Please visit goo.gl/b3GQrz for the interactive story.
After a week of training, some time to tie up loose ends in DC and a once-in-a-lifetime chance to photograph the scene outside the Supreme Court after the monumental ruling that legalized gay marriage, I finally left for Vietnam. As I stepped on the first plane that will take me on a thirty-hour journey it was hard not to feel like it was all happening too fast. A feeling, I’m sure, the interns I photographed the previous day shared as they delivered the Supreme court ruling to the their respective news outlets.
As I left Dulles Airport I couldn’t help but think that I was on my way to the farthest location I’ve ever been to in my life while doing the work that I have hoped to do for so long – helping to shed some light on Agent Orange victims (AOV) and the legacy of the Vietnam War; Needless to say, while feeling mildly scared but excited for what was next to come.
My early fascination and desire to learn more about the Vietnam War comes from watching ‘The Wonder Years’ as an elementary school student. Getting a crash course on what those days were all about and how it changed (and divided) a nation was the ultimate and earliest guilty pleasure I can recount. I often found myself tearing up and living every single episode as it was happening in my very own backyard, cheering and wanting to learn more about ‘the flower movement’ as it attempted to challenge the system for what felt wrong, questioning the reasons of such war and understanding the effects of it in those who went to fight it. Yet, for the longest time the intrigue and curiosity was one-sided as I stupidly only focused on the American troops. It wasn’t until I was a bit older when I started wondering what happened to those Vietnamese who fought in the war, the consequences it had in their lives and, more importantly, in their nation as a whole.
Fast track to twenty-plus years later and here I was on my way to Doha wondering how does one survive a thirteen-hour flight while sick. * Oh yeah, I suddenly got sick three days before my departure, with a cough and cold symptoms that I’m sure made my next-seat neighbor wonder what SARS strain he was going to get from me.
Hamad International was our first stop and where I started noticing that things where going to be a bit more and more different as I flew farther away from ‘the West’, as illustrated by the photos below. Perfect timing for me to do some more research on Vietnamese etiquette, I thought, as the last thing I want to do is to offend anybody or look rather arrogant.
Next stop was Suvarnabhumi Airport where I had a layover of seven hours with plenty of time to buy some meds, feel as if I was about to die and wonder what kind of narrative was I going to add to the victims of Agent Orange stories. As a freelance visual journalist, one learns that you only head somewhere if you can help add to the narrative and further the conversation about a topic, especially when practically doing it on your own dime.
Being the forty-year anniversary since the war ended, several media outlets have taken a second look at some of the Agent Orange victims’ stories. A great example of such work is Damir Sagolj’s photo essay for Reuters and that I can’t recommend enough (http://widerimage.reuters.com/story/legacy-of-agent-orange ) . One thing I noticed was how the post on Reuter’s Facebook page was filled with comments of people who wanted to contribute to or help the victims of AO but didn’t know how or who was doing something about it. AEPD (Association for Empowerment of People with Disabilities), the organization I’ll be working for, has been providing all kinds of support to victims of AO for years and the reason why, at times, I feel as if my work will be so small compared to theirs. Yet, not enough people know about it and continuing to ignore these peoples’ suffering only perpetuates the cycle of violence that war so intrinsically leaves.
For that reason, one of my main deliverables during the fellowship will be to provide AEPD with several storytelling media products to help spread the word about their work, AO victims, and thd need for funding and support from the international community.
With all that mind and after thirty hours, fifteen minutes and thirty-three seconds I finally made it to Hanoi, where the temperature was a scorching one hundred and nine degrees; Basically, Dante’s inferno. Knowing that I only had a little bit more than twelve hours in Hanoi I embarked myself in a self-guided walking tour around the city and boy, did I love it.
Soon enough Google translate became my best friend as I noticed that the good ol’ English standard was longtime gone and people simply looked at me perplexed of who this curly-haired, tan-skinned, awfully-tired-looking man was, speaking to them in anything else but Vietnamese. Moreover, the ‘Instant Vietnamese: How to express 1000 different ideas with just 100 key words and phrases book’ I had recently purchased was of no use, as I quickly remembered that the language is tonal and thus reading the pronunciation doesn’t help.
Hanoi is, simply put, an insane city in the best way possible. Scooters, motorcycles, pedestrians, and a few cars compete to make their way through the streets in such a synchronized manner that no matter how close you’ll think one of them is to hitting something they will simply stop or evade it at the last millisecond. Add to that the constant chaos and commotion of daily life and you will either hate it or love it.
After walking for what seemed an eternity and feeling as I was about to pass out -surely the jet lag must have had something to do with this- I found myself in the middle of a busy intersection that led to a couple of narrow alleys with street restaurants that served the most delicious, cheap and good looking food I had in a while. I sat down and without hesitation ordered what previously might have been unimaginable with the heat index hitting 115, a big bowl of Pho. At last I was in Vietnam and had no desire to maintain any of my western standards but instead attempt to embrace the culture as much as I could, starting with the food.
Early next morning was my final and shortest flight, from Hanoi to Dong Hoi, where AEPD is located. Throughout the flight the words of Ross Taylor, and amazing visual journalist who I had the privileged of meeting this year, resonated with me, ‘What right do I have to be here?’. This question is of extreme importance, he explained, as it should be able to help you do some proper digging into what justification does one have to be able to go someplace and insert themselves in it while doing work.
As I was shown my room at the hostel that I will call home for the next ten weeks and the receptionist walked away while closing the door, I looked out the window and couldn’t help but to think: “What right do I have to be here?”; A question I hope to answer over the next weeks.
(The Wonder Years theme music starts playing)
Posted By Armando Gallardo (Vietnam)
Posted Jul 3rd, 2015