Down Highway One: Journeys through Vietnam and Cambodia
By Sue Downie
Asia 2000. 325 baht.
Reviewed by Susan Cunningham.
Among books about Vietnam in the doi moi era—since the acceptance of capitalist-style economics was unveiled in l987–Down Highway One by Sue Downie offers a refreshing perspective. It’s not yet another bittersweet nostalgia tour by an elderly U.S. veteran or a former war correspondent. Neither is it a quickie travelogue by someone whose prior knowledge of the country was acquired from the Lonely Planet guidebook, too many viewings of “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon,” and a skim through Michael Herr’s Dispatches.
Downie is above all a diligent reporter trying to describe how Vietnam looks and feels today. Or rather, how it looked and felt between 1988 and 1990. An Australian, in 1988 she became the first Western Bloc journalist since at least the 1950s to travel overland from the Chinese border town of Lang Son down the length of Vietnam and from Saigon to Phnom Penh. Her route was the 2,100 kilometre-long Highway One. She describes it as “a D-grade road–narrow and potholed with disintegrating edges.”
Her return visits in 1989 and 1990 added up to several more months in-country. In 1990, she scored another first, becoming the first Western journalist to be based in Phnom Penh since the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975. The story of the original journey is interspersed with updates on how quickly people, places, things and bureaucracy changed over the months and years. Although she didn’t speak Vietnamese or Khmer at the time, Downie was an astute observer and indefatigable note-taker. Her minders and interpreters must have thought her a terrible nag.
Whenever she spies a market or a roadside stall, she gives a telling rundown of the food, household goods, tools and even pharmaceuticals on sale. She ferrets out the prices and, if applicable, the country of origin. She identifies the various agricultural stuff that’s always drying in heaps along the dusty Vietnamese roadsides. We can picture the construction of houses and the state of crops. When Downie stops in a village, she notices how many people have bloated bellies or the rusty hair–sure signs of malnutrition. In short, when we read that one area is poorer than another, or richer than on her last visit, we know precisely why.
Since Downie originally went to Vietnam to report on health conditions, many of her formal interviews were with public health officials and physicians. The latter were both Vietnamese and foreign, including U.S. veterans. Hospitals without syringes, surgeons running out of catgut … the medical information is fascinating and appalling in itself. It’s also a better indicator of Vietnam’s economic progress, or lack of it, than the more visible influx of imported consumer items about which we’ve heard so much of late, though this is described well too.
Since visitors today still find Hanoi shabby with the dusty odor of the soviets, it’s interesting to read that in all of Vietnam, Downie found the appearance of this city transformed the most in the span of a few years. The wood-fueled buses disappeared, private cars and shops multiplied, outdoor lights were installed, clothing became brighter and fashionable.
But there have been many more cosmetic upgrades in the few years since 1990. You can now find French bread everywhere in Hanoi and even in small northern villages. “Foreigners’ prices,” which apparently used to exist only at hotels, are ubiquitous. Saigon’s Amerasian children must all be taking ESL classes in America. Many more places have become open to unchaperoned tourists. Downie never got to Dalat, never mind Dien Bien Phu.
And therein lies this book’s fatal failing: although published this year, it feels as dated as a three- or five-year-old newspaper. Downie’s strength–her attention to physical detail–is also her downfall. She has little talent for characterization. She should have paused and allowed a few ordinary people to tell in their own way what their daily lives were like.
Due to the restrictions on foreign journalists, which tightened in 1990 in concert with the collapse of European communism, maybe there were not many willing interviewees. And Downie was correct to keep the pronouncements of the usual authorized spokespeople mercifully brief. Most of these mouths will be familiar to readers in Thailand: the revolutionary doctor who believes the Communist Party betrayed its ideals; Madame Dai, the lawyer turned restaurateur; Nguyen Xuan Oanh, the re-re-educated Harvard-trained economist; the showpiece monk at Hue’s Thien Mu pagoda. The dearth of educated people with predictable views must be more severe than any outsider … ω
This review appeared in The Nation newspaper when Vietnam was being hyped as the next Asian economic tiger. By 1996, investors were in full flight from the rampant corruption. In the new millennium, Vietnam improved its investment environment and the hype has raged anew.