There’s been some feedback on the background to the start of Bian’s Tale, which is set at the end of the 19th century in the area that has become Vietnam. Some of you have been so kind as to suggest the detail is so convincing that I must have been there. Thank you. I feel that old sometimes, but I’m not quite.
I also realize that this is a potentially prickly subject in the USA, not to mention France, South Korea, Australia and the countries bordering Vietnam. It’s not my intention to offend.
The character of Bian preceded any detailed knowledge I have of Vietnam’s history. Given that, what did I do to paint the picture in my own mind before starting the story?
Research. Books and the internet never fail… except sometimes.
The general, macro detail is there. You’ll easily find dates and names of places. You can read of the colonial encroachment of France into the Annam coastal strip in an attempt to balance the huge gains made by the UK in India and Burma. You can read of the hope for the Mekong to become a major industrial artery going up into the heartlands of China. And you can delve a little deeper and find Sai Gon, Nam Ky, The Black Flag Army, Khanh Hoi, ma ca rong, the Mother of Waters…I haven’t made them up. Dig really deep and you’ll come up with Bình Xuyên, the gangsters of Khanh Hoi, information on the epidemics and famines that ravaged the country at that time and even a rumor of the theft of mausoleum funds.
All I’ve done at this level is move them round a bit, make the Mekong closer to the Saigon river, and shifted things in time, and so on.
But that’s broad brush, and I wanted the intimate detail of the country, the things that 9 year-old Bian might comment on, or might use every day. And the harder I looked, the less I seemed to find.
If Vietnam had been an English colony, there would have been an endless supply of reminiscences or histories. For example, for India, have a look at ‘Plain Tales of the Raj’ by Charles Allen, or any of the novels written by English and Indian authors which look at that period. Yes, it was an asymmetric relationship, but you can easily find an evidence of mutual regard and even love. But France never quite developed that feeling with Vietnam, and there’s a regret and a reluctance to talk. And an absence of detail for me to work with.
I had a lot of books that were nearly there – among them, ‘Tales from the South China Seas’ by Charles Allen and ‘In Search of Conrad’ by Gavin Young. But these dealt with areas of English influence.
Finally, I came across ‘Mad About The Mekong’ by Keay, ‘A Dragon Apparent’ by Lewis, and ‘Journal Of An Embassy To Cochin China’ by Crawford, and these were the books I used for my research.
‘Mad About The Mekong’ is the story of a French expedition to prove the Mekong was a suitable river for trade with China (it wasn’t). If this had been an English expedition, there would have been statues to these men in London and a library dedicated to their exploits. As it is, they were honored by the Royal Geographic Society (English) and have had their story told long after their deaths by a journalist (English again).
Crawford visited in 1822, and dealt mainly with the court, but had some useful observations.
But the real treasure was ‘A Dragon Apparent’. It details Lewis’ travels to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in 1950. That’s fifty years after the start of Bian’s Tale, but fifty years in Vietnam from 1900 to 1950 aren’t the same thing as fifty years in the western world from, say, 1950 to 2000. Nothing like as much will have changed.
Without giving away too many spoilers, here are some things you’ll find in Bian’s Tale as it
unfolds that I haven’t made up…
- Prosperous Vietnamese had their teeth rimmed in gold and/or colored (for instance with black enamel)
- The Moi people of the highlands were said to be Weretigers, and almost never seen outside their mountain homes, as they sickened and died if they came down to the lowlands.
- Poorer people used straw hats to protect themselves from the sun, prosperous people had hair-dos.
- Half the population of Saigon used to live on the water. There were entire towns made up of sampans and junks.
Anyway, I’d recommend any of the books I’ve mentioned for background to the region and the time. Crawford’s journal is not in print, but you can find it online.
On that point, I’d put a note of caution. I read all sorts of things and I’m fascinated by things other people aren’t. Always have a peek inside on Amazon or borrow from a library to check if you’re going to find it worthwhile.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Conrad, an admonition to seize the day:
I remember my youth and the feeling that will never come back any more – the feeling that I could last for ever, outlast the sea, the earth and all men; the feeling that lures us on to joys, to perils, to love, to vain effort – to death; the triumphant conviction of strength, the heat of life in the handful of dust, the glow in the heart that with every year grows dim, grows cold, grows small, and expires, too soon, too soon, before life itself.