On ''The Amazing Race,'' the teams visit a Hanoi prison and learn about accepting others

By Josh Wolk
Updated June 14, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: Tom and Terry: Robert Voets/CBS
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”The Amazing Race”: The lessons of Vietnam

Everybody in Hollywood has a pet cause. George Clooney has the genocide in the Sudan. For Leonardo DiCaprio, it’s the environment. But for Bertram Van Munster, it’s inhumane imprisonment. In past seasons he’s had his contestants stop and reflect at Nelson Mandela’s old prison cell and the debarkation point of a slave ship. This week, he had the teams head to Vietnam to stop at the infamous Hanoi Hilton — the harrowing POW camp where John McCain was held and tortured — to find the flight suit that Senator McCain was wearing when he was captured.

While I technically appreciate that Van Munster is trying to squeeze an important history lesson in amongst all the chaotic jet-setting, I wonder if a fast-paced game show just might be the wrong venue. We’re living at a time when America is facing a massive crisis of integrity right now because of some U.S. torture of Iraqi prisoners, and Senator McCain himself has spoken out against this and has actively pushed policies that will hold the U.S. to the Geneva Conventions. Now, tell me honestly: During this episode, did any of you once reflect on larger issues of morality and hypocrisy in wartime when the teams dashed around, taking fleeting glances at dioramas of shackled prisoners? Or were you, like me, just thinking, ”Find the damn clue! Not down that hall, go down that hall! Oh, just ask somebody at the gift shop if they’ve seen a big olive onesie in a glass case!”

There simply isn’t time for reflection in this game. Just ask David. Every time he wanted to stop and get emotional over his dad’s service in Vietnam, his hobbling wife leaned over his shoulder to tell him to get his dingdongflimflam head out of the past and drive faster, dadblammit! Sure, Godwin and Erwin stopped for a moment of silence, but no one else had a minute to reflect on the lessons of Vietnam and what it meant for today. Kind of made for a sad metaphor for America’s attention span: Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, and…what’s that? A million bucks! Quagmire, shwagmire, you politicians do what you want, just gimme that money!

Societal implications aside, this grueling episode taught me a little something about the Vietnamese: They may act like they’ve forgiven America for the war, but deep inside they’re still a little bitter. Oh, you can’t see it right away. They’re very welcoming to American tourists, but there’s something passive-aggressively angry there. Take the woman whom Duke corralled to come in the cab with him and Lauren. Normally, when players round up a local to act as a tour guide, said Sherpa skips work or any other obligation to take the team where they want to go. Got a dying mother in the hospital waiting for you to come give her a kidney? To hell with her — you’ve got American reality-show stars to help!

But this woman seemed to be actively working to screw over Duke and Lauren. She not only kept them waiting while she got her suitcase but then totally scammed them into taking her to her brother’s house, 30 minutes out of their way. Actually, I’d like to see a reality game show all about her: See how many Amazing Racers she can dupe into helping her do her errands. ”Yes, I’ll take you to your next clue, just as soon as you sort my colors and delicates!”

Also, did you notice that during the challenges, the show always cut away to a crowd of bystanders laughing derisively at the players? Tom couldn’t ride a bike, and there was a Vietnamese Greek chorus howling at him. When Godwin and Erwin tried to make coal bricks, they had such a large crowd watching them and braying that I thought it was a taping of Two and a Half Men. (Actually, I was kind of grateful for all the laughing at my countrymen; it made me feel less guilty for snickering when Phil said ”80,000 Vietnamese dong.”)

But if the Vietnamese seemed bitter about Americans, they forgot all their resentment as soon as our teams started selling flowers. Man, oh man, did they want flowers. All the teams did was stand in the doorway, and people grabbed for them, throwing money. Are flowers the Vietnamese equivalent of Beanie Babies?

I know I’m making it sound like the challenges were easy, but they really weren’t: This seemed like an incredibly grueling episode. Having been given no extra money for this leg, nobody could buy food or water in the punishing heat. The only ones who didn’t seem to be struggling were the beauty queens, who began the episode stating that they wanted to break the stereotype of ”pageant girls.” And then they promptly went on to cut in front of the gay couple and roll their eyes in that ”Oh my God, they’re so crazy!” look when their cuttees complained. Sure, Dustin and Kandice have a sense of entitlement, as well as the ability to take advantage of people less attractive than they are and then mock them, but here’s the thing: They did it all with no Vaseline on their teeth. Take that, stereotype!

Ultimately, though, it all came down to one wrong turn. Duke and Lauren, who ping-ponged between being out of it and back into it, ultimately crashed when they couldn’t find the coal challenge and had to build a birdhouse. Not even the gay team’s 30-minute penalty for hopping on a motorcycle was enough to let the father-daughter team catch up. Frankly, I was surprised that Tom and Terry even got onto that dangerous ride; considering how incompetent Tom was on a bicycle during the flower challenge, I thought that a motorbike would have just burst into flames the second his ass touched the seat.

It was one of the most emotional pit stops I’ve ever seen. First you had Sarah crawling over that rice paddy, which showed cynical ol’ me just how difficult this race must be for her with her malfunctioning leg. And then you had a weepy Karlyn and Lyn proclaiming their love for David and Mary, who in turn passed the love on to a weepy Tom and Terry, the first gay people they’d ever met. Top it all off with Duke proclaiming his respect, acceptance, and devotion to his daughter, and it all made you feel good about America. Turns out we all can get along, if we just look inside ourselves and focus on our similarities and not our differences, and…hey, the Powerball jackpot just went up! I’m gonna be rich!

Uh…what was I saying again?

What do you think? Did Duke really learn anything? Did you? And should the show just avoid historically sensitive sites entirely?

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The Amazing Race

Phil Keoghan hosts the globe-trotting adventure series.
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