"Scenery is fine - but human nature is finer." - John Keats
There were remarkable views to be had on the road that hugged the coastline between Hue and Hoi An, before the route climbed upwards into hilly evanescent greenery. I looked out of our drizzle stained window down onto deep valleys stabbed with single lonely dwellings. I saw bright verdure paddy fields and their brash serenity taper inconclusively into the South China Sea. The tops of the flourishing stems reverberating from the same wind that slapped foamy waves against their borders.
I marvelled at the vista of unexpected and unrewarded beauty. It could have been anything from an ancient Chinese scroll painting of a timeless pastoral scene, to the backdrop of a Somerset Maugham short story regarding a hill station and mysterious European visitors. A Graham Greene novel of unrequited love amongst baffled end-of-Empire Englishmen amidst the antecedents of war, to the start of a Hollywood-styled widescreen epic on the eve of a terrible battle. Or just simply a wonderful view.
As we rose steadily upwards, down below I spotted a squat church clad in the pastels of Yellow French architecture. It was resting on a flat plain of flooded fields framed against a backdrop of a lush green hill and the watery convulsions of the coast itself. Was it any wonder that the words for country (or land) and water itself – nuoc – were the same in Vietnamese? Nuoc had a deep spiritual and practical meaning. It intermingled the necessary requisites to grow the nation’s food, whilst providing the solidarity to do so. Villagers working together to dig irrigation channels, and cultivate and harvest the produce afforded deep symbolism to the national consciousness, in the form of their relationship to the two elements.
The memory of the topography was only slightly shaken by our shambling descent. Inoculated from safety by our driver, his provisional use of his clutch and brakes as the vehicle hurtled down crumbling tarmac with abandon was terrifying. The far too numerous switchbacks prompted a danger that threatened but thankfully never materialised.
It was dark as we passed through the cyclo-filled streets of Danang lined with spiky silhouettes full of chlorophyll. A neon lit City with palm trees near the sea marked by a sense of decrepitude, shabbiness and seediness. Where uninspired low buildings looked as bored and nondescript as the prostitutes on its street corners.
Apparently it was once a quant seaside town with acacia lined roads and private villas covered with bougainvillea. Yet it was here that the Vietnam conflict escalated into whole-scale war when General Westmoreland, having been told by LBJ to ‘assume no limbation on funds, equipment or personnel’ landed US Marines dressed in full battle regalia (complete with a flagpole hoisting the stars and stripes and a bugler) on the nearby beach on 8th March 1965. Only to be met by smiling Vietnamese girls handing out garlands under a banner that read ‘Welcome to the gallant Marines’ and a posse of photographers, pressmen and TV reporters already on the sand filming and noting their every move. If you thought whether the scene in Apocalypse Now in which confused soldiers stumble onto a beach surrounded by frenzied journalists and cameramen was over the top think again. If anything it was probably less absurd that the reality of the Marines arrival in Danang.
I stared out onto the encroaching darkness. I saw what I took to be an American in a wheelchair. The man lifted his hand to scratch his face. The disjointed way it moved suggested it was seldom used. He wore a blue singlet complete with fierce biceps and a gentle smile that soon faded. He beckoned with a nod of familiarity a girl in a short miniskirt, who affected a yawn into the light. I had witnessed the scene in many a Vietnam war movie but the truth was much harsher. I had seen images of Hollywood’s idea of Danang plenty of times on celluloid, but the less vivid reality was far more sordid. The contrite exchange was concluded with a monetary satisfaction, not an anticipatory pleasure, and they both moved off together back into the shadows, refraining from looking at the other.
It was the brisk heartlessness of the economic transaction, mixed with the humiliation of a publicly exposed demand for sexual relations that demeaned both parties. Yet the real humiliation I thought as I looked upon that scene on a busy street peopled with bars, bystanders and bicycles was that no-one apart from a passing visitor cared enough to stare. The scene had only been of interest to my undisciplined and naïve gaze. No-one else gave a second thought to a lonely man in a wheelchair buying a form of sex from a woman forced into prostitution, in the middle of a large town at dusk.
This is from Layth's book, 'Hanoi Autobahn' that is in need of a publisher. You can follow him on Twitter @laythy