Friday, June 14, 2013

Reading Notes: Destination Saigon

I have a mostly happy relationship with travel writing, although I would not describe myself as an avid reader of the genre. I've read many of the modern, and older, superstar writers - everyone from Mary Wollstonecraft, Jonathan Swift and Isabella Bird to Bill Bryson, Tahir Shah, Paul Theroux and the problematic (for me) Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame.

Come to think of it, I'd even count writers like the inimitable David Sedaris as partially travel writers - much of Sedaris's humour comes from place, language and culture, and he mines every new location with panache to create his unique result.

I generally enjoy travel books, provided they are not one of three things:

1. A catalogue of train stations and bus stops, vistas and coffee shops, without any reflective or narrative engine. I call these books "hopped-up travel guides" and I don't really like them. Travel guides per se can be useful, but it's not what I'm looking for when I read a travel book.

2. Patronising, sneering or contemptuous of the places and cultures they come into contact with. I have no time for what I like to call "the tourism of superiority"; it sets my teeth on edge and I immediately question how reliable is any observation such a blinkered writer would make.

3. Trying to be funny, but not actually funny. As Walter Mason, the author of the book I'm reviewing today, pointed out in a talk at the Emerging Writers Festival, humour is a tricky beast in travel writing. Unless the writer is very skilled (and very funny!), and has a genuine affection for the places and people about whom they write, it often falls flat or comes off as shallow, cheap shots. Some writers pull it off - Bill Bryson is a particularly masterful example - but when it's done badly, it's a very negative thing.

I came to Destination Saigon predisposed to like it, both because I had the privilege of hearing Walter speak at EWF and chatting to him, and also because it is about Vietnam, a country I have visited and to which I have family ties through my grandfather, who lived there for over a decade.

I expected this to be a whimsical, insightful book, and indeed it is - Mason's style is gentle, self-deprecating and conversational, while being artfully underpinned with historical and cultural detail. What I hadn't fully expected, and what makes this book such a lovely read, is the depth of the affection, respect, understanding and beauty that Mason brings to his subject. It's captured in the very first line of the introduction, where Mason reveals the path that brought him to Vietnam: "I fell in love with Vietnam, because I'd fallen in love. I suppose you could say love followed love." Mason's life partner is Australian-Vietnamese, and through this relationship, Mason came to know the incredible place that is Vietnam, in all its diversity, and became fluent in not just Vietnamese language but Vietnamese culture and spiritual practice as well.

The book doesn't have what I'd describe as a plot arc or a journey motif - like Mason's writing style, it ambles gently, seemingly at random, around Vietnam, visiting all the major (and lots of minor) cities and towns in a way that looks, at first, rather haphazard. As I read further in, though, a kind of meta-structure revealed itself, or perhaps a guiding theme might be a more appropriate way to describe it. This book is an exploration, through place, people, friendship, food, and language, of the value and role of spirituality in not just Vietnamese life but in human life.

Mason's profound interest in the spiritual content of life informs this whole book and the way in which he navigates being a large Western man in Vietnam. His friendships, and study, with Buddhist monks, his curiosity about Cao Dai, his unpicking of the ways in which spiritual understanding suffuses daily life in an ostensibly secularised Communist county - all these things are constant concerns and referrents, giving the book a shape that suits its reflective style. It's apparent that spirituality is a core concern of Mason's, and his interest in it never reads as voyeuristic or shallow. Rather, he's able to convey, in this book, all that Vietnam has provided to him as a spiritual person, all the gifts he's received at the hands of this beautiful country. That's a very precious thing to be able to convey to the reader.

As an introduction to Vietnam, I think this book would be accessible and enjoyable to most people. It has lots (surprisingly lots) of detail, which would help those with no knowledge of the country acquire some, but it's essentially a highly readable personal memoir, with Mason as the relatable narrator, which makes it a lot easier to read than straight historical texts. In fact, I've now added this to my list of books that I'd give to people who are travelling to Vietnam for the first time, along with Duong Thu Huong's Paradise of the Blind, Robert Olen Butler's A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain and Grahame Greene's The Quiet American.

All in all, a very highly recommended travel book. I look forward to the next one, which will be set in Cambodia.


  1. Thanks so much for this wonderful review!
    I am so glad you identified an element of whimsy. I think that whimsy is undervalued as a literary device, and I also just like saying the word :-)
    One more book I would add for people travelling to Vietnam is Andrew X. Pham's "Catfish and Mandala" - it's brilliant.

  2. Kathy, good one - thanks for adding it to the library. On the 25th I'm having a link up specially for travel books so I hope you'll bring this one over to that as well. Cheers

  3. I agree Kathy. It is the best travel writing book I've read. Walter Mason is also doing a workshop about travel writing At Sydney's Writer's Centre. When: Saturday 26 October, 10am-4pm
    For more details contact Ph: (02) 9555 9757