Norman Lewis describes how in 1949 China, which had been open to the West for barely fifty years, closed down again ‘for a change of scene’: ‘If you had wanted to go to China it was too late. You would have to content yourself with reading books about it, and that was as much of the old, unregenerate China as you would know. At this moment the scene shifters were busy and they might be a long time over their job. When the curtain went up again it would be upon something as unrecognizable to an old China hand as to Marco Polo.’
Lewis asked himself which country would be the next to suffer in this way, and he decided that it was high time to visit Indochina. A Dragon Apparent was the result which, like The Quiet American, is highly revered by the English and American correspondents who worked in the area.1 After Dien Bien Phu, however, nobody was able to repeat Lewis’s journey throughout the peninsula, unless, like the late Wilfred Burchett, they did so as guests of the Communists: North Vietnam was invented, and closed down. But the remainder of the area stayed open to the traveller for a decade and a half, until 1970. By that time the North Vietnamese had taken over the Cambodian countryside, Laos had become gradually impossible to explore, and South Vietnam was simply too dangerous.
Things improved, from the traveller’s point of view, after the Paris Peace Agreement in 1973. Theoretically, western journalists were able to visit any of the ‘liberated areas’ of the south, and some of us profited from the opportunity. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, there was about a week in which travel was suddenly even easier, because nobody had yet been told to stop us from having a look around. Then we were confined to the capital and starved of news. The curtain descended well and truly over the whole peninsula for what turned out to be the most thorough, and drastic, change of scene.