Hanoi, adieu - A Bittersweet Memoir of a Frenchman in Indochina

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 April, 2007, 12:00am

Hanoi, adieu - A Bittersweet Memoir of a Frenchman in Indochina

by Mandaley Perkins

Fourth Estate, HK$155

Michel L'Herpiniere was 16 when, in September 1936, he moved with his mother and French Colonial Army officer father to Hanoi. Madagascar, Morocco, Vietnam - young Michel's life had been a nomadic one, but Hanoi was a city he would quickly grow to love. He would form friendships, marry and have a family of his own, building a business after several traumatic years in the army.

By the time he received his discharge papers in January 1941, he had decided to stay, 'to make Indochina my life'. He belonged - of that he was sure. Greater insight would be a long time coming. 'I did not know then how a country that one did not belong to could break a man's spirit. But then for a long time I couldn't see that I did not belong to Indochina ... We were two cultures combined effortlessly on the streets of Hanoi in an enchanting melange of east and west. At least that was how I saw it. But I was living a lie. We were all living a lie.'

Hanoi, adieu is L'Herpiniere's recollections of his Vietnam years, a posthumous memoir published two years after his death. The memories, the voice are his, the words those of his stepdaughter, a Brisbane writer whose work has been inspired by her family's experiences of Southeast Asia's colonial history.

This is a first-person account of the final years of French rule in Vietnam. It's a story of life in Hanoi during the second world war and the Japanese occupation, of the rise of Vietnamese nationalism and of the skirmishes, negotiations, treaties and puppet governments that characterised the years until the final, decisive battle at Dien Bien Phu. It's told through the eyes of a man who was ultimately on the losing side, but supplemented by an account of history that is, presumably, the result of Perkins' own research, although no sources are acknowledged.

She recounts her stepfather's story - one she describes as 'recollections of a child of the French empire' - in a lively and entertaining style. Had he lived to see the book, L'Herpiniere would surely have approved. His Hanoi is brought to life by his descriptions of events, people and places, as recounted by Perkins.

His observations of historical events include such significant moments as Ho Chi Minh's 1945 declaration of independence for Vietnam. Further illumination comes through anecdotes about the insights of his father and his friends, acquaintances and business associates - for instance, one close friend, a brothel madam with powerful connections, in whose parlour he twice succumbs to before overcoming an opium addiction.

But whereas many around him have clear insights into what's happening - and going to happen - L'Herpiniere himself has few. He sees the Hanoi and the future he wants to see, averting his gaze from all the signs that France's days there are numbered, as must be his own.

From the outset he reveals himself as a man with little appreciation of what's happening under his nose. Hanoi, adieu opens with his being ordered to supervise a firing squad and he soon discovers that one of those to be killed - dispatched with a final bullet from his own gun - is Gaston, the mess barman and his friend. Gaston (real name Nguyen Nga - the French had trouble with Vietnamese names, L'Herpiniere notes) was, it seems, a communist.

'Nguyen Nga a communist? But he was my friend! I felt physically ill.' It's not until 1950 that L'Herpiniere realises that the solution he longs for - a recognition by France of Vietnamese independence and a gradual loosening of the apron strings - won't come about. Naive and blinkered, he clings to the belief that France can and will do the right thing by its colony. As a result, it's difficult to feel sympathy for L'Herpiniere as he and his family flee to Australia as sponsored migrants, having lost all, his hopes dashed and his eyes - as the plane circles the city one last time - firmly closed (as ever).

Even on his return as an old man when Vietnam opens its doors to visitors - a visit recounted by Perkins in a postscript - he ponders 'how different it could have been'.

Hanoi, adieu is an entertaining read, but it tells us little of those who clung so determinedly to power in a country not their own and of those willing to fight to the death to be rid of them.

Although the book does, perhaps, offer an entree into the mindset of the colonial French in Vietnam, and that of the Vietnamese themselves, L'Herpiniere reveals only his ignorance and, in that respect, Perkins does him no favours. The time for giving such ignorance a voice has surely passed.