Passages: Full Circle

In an excerpt from his book, 'Full Circle,' Michael Palin describes his journeys through Vietnam.

By Michael Palin
Published November 19, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)
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DAY 74
In order to reach the border by bus and to have time for all the formalities we are advised to leave early. Wake at five and pack my bags. It is Sod's law that we spend the least time in the most attractive places. Nanning, warm, airy and cheerful, slips away and we roll steadily and unspectacularly south-west along soft-wooded valleys and through scrub-covered hills. The road is straight and empty. As recently as 1979 troops and tanks rolled along here when the Chinese, angered by the Vietnamese invasion of their ally, Cambodia, fought a seventeen-day war before withdrawing. Until 1992, when the Cambodian situation was settled, this border remained firmly closed.

Last images of China. A late breakfast in a candlelit restaurant, outside which a turtle shell is being skinned for soup. Despite a power cut we are served omelettes, pumpkin leaf, tarot and sweet potato. A huge "One-child" poster at the border town of Pinxiang, a reminder of the birth control policy.

The frontier is eight kilometres beyond Pinxiang at a place called Friendship Pass. The road bursts out from thickly-wooded hills and high cliffs onto a run-down square. In one corner is a handsome, disused cream-and-white French colonial residence, with elegant ironwork balconies, pilastered fagade and louvred windows, a relic from the days when this was a northern outpost of French Indo-China. Opposite stands a three-tiered stone pile as clumsy as the other is elegant. It bestrides a triumphal archway called Friendship Gate. Through the arch is a parking area with cypress trees planted around it, where two or three heavy trucks are drawn up. Beyond that is Vietnam.

The last rites of Chinese bureaucracy are given from what looks like a requisitioned cow-shed. Behind desks, in stalls separated by concrete partitions, sits a trio of black-uniformed and epauletted officials from customs, immigration and quarantine. There is no sign of ring fences, barbed wire or the usual trappings of military surveillance. This sleepy, tree-shrouded backwater is a most unconvincing exit.

The barrier is raised and we make our way down the muddy track to Vietnam. Only then do we notice a big new circular concrete and glass building under construction amongst the trees. This is what will replace the cowshed. To the very last, evidence of China being born.

A cold wind blows through Friendship Pass, and there is not much one can do to avoid it. The facilities at the Vietnamese border post at Dong Dang are basic. The steps and wall outside are monopolized by a large and rebellious German tour group which has obviously been here for some considerable time. There is a toilet, situated in a blockhouse behind some nearby bushes, but this reached saturation point years ago and no one goes inside it anymore, preferring to use the bushes themselves. Small, sad-faced Miss Ha, our fixer in Vietnam, waits with inscrutable calm as the enigmatic processes of customs and immigration slowly evolve.

The road to Hanoi is equally slow, picking its way between sharp, irregular limestone peaks that give the landscape the look of a workshop, where new mountain designs are tried out. According to my guidebook this frontier area is still heavily mined. Considering that the Chinese were fighting their way through here only sixteen years ago and eight years before that the Americans were bombing the place flat, the countryside looks remarkably unscarred. The red and white kilometer markers the French left behind are still intact, and the rocky fields are carefully tended by men in olive-green pith helmets and tiny old ladies in the conical coolie hats I had expected to see everywhere in China, but never did.

After an hour on a rough, meandering road through the mountains we emerge onto the rough, straight road that leads across the rich plain of the Red River delta. The countryside is filled with people. A great throng moves in both directions, like a scene of refugee exodus. Few have cars, most are either walking or on pedal and motor cycles. Every few miles, usually on a low rise beside the road, are monuments to the Vietcong army that defeated the French and the Americans. Nothing grandiose or militaristic; often nothing more than a whitewashed obelisk. The box-girder bridges across the Red River still show patches and repairs from the American bombings of the seventies.

We are in the centre of Hanoi by six o'clock -- twelve hours after leaving Nanning. Two hours later I'm sat in a cyclo, something like a bath chair attached to a bicycle frame. My driver, who pedals from behind, moves me at a stately pace up the dimly-lit streets towards the highly recommended "N6" roof-top restaurant. Roof-top means exactly what it says -- eating on a roof, beside pipes and chimneys.

Walk back to the hotel marvelling at the night-time activity, the small-scale bustle on the streets. Shops and workshops lit by single strip-lights. There's no neon, no bright-lit billboards, no seething lines of stationary cars. This seems to be a city on a human scale -- busy but not oppressive. I catch myself wondering how it could be so different from China, and making the mistake of merging these countries of the Asian Pacific into one homogeneous "oriental" mass. Vietnam is as distinct from China as South Korea was from Japan. It has its own ancient culture, language and alphabet and its own, instantly appealing style.

Tired, but unable to drag ourselves away from these dim, congenial streets, Basil and I take a last beer in a small Thai restaurant by the hotel. The proprietor is friendly.

"You like Thai food?" he asks.

"Oh, yes."

He looks out into the night and sighs.

"Yes, one day," he says, "I will go to Thailand."

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DAY 76
The characteristic sound of Hanoi traffic is the tinkle of the bicycle bell and the squawk of the scooter horn. It's a discordant sound, but discordant in quite an acceptable way, like that of a farmyard. It's the sound of traffic at an early stage of evolution, lacking the high-tech swish and roar of Western cities.

But Vietnam, like China and Russia, is opening up. Here they call the process Doi-Moi -- "renovation" or "new thinking" -- and it has informed government policy for almost ten years. A managed market economy has replaced the communist command economy. Foreign participation in business is encouraged. It is obligatory for Vietnamese civil servants to learn a foreign language. Walking into town I pass the fruits of this policy. A four-star hotel called The Standard is being developed in partnership with Singaporeans and Malaysians and a South Korean company is building on the site of the old French prison, the Maison Centrale. In the Vietnam war this was the main holding and interrogation centre for captured American servicemen, known, mockingly, as the Hanoi Hilton. Many were tortured here. Now cranes and reinforced concrete piling rise from behind the prison walls and it could indeed become the Hanoi Hilton once again. Only, this time Americans will come to be pampered.

While the big developers try to spring their monumental schemes on Hanoi, the city remains defiantly small and low slung. Ninety-five years of colonial rule have left behind a passable imitation of a warm French provincial town based around shady avenues of two and three-storey buildings with stuccoed fronts, wrought iron balconies, pantiled roofs and tall green louvred shutters. Baguettes are sold by the roadside, bicycles are stacked along the broad pavements, cyclos re-route round old ladies with shoulder poles and baskets. I pass a long wall, hung with jackets, in front of which is a heap of clothes languidly supervised by a hollow-cheeked old man and a young boy. A passer-by stops, rummages around, pulls a jacket out from beneath the pile and puts it on. It's hopelessly crumpled, and far too small for him, but the old man and the boy, like men's outfitters anywhere, nod approvingly.

In Hanoi, you don't need to hail a taxi, they hail you. Constantly.

"Hey you!"

I always fall for it, wheeling round as if I'm about to be karate-chopped. So when I do choose a cyclo I go for someone who doesn't seem to be the slightest bit interested in me. His name, it transpires, is Than, an elderly man with a Ho Chi Minh beard, broken teeth and one wandering eye. He wears a workman's blue cotton jacket and a grey-brown pith helmet. Before he mounts the saddle he takes a long gurgling puff from a bamboo pipe, which he then tucks down behind the seat, and mounts the saddle, exhaling slowly and skilfully.

With Than I visit the bleak, triumphal square where the remains of Uncle Ho, the father of modern Vietnam and the architect of the victory over the Americans, lie in a forbidding, columned mausoleum of black granite and marble. It's a depressing place for many reasons. For a start he shouldn't be here. Ho Chi Minh expressly requested that he be cremated and his ashes scattered over the countryside.

"Ho Chi Minh Will Live For Ever In Our Life", proclaims a red and gold banner beside the tomb.

There is not much life around this portentous monument today apart from two boys on bikes practising wheelie turns and a middle-aged woman learning how to ride a motor-scooter.

Beside a lake in the middle of town is a theatre where the internationally-known Thang Long Water Puppet Troupe performs. The show is based on the traditional agriculture of Vietnam and particularly the vital importance of the flooding of the paddy-fields to ensure a successful rice harvest. The "stage" is a 20 x 12-foot water tank and the puppets, which range from peasant figures to birds, animals, ceremonial barges and legendary dragons, are all operated on the end of long submerged metal rods by puppeteers you never see.

The Water Puppet Theatre reminds me once again of the heady pace of political change in Asia. Twenty-three years ago the Americans were raining bombs down on this city. Now a show which celebrates the resilience of the peasants who defeated them is sponsored by AT&T, one of the largest companies in the USA.

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DAY 79

Dong Hoi station is in a downpour. Little children, wet through, beg at the windows, smiling ever so sweetly, raising their palms out at arm's length until little pools of water form in them. They are chased away by the guard. Catering ladies, middle-aged and motherly, with grey suits and incongruous white frilly aprons, come by with breakfast. This consists of a dry, vermicular collection of noodles sloshed into a bowl, accompanied by a cream wafer. When I ask if there's anything else they look at me pitifully and move on.

Feel a bit dejected. It could be all sorts of things -- the weather, the breakfast, lack of sleep after a night of being rocked and rolled about on my couchette, or the side-effects of the strong anti-malaria pills which I shall be taking from now until we leave the tropics.

I'm struggling to stuff the cold sticky noodles into my mouth when, with loud protestations, the ladies in grey reappear, seize back my bowl and pour a heap of hot pork broth on top, giggling gently as one might at someone who had tried to eat Weetabix without milk.

From my window I look out on a grey-green, washed-out world of paddy-fields and palm trees. White specks of light fleck the grey as a flock of egrets rises and curls away. A cemetery offers a brief splash of colour, bright blue and green paint peeling off the gravestones. There is an animated game of cards going on in the compartment next to mine. I count nine people squeezed around an up-turned suitcase. Next to that a man with a full-length keyboard across his knee is giving music lessons to a vivacious lady in a pink and black jumpsuit.

Forty miles south of Dong Hoi the rain has passed out to sea and a hot sun is breaking through as we roll slowly across the Ben Hai River, better known by its line of latitude as the Seventeenth Parallel. Between the years of 1954 and 1976, it marked the division between North and South Vietnam.

Thirty years ago President Johnson's huge "Rolling Thunder" bombing offensive swept across the soft, sylvan countryside. Some of the craters can still be seen, though most have been filled in to prevent them becoming stagnant breeding grounds for malarial mosquitoes. Defoliants, like Agent Orange, have left their mark too, but the trees they burned and poisoned have been replaced, mostly by fast-growing eucalypts. Mines, planted by both sides, are still being discovered.

For someone of my age the Vietnam War remains a source of appalled fascination. For ten years or more images of the utmost cruelty came out of this green and pleasant land. Today nature has covered up most of the scars and, seeing it with my own eyes for the first time, the landscape looks as innocent as a baby.

We arrive at Ga Hue at midday. (Ga, meaning station, is a phonetic Vietnamization of the French "gare".) Nothing much advertises the fact that we are in what was once the imperial capital of Vietnam. An ugly concrete girdle has been grafted onto the crumbling pink wash of the old French station building. Across a dusty square white metal tables are set out beneath a pair of thin acacia trees.

We leave the train here and take a boat up the Song Huong -- the Perfume River -- as far as the famous Thien Mu Pagoda. Its popularity as a tourist attraction is evident from the amount of transport available, ranging from catamarans, their prows decorated with gaudily-painted tin dragons, to the bobbing sampans with semi-circular rattan cabin covers, fan shaped bows and long-stem outboards, nimbly steered by foot or groin even. As we chug up river I see a woman bending over the side of a boat washing her hair. She rinses it with scoops of water from an American army helmet.

At the jetty below the elegant seven-storey brick pagoda, children gather round, hands outstretched.

"Pen? ... Chewing gum? ... Money?"

There is a small monastery up on the hill behind the pagoda. It was from here that a monk called Thich Quang Duc left for Saigon in June 1963, and became the subject of one of the most famous photographs of the century by setting himself alight on a public street as a protest against President Diem's treatment of Buddhists. His car, a four door light-blue Austin sedan, registration DBA 599, which appears in the background of the photo, is now on display in a corner of the monastery. In colour, make, model and quite possibly year of manufacture, it is identical to the one in which my father used to drive to work every day.

Back in Hue, cyclo drivers outside the hotel offer us "Dancing", "Boom-boom" and "Eighteen-year-old girls". But in the end we settle for Princess Diana. Her Panorama interview, filling a huge screen, plays to an almost empty hotel bar.
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DAY 82

Breakfast overlooking the Perfume River. Rain falls from a low, flat sky, as it has done for the last thirty-six hours. A shiny green kingfisher stares intently into the limpid water. A village of sampans lies strung out on the stream and the slim boats look like driftwood in a monochrome morning light.

At Hue station, cyclo passengers arrive encased like babies in multi-colored rainproof sheeting. Children are sheltering under one of the arcades, taking it in turns to see who can slide their sandal furthest along the tiled floor.

As we progress slowly down the coast towards Da Nang on the southbound Reunification Express I can see why water puppetry is such an art form in Vietnam. The entire countryside looks as though it is about to float away. Short, fat, lazy rivers merge with waterlogged fields. Canals join up with impromptu creeks and ponds, which are in turn swelled by streams spilling merrily over mud walls. My bowels seem to take inspiration from all this and I am forced to face the Chinese toilet-paper torture. Hong-He Sanitary Tissues, the only lavatory paper that could also be used for sanding down.

Outside Da Nang the prospect changes dramatically. Our single line track winds up through tunnels and across steep, bridged gorges until we reach Hai Van Pass, nearly 4000 feet above the ocean. Waterfalls and tumbling streams have replaced the listless rivers of the plain. Far below, the flat, dull-silver surface of the South China Sea is transformed into tossing, turbulent breakers.
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DAY 82

We are on our way north from Saigon, heading for the town of Tay Ninh, near the Cambodian border, in search of an international religion found only in Vietnam. It's called Caodaism and its secrets were revealed to a minor official in the French administration called Ngo Van Chieu at a seance in 1921. Through Ngo Van Chieu God made known his "third alliance with mankind", which turned out to be a fusion of existing religions -- Roman Catholicism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. This eclectic ecumenical grouping was based on direct psychic communication with great figures of world history and at times Descartes, Pasteur, Joan of Arc, Lenin and even Shakespeare have been contacted (though Shakespeare has not been heard of since 1935). The most regular respondent has been Victor Hugo, who was honored for his ability by being made spiritual chief of Foreign Missions (which have so far extended only as far as Cambodia, 40 miles away).

At Tay Ninh this youngest of world religions is alive and well and the red-and-white trimmed, ornately-towered ochre walls of the Caodaist cathedral rise from a wide and empty compound the size of Red Square.

The general shape of the cathedral is open-plan Western-style, but there the similarity ends. The floor is on nine different levels -- representing the nine steps to heaven -- and from it rise columns wound round with lumpy, luridly-painted green and orange dragons. The tracery is wildly and fantastically floral with what looks like great cabbage stalks growing up around the windows. The dome at the far end is painted to represent star-spangled heavens and beneath it is a huge globe on which is painted a single eye in a triangle, the symbol of Caodaism.

The service is very laid back. The mood is gentle and contemplative, the music precise and delicate, and quite haunting. Women enter from one door and men from the other and all sit cross-legged on the brightly-tiled floor wearing ethereal expressions and chanting gently. Above them birds swoop in and out of the building.

Irrepressible roving bands of ten-year-old salesmen lurk outside.

"What your name?"


"Oh. Your name beautiful." An ice-cold can of 7-Up is thrust against my arm. "You very handsome."

"Not now thank you."

"Maybe later. Yes?"

On the way back to Saigon we stop at the Cu-Chi tunnels, a system of passageways and chambers dug from the hard red earth during the guerrilla wars against the French, and later the American and South Vietnamese forces. Despite being close to enemy bases, their cover stripped by dioxin defoliants and carpet-bombed by B-52s, they were never destroyed in thirty-five years of warfare. I crawl down the tunnels to see preserved hospitals, war-rooms, and the kitchens with their special system of underground ducts which funnelled cooking smoke two miles away before letting it out above the surface. The tunnels are hot and tight, and I found my back scratching and scraping painfully against the mud wall.

The Cu-Chi underground system could accommodate five thousand people for up to two weeks. My guide, Le Di Phuoc, has shown high-ranking American generals round the tunnels. I ask him what their reaction is. "Well," he says, with a trace of a smile, "they understand why they lost."

Michael Palin

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