11 Mar

With a few exceptions I try to avoid writing on my travels of things you can find out your­self in books or online. For instance the walls of Hue’s Forbidden City are ‘crumbling’ due to ferocious US mortar fire in 1968. Officially in ‘South Vietnam’ (China having deliberate brokered a deal at Geneva that undersold a spectacular string of North Vietnam Army victories culminating in the routing of French forces at Dien Bien Phu) Hue was sympathetic to Hanoi. When Vietcong took the city in ’68 America, who’d entered the war on the back of a lie (the Tonkin Incident) threw every­thing at them in the most vicious house to house fighting, a la Stalingrad, of the entire war. The VC lasted ten days and lost ten thousand lives, against five hundred Americans[1], but were back seven years later as the south’s demoralised soldiers, deserted by their commanding officers, shed uniforms by the road and fled while the Americans pulled out with zero dignity.

Yesterday I took the train from Hue (‘Hway’, but with a dramatic tonal rise that makes it a half­way house with ‘Hwee’) to Danang, three hours of heart-stopping scenery: dense green jungle piling down to formidable cliffs pounded at their base by surging foam, interspersed with wide bays and visibly racing tides that are the stuff of surfers’ dreams. I can’t be sure but it seems likely the insane scene in Apocalypse Now – yeah, I know, there were many – where a gung-ho colonel and Big Sur freak moves a fleet of choppers north the moment he hears of a particular beach where the surf is to die (and kill) for, was one of those I saw from my crowded carriage.

Danang too owes much to the Americans. This is where, to the chagrin of the Pentagon, CNN turned the arrival of the first GIs into a media circus in what would prove to be the world’s first televised war. It’s now Vietnam’s fourth city. Most backpackers avoid it. As far as I could tell all the farangs piling off the train entered immediately into bartering with taxi drivers for the hour’s ride down to Hoi Anh, quaint old port of the Cham Dynasty before the sun set on them around the time Drake and Raleigh were pirating the Spanish Main.

Perverse soul that I am, I took a motorbike taxi to a bourgeois hotel, a staggering twelve quid the night, on Danang’s Han River, shielded from the coast by a strip of peninsula on the far bank, its towering skyline testimony to economic liberalisation. Here businessmen meet and middle class Viets chill. That evening I took a stroll on a riverfront dotted with elegant marble sculptures. Some reminded me of Hepworth, most were Hindu inspired; classically South Vietnamese; all quite fetching. As night fell I took to photographing them. Four school­children approached, mid teens and uniformed. Shyly they asked, one brandishing a camera, if they could be photographed with me. This is a tactile culture. I was ridiculously pleased by the way they clung to me for the pose. Could I photo them? Afterwards I took their email address and said goodnight. Delightful.

A younger girl, more poorly dressed, asked me to buy chewing gum. I gestured no thank you  – never use the stuff – then looked at her again: not pretty, but her open face melted me.

“How much?”

“Tin thausand dong”.

She beamed proudly. I laughed. She laughed. Thirty pence was a ridiculous price.

Her friend, better dressed and with some English, arrived. I told the friend I’d buy the gum, at the crazy price, but wanted to photograph them. No problem – other than that both stuck two fingers out from each side of their heads for the pose. For some reason every teenager in South East Asia insists on growing antlers at every photo op.

Still on the river front – a riot of colour and sound to rival Saigon or Bangkok – youngsters in their teens and twenties, with one or two older, had set up a sound system on the plaza and were dancing quite formally in pairs. For several minutes I watched, charmed by their unselfconscious enjoyment of each other. Close by, several boys and two girls played skilful five-a-side football, barefoot, as is the norm here.

A boy in his late teens gestured – English speakers are thin on the ground away from the farang haunts – that it was OK to take pictures. As often happens he was interested in my kit. With each trip I bring more. (It’s a curse really for one who spent a year in Afghanistan and India, hippy days, with my only constant possessions my passport and a beautiful carpet bag bought in Kand­ahar and stolen a year later in Sheffield by a ‘friend’ overdosed and buried thirty-five years ago.) Of course it’s insured for theft and damage but if there’s a cover policy against local resentment, at the flaunting of kit costing more than most will earn in a decade, I haven’t yet found it.

It seems unnecessary anyway. I’ve detected no such resentment, though I’m thin-skinned enough to be on the lookout for it. If that seems surprising, consider this. For the people I meet in Asia, Africa and Latin America – their lives for the most part marked by toil, hardship and in some cases destitution – my possessions aren’t the most striking aspect of our differing fortunes. Most amazing to them is the fact that anyone could afford to do nothing for weeks on end but travel, for no reason other than that it pleases them.

In fact my photography opens rather than closes doors.

While I took pictures of the dancers – holding my own flash gun now, left arm outstretched to maximise the angle between flash and lens – chewing gum girl spotted me again, ran up to give a fierce hug, then darted back into the night. How can you resist a country whose young do stuff like that?

[1]     One way the Pentagon and White House deluded themselves was by claiming victory in battles – almost all of them – where VC casualties were higher. This overlooked the most significant aspect of the war: the preparedness of the Viet resistance to remain undeterred by high losses.

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