As much fun as Hanoi was, I didn't just go there for the wine and cheese. I've been working on a screenplay about Wilfred Burchett, an Australian war correspondent who was the first journo into Hiroshima after the bomb. Burchett was later famous, or perhaps infamous, for reporting some of the hottest conflicts of the Cold War from the 'wrong' side. Because he reported from behind North Korean and North Vietnamese lines, he was traduced in the Western press, and especially in his homeland by News Limited publications. I know. I know. Who'd a thunk it? I was as surprised as anybody.
Interestingly, outside of his own country, his access to Eastern Bloc leaders was recognized as a valuable and important conduit. Henry Kissinger sought him out in the early 1970s to ask his advice about Nixon's trip to China and the course of the Vietnam War. Or the American War as it's known in the host country.
He was a remarkable man, Burchett, and the story of his trip into and out of the atomic ruins is a great one. I've been working on it for a while and the trip to Hanoi gave me a chance to meet with his son, George, to try and get more of an insight into the man than is possible from just reading his extensive published works.
I was very lucky to be able to catch up with George, not just for the purposes of researching the film, but because he proved an excellent host and guide to the Vietnamese capital. He's a significant artist in his own right – the mural in the Park Hyatt at Sydney, if I remember correctly, is his – and he very generously gave me a tour of Hanoi's museum of fine arts. A small but beautiful collection held in an old colonial building, a former boarding school, the museum compresses a couple of thousand years of history down into a couple of hundred paintings and artifacts. There aren't many ways you can gain a quick appreciation for the history of the country in just an hour or so of walking around.
I did a lot of walking around, of course. The old quarter of Hanoi is a walking city. A dangerous one, because of the hell traffic, but negotiable if you keep your wits about you and go with the flow, as counterintuitive as it might be sometimes.
If anyone is looking for a decent holiday spot in Southeast Asia, I'd be hard-pressed to recommend somewhere above Vietnam. I didn't visit the old Southern capital, but my understanding from talking to locals and other tourists is that Saigon is not nearly as pleasant as Hanoi. There are also any number of Western-style resorts dotted up and down the coastline which, again, I did not visit, but which were very popular with those who did.
Orin asked me on twitter while I was over there whether I found myself imagining what the country might look like if the South had won, backed by American power. In fact, that thought never really occurred to me. But what I did find myself thinking, again and again, was what a terrible mistake it was to have come to this country as soldiers and laid waste to so much of it. If the policymakers of the 1960s could see what they were fighting against, how Vietnam would have turned into a stable, comparatively prosperous and happy place, well… I don't suppose it would have changed what they did. But it should have.
All of the blood and treasure that was spilled here? Utterly fucking wasted.