Early Travelers' Tales
If you're looking for a new perspective on Vietnam, old books are a good place to start.
Indochina has long been an intriguing destination. Westerners have been traveling to Vietnam and writing about their experiences since 166 AD when Roman visitors arrived in the Red River Delta. The Portuguese first went to Danang in 1516 and were followed shortly by the missionaries. In 1637 the Dutch set up trading posts. The French have had an interest in Indochina since the late 18th century, while the Americans landed in Vietnam in 1820.
In addition to the traders and colonialists, there were the intrepid travelers such as Helen Churchill Candee. New Journeys in Old Asia documents her adventures in Indochina, Siam, Java and Bali in the early 1920's. "America no longer offers to the adventurer the frontiers of civilization. The border and the out-posts are now found in Old Asia...and thither are going the young and strong from the Occident, the ambitious adventurers of trade," she writes.
Candee begins the book with an account of the journey from Hong Kong to Haiphong, which she advises is a two day trip costing $30.00. She describes being transported around the city in enough pousse-pousses to accommodate her and 10 pieces of hand luggage
The book covers Haiphong, Halong Bay, Hanoi, Hue, Nha Trang, Colonial Route 1 and Saigon. Candee travels by boat, bus, car and train. She runs into tigers, washed out roads and typhoons. When not being charmed by the Tonkinese, she marvels at the Cham temples. Beautiful etchings accompany her words.
Hanoi, she says, is a place with "wide avenues shaded with prodigious trees which lead to big colonial mansions with gardens." Saigon is a city of "thousands of lights, thousands of motor horns, thousands of coolies. The turbulent noise of a city en fete and wild with joy...Jazz music bursts from all its windows, dinner is served all night at its central restaurants to the mad dissonance of an orchestra that fills the streets contiguous until dawn breaks, when the sound is replaced by heavily loaded carts shuddering under their tons, drawn by silent-footed coolies.
"Saigon is ever en fete because it is the one relief station of Indochina, the place which replaces Paris in the minds of the nostalgic exiles, The cure for "le cafard" that eats up joy in the hard fight against a most abominable climate and possibly outrageous fortune is a few days vacation in Saigon."
Colonial Route 1, or the Mandarin Route, she likens to "the most beautiful mountain road that ever thrilled you at home then dress it with the biggest flowers, strangest trees, with palms and unknown birds." Candee never makes it to Dalat, "the amazingly beautiful health-resort in the mountains...Such elegantly languid people were arriving from Dalat that we were sure that it must be the smart thing to go there."
The Reverend James Walsh visited Vietnam in 1918 as part of a trip to Catholic missions in Japan, Korea, Manchuria, China, Indo-China and the Philippines. His Observations in the Orient is a first-person account of the Maryknoller's travels and includes fascinating old photos.
The book's emphasis is on the Catholic presence in Asia, but Walsh captures the details of traveling and meeting people. He talks of Haiphong as having "the appearance of a neat, prosperous, French city with wide streets, attractive public buildings, comfortable looking houses, well-equipped hotels, a larger theater, and about every conceivable convenience for its French residents, of whom, in normal times there are 5,000." On the train from Haiphong to Hanoi, he remarks "the car we entered...was divided into three classes, all connected by a corridor, with a lavatory and observation platform (without chairs). Missioners here usually travel in the third class which, if not crowded, is quite as comfortable as the others, lacking only cushions; and there is a fourth class for the rank and file among the Annamites."
Walsh concludes that "The Far East is not so far after all. One can live there and feel quite at home...In the Orient there are even New Yorkers who find themselves settled for life with no longings for the subway, or for the elevated, or for the skyscrapers...There are very likable people in the Orient."
Like other writers of their time, Candee's and Walsh's observations could not always be considered politically correct by today's standards. However, few reflections are as insensitive as the ones found in Through Dust and Foam by R. & G.D. Hook. This diary describes the travels of two young men just graduated from college. They go around the world, stopping in Saigon in 1876. "While waiting for the heat to abate before going ashore, we passed the time on deck gazing at the natives, who paddled around our vessel jabbering to the passengers, and occasionally we pelted them with oranges. Larger boats, bringing betel-nuts, stick-lac, elephant hides and bones, rhinoceros bones, etc., were also rowed to the ship."
It's worth expanding your reading list to include early, hard-to-find travel logs. They often give us a fresh look not just at Vietnam, but also at Westerners in the East. And they remind us that Vietnam, while currently the diplomatic flavor of the month, is not a recent discovery though recent press coverage might give that impression. Speaking from the 1920s, Candee offers an explanation for this phenomenon: "Everyone who goes to the East is its discoverer."
(try your favorite used bookstore)
New Journeys in Old Asia.
Helen Churchill Candee, New York, Frederick A. Stokes Company. 1927.
Observations in the Orient.
Very Reverend James Walsh. New York. Catholic Mission Society of America. 1919.
Through Dust and Foam.
R. & G.D. Hook. The Columbian Book Company. Hartford, Conn. 1876.