Jon Swain returns forty years on
|Jon Swain with yours truly at Raffles Le Royal Hotel recently|
Reporting from the Vietnam War for The Sunday Times, Jon Swain made the world’s most dangerous boat journey. Forty years on, he returns to the river. Published: Sunday Times, 8 February 2015, courtesy of Jon Swain.
How many times in the course of the past 40 years have I dreamt of being back in Vietnam and Cambodia on the Mekong? Ever since I first saw the mighty and mysterious river while cutting my teeth as a young war reporter, the Mekong has been impossible to forget.
For me and my colleagues, many of whom lost their lives covering the war that defined the 1960s and 1970s, there were moments when its swiftly flowing waters were menacing and dangerous, a place of raw terror, bullets, shrapnel, the dead and wounded.
At other moments, though, most particularly when the sun glittered over its waters at dusk and the fishermen pulled in their nets, the Mekong was still a vision of serenity and calm. Somehow, in my experience, wars nearly always seem to be fought in the most enchanting of countries. Materialism and tourism have inevitably changed Vietnam and Cambodia, but they’re still places of intoxicating beauty.
The Mekong begins its life tamely in the Tibetan Himalayas, then, fed by melting snow and mountain streams, tumbles down through steep-sided gorges in southwestern China, twists through the jungly hills of Laos, descends through a series of rapids into Cambodia, then flows at a more leisurely pace into southern Vietnam to meander peacefully into the South China Sea.
It has enriched my life. But over the years since the Vietnam War, the moment for travelling on it never properly presented itself to me. Perhaps this postponement was because, along with all the good times, the pain of memories of the war endures. Maybe I instinctively kept the idea of returning at arm’s length. No matter. Last month I found myself back in Saigon, the old wartime capital of South Vietnam — I can’t quite bring myself to call it Ho Chi Minh City — for a cruise up the Mekong, all the way to Phnom Penh.
The last time I made this journey was in 1974, when my boat had to run a gauntlet of heavy communist fire as it ploughed upstream towards the Cambodian capital. Phnom Penh was a city under siege. All overland routes were cut. The airport was under rocket attack and the city’s survival depended on convoys bringing ammunition, rice and fuel up the river. Several boats had been sunk, and many men had lost their lives on these runs.
I was on Bonanza Three, a rusty old freighter built in Osaka in 1957, carrying a cargo of rice. The risks were high. Before we weighed anchor, the skipper, a one-eyed, battle-hardened Indonesian, showed me the 67 bullet and rocket holes in its hull from previous Mekong runs, including fist-sized shrapnel holes in the door and wall of the loo. Not a place to linger. The wheelhouse was protected by a thick wall of sandbags. The radio officer had been killed a few weeks before, blasted in his cabin by a rocket, his remains scooped up in a plastic bag.
No such dangers awaited me on the Aqua Mekong, the brand-new luxury riverboat that would be my home for the next four days and nights. At My Tho, a delicate Cambodian woman welcomed me on board with a chilled towel to freshen my face and a glass of bubbly. It was a great start to a memorable journey.
I was shown to my giant cabin, whose sliding doors opened onto a private balcony with a divan where I could relax and watch the river glide by. I’d known I wouldn’t be slumming it, but this was a film-star level of comfort that I never expected. In that respect, there was a huge contrast between the Aqua Mekong and Bonanza Three. But there was a common element: both possessed a magic quality that tied them to their crew, and tied their crew to one another.
The food was gourmet, the wine plentiful and excellent. The boat had a plunge pool, a fitness centre, a cinema and a health spa. I quickly got into the spirit of things with a soothing massage that put me in the mood for a cocktail. The staff, half of them Cambodian, half of them Vietnamese, looked after the 20 passengers on board with a cheerfulness that was so heartfelt and genuine, it was infectious. My fellow passengers were mostly much-travelled couples who, like me, had found the lure of Southeast Asia’s greatest river impossible to resist.
What impressed me most was the golden calm. We were constantly on the move through the rice-rich provinces of the Mekong delta, its network of canals seething with life. But on the boat, it felt as if time stood still. Before falling asleep each night, I thought how privileged I was to be once more on this river.
This was clearly a very different experience to my wartime adventure. Despite all the problems that persist here, peace has given Vietnam and Cambodia freedom at last, and aboard the Aqua Mekong, I could see the countryside pass by with a fresh and contented eye. It was good to think of Vietnam as a country, no longer the name of a terrible war.
Here and there we stopped and made excursions ashore: visiting a floating market brimming over with exotic tropical fruit, listening to village elders poignantly describing their wartime sufferings, riding on bicycles through emerald-green fields. Beauty lay almost everywhere, and most of all in the faces of the children.
One day we explored the former Vietcong stronghold at Tam Nong, transformed in peacetime into Vietnam’s largest bird sanctuary. It spans nearly 20,000 acres and is home to a full quarter of the country’s bird population. It is one of the few places to see the sarus crane, at nearly 6ft the tallest flying bird in the world, and increasingly rare.
To get a better view, we climbed an observation platform high above the trees. Instinctively, I gazed down on the great greenness of the countryside. “What do you see?” someone shouted. “Vietcong in black pyjamas,” I joked. There was no one, not even the thread of smoke from a village fire. Just great flocks of tropical birds skimming over waterways and trees in perfect harmony. You could hear their wings beating in the still heat.
By and by, we crossed into Cambodia and soon were passing the first danger point of my wartime trip, at Peam Chor, where the Mekong suddenly curves and narrows to a 500yd channel, an ideal and frequent ambush point. My eyes strained to see again the forlorn relics of sunken ammunition barges. Like the Vietcong in the bird sanctuary, they had vanished long ago.
This section of the Mekong was riddled with memories. We sailed past the ferry town of Neak Leung, where, in a dawn raid in 1973, an American B-52 had prematurely unleashed its 30-ton bomb load, turning the main street into a flattened mess of rubble, killing and wounding 400 people. The tragic error is vividly told in the film The Killing Fields. Now Neak Leung is a bustling town where a mighty bridge spans the Mekong.
It was dark when we passed the place where Bonanza Three was ambushed. I deliberately stayed on deck to remember what it was like: the awful din of battle swirling and eddying around as we took cover in the wheelhouse, the burst of rockets on the hull, the relief and exhilaration at being alive when it was all over and we were safely moored in Phnom Penh. In the present, lost in thought, I went to my cabin and fell asleep.
I awoke at dawn, refreshed, to a vision of peace and beauty. The Aqua Mekong was stationary a few miles from the hurly-burly of Phnom Penh. Kingfishers were darting over the waves and fishermen were casting their nets, as they have done for centuries. The war had destroyed almost everything it touched. But not the Mekong. It was still everything a tropical river should be.
Need to know: Jon Swain was a guest of Aqua Expeditions and Red Savannah, which has a seven-day trip to Vietnam and Cambodia from £4,136pp (01242 787800). The price including Thai Airways flights from Heathrow via Bangkok, transfers, one night at the Caravelle, in Ho Chi Minh City, four nights on the Aqua Mekong (including all meals, most drinks and excursions) and a night at Raffles Le Royal, in Phnom Penh.