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  Viet Nam Generation Journal & Newsletter

V3, N3 (November 1991)

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Barbara Cohen. Vietnam Guidebook

Houghton Mifflin 1990, Second Edition 1991.

Daniel Robinson and Joe Cummings. Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia: A Travel Survival Kit

Lonely Planet, 1991.

Reviewed by Dana Sachs

When I went to Vietnam in early 1990, I carried two "guidebooks": a four or five-page Xeroxed list of hotels and restaurants which my travel agent had procured from another traveler, and a scribbled set of notes by a couple I happened to meet in Bangkok who had just returned from Vietnam. Those few pages offered nothing in the way of explanations of culture or history, and hardly anything on how an independent traveler would get from one city to the next, but I felt lucky enough to have them. At that time one could find French and German guidebooks on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, but English-speaking travelers relied on information we could glean from each other to help us along the way.

In the past year, two English-language guidebooks to Vietnam have appeared. Barbara Cohen's well-researched Vietnam Guidebook provides package tourists and business travelers with information on the country's most important sights, as well as background material on culture and history, walking tours of major cities, and a short section on the monuments of Cambodia's Angkor Wat. The Australia-based Lonely Planet Publications has come out with Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia: A Travel Survival Kit , a guide geared toward independent travelers, who need more specific information on getting from place to place without spending much money. Anyone planning a trip to Vietnam would do well to pick up one or both of these books.

Barbara Cohen served as an army psychiatrist, a major with the U.S. Army Medical Corps at the 95th Evacuation Hospital at Danang from 1970 to 1971, an experience which left her fascinated by Vietnam and its people. I say this not only as a reader of her book, but also as a classmate. Cohen and I spent the past summer studying Vietnamese together at the Southeast Asian Studies Summer Institute in Cornell this year, and became friends. The author's curiosity permeates The Vietnam Guidebook , and gives it a high degree of sensitivity toward the customs and culture of the Vietnamese people. Cohen also makes a point of dealing with the issues and concerns of returning U.S. veterans of the war, as well as those of Vietnamese returning to visit family from abroad.

Cohen's book provides good reading for people curious about the rituals of daily life in Vietnam, with particularly interesting sections on urban and rural lifestyles. "Following a long day's labor in the field . . . a woman might delight in chewing a quid of betel," Cohen writes, going on to describe in detail the use of betel, a habit that's a very important part of rural life but which might very easily escape the notice of Westerners passing quickly through the countryside.

Nearly half of The Vietnam Guidebook is dedicated to general background information on Vietnam, with sections on everything from the war with the United States to the country's current health care system to a selection of popular riddles translated into English. Readers who are already well-versed in the enormous body of literature that has been published on Vietnam in the 20th-century will probably find points to quibble over in Cohen's historical sections (or in the Lonely Planet passages for that matter), but both provide concise, thorough introductions to the period.

My major criticism with the background section of Cohen's book lies in the author's reluctance to explore controversial topics. Her "Government and Politics" chapter, for example, seems more like a middle school primer on government structure ("The People's Supreme Court, which supervises all local courts, is the highest court of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam") than a serious attempt to clarify how the government functions. Information on the controversial "re-education" camps or a look at how the Communist Party has dealt with calls for a multi-party system would provide readers with important information without necessarily offending anyone in Hanoi. After all, as Cohen herself points out, highly placed government officials are themselves moving in the direction of reform, if not democracy. Of course, middle-school primers also serve an important purpose, and The Vietnam Guidebook will give prospective travelers important basic information on the structure of the society.

Most of the remainder of Cohen's book is dedicated to a city-by-city guide to the country. The detailed walking tours of major cities will be particularly helpful to tourists who want to spend some time exploring on their own. This section of the guide should also be of interest to people in the planning stages of their trips, giving them a chance to do a little armchair traveling before deciding which parts of the country they actually want to visit. The Vietnam Guidebook is an excellent source of information on planning a guided tour, making it clear that even with a government guide, tourists can have a good degree of control over what they do on their journey through the country.

The Vietnam Guidebook makes absolutely no assumptions about the travel experience of its readers. "At certain times of year, watermelons, coconuts, pineapples, and other fruits are sold on the roadside," Cohen writes, and continues with this go-ahead: "You may request the tour van to stop to purchase these refreshments." If this book tends to lead the tourist by the hand, the Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam goes in the opposite direction. While Cohen's voice is that of the patient tourguide, that of Lonely Planet author Daniel Robinson is more like an older brother watching out for his enthusiastic but sometimes foolish siblings. One section covering the demilitarized zone (DMZ), warns travellers that the former battlefields are not playgrounds: "At many of the places listed in this section you will find live mortar rounds, artillery projectiles, and mines strewn about. Never touch any left-over ordnance. . . . Don't become a statistic!"

Besides descriptions and explanations of important sights, the Travel Survival Kit' s well-organized discussions of major towns and cities offer handy orientation guides, lists of hotels and restaurants in different price brackets, locations of post offices and banks, tips on how to get around towns, and hard information on inter-city transportation schedules and fares, often including the duration of travel between two points. Descriptions of places of interest may be somewhat perfunctory for smaller or more remote towns but for the larger cities they tend to be very detailed, and, as in the notes on the Cu Chi tunnels, occasionally make for fascinating reading.

At present, the Lonely Planet book is the most comprehensive guide to travel in Vietnam. It is also probably the most frustrating. Restrictions on travel mean that much of the country, and many of the areas discussed in this book, remain off-limits, especially to independent travellers. Many travellers, myself included, have been held and fined by Vietnamese officials for going into "closed" areas. Indeed, Robinson has had his own problems with the authorities, the only mention of which is the somewhat cryptic, "I should add that the circumstances of my own detention and expulsion from Vietnam do not bode well for individual travel in the north," which is hidden within the Hanoi section of the guide.

Hopefully some of those restrictions may soon be lifted, but many travellers using the book to travel through Vietnam now may find figuring out what's possible and what's impossible something like solving a complicated puzzle. For example, a section on internal travel permits at the beginning of the book mentions that the northern towns of Lang Son and Cao Bang are "closed at present," but the section on the northern region discusses these towns without any mention of their being off-limits. Readers should rely on the latest word from travellers they meet along the way to find out what they might be able to do.

As for print quality, The Vietnam Guidebook contains some inexcusable errors, especially for a rather expensive book. Several times, the reader turns the page to find, rather than a continuation of the previous sentence, the beginning of an entirely new paragraph. As a sourcebook on the country, though, The Vietnam Guidebook is probably the better of the two. An excellent index makes it possible to flip through the book and read everything mentioned on sweet potatoes, silk-worm raising, and, of course, Saigon. Lonely Planet's index, on the other hand, suffers from the fact that only places and points of interestnot historical materialare included. Ho Chi Minh himself doesn't even get a mention. After nearly 20 years in the guidebook business, though, Lonely Planet does know how to construct a high-quality, durable book, with some beautiful full-color illustrations.

Dana Sachs is a Bay Area journalist. Her travel essay "Vietnam is a Country" appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Image section, Sunday, November 18, 1990, p. 64.

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