Lewis ambles rather nonchalantly around parts of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, catching rides on boats, buses and in cars even as the French fight the nationalist Viet Minh in low-key guerrilla warfare.
While, as is to be expected, aspects of the book haven’t aged so well — we begin with the cliched descent by plane into a foreign country — Lewis’ portrait of the region at a time otherwise not so well covered (in English, anyway) is priceless and pulls no punches. Lewis is hardly the purveyor of the romanticism you might expect of the past, yet is often seen in today’s more tedious travel writing.
Sometimes the detail is exhausting, verging on dull at the expense of any plot — this is a travel narrative at its purest — but for the most part the evocative descriptions make for a fascinating comparison to today. His easy access as a writer to senior government officials and royals such as King Norodom Sihanouk and Emperor Bao Dai is astounding. It's hard to believe his trip was made just 60 or 70 years ago — imagine today worrying about tigers while on the streets of Dalat, for instance. This was a time when Vietnam’s population was just 17 million, compared to around 91 million today.
While Lewis’ racial descriptions would with good reason not be tolerated today, he does manage to skewer the French colonialists and the missionaries, noting that one of the latter “collected souls with the not very fierce pleasure that others collect stamps”. Perhaps ahead of his time, too, he notes that the French empire effectively profits from the slave labour provided by the Vietnamese under force: “There is little difference in practice between the secret gangsterism of these days and the open slavery officially abolished in the last century.”
It’s also intriguing to read his dismissals of what have become major attractions or popular destinations today; Saigon is “pleasant, colourless and characterless” — though his descriptions actually suggest very much otherwise — while Dalat’s attempt to recreate a sub-alpine atmosphere is a “not very magnificent failure” and Phnom Penh has “been taken over by the Chinese, who have indulged in it to the limit their taste for neon signs”. Of the Silver Pagoda in the Cambodian capital: “One imagined the queen… making a periodical clear-out… and then tripping down to the Silver Pagoda with all the attractive, useless things that had to be found a home somewhere”. Siem Reap is “perfumed slightly with putrid fish-sauce”, and “a year or two’s neglect might greatly improve Luang Prabang”. Compared to Chinese food, meanwhile, today’s globally popular Vietnamese food “is provincial, lacking the range and the formidable ingenuity of the Pekinese and Cantonese cuisines” (!).
Buon Ma Thuot, on the other hand, not high these days on most travellers’ essential stops list, is described to Lewis as being one of the most interesting areas in Indochina (we like its surrounds, at least).
Read Lewis for the marvellous way he places Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos into historical context. And while he laments (somewhat patronisingly) that the societies he sees are "decaying" as the West encroaches, what we see thanks to his account and our experience of these countries today, are people who have been astoundingly resilient and resurgent, despite the havoc that the West has wrought on them.
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