issue 216 - February 1991
Photos: Chris Brazier
Adventures in the flood
MY TURN TO EXPERIENCE A TYPHOON... HOW ABBA HELP
US CROSS THE SEVENTEENTH PARALLEL... A STORM AND A
TEACUP (WITH A DASH OF DICKENS)... HOW TO SAY NO TO
PROSTITUTES (POLITELY)... A CANOE THROUGH THE FLOOD
I have just woken up to find that I am going to experience a typhoon for myself: high winds are howling past my hotel window and the rain is teeming down. We travelled down yesterday from Ky Anh to Dong Hoi along Highway One, which follows the coastal plain all the way from Hanoi to Saigon. The road is in appalling condition, like most of the country's infrastructure: denied Western trade and aid, Vietnam has had no chance to rebuild after its decades of war. And in places Highway One is more pot-holes than road.
This makes it impossible to travel at much more than 30 miles a hour at the best of times but in Central Provinces the mounds are even more trouble than the holes. Mounds of grain, that is. At harvest time it is standard practice for farmers to spread their crop over the road so that the husks will be cracked open by the traffic. This is a bizarre gauntlet to run: through lines of people trying to push their grain under the wheels of your car. Sometimes yesterday the piles stretched high and wide right across the road and we were forced to lurch straight up and over it with an almighty thud.
But it is a safe bet that no farmers are going to be requiring our grain-squashing services on a day like this. We need to get moving fast and reach Huê before the typhoon hits its peak.
As we hurtle into the storm I look around for signs of the War, of which I have hitherto seen surprisingly little evidence - some rusting tanks and missiles in Hanoi's Lenin Park and a few bomb craters (now converted into fishponds) in Ky Anh. But we are now approaching the Seventeenth Parallel which divided the country into Communist North and pro-American South between 1954 and 1975: the piles of shrapnel beside the road in this region are legendary.
They may be legendary but they're invisible to me: the storm has reduced visibility to about ten metres and we find ourselves alone on a narrow causeway with the wind and rain thrashing the side of the car. It is, to tell the truth, rather unnerving and Tam, Binh and I start singing to keep our spirits up. They contribute some traditional Vietnamese songs; I throw in She Who Would Valiant Be 'Gainst All Disaster and assortments from The Sound of Music; then Binh and I duet on a couple of songs by Abba who, strange as it may seem, are Vietnam's all-time favourite Western group and a dominant influence on their own pop music. The other two are particularly keen to sing as they approach the bridge at the Seventeenth Parallel 'because it is such a sad place'. I decide to mark the spot by getting out of the car; but in five seconds I'm diving back for cover from the deluge.
We are more than a little relieved to reach Huê by lunchtime and find a hotel in which to ride out the typhoon. At first I ask for a room overlooking the famous Perfume River but I soon realize this is a serious error; the storm is attacking the building from the river side and water is sweeping under the doors. We go out to report to the local People's Committee but they are understandably too busy dealing with the typhoon to bother with us: though we do learn that Huê is right at the centre of this typhoon.
It is distinctly dangerous outside. Branches are being blown off trees on every road. But I am unwilling to retreat into the protection of the hotel just yet; I want to find out how an ordinary family is faring. We cross the river by a causeway, already partly submerged, and eventually come across a house that is still offering tea to foolhardy passersby. The daughter of the house, Mai, is quite ready to talk to us. She says the family used to live by making conical hats but started selling cups of tea when doi moi came along. It gives them enough money to get by, she says, but I am doubtful - the house is little more than a shanty shack made of corrugated iron and there aren't exactly many creature comforts on view.
As Mai speaks there are often huge gusts and the sound of something crashing down - she keeps getting up to investigate. And while the howling of the wind is actually more alarming in the hotel, here you really feel you are at the mercy of the storm. Yet Mai continues to sip tea with us and chat. Impressed by her com posure, which far exceeds any stiffness in my own British upper lip, I ask how often they experience a typhoon this bad. She says they have one severe onslaught each year but this is the worst since 1985.
Just before we go, Mai's father arrives home. He has one eye askew and glazed over and I feel sorry for him. But then Mai whispers to Binh that he has just taken her mother to hospital for treatment because he beat her up so badly the night before. Apparently he has more than one 'family', though why more than one woman would want him is beyond me: now that I know this about him his eye suddenly seems to mark-him out as an evil character out of Dickens and I am glad to to leave without having to shake his hand.
I make one more gesture to experience before retiring into relative comfort: I go. out for a walk to a place where I can feel the full onslaught of the typhoon for the first time, unsheltered by buildings. It nearly blows me off my feet and the rain drives so hard that it is impossible to keep my eyes open. But the water is so warm that the onslaught is actually not unpleasurable: like a power shower gone berserk.
Back in the hotel as night draws in and the wind bends the palm trees in half I can't help thinking of the Bogart-Bacall movie Key Largo. You know the one: they're trapped in a hotel in the middle of a hurricane with a bunch of gangsters.
Photos: Chris Brazier
And I'm trapped in a hotel in the middle of a typhoon - with a bunch of prostitutes. Now Binh has already warned me about the prostitutes in Huê. She's told me that she once worked with a Swiss journalist who opened the door one night to find a prostitute barging in and taking up residence on his bed. She refused to move unless he had sex with her; he couldn't fetch someone in case she stole something. They sat like that for hours until Binh rescued the hapless man.
I have forgotten her warning and left my door unlocked. Suddenly I too have a prostitute in my room. She is in her mid-twenties and wearing the traditional Female silk tunic which is now rarely seen, the ao dai. She says one word twice and I look blank. Seeing how dense I am she tries to make things a touch clearer: she waves two condoms in my face and brazenly pats my crotch. I get her drift. I say 'no' as firmly as I can, sweep her from the room and lock the door. An hour later another woman lays siege to my door, hammering on it and determinedly twisting the doorknob. I call 'no thank you' politely from inside, feeling impossibly English.
Next morning the typhoon has finally subsided - it is still raining but the wind has dropped. In its wake have come the floods: the Perfume River has broken its banks and Huê is flooded on all sides as far as the eye can see. Driving a car is impossible and even on foot the water soon gets up to waist height. So Binh and I hire a canoe. This is not the easiest of boats to travel in - very flimsy, it tilts to the side with the slightest change of balance. There is only one seat: Binh has it while I perch on what turns out to be a US soldier's helmet reclaimed for peaceful purposes.
We glide down street after street of flooded houses - some with their floors just covered; others with water up near the roof. Everywhere I cause great merriment: this is not exactly the mode of transport associated with Westem visitors. We heave to beside a couple who have piled themselves, their three children, an aged mother and all their key possessions onto a double bed that is raised above water level (they are shown in the photo on the facing page). Like everyone else I talk to, they are unfazed by the disaster.
'We simply have to wait for the water to go down,' shrugs the father, Hoi. 'How do we live usually? We buy vegetables in the countryside and then sell them in the city market. We'll lose a couple of days' income through this but we won't starve. This is the second time we've been flooded like this - the other time was in the big typhoon of 1985.'
I ask why they don't move to somewhere a bit less vulnerable to such disasters. Not surprisingly, he looks at me like I am stupid. 'Of course we only wish we could - but you live where you can afford to live and we are poor.' You could get the same response in any Third World country that is prone to natural disasters: in the shanty dwellings built on the edge of the ravine in earthquake-prone Guatemala City, for example. The poor have no choice about where they live and find themselves inevitably in the marginal, dangerous positions that no-one else wants.
We pass on down streets closer to the river, through huge mangrove trees and past families in houseboats who must feel very smug at such moments. We come to a house which is submerged right up to the roof. A man's face is just visible through a window at the top of the sloping corrugated iron. Not the most accessible person to interview, perhaps, but he kindly clambers down the roof to talk to me, leaving his aged father behind. His name, appropriately enough, is Hai, which means 'sea'. This has happened to them three times before but they agree that 1985 was worse - the water then came a good two feet higher, and Hai knows because he has marked the level on his wall. His wife and children have been evacuated to dryer houses but he has to stay here for fear of thieves - though given that their boat and their animals are already gone I can't think that there would be much to steal. They are running out of food and are trying to catch fish.
This wasn't quite what I had in mind when I imagined a boat trip in Huê, the old imperial capital. I conjured myself sitting back in a sampan on the fabled Perfume River, drifting past the citadel of the emperors and reading some of the poetry inspired by the vista. 'Moon rises, moon fades! My life bound to the boat woven in strands of water... In the current of the Perfume River'. 1
Instead here I am perched on a GI's helmet in the pouring rain asking people stranded by floods what they think of the Communist Party's reforms. Is this what they call serious journalism? I'm half-inclined to think that my main contribution to alleviating these people's plight lies not in telling their story to the world later on but in giving them something to laugh about here and now. I can't help but be struck by people's readiness to share a joke with me, by their amazing good humour in the face of such adversity.
By the time we leave Huê the next day the waters are subsiding and the People's Committee have already gathered an impressive amount of information about the devastation. Over 9,000 houses have been flooded to a depth of between one and, two metres and 2,113 houses have been completely destroyed. Fully 524,000 cubic metres of sea dyke have been destroyed in the villages around the city. And six people have been killed.
1 From Song of the Perfume River by To Huu (1938).