Nguyen Thi Hein, Hoang’s boss and manager of the center, says that she was quite aggressive as a teenager, but has mellowed into one of the center’s best teachers, despite a careful, often inaudible way of speaking. “I was bullied, teased, when I was younger,” Hoang says. “Not because of my arms, but because of this,” she adds, lifting off a jawline length wig to reveal a few patchy tufts of hair instead of the straight brown or black sheen a Vietnamese woman her age should have.
She has come a long way, she feels, but a traumatic adolescence has scarred her mentally. “It was difficult for me to go outside when I was a teenager, and I am still shy in many ways,” she concedes. “But I got my diploma and I am happy to be here at the center,” where she teaches art, embroidery and sewing.
Asked if she is angry – like Nguyen – at the impact it seems Agent Orange has had on her life, Hoang pauses for a couple of seconds before replying that “I know American people were affected too, soldiers in the war and their children next in the U.S.”
For parents of affected children, the center provides invaluable support. Pang Thu Dan Thanh has two children, one son in kindergarten who seems perfectly healthy, she says. Beside her sits Nguyen Hu Thao Vi, 16, who best-buddy-style rests a hand on her mother’s shoulder midway through the interview.
The teenager was born with Down Syndrome, another apparent result of the spraying of Agent Orange.
“My husband was not a Viet Cong, but he did work in the areas where spraying took place,” says mother Pang Thu Dan Thanh.
Raising Nguyen Hu Thao Vi has been difficult, her mother concedes. “She could not even sit up by herself until she was four years of age and now at 16 she still cannot speak much other than a few simple words.”
A few miles away from the center, Danang’s glossy new international airport sits around four hundred yards from the site of the old Danang airbase, where American troops mixed-up and stored the toxic jungle spray. The codename Agent Orange came from the yellowy amber sheen seen on foliage along the Ho Chi Minh trail after a dousing by U.S. aircraft and riverboats.
The site of the old airbase has dioxin contamination up to 350 times higher than the trigger levels at which international recommendations for action should kick in. Given rare access to the U.S. $43 million dollar clean-up, I was told by one of the U.S. government subcontractors on the job that the clean-up will take 54 months to complete, pointing to an adjacent concrete slab covering one of the areas where the liquid was mixed and returning aircraft hosed down.