Saturday, March 13, 2010

Traveller (Sydney Morning Herald, The Age) review of Destination Saigon

Destination Saigon, by Walter Mason
Allen & Unwin, $24.99
Reviewed by Bruce Elder,
Traveller, Sydney Morning Herald & The Age
Saturday, 13th March 2010

When it comes to evaluating and commenting on the nature of a soceity, there is no substitute for the thoughtful objectivity of an outsider who has fallen in love with the place.

This describes Walter Mason, an Australian who followed his Vietnamese partner, settled in Ho Chi Minh City in the mid-1990s and has since visited the country 11 times.  He understands Vietnam with a level of wry fascination and when it comes to the idiosyncrasies of the culture, he speaks the language and can ask a local exactly what is happening.

Consequently, this interesting and well written book, apart from being an engrossing narrative of life in Vietnam, is full of useful and practical insights.

For example: "If you are ever looking for a hotel in Hanoi, I recommend you check the room before you agree to the tariff.  Rooms with windows can be rare in the city, so it is easy to disappear into a black hole of a room with no circulation and ample damp, and quite possibly fall asleep for days, waiting for a dawn."

And one of my favourite insights: "for a foreigner, getting a legitimate massage in Vietnam can be quite a difficult thing and I had heard horror stories of notorious goings-on even in five-star hotel spas." Do you really want to know more?

An example of quirkiness - and this is what helps make this unusual book so engrossing - is Mason's description of a leprosarium, in Binh Dinh province, that the local tourist authority has tried to turn into a tourist attraction: "As leprosariums go it is quite nice, situated gorgeously by the ocean, replete with coffee shops and restaurants run by the lepers themselves." And then, with just the right level of eyebrow-raising, he adds: "But as a tourist attraction I think it's a abit of a tough sell."

Mason obviously loves the country and it's people.  In many ways, this is his love letter to Vietnam.  More than a guidebook, it's a story full of insights that will help visitors to understand the unique cultures of Vietnam.

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