words & images alexandra von arx
The moment we step out of the van we are shuttled onto the ferry. There is a special place reserved for us in the front, sectioned off from the other passengers. We do not talk or interact with them. The boat moves across the water towards the small island in silence.
When we dock we are hustled quickly from the ferry to a smaller vessel, more like a canoe with a roof and a motor. We are seated in chairs that, while not plush by our standards, are luxurious for this bend of the river. As the engine starts, the woman who was waiting for us makes jokes that she’s been told we will find funny. Her eyes flicker as she stumbles through the unfamiliar English words, and her mouth twists in embarrassment when we don’t respond to her leads. She sits back down, wiping the sweat from her brow and wishing she could swim as far away from us as she can.
After about ten minutes, we stop at a restaurant perched close to the riverbank. No one asks if we are hungry or what we want to eat, but as we sit down dishes of fish, rice, and pickled vegetables are placed before us. The drinks have already been chosen for us as well.
Is this not to your liking? We cater to the highest quality of tastes. Are you not satisfied?
No, of course, it’s fine. But-
We are so happy.
There doesn’t seem to be a menu. The bill is astronomical.
There is another group at a table across the room. Football jerseys, bright sunhats, those horrible pants that unzip above the knee to become shorts. I hope that we are not as conspicuous as that, but know that we can’t help but be. After we wipe the grease from our mouths and hands, the woman walks us down a path that winds through stunted palm trees and ends in a small clearing where two horse carts are waiting. The animals are panting in the heat. The straps securing the carts around their chests cut into their hides, rubbing it into leather while it is still attached to their bodies.
This is the traditional horse cart. We will now go for a ride.
This is cruel.
It is our culture. Please get in, it is too far to walk.
I’ll follow behind.
Impossible. Please get in.
The horses drag us about fifty feet and then stop.
We will now walk.
The road widens as the density of small local shops and houses increases. Kids just released from school are playing in the street. They pay us no mind: in their eyes, we just passed by twenty minutes ago, and again twenty minutes before that. Some hope begins to accumulate as the village becomes dirtier and the people become warier of us. But, abruptly, we are steered down a side road that is free of debris and children, and leads us right to a gift shop. It is decorated with fake crocodile-skin handbags and coconut shell bowls; the owner cajoles and teases and urges us to buy.
If you want something, buy now! You want presents for your family? Good souvenirs cheap price here!
A few of us acquiesce and purchase a trinket or two. She’s right, we think, they will make great gifts. The woman looks pleased as she leads us onward.
This island is known for its coconut products, and we were promised a tour of the famous coconut candy factory. After several minutes of winding our way across a little river and through a forest of mango trees, we arrive at a small, open shanty that smells sweet, sticky, and moist. There is a long table on one end of the room where two workers are cutting small strips of putty into cubes and wrapping them in wax paper. Across from them is an enormous table stacked with the same souvenirs that crowded the shack we just visited.
The area is swarming with others like us. We look around warily. We are being told how this putty, which is apparently the famous coconut candy, can only be purchased here and that we will never taste anything else like it in our lives. Buy now! Sale if you buy more! Help us help you! Fists filled with money fly at the women behind the cash register. At the bench, the workers grab, cut, wrap. Grab, cut, wrap. Grab, cut, wrap. Grab, cut, wrap.
Is the real factory on another island?
This is the real factory.
And this is the same product we see in supermarkets all over the country?
It’s special. You buy here. Now.
Once we’ve spent an adequate amount, we are ushered out of the shanty and ordered to take the path that exits to the left. To the right, we spot a small café and what looks like a beach where a few men are fishing with their feet propped up on plastic lawn chairs. We ask what is down there, if we can visit that spot, it looks quite nice. The woman quickly pulls us away, looking horrified, and shoves us back along our intended course.
Another gift shop. Again, the same products, only more lavishly packaged and more expensive. We look around to be polite. A few of us pick up an item or two. The woman hovers over us and clicks her tongue when we all gather around her, eager to move on, after only two of us handed over too much cash.
The path leads us to a small outdoor cafe. There is a pond in the center overflowing with algae. The fish hover near the surface, gasping for breath.
You will now eat some fresh fruit from this island. You will never taste anything as delicious!
We are shown a table with a plate of fruit in the center. We reach tentatively towards it, uncertain if we are awaiting more instructions. A group of five young women in multicolored ao dais walks over to us. Their hair hangs long and straight down their backs and their silk garments flutter carelessly over their slim bodies. Their faces are puckered in distasteful frowns. Two men carrying guitars, who appear to be drunk, follow behind the women and seat themselves at the table across from us.
You will now listen to traditional songs from this island.
The men strum a few chords. One by one the women step forward and screech a short song in Vietnamese. Their voices have long been claimed by cigarettes and drink. Never once do they smile. We don’t even see them blink. Suddenly, they break into “If You’re Happy and You Know It” in English. When we don’t erupt in delighted cheers to be hearing our native English or one of the most beloved songs from our childhood, as we should have, as the singers were told we would, their frowns grow frigid and resentful. For the next two verses, they do all they can to remind us that we are a disappointment.
When they finish, we clap uncomfortably. The eldest singer hands us a basket. We look at it for a beat too long. You will now give them money, the woman instructs. Quickly we stuff several thousand Dong into the basket and hand it back. The singers stare at us, daring us to deny that we cannot afford to give them all the money we have. They stalk away. The musicians trip after them.
We ready ourselves to depart, but-
You will now buy some fruit.
Two men carrying baskets laden with fruit materialize next to our tables. We sit motionless. We stare at them. They stare back. We shift slightly to the right, as do they. We shuffle in our seats and make motions to get to our feet. The men move closer to us. We look at the woman, who pretends to take a call on her cell phone. The men’s eyes grow hard.
Eventually, one of us leaps to her feet and firmly pushes past the fruit sellers. Emboldened, the rest of us follow quickly and rush to the exit. We hover there, watching the sellers berate the woman who is flapping her hands defensively at them. She stalks over to us and, after a long glare, stomps down the path. As we follow her, we hear the screeching of the singers as they try out their siren songs on the next group to be dragged into their clutches.
More gift shops. Two on either side of the path now. The same objects, but higher and higher prices. We are pushed into a third shop set slightly apart from the others. Its shelves are filled with jars containing various oils. The owner smiles at us encouragingly.
You buy special coconut oil here.
When will we see the coconut forests? When will we meet the farmers?
You will buy coconut oil here.
We all remain motionless. Furiously the woman flings herself out of the shop as we follow, almost numbly now, spurred by angry shouts from the storekeeper.
We continue. The woman walks more and more quickly; we can barely keep up without breaking into a run. The stunted coconut trees grow more scares as the concentration of shops grows, and they pack closer together. The path becomes narrower. The sky shrinks beneath the reaches of the cloth and tarp ceilings of the stalls. The shouts of vendors grow louder. We are pushed into a tighter and tighter group, trying to move faster as the trinkets and merchants and handbags and bottles of oil grow thicker and thicker around us.
Suddenly, we find ourselves in the middle of a tumultuous bazaar, with tables and booths and racks and displays completely sealing us in. Vendors press against us, screaming in our ears, shoving products into our eyes and mouths and noses. Waves of souvenirs crash over us. We stumble and the sellers pounce. Suffocating, drowning, beating beaten into the ground, we fight back feebly against the consumerism that has completely devoured this island.
In the moment before we lose consciousness, we take a moment to savor the dirt that filled our mouths after our faces were mashed into the ground. It tastes rich, with a slight saltiness. We taste the roots of the coconut trees and feel the small tugs as they lap up water from the earth. The dirt pulses slightly with a self-confidence, a smugness, the knowledge that it will always remain as it is, no matter how much is built atop it or how many things are pushed below it. Some may call it an enabler, some may call it the great creator. But it, at its foundation, is untouchable, unalterable, unalienable. The one remaining sliver of originality.