From Saigon to safety’s shores

Where the Sea Takes Us By Kim Huynh Fourth Es­tate, 352pp, $ 29.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ross Fitzger­ald

IT is hard to be crit­i­cal of a work so well in­ten­tioned as Where the Sea Takes Us . In­deed, there is much to ad­mire in this beau­ti­fully pro­duced book. Our un­der­stand­ing of a com­plex story- line is helped by the in­clu­sion of a num­ber of de­tailed maps of Viet­nam, as well as fam­ily trees of the au­thor’s fa­ther, Thiet, and mother, Van. The book also boasts some help­ful and of­ten ex­quis­ite pho­to­graphs of many of the book’s key char­ac­ters.

While this is praise­wor­thy, the truth is that this Viet­namese- Aus­tralian refugee story is of­ten poorly writ­ten and con­fus­ing. Cou­pled with Kim Huynh’s stilted prose style is the in­fu­ri­at­ing ab­sence in the book of any in­dex. This means that Where the Sea Takes Us is some­times hard read­ing as we try to work out who is who and keep up with the story- line. The Aus­tralian- based au­thor was born in Viet­nam in 1977, two years af­ter the fall of Saigon. Ar­riv­ing in Aus­tralia as a refugee in 1979, he grew up in Can­berra, worked in the fam­ily’s bak­ery and has since ob­tained a PhD in in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions.

The best of this dif­fi­cult book is found not in Huynh’s ac­count of his fam­ily’s ex­pe­ri­ences in the af­ter­math of war and their flight from Viet­nam but in the his­tor­i­cal de­tail he of­fers. Of spe­cial in­ter­est is his ac­count of Viet Minh leader gen­eral Vo Nguyen Giap’s strat­egy in rout­ing the French at the bat­tle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

Giap re­alised that rather than a fortress for the French, Dien Bien Phu was ex­tremely vul­ner­a­ble. It was, as Huynh doc­u­ments, ‘‘ 300km from the sup­port of the main French forces in the Red River Delta and open to at­tack from the moun­tains on all sides’’.

Giap mo­bilised his forces from up to 200km south­east of the bat­tle­field, com­mand­ing them to ‘‘ march over 30km a day through the jun­gle to con­verge at Dien Bien Phu’’. Shelling of the French be­gan on March 13, 1954. Ac­cord­ing to Huynh, ini­tially Giap adopted ‘‘ Maoist hu­man­wave tac­tics, throw­ing tens of thou­sands of sol­diers against the en­emy to drive fear and doubt into their hearts, be­fore set­tling into trench war­fare and a drawn- out bat­tle’’. ‘‘ Siege, as­sault, stran­gu­la­tion and as­phyx­i­a­tion’’ is how Bernard B. Falls de­scribes Giap’s strat­egy in his 1967 his­tory of the siege, Hell in a Very Small Place . The Viet Minh’s de­feat of the French was com­plete by May 7, 1954.

Where the Sea Takes Us also deals use­fully with the piv­otal role played by Ho Chi Minh who, as early as 1945, had de­clared Viet­namese in­de­pen­dence and the for­ma­tion of the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Viet­nam, of which he was pres­i­dent. Some of the ma­te­rial in­cluded about Un­cle Ho is fas­ci­nat­ing.

Born Nguyen Tat Thanh, through­out his life he used many pseu­do­nyms. Hav­ing left Viet­nam in 1911 aged 21, he worked as a cook in France and Eng­land, and also as a jour­nal­ist. Im­pris­oned by the Bri­tish in Hong Kong in 1931 and later re­ported dead, he re­turned to Viet­nam a decade later as Ho Chi Minh, ‘‘ he who is en­light­ened’’.

De­spite the aids to un­der­stand­ing that I men­tioned at the open­ing of this re­view, much of the ma­te­rial about the au­thor’s fa­ther and mother, which should form the heart of the book, re­mains dif­fi­cult to fol­low. This is a shame be­cause the fam­ily’s jour­ney from Viet­nam to Aus­tralia in the late 1970s con­tains the ker­nel of an ex­cel­lent story. There are, how­ever, gems in the book. One ex­am­ple in­volves Huynh quot­ing a maxim about the im­por­tance of those with great power act­ing re­spon­si­bly: ‘‘ If you want to prop­erly judge a man, look at how he treats those who have noth­ing to of­fer him.’’

Roy­al­ties from Where the Sea Takes Us will be do­nated to Medecins Sans Fron­tieres Aus­tralia, a wor­thy char­ity. Un­for­tu­nately, this reviewer at least can­not treat as­sess­ing this book as a char­ity. Ross Fitzger­ald is the au­thor of 28 books, most re­cently The Pope’s Bat­tal­ions: San­ta­maria, Catholi­cism and the La­bor Split. He is now writ­ing Un­der the In­flu­ence, a his­tory of al­co­hol in Aus­tralia.

Piv­otal role: A por­trait of mod­ern Viet­nam’s found­ing fa­ther Ho Chi Minh adorns the work­bench of a Viet­namese flag- maker

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