. She explained that not all were disabled. Some were just destitute. (Be sure of it: Vietnam’s economic liberalisation won’t be without social costs born disproportionately by the elderly and otherwise disenfranchised.) On one thing I failed to make myself understood: whether hitherto unexploded ordnance was the main cause of the many amputated limbs.
In neighbouring Cambodia that’s not in dispute. While LBJ then Nixon were denying they were even in there, the B52s were dropping more bomb tonnage than hit Germany in WW2. Much of it landed with soft plops on jungle and rice paddy, to lie dormant for decades till discovered by the foot of an unsuspecting farmer, a gleefully playing child. In fairness it has to be said that Pol Pot helped things along nicely, the Khmer Rouge mining half the country as a farewell gift when Vietnam, finally exasperated by cross border raids on the Mekong Delta, drove them out.
In fairness it also has to be said that years of saturation bombing, and consequent destabilization of the entire country, created near perfect conditions for the black-clad fanatics who, in 1975, emerged eerily silent from the jungle to evacuate Phnom Penh at gun point as Pol Pot declared Day One of his chilling, cashless dystopia.
But on one point the woman was clear. Those terribly disfigured faces? Agent orange: the defoliation concoction for whose devastating effects – and not just on individual lives: whole areas of countryside are only now returning to cultivation – Uncle Sam has paid not a cent in reparation. Because the idea was not to inflict the human devastation it did inflict – rather, to strip the North Vietnam Army and Vietcong of ground cover – agent orange’s use was not classified as chemical warfare. It was herbicidal warfare.
So that’s alright then.
* * *
The residents were a dream. They posed, shouted encouragement, and laughed delightedly as I showed the results. Alas, once aware of the lens on them, their glee was dropped as without exception they adopted the solemnity and gravitas this windfall opportunity clearly called for in their view. My pictures don’t catch a fraction of the joy that afternoon, much of it expressed as they viewed themselves and bantered with one another. I needed a hidden accomplice taking the real pictures unobserved. Such practices would get me locked up back home but here, so long as I got the goods, I think they’d have loved it.
It’s ludicrous, I know, to swan in like this then swan out an hour later to pronounce the place happy. My approach falls a tad short of the pristine in respect of methodological and epistemological standards. But I did things the more elaborate inspections of western officialdom seldom do. I came unannounced, took the place as I found it, spent ninety-five percent of my time with the residents, and liked what I saw.
Ain’t claiming more than that. Ain’t claiming less.