From Saigon to safety’s shores
Where the Sea Takes Us By Kim Huynh Fourth Estate, 352pp, $ 29.95
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