Sheehan was a correspondent in the South during the American War in Vietnam, and wrote the incredible A Bright Shining Lie, essential reading for anyone interested in this period, or indeed simply in journalism. Fifteen years after the war ended, Sheehan returns to Vietnam to visit Hanoi and Saigon as the nation embraces doi moi, or “renovation”, the gradual opening up of its economy to the world.
Part memoir, but more reportage, Sheehan recounts the heroic stories of ordinary Vietnamese people as they struggle in the aftermath of the devastating war, and a socialist system that has resulted in great misallocations of resources across the country. While the book is a snapshot of the state of affairs in Vietnam when he visited, Sheehan also weaves in its long history, teasing out highlights that help to position and characterise the country in the reader’s mind:
“In 1427 the wily Le Loi ended a nine-year war against the Ming Dynasty by fighting a decisive battle here, luring a Chinese army into a massive ambush that stretched out along several miles of the road. To a foreign visitor the event occurred more than five and a half centuries ago. To the Vietnamese it was yesterday.”
Sheehan visits hospitals, factories and museums. At one hospital he finds “a small microscope to examine urine specimens literally dated from the nineteenth century. ‘You would have left it in a museum, but we can see a little better than with our eyes,’ he noted with a smile.”
The heart of this book is the portraits of people that Sheehan meets. In Saigon, Ba Thi, for instance, “still dressed as she had in the jungle, in the light cotton blouse and loose-fitting black pantaloons of a peasant woman. Not to be denied her eccentricity, Mrs Thi also wore a peasant’s conical straw hat as she moved about managing her million-dollar companies.”
Given the current tumultuous events in US (and world) politics, Two Cities has fresh insights to offer. It's a poignant reminder that devastation reigns long after a war is over, that apparently small decisions can lead to massive dislocations of people for generations, and that the brunt of decisions made by those in charge is inevitably borne by the average person.
If you like this book you should also pick up A Bright Shining Lie and for a Vietnamese (fictional) perspective of the war (and identity), The Sympathizer is also an enlightening read.
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