The pain and the passion

21st August 1998 at 01:00

SHADOWS AND WIND: a view of modern Vietnam.
By Robert Templer.
Little, Brown

"What would you like, ze man or ze woman?'' The question came out of the blue. It was my first night in Vietnam. Having slept off some of my jet lag and had a meal, I'd decided to take a stroll round Hoan Kiem Lake, one of the main attractions of central Hanoi.

"What would you like, a man or a woman?'' This time the invitation could not be clearer. The polite young man, whom a few moments previously I'd engaged in conversation and learned about his ambitions (he wanted to trade, to make money) was a pimp. In the best traditions of Fleet Street I made my excuses and fled.

One of the most difficult things to judge, whether as a journalist or as a tourist, is whether those impressions made on short acquaintance are to be relied upon. No matter how you try to draw an accurate picture, there is always the danger that you will be mistaken or misled.

My own acquaintance with Vietnam is short - a week in February this year when I was sent to write a piece about the 40th anniversary of Voluntary Service Overseas. My impressions were largely positive: of Hanoi traders bursting with energy as they rediscover a way of life almost extinguished by Marxism-Leninism. Or of days spent travelling through rural Vietnam, through the endless rice paddy fields and up into the mountains by the Chinese border.

There's no doubt Vietnam is a beautiful and fascinating country. But it is also - despite the emerging middle classes in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) - heart-stoppingly poor. My own brief impressions ranged from the postcard sellers and shoe-shine boys in Hanoi, forced by poverty to live on the streets, to the malnourished faces of five-year-olds, struggling in a remote provincial school.

On short acquaintance I am firmly in love with Vietnam. The mystique, fed on childhood memories of reports of the Vietnam war and the anti-war sentiments of my teenage years, is there sure enough: the rice farmers in their green shirts, trousers and sun hats, toiling in the flooded paddies; the primitive fishing smacks clustered along the river banks. But would my passion stand up to a deeper relationship?

It was feeling thus that I turned to a book by Robert Templer, a journalist who has spent more than three years in Vietnam, chronicling its daily life under doi moi, Vietnam's equivalent of perestroika. Begun in 1986, economic reform has brought benefits to many people in the cities but in the countryside, where 80 per cent of the population live, there has been little improvement.

If doi moi, accelerated since 1991 when the country opened its borders to the international community, has brought an explosion in trade, making Vietnam's economy the fastest growing in Asia, there has been less progress in bringing glasnost. Corruption in the Communist-run civil service and the police remains endemic.

One of most shocking stories told in Templer's book, an eye-witness account, is of a young farmer brutally struck in the face by police officers after refusing to surrender one of the two panniers of watermelons he was carrying to market. The policemen loaded the watermelons onto their motor-cycle side car and sped away, leaving the man,injured and in tears, to scrabble in the roadside dirt for his remaining melons.

Templer's book is a fine read, the best introduction to Vietnam I have read - putting the useful but rather patronising Lonely Planet guide and a string of similar introductions for tourists in the shade.

It is the story of a proud and tragic people, who lost two million people from famine at the end of the Second World War, turned for its salvation to communism, only to lose millions more in its war against capitalism. Its economy in ruins, it has been forced to liberalise, bringing economic advances and enormous social change.

Templer tells of a government that clings tenaciously to power and a people who aspire for more than their rulers can offer. He charts the growth of prostitution, drug addiction and the inevitable spread of HIV. His tales of official corruption, feeding on the money which has been sucked in by liberalisation, include the Interior Ministry, which runs not just the police, but the VIP Club in Hanoi, "where a bevy of women in sprayed-on tight dresses shuffle unenthusiastically around the floor each night as they wait for foreign men".

In many ways this is a dark book, largely pessimistic about the future. But it's also, one suspects, a labour of love. One of its best chapters explores the reasons why, for so many Americans and French - to say nothing about myself - the imagined worlds of Nam and Indochine have the power to fascinate and charm. Since the late 1980s the number of visitors has soared from about 30,000 to well over a million. For Americans, visiting Nam has much to do with atonement; for the French, a sense of loss and regret for the end of colonialism.

Templer's book provides both a good read and a more complex view of Vietnam. But even here it's the images - the mingling of past and present - which burn brightest. Despite its dark side, the romance survives close acquaintance.

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