The Times – January 19 2008
– Ginny Dougary

From Graham Greene to Apocalypse Now and the vanished world of French colonials, in Vietnam Ginny Dougary encounters a land of haunting resonances

My travelling companion, a most unquiet American, was beginning to feel picked on. You would think that she had become accustomed to it by now, having weathered the anti-Yank onslaught of taxi drivers, shopkeepers, anyone really in Europe who on hearing her accent would launch into a diatribe about those arrogant, swaggering, ignorant folks across the pond who had the most stupid president in history and had landed us in all this unwanted aggro.

But in Vietnam, it was a whole new level of awkwardness for, perhaps, the obvious reasons, and all the more disorientating because of the friendliness of the people. The different perspective on recent history makes an immediate impression from the moment that you hear what we have always known as the Vietnam War referred to as the American War.

Wandering around the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, a popular setting for wedding photos (six different couples when we were there), the museum’s guide points to a photograph of a local hero. It was the first stop of our trip and we hadn’t yet adjusted our mindset, so we asked what act of heroism the man had carried out to receive this commendation and were told, with an earnestly helpful expression, that he had come very close to succeeding in blowing up Robert McNamara, the former US Secretary of Defence and architect of the Vietnam (or American) War. The young woman nodded her head and smiled and we smiled and nodded back.

Since the early Nineties when Vietnam first opened up to tourism, the promotional emphasis has been on Vietnam as a country, not a war. And, boy, from what we went on to see, what a country it is. I was particularly struck, further on in our trip, when we escaped from the already slightly tarnished strip of Nha Trang’s extended beaches in south central Vietnam, by the beautiful drama of the sweeping cliff-drive views – an implausibly stunning amalgam of Byron Bay, Big Sur and the Côte d’Azur.

Hotels and restaurants have been privatised and various international companies are now marketing Vietnam as an exclusive holiday destination. The problem is that the staff simply don’t have the necessary language skills yet to be able to provide the seamless service they would like. But they are so very willing and sweet and anxious to please that even I, with my princessy tendencies, felt rather ashamed of my spoilt Western ways.

The smiling warmth of the people makes Vietnam an extremely appealing place to visit and is all the more striking because of all the horrors its people have had to endure – from the Chinese, the Japanese, the French and, of course, the Americans.

I re-read Graham Greene’s story of The Times correspondent’s betrayal of a quiet American agent provocateur and re-read the story of his Fifties Vietnam war (the French War?) in my hotel room, the palm trees waving in the tropical downpour, down the road from where he wrote his book in the Continental in what was called rue Catinat. I was struck again by the power of his recoil from the repugnance of war – the description of the canal stuffed with bodies over which their boat got stuck into the human clay. The horrid sight of a mother and her boy: “He was about six years old and he lay like an embryo in the womb with his little bony knees drawn up.… He was wearing a holy medal around his neck, and I said to myself, ‘The juju doesn’t work.’ There was a gnawed piece of loaf under his body. I thought, ‘I hate war.’”

In the tunnels, Michael Herr’s Dispatches came back to me with some force. I had read it when it came out in the late Seventies and when I saw Apocalypse Now it reminded me of the book – not surprisingly as Herr co-wrote the script. Herr hung out with the young infantrymen known as “grunts” and wrote their stories, as well as those of his photographer comrades, the likes of Tim Page, Sean Flynn (son of Errol) and Dana Stone. Flynn and Stone are among the roll call of the dead in a series of rooms, sponsored by the state of Kentucky, at the War Remnants Museum, formerly known as the War Crimes Museum.

It would seem to be almost a dereliction of – what? – I struggle to find the right word – responsibility? morality? historical rectitude, even? – not to visit these places when you come to Vietnam. Visitors are actively encouraged to go as a sort of recognition of what the Vietnamese have gone through and suffered (and continue to suffer, more than 30 years on, from the devastating after-effects of Agent Orange), and to marvel at how they have endured. But it is also part of Vietnam’s “moving on” that America’s losses are recognised, too, and that after you have absorbed these horrors, you should go on and enjoy the ancient temples and buildings that have remained unscathed and the loveliness of the landscape.

There is so much that is upsetting at the museum that it is hard to isolate what is worst: the big books filled with small biographies of each family’s son or daughter who was killed in action; knowing that some day there will be another book like this when another war has ended; the bottles of foetuses in the Vietnam wing; the report written after the My Lai massacre, with its stark list of 504 civilians killed – most of them women and men over 60, babies, young children, mothers and expectant mothers.

We drive out of the city, with its fronds of electric cables hanging in great garlands over the narrow buildings and its small armies of scooters, into the green and gold rice paddies, the sun glinting over the water buffalo and men and women in their ao dai trouser-dresses up to their knees in water, faces shielded by their cone-shaped hats. Past the trees with their seeping sap of rubber collecting in bowls, into an area associated with the most intense warfare, the Cu Chi tunnels and the headquarters of the Vietcong.

It is eerie to wander through the muddy forests – with that nightmarish sense of recognition from seeing precisely this setting in Hollywood’s version of the war – hearing the sound of distant gunfire (from tourists at the shooting range), as V points out the trap doors concealed under foliage, and the booby-traps which left young American soldiers mangled or crushed. “Ingenious” you say, as you listen to the names for different inventions, such as “The Leaving Present”, and I think of Michael Herr’s words about “the lean young men, with only the teenage fat of their innocence to keep away the chill; and then they lose that”.

As for the tunnels themselves – they may have been widened for the big-bottomed tourists but I had visions of being stuck like Winnie the Pooh, with my legs wiggling in comic desperation, and decided there were some experiences better left to the imagination.

After all this reality, we were looking forward to a dose of nostalgic escapism in Dalat – the Vietnamese equivalent of India’s hill stations where homesick French colonials built their Normandy mini-manoirs and tried to be elegant against the odds. The odds being, as we discovered: heavy and unceasing rainfall, muddy walkways, damp. We stayed in a curious compound of painstakingly restored Twenties villas – one vast pad all to ourselves, with a claw-footed bath in our bedroom, a triple-size bed swathed in mosquito nets, dark wood floors and views of the dripping, mulchy green highlands beyond. In the retro restaurant, we ate delicate meals in dim lighting to the mournful strains of Edith Piaf.

We did what we could to enjoy our sodden summer holiday, aided by daily massages, but Dalat post-colonial and in a deluge is not a place that offers endless divertissements. So we boarded a train in a station that was a gaudily-painted, possibly once splendid Deco delight, visited a village chief who played some pipes and offered a suck on some sort of fermented honey brew, and sampled noodle soup in a street café.

How interesting it would have been to talk to the descendants of locals who had serviced the French colonials who had come to Dalat on their weekend and summer retreats. How did they entertain themselves, what sort of intrigues unfolded, did it bear any resemblance to the glamour and casual cruelty depicted in the videos of Indochine and Les Amants we watched at night by the stoked fireside on the weirdly chilly summer nights?

In the end, we were dispatched to a safer prospect of sunshine in the Robinson-Crusoe chic of another resort, where we spent our days lolling around in our own private infinity rock pool. This was the closest thing to paradise. And still what surfaces from my “Vietnam is a country not a war” holiday is the image in the War Remnants Museum of a little girl’s schoolbag, retrieved from a French crackdown, next to a picture of her hopeful face and a pencil case, and I thought how useless it is to think, “I hate war”.