with my father in vietnam
A week ago, Cumbria; next week, Cumbria again, walking along the Eden River from Mallerstang. But today I am in a provincial Vietnamese town with my 88-year old father. We have just been for a walk at 5.30 in the morning. The mist drifts slowly around the foot-hills and above the narrow fishing boats. Teenagers are kicking shuttlecocks back and forth in the air beside the ancient walls of Hue palace. As my father observes with a grin, ‘We must look like a pretty nutty pair.’ He is wearing a blue blazer (it is already 80 degrees) and his highly polished black brogues contrast with the mud on my boots. We cross roads slowly, arm in arm, as some magical protection against the never-ceasing flow of a thousand mopeds with drivers in what seem to be toy plastic helmets. In his left hand he carries a ski-stick. In my right I carry a bag containing his Boots instant camera and eight books on Vietnamese history, each page of which he has energetically underlined.
My father has a distinctive approach to towns, which involves walking, music, energetic conversations about the army, toys and white rice. Even in Penrith, he can be seen marching around in tartan trews, accosting brass bands, talking to Malcolm Temple in the George Hotel, examining the toyshop or dining at the Magic Bean. But in Vietnam, he enters a new dimension. He begins with a cup of tea at a street stall at dawn, using a dictionary to learn the local language. ‘Vietnamese,’ he assures me now, ‘is easy if you speak Cantonese and Mandarin.’ (I don’t: he does.) Then he investigates new forms of transport. He failed to persuade me onto an elephant yesterday and I dissuaded him from riding a motorbike. But, despite being told by me and everyone else that there were no boats, he re-emerged grinning on the prow of a motorboat.
Since he is 88, I try to make him rest. But in Saigon, while I was writing an e-mail to the Cumberland hospital, he slipped out and re-emerged two hours later, with a very red face, having just marched two miles back from the market in the midday heat, announcing ‘I don’t think much of this pace-maker’. He agreed to sit in the cool and have a beer for only half an hour before accompanying me forty miles outside the city to a battleground. There he clambered into the Vietcong tunnel system and, on the basis of his experience as an anti-tank gunner in 1944, he held forth on the weak points of a ruined tank. In the evening, he discovered a toy-stall, selling a battery-operated toy mandarin and listened to a man playing a bamboo flute. We shared a bowl of white rice by a lake.
He was here last, 43 years ago, as a British diplomat during the Vietnam War. He argued strongly in 1967, on the basis of the pride he saw in the Vietnamese living around him in Hanoi, that the US would not win. He notices parallels which others can’t, in part because of his age. When he came to visit me in Afghanistan four years ago, generals were saying that we would win ‘as we had in the Malayan Emergency.’ But my father had been in Malaya, as an official, for twelve years throughout the emergency. ‘We’re not going to be able to win,’ he said, ‘because we don’t have any control over the Afghan government.’
But what I learn most is not about international affairs. It is about an approach to life: a sort of energy, which makes him reinvent himself daily even at 88. In the fierce heat and dust of the Imperial city he scrabbles around with his walking-stick to uncover a shard of porcelain. He no sooner arrives at a hotel but he is out again, on the streets, with a map, searching for a lost building. He tears through books, marking stories, noting new thoughts. Every evening he has a new story or connection to make between what we have seen and done.
Last night, we went for a swim. I don’t remember learning to walk but I remember him teaching me how to swim. I remember as a four year old admiring the freckles on his shoulders and the scar from a shrapnel wound in his thigh. They’re still there, as are his deep breaths and slow underwater breast-stroke and the way he emerges like a walrus from the water. ‘It is wonderful,’ he said, ‘to be in water. I feel old on land. I have to walk slowly, think about my balance. But here I am weightless. I can swim as fast as I always could, travel underwater as far.’ He stayed in the water ’til it was dark and I was cold. I watched from the side while he attempted, again, to swim the whole length without breathing. ‘No good,’ he concluded on the sixth attempt, ‘no good, but perhaps not bad for 88.’