And so, if you desire to see a Japanese effect, you will not behave like a tourist and go to Tokio. On the contrary, you will stay at home and steep yourself in the work of certain Japanese artists, and then, when you have absorbed the spirit of their style, and caught their imaginative manner of vision, you will go some afternoon and sit in the park or stroll down Piccadilly, and if you cannot see an absolutely Japanese effect there, you will not see it anywhere.
~ Oscar Wilde
Or, you could be one of those annoyingly trigger-happy digital camera snapping ones who scamper around attempting to document everything — in other words, the kind Vivian calls « tourists ».
Which would be a classic case of seeing nothing by trying to see everything.
And this, Walter Mason clearly recognises.
For, his relationship with Vietnam is nothing short of a love affair. Along with all its complications: « sometimes I feared I was falling out of love with Vietnam. On some days I would be so furious with the country, with the system, with the people, that I just wanted to go home ». He makes absolutely no attempt to hide this, or even be coy about it. In fact, Destination Saigon opens with, « I fell in love with Vietnam, because I’d fallen in love ». [If one wants to be a touch playful — and why not, for this would echo the spirit of the text itself — this statement takes place in the preface: which means that it not only happens before the main text, but could well be read as the frame through which the entire text plays out]. Walter goes on to explain that his first sojourn there, was with his Australian-Vietnamese partner in 1994. Initially, « the place terrified me so much. But then something clicked in my psyche. I became obsessed with the place ».
A straightforward reading of the opening line would be: Mason’s love for Vietnam is due, or at least intimately related, to his love for his partner. However, the line itself opens a more interesting possibility: that his love for Vietnam is tautological — he loves the place because he loves it.
That his love for Vietnam is unexplainable, beyond reason itself.
Which is precisely why « Saigon » is his destination.
For, one should, after all, try not forget the fact that Saigon as such no longer exists. But, it would be our loss to dismiss it as Western (or even worse, capitalist) nostalgia. Destination Saigon is no nostalgic rear-view-mirror take, but a journey of memory itself. Not a memory that is purely of the past but, more profoundly, it is a memory within the present. This is not a Saigon that precedes Ho Chi Minh City, but one that continues to haunt, that lingers; an echo that speaks with one, if only one pays attention.
Which is why, even as we are brought through the Saigon of Walter Mason, he never lets us forget that his dreams comes in place of another, slightly older, quickly fading, dream: Uncle Ho’s. So, even as we chuckle — occasionally burst out laughing — at the endless quips, funny tales, over-the-top stories, that he regales us with, we are never allowed to forget the spectre of Ho Chi Minh: « What would he have made of all this? Was this the socialist paradise of which he’d dreamed? I suspect not ». And it is a testament to Walter’s craft that he manages to create for us a certain paradise whilst never sweeping aside the other utopia that could have been.
And, it is perhaps in the foregrounding of contradictions in his Saigon, in himself, that Mason allows us to catch a glimpse of Vietnam. For, it is his unwillingness, his refusal, to reduce, to flatten, his Saigon to simple bite-sized, uncomplicated, linear narratives that is a testament to his love for the country. Whilst never side-stepping the fact that it is often a difficult place to come to grasp with. So, even as Walter Mason writes his own Saigon into being, he makes absolutely no pretense at understanding it.
And what else is love
but the coming together of travel and imagination.
For, in order to love, there has to be a separation, a space, between one and the other. Without that gap, they would merely be the same thing: masturbatory at best, narcissistic at worst. But, at the same time, if the two conceived themselves as being separate, they would be no different from any other duo. So, even as movement — travel — is required for them to touch, it is their imagination that sustains the very (im)possibility of the two being one.
And « Saigon » is the very name for the impossibility of Walter Mason’s love.
Destination Saigon is Walter Mason’s testament to love. And if, after reading him, you cannot see love everywhere, you will not see it anywhere.