* Not the usual Namstalgia tour

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 capitulation to capitalist-style economics was announced 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 fictionalDispatches.

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.” Continue reading

* A wayward Marxist state of mind

By Susan Cunningham

Granted, it’s a small, goofy police state.

You probably wouldn’t want to live in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. You probably shouldn’t invest money there.
Understandably, few foreigners have been so inclined, even though the last country to succumb to communism, in 1976, was also the first, in 1986, to give up on a command economy. Landlocked, Laos is heavily reliant on foreign aid. Per capita income runs around $337 per year. Flush with the new spirit of free enterprise, the military and revolutionary elites are enjoying the rewards of corruption with a vengeance.

So what? It’s still a terrific country for tourists. Laotians are chatty and relaxed, with neither the rapacity of the Vietnamese nor the tripwire tempers of the Cambodians. Much of the countryside is wild and untended and the jagged karst mountains suck your breath away.

Whether on the plains or the highlands, most of the 4.5 inhabitants live much as they always have. In fairy-tale villages, they spend their days subsistence farming, weaving intricate sarongs and chewing areca nuts. They die of tuberculosis, malaria, dysentery and in childbirth. In the evenings, they dust off the satellite dish for a nightly three-hour dose of electricity and Thai soap operas. What’s more, about 40 percent of Laotians aren’t Lao, but minority people. They belong to the Hmong, Mien, Lao Theung, Khmu, Black Tai and many other tribes–and often dress in photogenic handmade attire.

So why do only 200,000 foreigners visit each year? The country suffers from a serious lack of publicity. No Hollywood movies or Club Meds have been set here. There are few books about Laos and the good ones are densely academic.

Continue reading