In late February I was in Hanoi and
Dien Bien Phu. My friend, Canadian literary critic, publisher and author, George
Fetherling suggested the adventure. George is finishing a book on the French
colonial period in Indochina. Dien Bien Phu was where it came apart with a
massive defeat at the hands of the Vietminh in 1954. We walked the hills where
the French had set up trenches and fortifications. They were heavily out gunned
and out manned. The surrender after about 3 months of battle remains a
historical watershed in Southeast Asian history. I recorded the trip with a
series of videos.
I had mentioned to George that in
1990 when I made my first trip to Saigon, it was as if the war had ended a
couple of weeks before. Dark, grim, and improvised. There were beggars and
homeless people everywhere. No one had any money. It was a nightmarish, noir
place. The absence of streetlights made nighttime navigation on the streets a
challenge. I saw very few private cars in 1990. But there were UN and NGO
vehicles. The Vietnamese were extremely resourceful, crafting vehicles out of
spare parts and scrap metal. These Mad Max vehicles belched bluish gray smoke
and, of course, had no lights. I spotted a variation of such a vehicle outside
the market in Hanoi. Only the vehicle in the video clip is too well made to
properly belong in the garage along side of to the old Saigon road warriors but
it does give an idea of the kind of transportation that one found on the roads
Hanoi was unrecognizable from my
first trip in 1991. Modern hotels, loads of second hand book stalls, good
restaurants, and a great wet market. I’ll be posting on YouTube street scenes
from Hanoi and the market.
Upcountry bicycles provide an
important transportation link. I captured three cyclists outside the old airport
at Dien Bien Phu.
Our translator and guide saw that we
were taken to the airport in Dien Bien Phu. Three brass shell casings set off
the alarm. The custom official examined the casings and smiled. No problem.
George was certain that a prison sentence awaited him in Canada should custom
officials find one of the casings. So I continue to hold one for him in
Our flight from Dien Bien
Phu was cancelled. The plane had some mechanical problem, and Air Vietnam
promised that they’d send a replacement plane in a day or two. That seemed a
little vague and open ended. We ended up, with the aid of our trusty translator,
in renting a taxi that drove us 500K plus to Hanoi. Having made that drive
through mountain switchbacks and over potholed roads, I can understand why the
French in 1954 couldn’t support their troops with ground transportation. I have
some good footage of that trip which I will post on YouTube.