Top positive review
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A gentle but persuasive protocol...,
on 23 December 2010
.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)