As butterflies flit about between thunderstorms in a languid monsoon heat, it is hard to imagine anything too serious ever happening in Tay Ninh, a trading post on Vietnam's border with Cambodia. In the centre of town, policemen snooze at noon under slow twirling ceiling fans; at the border they have newspapers over their heads and even the cigarette runners moving across distant paddy fields seem to be going at half pace. Most of the visitors are now traders and smugglers, moving cigarettes, gold, and Thai household products with little fear of detection. Unlike most of the region, there is little in Tay Ninh to distinguish one country from the other. The border looms as a vast plain of barren paddy as flat as a tennis court, marked only by the occasional flag. But the air of a peaceful, if furtive, commerce belies an awful past. Tay Ninh's role in the bloody history of Indochina is tragically secure. In the next few weeks it should again become apparent as the Cambodian election race intensifies. It was here on September 24, 1977, that Khmer Rouge forces attacked a village and massacred hundreds of civilians including women and children. Historians and the few independent observers at the scene later painted the most stark of pictures. Some victims were beheaded, others had arms hacked off and eyes gouged. Bellies were ripped open. The act served as a key catalyst for the events that led to Vietnam's invasion of Pol Pot's Cambodia - a move that in turn sparked China's attack on Hanoi's northern borders and shattered all notions of the communist domino theory. In the months leading up to the Tay Ninh attack, Pol Pot's eastern region leaders expressed reluctance to move on the feared Vietnamese. Some were rounded up and shot. The ball fell into the court of a fast rising young officer. He too could not stomach the commands and defected across the border, later winning the trust of ever-suspicious Vietnamese leaders by providing intelligence that proved alarmingly accurate. He was Hun Sen, the leader now seeking to legitimise his rule during upcoming polls. Tay Ninh's role at the heart of history was hinted at in Graham Greene's prophetic classic The Quiet American - the short novel that in the 1950s foretold the folly of French and US intervention in Indochina. It was the setting for the crucial scene where the world-weary hero, British reporter Fowler, ends up under fire from communist rebels alongside his intellectual adversary, the dour but dashing Ivy League democrat Pyle. Today it is easy to recreate their journey in peace. You hire an old Citroen Traction car and driver in Ho Chi Minh City, pack a picnic lunch and set off up Route One to Tay Ninh. The wrecker's yards, truck stops and workshops of modern Ho Chi Minh City eventually give way to a long quiet tree-lined road surrounded by paddy fields and the garish temples of the Cao Dai sect. The pastoral wealth of life in this corner of the Mekong delta has weathered a turbulent century and there is a sense that little has really changed in generations. Greene's words hang heavy. He predicted the sly grip of the communist commissar over the peasant: 'He'll sit in his hut and ask his name and listen to his complaints; he'll give up an hour a day to teaching him. It doesn't matter what, he's being treated like a man, like something of value.' That was Greene's lesson from Tay Ninh and one way or another it has been taken on board by Hun Sen. It is said that if Hun Sen has one strength now, it is his control over the people in the countryside.