Tuesday, July 14, 2015


Although the world’s major religions promise eternal life to those who faithfully follow their various laws and taboos, no-one can comprehend what eternal life would be like. This is because life’s finiteness, bounded irrevocably by death, is a key defining characteristic of what we call the human condition. But as regards the promises by religions of eternal life, all we know is that this life is all we know, and beyond it – unless we take seriously the imagery of floating on clouds playing harps, or an endless virgin orgy – we know nothing.

But what would we do forever, anyway? Go fishing? Drink Moet? Fuck? Take ecstasy? Improve our putting? Tweet? Even those delights would not seem adequate to fill all those aeons which would be, truthfully, endless. Could we stand it, if beyond death we had anything like the attention spans and boredom thresholds we have in this life? “Millions long for immortality who don't know what to do on a rainy Sunday afternoon,” quoth Unknown. The fact is we have no possible conception of what it would be like to live forever.

In many respects, too, curiously enough, death is our friend. It is ultimate release from all we have carried through life. For those whose lives have been marked by desperate poverty, chronic illness or other suffering – and that goes for a large proportion of the human population – death may be seen as a saviour, even redemption.

It is a fact that our lives are painfully brief, and will remain for the foreseeable future (notwithstanding advances in medical science, and our inevitable physical melding with the machines of our own creation). We have barely left the womb when they are burying us in a box. Threescore and ten, and the rest is silence. It seems a pitifully short span, when all around us is the manifest immensity of space, and stars that have been burning for billions of our years.  One is tempted to say that a longer span of life could enrich us, and bring us deeper wisdom as a race, but for the troubling thought that there is no fool like an old fool.

But eternity? Could we stand eternity? After all, could we live with others, for all time? As Sartre might have noted, that would not be eternal Heaven, but Hell. Even worse than that, we would have to live with ourselves forever, and how few of us enjoy spending time with that particular individual too? Yet still we long for an afterlife, for eternal life, deliverance from the grave, for Heaven, Valhalla, release from the karmic wheel. So, for what, really, are we longing?

Parents with young children get a tiny, nightly foretaste of what eternal life could be like, through a television show called In The Night Garden. It is the brainchild of a clever Englishman named Andrew Davenport, who also dreamed up its renowned precursor,Tellytubbies. The characters of In The Night Garden - headed by a bright blue Gumby-like creature with a lop-sided grin called Igglepiggle, a doll with a wild rainbow of hair and an inflatable skirt named Upsy-Daisy, an OCD rock-collecting pre-tech head called Makka-Pakka, and the trousers-losing cuddly trio the Tombliboos - inhabit a charming, twilit, woodland domain. In each episode they wander around, sublimely happy, thinking of nothing more taxing than whether it’s a “dancy day” or not. They snuggle, kiss, chatter on in squeaks and squawks of even fewer than 140 characters, and generally dream their time away. Even if something potentially untoward does happen, and the green puffer zeppelin called the Pinky Ponk that they are flying in strikes a tree, the worst thing that the kindly narrator Derek Jacobi ever utters is “Isn’t that a funny Pinky Ponk, bumping into that tree!”, and ends the episode with the trademark, “Isn’t that a pip!”

The characters of In The Night Garden appear to possess little or no memory, and thrive in the bliss of an eternal present, puttering about their little patch of woodland singing, dancing, collecting stones, and engaged in other eternally repetitive acts. Memory, of course, is the enemy of eternal bliss, even eternal sanity. Because if we have no recollection of what we did half an hour ago, or even five minutes ago, every hour can be filled with discovery, forever renewed, which we might happily go on with, well, forever.  None of the characters can speak very much – in fact most of them can hardly speak at all – which would place them under the age of three average human years. Three is the age at which “individuation”, or the sense of one’s self as separate from the world around, is usually thought to occur, so that in the case of the show’s characters, there is a sense that they remain linked to one another, and to their world, on a deep and abiding level. The sense of complete immersion in something greater than one’s self is woven deeply into the psyche ofIn The Night Garden: the world it evokes is a virtual reality unto itself.

Curiously enough, we all lived the first few years of our lives in much the same way that Igglepiggle and Upsy-Daisy do, that is, taking each moment for what it is, something new and wonderful, and never looking back at the ever widening wake of hours, weeks, months and years that we leave behind us, which is the increasing habit of humans as we accrue our revolutions around the sun. In adulthood we retain little or no memory of those earliest years, yet despite this we know that we most surely lived them, and each and every moment of them as if it were a tiny eternity of its own. Could this be what eternal life might be like?

As we grow older, we tend to perplex ourselves with death more and more. This is not surprising: after all, its inevitable arrival becomes more imminent by the hour. But we do not worry ourselves so much, if at all, about who, where and what we were before we were born and lived, which is surely just as mysterious as when we die and live no more. If one deep mystery does not concern us, and we simply accept it - then why not the other? The suspicion, which is a fair one, that they are linked in some way – that is, our state pre-birth and post-death – should suggest to us that if nothing untoward appeared to be happening to us before we were born, why should we worry that it will after we die?

But it is this very uncertainty that religion, and all manner of hucksters of the soul and self, trade upon. But do we really need the abracadabra and hocus-pocus of religion to get us through the end of this life, that is coming for us all? Does any one of them truly know any more of death than any one of the rest of us? No matter what we tell our preachers, the answer, we know in our bones, is no.

As for God, a deity of some kind - who are we to know either way? We are puny specks of dust pumped up with very grand ideas. Could we ever know what or who is behind Everything? We are hardly down from the trees, still mass murder each other at will and celebrate it with pomp and spectacle, hardly know what day it is, and can't even make up our minds between a shiraz and a cabernet. In the immortal words of Sergeant Shultz, "I know nah-think!"

Everyone before us has gone through death. And so shall we, each of us in our own singular circumstance and manner. And, should we arrive on the other side of this scrim of a world, in a pleasant patch of woodland where we happily collect cool, rounded stones until the end of time, then as the last ember of the cosmos sputters and burns out like a candle on the wick, perhaps we shall go on happily collecting our stones, beyond space, beyond time, all the while thinking, “Isn’t that a pip!”

Thursday, July 9, 2015


Agent Orange photo, War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City

"It was late ‘67 now, even the most detailed maps didn’t reveal much any more; reading them was like trying to read the faces of the Vietnamese, and that was like trying to read the wind." 
- Michael Herr, Dispatches

RICHARD Nixon pronounced Viet-Nahm like a tropical wasting disease, rhymed with harm. Three decades after the fall of Saigon, for some there remains the background chatter of helicopters, and a Phantom jet’s jungle wake of spidery tendrils of white phosphorus, and napalm plumes in day-glo orange. Martin Sheen’s murmured ‘Saigon, Saigon, I was still in Saigon...’ may still haunt the odd scabby hotel room, but it’s Ho Chi Minh City now, and the only boom is an economic one. Having won the war, the Vietnamese are winning the peace: Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi are growling freemarket tiger cubs, a business thriving on every corner. Vietnam has moved on while the US remains in the thrall of a recidivism born of little more than old Stallone-oid victory/revenge movies: a majority of Americans even believe the US won. The Vietnamese have seen the movies too but they know the difference between gross box office and history. But then many Americans believe our ancestors once saddled up dinosaurs - who better to believe that history is bunk? The only trouble, as they are discovering over again in Iraq, is that it isn’t.

"They say that whatever you’re looking for, you will find here. They say you come to Vietnam and you understand a lot in a few minutes, but the rest has got to be lived." - from Christopher Hampton’s screen adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American.

THE first hours in any new country are precious, before your senses acquire the familiarity of a third glass of wine. On the taxi ride into Ho Chi Minh City we pass designer infant clothing boutiques and a profusion of billiard rooms. Electric cables are festooned down main streets like thick black vines, branching off everywhichway into shops and homes. People throng the streets on motorcycles, teenage girls texting on their Vespas, everyone so very young, courtesy the baby boom that followed what the Vietnamese call the American War.

The women make an immediate impression. Not that they are beautiful, which they are, like women anywhere. It’s their apparent ease and confidence, their freedom evident on the streets, dressed in their choice of pyjamas or high heels, jeans or mini-skirts. The only veil is a mask against air pollution, embroidered with a flower. 

Subsequent enquiries confirm an emancipation stemming from factors such as the matrilineal tradition of ethnic groups going back to ancient times, the deeply-held views of Ho Chi Minh, and the frontline role women played in the American War. Who would dare to tell the guerrillas of the Mekong that their place was home cooking rice?

The initial impression is confirmed too of a vigourous, increasingly prosperous nation, an economic hybrid of big state-owned enterprises and a flourishing private business sector. There are candidates of only one party to elect, but that’s not so different from where we live. The US dollar and the Vietnamese dong are used interchangeably. The image of the revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh is on Vietnamese banknotes, Washington and other American revolutionaries on the US. The last dollar in my pocket bears an English queen and a kangaroo.

"‘You and your like are trying to make a war with the help of people who just aren’t interested.’
‘They don’t want Communism.’
‘They want rice,’ I said. ‘They don’t want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as another. They don’t want our white skins around telling them what to do.’"
- Graham Greene, The Quiet American

IN his 1955 classic - perhaps his greatest novel, for the tautness of the intertwined dramas of war and the struggle for love - Greene foreshadows the arguments which were to come. In the character of Pyle, the American who wasn’t ‘...one of those noisy bastards at the Continental. A quiet American’ he creates a symbol for the ingenuousness of US foreign policy, a policy as simplistic as the ideas of “York Harding”, the fictional intellectual guiding light for Pyle and his CIA fellow travellers towards creating a “third force”, post-colonial but non-Communist, in Vietnam. 

Greene foreshadows too the final debacle, because the origins of the US intervention are not even the old goals of imperialism, of pillaged riches and subject peoples, but a policy cooked up by think-tanks in the fervid McCarthy era. The policy was “containment of Red China”, and prevention of the “Domino Effect”, in which one by one Asian nations were foreseen falling to Communism, menacing the white bastion of Australia and challenging America’s post-WW II Asian-Pacific imperium. 

The US assumed the colonial mantle of the beaten French and did contrive a “third force”, the government of South Vietnam, but was always more a strategic notion than a viable entity. By the end of the whole dreadful mess, millions had fallen, but the dominoes didn’t. What did occur was the end to a century of colonialism, the reunification of Vietnam, and a social and economic carpe diem. 

Who killed those millions? It was Alden Pyle, the frighteningly quiet American whom the novel’s narrator, newspaperman Thomas Fowler, cannot even bring himself to hate because Pyle is wrong not for the wrong reasons, but in Fowler’s view, genuinely held ones - even though that makes him all the more dangerous. Fowler even forgives Pyle for taking his girlfriend, and it is not ultimately her, but the innocent blood on Pyle’s hands, which causes him to assent to Pyle’s murder.

Fam Luc, painting in his hotel room near the Museum of Fine Art, Ho Chi Minh City

WE leave the aircon of the rosy-hued Miss Loi Guest House bound for the first item on Belle’s holiday “to see” list. Summer days in Ho Chi Minh City are up to 40 degrees, and after a half hour walk we’re grateful to escape the heat into the cool French colonial building housing the Museum of Fine Art. 

We’re instantly impressed by the quality and diversity of work on show: paintings of streetscapes, bar scenes, portraits, nudes, women with children, workers in ricefields and fisherfolk dragging in nets. The influence of the modern masters is clear, particularly Picasso and Matisse, but there is also a Chinese influence, and originality. Other canvases look like war images, painted on hessian rice-bags, of women soldiers in the jungle, eating under canvas, combing each other’s hair, feeding infants with a rifle slung over their shoulder. 

We are surprised to find that although this is obviously a major state-run museum, there are price-tags on the works, and even more surprised to learn all these works were not done by a number of artists, but that the gallery is staging a major retrospective of one of Vietnam’s modern masters, a former North Vietnamese official army artist, Fam Luc. 

We talk it over and return the next day and buy a small canvas, of brilliantly coloured flowers. The museum assistant asks if we would like to meet the artist, and phones him at his hotel around the corner. We meet and all do our best to converse in hopelessly broken French, and with his ebullient energy and charm Luc entertains us at drinks and dinners over the next couple of days. He never points it out, but we come to see the bullet holes in his canvases of women at war.

"Come home America. Come home from your dark country of racism, from your tragic, reckless adventure in Vietnam."
- Dr Martin Luther King

OUTSIDE the War Remnants Museum there are US tanks and fighter planes, still menacing three decades on. There are bombs and rockets, cluster bombs and napalm canisters, and a Huey helicopter with a massive gun poking out of it. There is a last days of Rome sense to it, of a nation’s identity expressed in legions, of military might, and all to no avail. 

Inside is far worse: galleries of photographs of napalmed children, farmers being led away to be shot, dead families with throats cut by US soldiers. There are testaments to the spraying of the defoliant chemical Agent Orange, of jars of deformed foetuses in formaldehyde which demand you to look even though so much in you begs to look away; and photographs of Elephant Man faces, of gnarled and twisted bodies doomed to walk on their hands, and long wards of the crippled which ask how could one people do this to another, deform its children for generations? A US serviceman smiles for the lens as he pumps Agent Orange from a drum daubed with “The Purple People Eater” into the tanks of a plane. It seems too monstrous, inhuman, a heinous felony. 

Johnson and Nixon pix, War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City

There are other galleries of foreign photographers of US forces under fire, mired in mud, wounded and dying, a horizon of Huey Valkyries across the sky, crimson flashes of shell-blasts, and American grunts in the field, young faces mingling fear, pain, fatigue, anger, contempt and bewilderment. 

Despite the horrors, one senses scant abiding bitterness from the Vietnamese who created this exhibition, just as one senses little in the populace streaming by outside the museum gates. There is profound sorrow here, but also the hope of reconciliation, as typified by one of the final exhibits, the military decorations of an American serviceman sent with a letter of apology.

"It is no accident that captured resistance fighters are almost invariably portrayed semi-nude, up to their middles in mud or roped together neck-to-neck, being marched off by grinning G.I. supermen. Vietnamese must be made to feel that they are racial inferiors with no right to national identity. For public consumption they are 'gooks', 'slopes' and 'dinks'."

- Wilfred Burchett

Meeting Room, former Presidential Palace

THE former presidential palace, now called Reunification Palace, is a sixties modernist block-pile, but inside is cool, calm and spacious. The guidebooks jibe about lavish kitsch, but the cabinet rooms and meeting halls are way out beyond kitsch, captivating to the last outrageous chandelier. 

There’s also the Map Room, with colour-coded phones; the Gambling Room with wine barrel bar and decor a la The Party; the Movie Room with rows of red plush swivel chairs; and in the basement the banks of ancient telex machines and “combat bed” (single) for when it got too hot upstairs for President Thieu. There’s a closed Security Section with rows of dungeons, and a Shooting Gallery where Thieu peppered targets with his favourite handgun.

We emerge to the gates which two North Vietnamese tanks crashed through on 30th April 1975, the final climactic act of so many years of war. I ask an English-speaking Vietnamese whether the tank driver is famous. ‘Well-known yes, but famous, no. He lives like an ordinary man, with not much money. We are all proud of him and what he did, but he is one of us, nothing more.”

"Ironically, by becoming an army of moles pitched against armies winged into battle by helicopters (the guerrillas) protracted the war to the point of persuading the United States that it was unwinnable."
- Tom Mangold and John Penycate, The Tunnels of Cu Chi

WE join a bus tour to the Cao Dai sect temple in the shadow of Black Lady Mountain near the Cambodian border. The temple is famous for its outré, candy-hued temple decor and Illuminatus-style eye symbololgy. Melding Buddhism, Confucianism and Protestantism, Cao Dai was started in the 1920s by a Saigon clerk with a spiritualist bent. It maintained a private army during the French period (mentioned in The Quiet American) but now bears the trappings of quaint eccentricity, with Victor Hugo in its trinity of saints.

The bus next bumps us down to Cu Chi, to the tunnels where Vietnamese sheltered and fought during the French and American wars. More than 200 kilometres of tunnels were dug here, with subterranean command posts, hospitals, kitchens with disguised smoke chimneys, even uniform factories. Women gave birth underground, nursed infants. The Vietnamese endured the confined heat and darkness, scorpions and snakes, air attack and Tunnel Rats. The “Rats” were Americans and South Vietnamese sent to fight underground, themselves contending with disorientation, traps and ambush in the darkness. 

The visit begins with a shooting range where for US $1.30 a round, tourists can blast away with M1 carbines and AK47s and even heavy machine-guns. Sizeable red-faced young males line up, returning, as they say, “pumped”.

The tunnels are tiny, but during the war were even tinier, with entrances little more than a square foot. Our group appears young and fit: it would be seemingly impossible for average Westerners to squeeze into such a small spaces, even enlarged for tourists as they are. 

A few paces in, light disappears totally. The darkness is disturbingly cramped, hot and airless, earth walls pressing in on the shoulders, a claustrophobic’s nightmare. Nor is there any going back: people coming behind block the tunnel entirely. One can only feel one’s way and move forward, calmly and even-paced. I inch crab-style towards a tiny lamp, orange glow illuminating just a few metres around it. The young Filipino woman in front calls to me not to take the right turn but to feel the way straight on, and I pass the instruction back to Belle. I hear her coaxing someone, and realise it is the Malaysian teenager behind her. The rest of his family decided not to come underground, but perhaps to “prove” himself, he has. I hear panic in his voice, but there are other voices behind his: he can’t even go back, and Belle, who had been in two minds about coming down anyway, is stuck with him. 

The Filipino warns of steps ahead and I ease myself down a black hole and we’re at nine metres, nearly thirty feet underground. The next lamp illuminates a scorpion, dead. The Filipino cautions about a low section but I’ve already hit my head. I feel around for my glasses while the Malaysian teenager whimpers and Belle tells him to hold onto her foot. 

We appear to have lost contact with the group now, and the unpleasant notion of being lost suggests itself, but then there is light, strong light, literally at the end of the tunnel, and I emerge sweaty and grimy into a village house, the once secret exit. We help the exultant boy out, to cheers from his family. 

Back on the bus I reflect upon the camaraderie which grew up instantly between us mere daytrippers down there, and how strong the bonds must have become between people who faced death together daily sheltering in those tiny spaces while the bombs fell all around, knowing a hit could entomb them all forever. 

Perfume River, Hue

"War had blitzed into Hue during the Tet Offensive of 1968, the Vietcong and North Vietnamese forces taking the entire city except for a couple of US adviser compounds. What followed was a Stalingrad set-piece battle, which they lost after nearly a month’s horrendous fighting pitted against the best part of a marine division and two regiments of air cavalry." - Tim Page, Derailed in Uncle Ho’s Victory Garden

ACCORDING to photographer Tim Page - said to be the inspiration for the Conradian “harlequin” photo-jock in Apocalypse Now - the old imperial capital Hue is where “the women are prettiest, the food most delicious, the temples most interesting”. Hue lies on the Perfume River, named from the blossoms that drift down it. Outdoor cafes and beer gardens line its banks now, but the bullet scars in the citadel walls tell another story, as do the street vendors hawking American dog dags: name, number, blood group, religion. The city fell during the Tet Offensive that swept South Vietnam in early 1968. Its speed and ferociousness stunned the Americans, as did its planning and preparation, which had gone undetected. 

In Hue, the North Vietnamese held out for more than three weeks. The holy of holies in Saigon, the US Embassy, was hit and American lives lost. US confidence was shattered, with only a drawn-out endgame of epic destructiveness to come as Nixon fumbled, fulminated and hissy-fitted after a “peace with honour” that was always so much smoke through his fingers.

"By May 1968, US military-political strategies in Vietnam had been driven into bankruptcy... To fail against armed forces developed from peasant guerrillas, with an army of well over a million superbly armed troops at your disposal, plus the world’s most modern air force and unlimited artillery, is a failure of monumental proportions." - Wilfred Burchett

We travel up Highway 1 on a bus headed for the old Demilitarised Zone and Quang Tri province where some of the heaviest fighting and bombing of the war took place - literally erasing the town of Quang Tri from the map - and the equally contested Highway 9, Ho Chi Minh Trail, and the former US base at Khe Sanh.

‘Who besides the Americans fought at Khe Sanh?’ I ask the tour guide, Tien. 

‘Jimmy Barnes,’ he deadpans. 

Though obviously a set-piece crack for DMZ tourists, it underscores the fiction of the Cold Chisel pub-rock anthem, and the macho Vietnam vet anti-hero who “left my heart to the sappers round Khe Sanh”. 

President Lyndon Johnson was obsessed with Khe Sanh and made his commanders swear to hold it, declaring he didn’t want no “Dinbinfoo”. This was an allusion to the battle of Dien Bien Phu fourteen years before, where the French had made a decisive stand - also at an airstrip surrounded by mountain ranges providing ready cover for artillery - and were defeated. As the French marched out in 1954, Eisenhower’s America stepped into the beach, installing expatriate Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon and cancelling scheduled reunifying national elections which Diem would have lost to Ho Chi Minh. Using the pretext of the faked Gulf of Tonkin Incident, the US landed troops at Da Nang in 1965, and the American War began in earnest. 

Five thousand Americans endured a ten-week siege at Khe Sanh during 1968, as US aircraft dropped tens of thousands of tonnes of bombs on the mountains ringing it, but the feared North Vietnamese ground assault never came. The siege was merely a diversionary action for the real thing, the Tet Offensive.

"Khe Sanh was a very bad place to be then, but the airstrip was the worst place in the world... If you were waiting there to be taken out, there was nothing you could do but curl up in the trench and try to make yourself small, and if you were coming in on the plane, there was nothing you could do, nothing at all."
- Michael Herr, Dispatches

Some people speak of a feeling in the DMZ still, of hurt from the war. There is something of that, but my first impression is of a countryside that looks almost if the war never happened here. It’s hard to believe that just three decades ago Agent Orange and carpet bombing rendered much of this fertile region like the surface of Mars. 

‘I lost my friends, my house, my village, all gone,’ Tien reflects, on the bus microphone. ‘The Americans thought they came here to protect us, but my people died like dogs. People around here still hate Americans.’

Highway 9 passes rebuilt towns and villages. There are forests of eucalypts and bamboo, vegetable gardens and fields of rice, and pretty houses in a green-clad mountain landscape much like south-east Queensland. The Ho Chi Minh Trail has been sealed and trucks the new prosperity, while Khe Sanh is a coffee plantation, robusta beans from the blood red earth. It has a small museum, bunkers and a couple of old helicopters. The rest nature has reclaimed. 

‘When we returned to our land after the war we had to search out mines with bamboo sticks,’ Tien says later. ‘So many mines, no-one helped us, we did it ourselves. The mines are still around here. Last year a lady died in the ricefields. Two weeks ago a little boy lost both legs.’ He looks out as we wind down through hills of forest regrowth, heading back to Hue. ‘Fifty-eight thousand US dead. We lost three million.’ 

THE abundant ricefields of the Red River delta in the north long made the region tempting to the Chinese. They ruled for around a thousand years until the Vietnamese under Ngo Quyen won a decisive victory in 938, luring the junks of the Chinese fleet into the estuary of the Bach Dang River, before forcing them back at low tide onto huge wooden stakes set into the river bed. It is a quirk of history that the tactics were repeated more than three centuries later when in 1288 Vietnamese leader Tran Hung Dao enticed the fleet of Mongol invader Kublai Khan into the same river estuary, and again beat the enemy ships back onto stakes set into the river bed: Those who fail to learn the lessons of history. 

Eight hundred years later pointed stakes were again used to powerful effect, villagers adapting jungle animal traps to kill and incapacitate US troops, with estimates of them accounting for up to two percent of American losses. The technological difference between the two sides could not have been clearer. With its massive air power the US threatened to bomb the Vietnamese “back into the Stone Age”. It used everything short of nuclear weaponry, which it considered, to impose its will on a poor nation of 20 million, mainly rice farmers, and in every respect it failed.

Richard Nixon later admitted that never before had a nation enjoyed such an advantage militarily over its adversary as the US did over the Vietnamese. Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett, who reported the war from the North Vietnamese side, expressed it succinctly: “Never in the history of any nation had so many with so much been arrayed against so few with so little.” Former Secretary of State Robert McNamara admitted the US defeat reflected a basic lack of understanding of the history and culture of the Vietnamese. Their victory has even been characterised as that of the human brain over machines.

HANOI is an attractive city of lakes and boulevards, of the twisting, tamarind-shaded alleys of the old city, the Opera and elegant Metropole Hotel in the French quarter. 

As in Ho Chi Minh City there is evident rising affluence and a profusion of upmarket shops, among them places selling wartime propaganda posters. Originals can sell for up to US $200, often to American collectors. We purchase a reproduction print of women guerrillas moving with rifles at the ready through a lake of pink lotus blossoms. Their unabashed beauty, and that of the lotuses, belies a deadly purpose. The title has been translated as The Southern Guerrilla Women Are Full Of Guts. 

We ask the sales assistant, dressed in fashionable clothes and trendy spectacles, to see a poster of Ho Chi Minh, and she places several in front of us. As we look, her manner changes. ‘He is our uncle,’ she says quietly.

Women like her fought on the battlefields, petite women who had worn make-up and fashionable clothes. Now they do so again, and if needed would no doubt fight again.

"The sorrow of war inside a soldier's heart was in a strange way similar to the sorrow of love. It was a kind of nostalgia, like the immense sadness of a world at dusk. It was a sadness, a missing, a pain which could send one soaring back into the past." - Bao Ninh, The Sorrow of War

IN his famous novel, North Vietnamese army veteran Bao Ninh rewinds the life of Kien, a foot-soldier who survives the war only to contend with the peace. The jump-cut narrative of The Sorrow of War evokes astonishing horror and pathos, ghosts of a dreamscape jungle and subliminal eroticism, building to an overwhelmingly powerful climax. Critics have placed it among war classics such as All Quiet on the Western Front, War and Peace, Goodbye to All That, The Naked and the Dead, and Dispatches. Some believe it may even be the finest. Its hunted depths alone make it a unique work, echoing the human extremes of the conflict. It is also a book about lost love, and about writing; and it is about Hanoi, and its people.

"At this moment the city was so calm he could practically hear the clouds blow over the rooftops. He thought of them as part of his own life being blown away in wispy sections, leaving vast, open areas of complete emptiness, as in his own life."
- Bao Ninh, The Sorrow of War 

WE make contact with Fam Luc and meet up at his house, and three of his collectors join us. One speaks excellent English and translates as we catch up with all the things half understood and left unsaid back in Ho Chi Minh City. 

We learn more of Luc’s life story. He is a descendent of the famous poet Nguyen Du. Following his war years as an artist in the North Vietnamese Army, his marriage broke up after peace. He met a Frenchwoman who loved his paintings, and collected many of them; the trysts that ensued were conducted in secret to avoid the eyes of then-disapproving officialdom. 

One day Luc returned to his room and discovered an envelope waiting. It contained a key to a substantial Hanoi villa, in payment for his works. The couple married and she took him to live in Paris, but he returned home alone after a month. Nowadays the house itself is not quite so large as it was. When the city authorities widened the road to the airport they simply cut off the fronts of houses in the way, including Luc’s.

We go on to a restaurant by the lake, a massive earth-floored place like an industrial shed with a row of woks in a far corner. The lake off the end of our table is moonlit, literally alive with catfish. Luc orders, and large bowls of boiled river snails are brought out - to my taste like garlic-fried gristle - followed by freshwater shrimp, and a deep-fried whole catfish. The coup de grace is a basket of tiny birds, deep-fried whole. I do my best to pick off a miniscule wing, trying not to offend our host. Luc bites a head off and chews, and Belle, game as ever, bites in as well. I keep my head down and reach for the prawns. 

Our fellow diners, all of them Luc’s collectors, are in many ways typical of the new Vietnam. One is a millionaire, another a professor of literature and Party official, the third a Hanoi real estate agent. Very different, one might have thought, but they dine, chat and joke happily together.

We down beers and start toasting the republic, the people, and Ho Chi Minh. I have a copy of his Prison Diary, bought that day at the Temple of Literature, and read out ‘Moonlight’, as requested by the professor of literature, pausing for each line to be translated into Vietnamese:

In jail is neither flower nor wine.
What could one do when the night is so exquisite?
To the window I go and look at the moonshine.
Through the bars the moon gazes at the poet.

WE travel from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay for an overnight stay upon an oxymoron, a luxury junk. The Bay is brochure-famous and World Heritage listed for its thousands of tiny rocky islands jutting from turquoise depths. To cruise it is truly to enter another world, or would be, were it not for all the other luxury vessels entering that other world too in a junk traffic jam at sea. 

Following a day exploring caves and swimming, after dinner the dozen of us tourists on board assemble on the top deck where the costumed crew sing us Vietnamese folk songs amid the jumbled sun lounges. Then they start encouraging/coercing everyone to perform. 

The honeymooning Gold Coasters open with a none-too-rehearsed Ba Ba Black Sheep. If the Vietnamese happened to have heard that Australia once rode on the sheep’s back, one can only hope they don’t end up thinking this is our national song. The 12 year old son of the hypervigilant American psychiatrist steps up to the plate with a snappy soul tune about how the private individual may well come to enjoy the fruits of the free enterprise system through hard work and following her/his dream. A Singaporese businessman apologises that his republic doesn’t possess a national song, and sings a couple of lines of Take Me Home Country Road before forgetting the lyrics altogether and resuming his Vietnamese girl. I get through a verse and chorus of And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda before a Brisbane family rounds out the night with the original, and everyone, the Vietnamese, Americans, Singaporese and ourselves, all join in. Later I attempt to explain to Woody Allen the psychiatrist the national cultural significance of a sheep thief who commits suicide by jumping into a pond to escape arrest by police, without much success.

A street hawker sells me a small book called "Christmas Bombing: Dien Bien Phu in the Air". It is a forensically detached account of the saturation bombing of Hanoi by B52 strategic aircraft in the closing days of 1972. The Paris Peace Talks had all but delivered an American withdrawal, but under pressure from the South Vietnamese over conditions, Nixon ordered the now infamous Christmas bombing.

Tailplane, downed B52, B52 Victories Museum, Hanoi

Before his death in 1969, Ho Chi Minh had warned: 'US armed forces are set to be defeated but they will only admit defeat after their loss in the skies of Hanoi'. The raids by nearly 200 B52s were intended to bludgeon the North Vietnamese into accepting terms. They began on 18 December 1972, raining down high explosives from 10 kilometres up. By the time Nixon ended it eleven days later, the people of Hanoi had been subjected to some of the most intense bombing ever conducted, killing and maiming thousands and inflicting severe damage onto homes, hospitals and schools. The US faced international outrage for what was widely seen as a singular act of bastardry, with Nixon and Kissinger called war criminals. 

But according to Christmas Bombing author Luu Trong Lan, the outcry did not stop the bombing campaign, nor was it any development in negotiations. By his account, the Vietnamese had learned to counteract the radar jamming with which the Americans had expected to neutralise their anti-aircraft missiles. As a result, he wrote, 34 B52s were shot down, a massive loss in materiel, crews and prestige, crippling the campaign and even threatening the B52 nuclear air capability against the Soviets. The US accounting is far fewer, but in this regard one has to balance the candid and unadorned prose of a respected former senior officer against a scheming liar who fled office to escape criminal impeachment.

"Many observers... found the style of the mausoleum to be too heavy and ponderous, in total contrast to the whimsical humour and unpretentious character of its occupant who was lying in state inside, hands crossed and dressed in a simple Sun Yat-sen tunic." - William J. Duiker, Ho Chi Minh: A Life

WE set off early hoping to beat the Hanoi crowds, but they have beaten us and we join a queue of thousands of Vietnamese in the sweltering morning heat. When we file into the mausoleum half an hour later, all is deeply quiet, not a cough, a whisper. A guard gestures with gloved hand for me to remove my sunglasses, and as I do I realise I’ve left my spectacles back with our bag at security. With viewers all kept well back, I can’t make out Ho Chi Minh’s features. All I can see is his alabaster white face, tunic, and the solemn-faced phalanx of guards in white with rifles and fixed bayonets surrounding him. 

Back outside we walk past a grandiose palace built for the French governor of Indochina, which Ho Chi Minh later refused saying: “What would I do with all those rooms?” As we visit the simple stilt house where he chose to live his final decade, I ask Belle what his face looked like. "Peaceful. With the tiniest hint of a smile."

OUR final day in Hanoi is very still and humid. As night falls a thunderstorm breaks over the city, the thunderclaps close overhead and very intense. One can only wonder how it must have felt when they were the bursts of bombs. Then the rain comes sheeting down. Below our window in Ma May street I see people everywhere running for cover.

"The spirit of Hanoi is strongest by night, even stronger in the rain."
- Bao Ninh, The Sorrow of War

THERE is a clutch of hotels down near the Saigon River famous from books and old TV news footage: the Continental, the Caravelle and the Rex, and further down, the Grand and the Majestic. The hotels have roof garden bars which were popular with war correspondents, whence they could keep an eye on the city below but stay out of range of tossed grenades. Now you can choose from cocktails including a B52, a Good Morning Vietnam, a Saigon Saigon and even a Hemingway (Bacardi, Maraschino liqueur, grapefruit juice - whatever would Papa have said?). 

On our last evening back in Ho Chi Minh City we sit at a table at the Rex overlooking the central Lam Son Square. Above the frenetic traffic, small birds sweep around the square in swirling spirals, much like the swifts in the same hypnotic circuits above the piazzas of Europe. 

The Aussies downing beers at the adjoining table are old war vets on a tour. What would they make of Vietnam now, with its shopping malls, fashions and youth culture? What was it they fought here for again? Something about stopping Communism, tumbling dominoes? What was it for that their mates died then?

Nothing, is the answer. Those 500 young Australians died for nothing. Or more precisely, for the foreign policy of the Menzies, Holt, Gorton and McMahon governments, which amounts to the same thing. All the Way with LBJ. 

What was it all about? The question hangs unspoken in the air as the birds sweep past on their silent rounds.

Miss Loi's, Ho Chi Minh City. Highly recommended.