Monday, 26 October 2015

Vietnam: A History (not a place)

Vietnam is a war, not a country. At least that seems to be the case to a lot of Americans.

We were in Hanoi taking a long overdue break, doing all the usual things like eating frogs by the side of the road, getting laughed at in the shops for needing “elephant sized” shoes and having smiling strangers rub my Aussie sized belly for luck while nodding and saying “Buddha, Buddha” over and over again.

Of course we went to the Vietnam National Museum of History, an old style house of propaganda lined with pictures and flags and the occasional guillotine to demonstrate how the French finished off any unruly peasants who wouldn’t do the right thing and just starve to death.

It got me wondering about the whole French Indochine thing, tainting my image of Catherine Deneuve sailing through a misty Ha Long Bay while grateful Vietnamese practiced the art of the perfectly baked baguette.

So I searched high and low for a history book in English that covered the period from the mid-eighteenth century to the present day. Finally, in a dusty alley off Trang Tien I saw the plastic wrapped Vietnam: A History and noting it was 70mm thick, assumed it would be comprehensive. But all was not as it seemed.

If I’d been more observant I would have noticed that the cover boasted a recommendation from the Washingto Post, and hailed the book as the equal of the TV series American Experiemce. Once I removed the plastic – having already paid, of course – I realised it was there to stop browsers seeing the quality of the pages. It had been pirated, seemingly on a 1970s photocopier running low on toner.

In the introduction, Karnow talks about the practice of photocopying books in Vietnam and says he’d even seen one of his own pirated in this way. I can vouch for that!

But the biggest disappointment was that almost all the book was about American participation in the Vietnam War – or the American War as they call it in Vietnam. And that meant that I had to carry around half a kilo of surplus paper to discover some answers about the French period.

One more disappointment was that once I accepted the book was about the Vietnam War, I thought I’d look up the interesting bits – that is, to an Australian, the bits that had Australia in it. The result? Three entries. One, mentioned in a list of countries that refused to increase their “token deployments”.  Two, Lyndon Johnson once went to Australia. Three, Australia was one of several members of the “irrelevant” South East Asian Treaty Organisation.

And that out of about 300,000 words.

So now I know our place in history: token and irrelevant, but okay for a short holiday.

(Penguin - via photocopier)

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