Reading Vietnam

Reading Vietnam

This time three years ago I was at a loose end with a lot of annual leave not taken and no plans of where to go or who to go with. One hungover Saturday morning over brunch with friends I decided to go back to south-east Asia and picked up a brochure from trailfinders on my way home. I lay in my hammock on my balcony deciding between trips, consulted my sister and her now husband the following day when I met them in Green Park, and by the end of the weekend had booked myself onto a three week trip to Vietnam and Cambodia.

With two and a half months to go, I started the process of anticipation (that I usually enjoy as much as the trip itself), with a summer of reading books and watching films about Vietnam and Cambodia (more on Cambodia next time). My reading list included one of the books that has captivated me in a way not many books ever have.

River of Time by Jon Swain has a bittersweet poignancy of life on the brink of terror and disaster. It describes the years that the journalist (depicted in the film The Killing Fields) spent in Vietnam and Cambodia, his love affair with a French-Vietnamese girl and his attempt to make peace with the past and his experiences of war by writing the book.

My understanding of the Vietnam War was hugely increased on reading The Vietnam Wars by Marilyn B Young. I confess I hadn’t realised that the war with America was one in a line of conflicts dating back to the second world war. I had no knowledge of how south-east Asia was dealt with in its aftermath and the refusal of France to give up its empire. As more recently with Afghanistan (when lessons from past wars with the British and the Soviet Union were ignored), it shows how lessons from the war with France went unheeded by the Americans, and the consequences they bore for going to war with a nation that was prepared to fight against American hegemony.

The Sacred Willow by Duong Van Mai Elliott takes this to a wholly more personal level. It’s a beautifully told account of four generations of a Vietnamese family who found themselves on opposing sides of the war and the effect it had on them all. The ability to really get under the skin of history through such a well told personal story reminded me very much of reading Wild Swans by Jung Chang.

Vietnam is such a fascinating country with a fascinating history. I’m so glad I understood a little bit of what I was seeing when I was there, thanks to these three excellent books.