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Book Review

Book Review: by Lang Reid

Descending the Dragon

Descending the Dragon is subtitled My Journey Down the Coast of Vietnam (ISBN 978-1-4262-0304-6, National Geographic publication, 2008) and was written by Jon Bowermaster with photographs by Rob Howard. Both of these men come with good credentials, as you would expect from a National Geographic publication.
Not having been to Vietnam since 15 years after the war (which the Vietnamese call the “American War”) I was interested to see what, if anything, had changed since then.
The fly-leaf has Bowermaster quoted as saying, “I am curious about the geography and the environment … but mostly I want to meet its people.” It is that quotation which shows the direction of this publication. It is not a blow by blow description of bays and islands, but a detailed look at the Vietnamese people he meets, with photographs of these people in their natural habitat.
This was not an easy book to get to the presses. To do anything in Vietnam, you need permission. Bowermaster’s initial request to sail down the coast was met with, “That will be quite impossible.”
However, he persevered and eventually was given permission, but with many provisos, including having to surrender all video footage for possible censorship and the requirement that he took the government monitor with him, representatives of the government that follow foreigners for 24 hours every day. That part of Vietnam has not changed, as I was also “monitored” during my stay. Even to standing at the next urinal! He was also informed that there were “fees” to be paid in US dollars, with receipts to indicate filming rights. Again, nothing has changed.
One very interesting interlude comes where they visit a war museum and Bowermaster quotes from the entries in the visitor’s book. These show the complete ambivalence of the westerners, who still do not understand, or even know the history behind the conflict. The western response is also very different from the Vietnamese response, as shown by the minders being totally disinterested. The Vietnamese have moved on, it is the westerners that are stuck in 1966.
Many of the people they meet on their paddling down the coastline are living in abject poverty, and despite ‘unification’ there are no signs that things will improve in the foreseeable future. However, as Buddhists (the majority religion as per Thailand), the Vietnamese accept their lot, much better than westerners do.
The impression that one gets from this book is the lack of freedom of expression suffered by the Vietnamese people. Even in fishing communities, there are informants who are paid to identify political dissidents. Bowermaster writes, “We have heard the same refrain up and down the country from poor fisherman to mid-level bureaucrats.” The war may be over, but the oppression is not.
At B. 675 on the Bookazine shelves this is not an expensive book for the information and photographs between the covers. You will learn more about the ‘real’ Vietnam than you will from the usual tourist guides. An excellent book which does really show it like it is. Bowermaster, assisted by Howard’s evocative photographs, has produced an excellent book.