I’m going to take a break from the Christmas blogs and post a book review. I suppose, if you are looking for a last minute Christmas gift for an uncle that was in the war, this could also be a Christmas post. Barring that, it’s a book that I read that deals about a place I hope to spend some time this summer…
Phil Karber, The Indochina Chronicles: Travels in
Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam ( : Marshall Cavendish, 2005), 336 pages, 15 pages of photographs Singapore
I picked up this book as a way to learn more about travel on the
as I hope to travel on it for a ways this summer. Most of the book is about a trip the author and Simon (both Vietnam Vets who now live in Mekong River Hanoi) around Southeast Asia. The two head north into the Yunnan Providence of China and begin a float trip down the Mekong at Jinghorg. Renting “fast boats,” they travel downriver as it leaves China and flows between Burma and . In the upper stretches of river, which still has active drug armies, they see a dead man floating in the river and are surprised that their boat driver doesn’t want anything to do with it. They continue on down the river, through the Golden Triangle and then between Laos Thailand and Laos before the river turn inland into . They stop to observe the temples at Luang Prabang and then to the Laos Laos capital of . There, they take a jeep into Vientiane , heading to the Plains of Jars and on to Sam Neua (near the Vietnamese border). This part of the country was still unsettled at the time of the trip, with recent Hmong attacks. The Hmong, who supported the Americans during the war, are often supported by their relatives who are in the Laos , causing Karber to raise the question if their American cousins are essentially supporting a form of terrorism. (45) They travel safely, but witness the damage of by the American B-52s that dropped tons of bombs onto this part of United States Laos in a part of the “hidden war” in Southeast Asia, as well as the ancient pots that give the area its name. There’s lots of unexploded ordnance in this area (from an estimated 500,000 bomber runs) and casualties are an on-going problem. This is also an area where the United States have been active in the search for soldiers and airmen who are missing in action from the 60s and 70s. Karber notes that the locals are not overly happy with these expeditions, as they see Americans spend millions to recover a MIA body and little to help locate and destroy the unexploded ordnance that continues to bring bloodshed on the new generation. (55)
After returning to
Vientiane, they continue down the Mekong, but this time in a jeep, stopping in villages along the way. Although much of the northern Mekong, from China though Laos, is open to navigation, the falls near the Cambodian border keeps shipping from the ocean from traveling inland. During the time of the French, a narrow gauge railroad portaged freight around the falls. Still, it took longer to travel up river, from Saigon to Luang Prabang than it did from Marseille to Saigon. (78) They continue following the river, stopping in and then traveling by boat on to Angkor Wat. In Cambodia, he finds the poverty appalling, and notes how the Cambodian people who’d been such a gentle Buddhist country, now lives with violence just under the surface, having dealt with the horrors of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge Coming back to the Cambodian capital, the two adventurers take a boat through the Mekong Delta and into the South China Sea and up to Saigon. In Saigon, they meet sisters who became members of the Vietcong at an early age and who were both imprisoned in the infamous “tiger cages” on Phnom Penh . After traveling around the southern part of Con Son Island Vietnam, between Saigon and Nha Trang, they travel to and are given a tour by Dany, one of the former prisoners. Con Son Island
Afterwards, the two travel north on the Unification Express, stopping in Danang and
, touring battle sites and tunnels under the DMZ. John Lancaster, another former veteran living in Hue and bound to a wheelchair joined them. In a site near the DMZ, he revisits the place he last walked. Next, they returned to Hanoi , providing Karber an opportunity to tell about the ex-pat community there. I found this part of the book the least interesting, as it sounded almost like the author wanted to introduce all his friends, bragging about some. There was one amusing story in this section, an attempt by the Veterans of Foreign Wars to establish a post in Hanoi . Several of Kramer’s friend’s were interested but they were not in step with the political intentions of the VFW. Kramer ends his book telling about a trip he makes to the Hanoi China border, an area in which Ho Chi Minh hide out when fighting the Japanese and later the French and . It’s also an area destroyed in the late 70s by America China in retaliation of Vietnam’s intervention in . Cambodia Vietnam stepped in to end Pol Pot’s reign of terror, an action that was disliked by both China and the . United States
As Kramer tells of his journey, he provides good background.
Indochina is an interesting and blended world. Early on, Hindu type religion was the norm. Later, Buddhism was introduced and still remains strong, but there are pockets of Muslims in the Mekong Delta as well as Catholics in the area that was once colonies of . He tells how the king of France Siam ( Thailand) saved his neck by bargaining with the French and giving them control of Cambodia and . He also gives a number of short biographies. One was James McGovern (Earthquake Magoon), an American who’d been one of the Flying Tigers who was killed when his plane was shot down as he attempted to bring supplies to the French forces bogged down at Laos Dien Bien Phu. Others include Mado and Dany (two sisters who became Vietcong) along with Pol Pot and Ho Chi Minh.
Kramer gives both the good and the bad of
, from current “Banana Split War” to telling how the war against the South and the Americans is now being interpreted. One example is a museum at Khe Sanh, where the impression is given that it was a great victory for the North. The nine week battle began with the North sending 20,000 soldiers against 6000 American Marines. Both sides threw in all they had into the battle (the Vietnam dropped over 75,000 tons of ordnance alone). By the time the battle was over, less than 500 Americans died and another 1000 South Vietnamese soldiers were killed, a steep lost but nothing compared to 15,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. However, the battle did help turn the tide against the war in the United States . Kramer also tells about the problem of corruption today and how some of the older “communist fighters” are still finding themselves threatened and imprisoned as they attempt to speak out against such practices. Two examples are Mado and Dany. He also tells about problems with prostitution, mentioning a particular German he met who was in the region because of the availability of young victims. That said, he also tells about how the country has rebuilt itself (including the railway that ties Saigon and United States ) and about the optimistic outlook its youthful population has for the future. Hanoi
Overall, this was an easy book to read and gives great insight into a section of the world our country was heavily involved in when I was growing up. I recommend it to anyone wanting to learn about this part of the world.