“You can still see Agent Orange here,” Huy tells us. He gestures toward a shirtless man with a concave chest. Agent Orange, as if the man were a James Bond character and this was his alias. We’re sitting on tiny pink and blue Playskool stools on a side street in Saigon. The local time is about 2am.
“I want to eat street food!”
This is what I told Huy and Michael when they asked if we wanted to go out for a bite. Now, as I sit there on my plastic stool, I feel uneasy. I clench my bag and wrap my long skirt around my ankles. I intensify my grip as Agent Orange meanders by. Rats outnumber us across the way.
Huy orders for us: huo tui, cơm chiên, and mì xào – a light soup of southern style cured ham, baby napa cabbage and rice noodle, fried rice with pork and egg, and fried ramen noodle with pork and greens, respectively. And a round of Tiger beers.
“It’s delicious,” I tell him as I awkwardly hold my chopsticks in one hand and my spoon in the other. This is what Lonely Planet told me to do. I’m worldly.
It honestly was delicious. I probably would have just said that, partially to be polite and mostly to sound like I was as adventurous an eater as I had claimed to be, but I really meant it. I tried to ignore the rats.
* * *
We’ve been in Saigon for three days now. Three days? That’s all? It feels like so much more. Thanks to jetlag, I’m a morning person here. I went for an early run yesterday to relieve my poor limbs of their sedentary requirements, which also gave me some time to think:
Are people looking at me? Should my shoulders be covered? But it’s ungodly hot! What is that meat? I want to buy those fake Ray Bans. Is that ridiculous? But I want them. What day is it? I don’t want that woman with the deformed foot to touch me. I think I’m scared of her. Does she know Agent Orange?
This morning was our first day at the East Meets West Foundation office. We spent the early part of the day finalizing our interview questions and notes, and then had a conference call with Van in Da Nang. In the afternoon we compiled deeper research on the companies we would meet with tomorrow, ordered bánh mì and cà phê đá—baguette sandwich and sweet iced coffee—for lunch, and later took a visit to the War Remnants Museum.
* * *U.S. Army tanks and planes line the entrance.
God, it’s hot in here. How did they get these planes? Did we give them to the museum as a charitable gift?
I find that I’m most intrigued by photos of people. I walk carefully and methodically through each room: Requiem. Historical Truths. Agent Orange Aftermath.
Though the photos are graphic, they seem unreal. Black and white images of broken bodies and landscapes ripped apart by conflicts of interest look like film sets. Then there are clearer photos. Recent photos. Depictions of disfigured, awful, scary looking people. My diligent scrutiny of each image gradually fades to a brisk scan across the walls. I don’t know if I can look anymore. I don’t want to look anymore. The photos are newer and newer. There is a letter on the wall written by a victim of Agent Orange. She writes to President Obama. The year was 2009. I think about the man from the alley and the woman from my run.
* * *
“You can still see Agent Orange here.”
It's interesting, the wandering and convenient definitions of history.