Nu's Story
June 2009

by Justin Mott

© Justin Mott
Dang Thi Nu lives with autism in the Friendship Village, near Hanoi, Vietnam. She is blind, mostly deaf, and she cannot speak. Nu's condition, although complicated and expensive to prove, is believed to be linked to Agent Orange poisoning because her grandfather was exposed to the chemicals while fighting in the American war and her father also suffers from severe mental disorders. Nu often roams the halls of her living quarters, bumping into random objects. Her caretakers or the other children have to put her back in her room where it is safer for her to wander. Although Nu can't see she has taught herself to walk up and down the stairs on her own.
I came across 14-year-old Dang Thi Nu in 2007 while I was researching a long-term photo/multimedia documentary project on the effects of Agent Orange on children three generations removed from the Vietnam War. It was a beautiful, sunny day at the Friendship Village, not too far from Hanoi. I could hear the jovial children playing in the courtyard while I took in the environment. They tugged on my sleeves and playfully pulled on my arm hair while blurting out all the English words they knew. The village houses, educates and provides various medical treatments and rehabilitation for 120 children with an array of physical and mental disabilities, many stemming from dioxin poisoning linked to Agent Orange.

© Justin Mott
Nu's housemother, Nguyen Thi Hien, takes care of her basic hygiene needs by feeding her, bathing her and placing her on a bucket stashed under her bed to use the toilet. The housemothers are understaffed and have received little special training for caring for a special needs child. Nu is often left sitting on the bucket long after she is finished.
After touring around I made my way inside building T4. I heard a humming noise that caught my ear. As I investigated further I saw a little girl rocking back and forth on a small plastic red bucket in the shadow of the concrete staircase. She was humming the same tune over and over again. After observing for only a few seconds a feeling of pity just washed over my body. I didn't reach for my camera that day; I just watched her and felt so empty. I inquired about the young girl and that's when I learned Nu's story.

She was placed on an old wooden bench where she continued to rock back and forth in place and continued to hum the same tune while my friend Thuy translated my questions to one of the center's caretakers. I was told Nu was blind, mostly deaf, and mute. By her actions Nu is also believed to be autistic. Her parents separated when she was just a baby and Nu was given to her grandparents. Realizing that there was something different about Nu her grandparents later brought her to the Friendship Village where she has lived ever since. I decided to focus on Nu and to do my best to try and tell her story through images, interviews and ambient sound. I've spent a few years documenting Nu on and off. When I first began her story I was a young man with promise hoping to create a better life for her. I've spent countless hours observing and photographing Nu's life of isolation, but here I am in 2009 and I haven't improved her life one bit.

© Justin Mott
Nu lives at the Friendship Village not too far from Hanoi. She sleeps on a tiny cot with two special needs roommates who can function independently. Her only belongings are her clothing. Nu doesn't play with toys at all.
I photograph Nu less these days and when I do go see her I've realized the best thing I can do for her is give her a familiar touch. Nu loves to be held and she seems to enjoy it when I take her by the hand to go for a walk. Whenever I see her she recognizes my scent and will pull me close to her nose to sniff my neck. She loves when I feed her tangerines and it seems like she can eat them forever. Nu communicates through touch so I make tiny circles in her palms with my finger; she stops all her motions and smiles. When I stop she will sometimes repeat the motions herself.

Nu receives good care at the Village and I admire the work the women there do so this story is not meant to discredit their work in any way. I just feel that Nu is such an extreme case that she needs a specialist who can provide her with one-on-one care. She's just a child and she is so alone. I will continue to go see Nu from time to time and I will continue my search to find Nu a better life.

© Justin Mott

Justin Mott is currently living in Hanoi working as a freelance photojournalist and videojournalist taking on assignments and working on his personal stories and multimedia projects. His clients include The New York Times, Newsweek, TIME, Discovery Channel, The Independent (UK), L'Express, Business Week, Medecins Sans Frontieres, Global Exchange and various other publications and NGOs. He is also co-founder of the multimedia storytelling Web site

For more information on the Friendship Village and on Agent Orange please refer to

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