I don’t quite know what it is that has made me think of Vietnam recently. Maybe it was a casual mention in a conversation that made me realise that I don’t have a very vivid memory of the short time I spent in that country a couple of years ago. It was, after all, just a fleeting glimpse of the fat bottom end of a long thin country – a day in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and a few days up the Mekong River.I wandered Ho Chi Minh City in a jet-lagged daze, stupefied by a body clock that badly needed winding and oppressive tropical heat that clung like a blanket. What did I do? I gaped at a few of the tourist sites I was told to look at. I dodged road-wide flanks of manic motorbikes (just wait until they get cars!), ate fishy, chilli-spiked noodles and bought, of all things, a copy of David Copperfield in a savagely air-conned bookshop (an unconscious hankering for the fictionalised Yarmouth coast perhaps?). The rest is a sleep-deprived blur, although I do remember Christmas lights – it was early January – incongruous as a Santa suit in steamy Indochina. The city, as I remember it, seemed an awful long way from the imagined sinful metropolis of Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter.I am also struck by the visa in my passport that reads: Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon – despite the reinvented name and the occasional remnant image of a wispy-bearded Uncle Ho, it was hard to imagine anywhere more unashamedly capitalist. The new moniker foisted on the city in 1976 seemed an ironic rebranding for a city that was firmly in the US camp throughout the war (The American War, the Vietnamese call it). One can only imagine the victors’ delight in defiantly renaming this southern capitalist city after their erstwhile northern communist leader. But a name is just a name – the USA may have lost the war but it was the West that inevitably won in the end.
As for the Mekong, what stays with me most is its murkyy lifelessness. It took a day or two along the river before it dawned on me: despite fisherman eking a living from the river’s grey waters and insects aplenty, I slowly realised that there were almost no birds to be seen. No dipping kingfishers, no fish-spearing herons, no skeins of geese overhead; just an occasional swallow flitting nervously above the water. The first egrets I saw were dead: a sorry pair on display in a food market, a meagre meal for a poor family. Uncontrolled hunting and trapping, along with severe habitat depletion, appear to be the main reasons for this sad depletion of what, in a previous life, would have surely been a tropical paradise. A river without birds is a like a song without a melody. Things improved slightly as we approached the Cambodian border but really not that much – for the most part, the river remained the ideal film setting for a tropical version of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.