The days when tourists found the doors shut

Unquiet Vietnam
July 8, 2005

Unquiet Vietnam is a conventional account of the author's encounters and observations in the once-Communist countries of South-East Asia. But the book is mystifying in that Kenneth Murphy, an American journalist based in London, gives no date for his visit. One assumes it to be topical; the Americans have long gone, investors are moving in and Murphy's movements seem not to be heavily restricted. The book jacket carries the subtitle "A Journey in the Vanishing World of Indochina", while the Amazon.com website has "New Dispatches from Across the Plain of Jars". Although neither appears on the title page, each seems to confirm the book's currency. Yet any recent visitor to Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos will have difficulty recognising Murphy's descriptions, and they may not be entirely comfortable with the way his informants conform to national and ideological stereotypes. As for prospective visitors, they will be put off. Ejected from Laos and robbed in Phnom Penh, Murphy tells of injustice and squalor, traumatised people and sinister officials.

It is not until 20 pages from the end that one realises his journey is not in fact topical. Here, in a gloss on Cambodia's recent history, the book's only footnote informs the reader that Pol Pot died in April 1998. When Murphy was travelling, he was still alive though "supposedly under arrest".

The journey, if not the book, must then date back at least eight years. It is regrettable that neither the author nor the publisher has chosen to mention this, for it adds to the value of the text. Instead of an average travelogue with an unadventurous itinerary through much visited countries, the book is revealed as a work of some historical interest with more relevance to a scholar than a tourist.

The interest lies in the subject matter and the author's response to it. In the mid-1990s, Vietnam and Cambodia - Laos may be excluded because Murphy lasted only hours there - were not popular destinations. Doi moi , Hanoi's equivalent of glasnost, was in its infancy, the "open door" barely ajar.

Impressions and interviews from that time command a modest premium and may suggest instructive comparisons with the situation today. Vietnam is a different place. The free market reigns, party officials no longer command all inward investment, civil liberties are now largely respected and the economy is posting the sort of growth rates associated with China. Ten years on, Cambodia, though less successful, has avoided another descent into civil strife. Tourism has burgeoned, elections of a sort have been held twice and investment is slowly materialising.

What dates the book more is the author's outlook. Pre-9/11, terrorism, now a major concern in Cambodia as well as a US obsession, receives not a mention; nor do ethnic cleansing or superbugs; and the "genocide" tag Murphy discards as inapplicable to the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror is that of the Nazis, not that reinvented by the Hutu. Murphy concentrates on the sterility and irredeemable hopelessness of Communist rule. Ideology is still the enemy, and its bankruptcy a matter of concern. America's Vietnam War, in which the author's brother was killed, is presented as the latest in a continuing succession of struggles the Vietnamese always win without ever enjoying the fruits of victory. Happily, they may yet.

John Keay is the author of Mad about the Mekong: Exploration and Empire in South East Asia .

Unquiet Vietnam

Author - Kenneth Murphy
Publisher - Gibson Square Books
Pages - 220
Price - £9.99
ISBN - 1 903933 10 2

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