The Indochina Chronicles:
Travels in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam
by Phil Karber
Reviewed by Brianna Kondrat
How much faith can you put in a man who gets more pleasure from a real American burger in Saigon than from illicit sex with the Hanoi ladies of the night? A fair amount, depending on what you hope to learn from him. Besides, in Phil Karber’s defense, we don’t actually know how much pleasure he would find with Vietnamese hookers. He turned them down almost as many times as he stuffed himself with a God-awful (or God-wonderful) burger and told us about it, which was just about once every major city on his journey through Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam in The Indochina Chronicles.
I don’t mean to bash a guy for his saintly ambitions when it comes to prostitutes. If he always wants to back out of morally ambiguous encounters, that’s fine, but we get tired of being reminded every time that he only went as far as “good sense and [his] marital vows would allow” (277).
Karber’s travels begin with—surprise!—a buffalo burger in Jinghong and a heua wai ride down the Mekong River. The narrative at this point is as quick and jumpy as his 150-horsepower speedboat on a choppy waterway. His accounts are brief and fleeting; he flips from one adventure to the next faster than he switches drivers (eight times in the first sixteen pages), and nothing feels particularly substantive or purposeful. In spots, his style lacks refinement: what little dialogue he includes is so contrived it’s painful to read (and we wish he’d just omitted it altogether), his attempts at humor are hit-or-miss (but when he hits, it’s worth a chuckle even in a crowded room), and it’s hard to say which aspect of his imagery is worse: the tired language or the phrases that try too hard to be original. After hearing about a child’s head “topped by a haystack of mussed coal-black hair” (27) and an “oval face veined in tears” (192), I was almost glad to read when someone turned “beet red” (62). Thankfully, the clichés are few, but sometimes his attempts at originality don’t stray far enough from the cliché and feel like they’ve been forced out of a thesaurus.
While the style and choppiness of the first section make the Mekong seem like the longest river in the world and Karber an amateur copying down his blow-by-blow journal (every burger included), the characters in the next sections intensify the reader’s curiosity. Karber begins to explore the colorful people that he shies away from in his opening. The book no longer feels like a travel guide to Laos; instead, Karber combines his deep knowledge and savoir-faire of the region with some fascinating portraits of local people. Where were these stories earlier? Hopefully the reader wasn’t lost miles ago in the dull (though exceedingly thorough) descriptions of Laotian and Cambodian towns, because the people Karber meets are absolutely captivating. Whether speaking of Mado and Dany, who joined the Vietcong as young teenage girls and were later tortured in the Tiger Cages, or of his friend John, who suffered a terrible injury at the hands of an NVA soldier and now is confined to a wheelchair, Karber seamlessly blends a bitter, painful history with a damaged, slowly-recuperating present. Unfortunately, it took him almost half of his book to get to this point.
His trip down the Mekong left me so saturated with details of the countryside that I felt as though I’d been to the area… and never needed to go back. The rest of the book left me itching to hop on a plane so that I could find the people he interviewed, because Karber uses them to unlock the region’s secrets; I just wish he could have done so sooner. Maybe he could have interviewed a couple of those prostitutes he met—morally, of course, and over one of the Saigon burgers with a heart-stopping meat-to-fat ratio.
The Indochina Chronicles: Travels in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam
(Marshall Cavendish Editions: Tarrytown, NY, 2005).
ISBN: 981-261-036-7. $16.90. 336 pp.