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.is, as Lewis says, the right way to do everything in Vietnam. This book is a travelogue and more, an erudite one, written with profound philosophical insights, and clean, original prose. At the beginning Lewis is quite clear what motivated him to undertake this unusual, and at times dangerous trip - the Chinese Civil War had just ended, the Communists had won, the door was closed, both literally and figuratively on a way of life that would be no more. He wanted to see Indochina before the same occurred. His concerns were prescient.

After a glancing view of the "universal religion," the Cao-Dai, with its wild pastiche of saints that include Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo and Confucius, Lewis moves to the Central Highlands of what would become South Vietnam, and for almost half the book reports on the colonial arrangements involving the aboriginal peoples the French called the Montangards, the Moi, the Rhades, and the Jarai. It was these people, in particular, who would have their way of life completely destroyed in the French, and later, the American wars. Lewis scathingly described the American missionaries, living quite well, trying to collect a "few souls," and utterly indifferent to the physical life of their would-be converts. As he said: "I waited in vain for the quotation beginning, `Render unto Caesar'...." His portrait of French colonial officials is more nuanced. He reports that they were often sympathetic, and even helpful to the "natives," yet when push came to shove, as it does so often from the rapacious planter's need for ever more (slave) labor for their plantations, they invariably knuckled under. Of personal interest to me was the unfavorable description of the French owner of the tea plantation near Pleiku. When I was there during the "American War", in 1968, he was still there, and still protected - we had strict orders that the plantation could not be fired upon, even if fire was received. Concerning this arrangement, Lewis says: "... were the nation's interests sacrificed to the short-term ambitions of a small, powerful group of its citizens." is as relevant today as it was then.

After the Highlands, he returns to the Chinese section of Saigon - Cholon - and goes south into the delta (Cochin-China). He reports on the French effort to grant "independence" within the French Union, yet on such matters as club membership, the natives are still excluded. As he says: "Perhaps, if the French - and the English - had been gentler with their colonial subjects' amour-propre (self-respect) in the matter of such things as club memberships, their position in the Far East might have been a lot less precarious than it is."

Through the serendipity that dominates his travel arrangements, he visits Cambodia and Angkor Vat. There are precise descriptions, and spot-on philosophical musing on the energy expended to build these monuments, and now their abandonment. The Khmers were indeed a gentle people, who frustrated French General des Essars efforts to build an Army by taking "Thou Shall not Kill" literally. In the forward, written 32 years after this trip, he concludes with: "What could these people have suffered to have transformed the sons and brothers of General des Esssars' reluctant conscripts, formed in the ambulatories of monasteries rather than on the barracks' square into those terrible and implacable warriors who flocked to the standards of the Khmer Rouge?"

Due to the insecurity of the roads, Lewis had to fly to the third of the three countries, Laos. At the time it was viewed as an ideal assignment for French colonial officials, who invariably seem to "go native," marrying a Laotian wife, and getting through the night with a bowl of opium. Lewis succinctly describes this as: "Laos-ized Frenchmen are like the results of successful lobotomy operations - untroubled and mildly libidinous." And despite those insecure roads, Lewis takes a wild ride with one of those Frenchmen to Luang Prabang.

The book concludes with a chapter involving his return to Saigon, and "going over to the other side," spending a couple of days with the Viet-Minh. He mentioned his exhaustion in Laos, and I'm afraid it carried over to this escapade, since his description of it was flat, and without insight.

Overall, a wonderful, essential book for anyone still contemplating the immense tragedy that was the Vietnam experience for almost 50 years. And in that contemplation, consider how differently the world might be today if the US government had decided, in 1946, to back the one force in Indochina that fought with it during World War II, Ho Chi Minh and his partisans, and told the 40,000 French colonials that the "good life" was now over, and it was time to go home.

(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on August 28, 2008)
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on 11 February 2010
There are many books in the market that cover travelling through South East Asia. Most are tales of debauchery and foolishness of the western backpacker as they bumble their way from one tourist hot-spot to another, drinking and shagging everything that they come in contact with. A Dragon Apparent is everything that those books are not.

Set in French Indo-China as the Viet Minh are beginning to wage their guerrilla war against their colonial oppressors, Lewis winds his way around the area with a curiosity befitting of an area of still unspoilt and uncharted beauty. Though he is not a dare-devil reporter diving into the war zone, Lewis still manages to skirt closely to the danger areas - always serendipitously either one step ahead or behind any serious trouble - and meets many locals and colonialists that are either main protagonists or deeply effected by the near lawlessness of the region.

Herein lies the aspect that sets A Dragon Apparent above the modern writers of this bloated genre. Whereas Lewis' recent contemporaries have tales of excitement and fear it is unlikely for them to come in much contact with the locals unless they are bar staff, taxi drivers or prostitutes. Lewis' masterstroke is that he is able to meet with the inhabitants of the region from all sorts of life - from Cambodian Monarchy to Vietnamese tribes with ways of life barely changed in thousands of years. It is his description of the joys, and at times frustrations with those he meets that really makes this book such a pleasure to read. Couple this with picture perfect descriptions of the scenery and landscape and it is no wonder that the great Graham Greene was so moved to follow in Lewis' footsteps.
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on 15 May 2010
The Vietnam War...everyone knows the tales, the films,the images,the defeat and the eventual humiliation of the americans...but barely a decade earlier the French colonial forces suffered a similar fate...history repeats itself....and my mind shifts to Afghanistan..!.

" A Dragon Apparent" is about Lewis's travels in Indochina (Vietnam,Cambodia and Laos) in the early 1950's during the protracted war between the Viet Minh and French colonial forces. Within a few years of Lewis visiting the area, the French would be defeated at Dien Bien Phu and forced to leave Indochina.

The war is always looming in the background of this highly readable and intelligent travel narrative, as Lewis moves from region to region the French are barricaded in and dont dare to venture out at night. He visits the tribes of the Central Highlands(devastated by the americans a decade later), where the locals are press-ganged into working on plantations and Viet Minh irregulars harass the supply routes. The tribes he visited have long since been divided or damaged by the Vietnam War, it is fascinating to read about these lost worlds, where the french colonials try to educate their subjects while exploiting their manpower.

There is a sadness at the heart of this book, Lewis is an upbeat and chipper writer but he must have felt that the war was starting to change Indochina, indeed the whole region would be devastated within 15 years. He mixes with the French soldiers, the locals and colonials, observing events and absorbing the culture.

I didnt expect such a detailed account of a mainly forgotten era and war. Eland have a huge catalogue of historical travel literature and i recommend checking them out
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on 23 September 2015
Recommend this to everyone. It's a glimpse into a part of the world that was already under attack, destined for all kinds of horrible destruction. As always with Normal Lewis, this world is more complex than we could have imagined. The enormity of what happened there is also more than we could have imagined. Makes you see everything with different eyes.
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on 16 May 2014
beautifully written account of early 1950s travel through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, recalling the world of a Graham Greene novel; account of French colonialism prescient of horrors of what would come a decade later.
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on 5 June 2013
A beautifully written account of a journey conducted through French Indo-China towards the end of French Colonial rule. Norman Lewis writes with such vivacity and clarity in particular about traditional societies and their customs that the sensuality of Indo-China literally wafts off the pages at you whilst you read. Lewis describes the physical landscape of the region lavishly. He is a keen observer of humans and human nature and his travels relate encounters with eclectic and diverse groups of people throughout Indo-China.
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on 31 October 2014
I'm going to beg to differ with the other reviewers... I`ve been reading for fifty years, but I have seldom come across a book containing so many words I was unfamiliar with! This made reading disjointed and I stopped at 20% This, plus the author's slightly "colonial" attitude, resulted in the low rating.
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on 10 August 2014
Fascinating
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on 27 October 2010
Mr. Lewis's book on Burma was remarkable, and informative. I am deeply troubled by A DRAGON APPARENT: TRAVELS IN CAMBODIA, LAOS,and VIETNAM. It reveals all of the arrogance of a Westerner travelling in Asia, who brings with him the cultural baggage of his culture. It is exhausting to constantly have the author refer to the people meets as 'primitive' 'filthy' or 'degenerate". Even the scenery does not seem to excite the author. Perhaps matters will improve as the book progresses. One cannot help but wish that Lewis had tempered his cultural biases in his explorations of IndoChina.
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