|Book in time: The cover of Three Tastes of Nuoc Mam The Brown Water Navy & Visits to Vietnam by Douglas M Branson (Hellgate Press, 2012).
by Kim Megson
It is not often a memoir begins with the author admitting that for a long time he had nothing to say. It is stranger still when he acknowledges that he has written a war book in which combat barely features at all.
Yet this is how Douglas M Branson introduces Three Tastes of Nuoc Mam, his recollections of a year spent serving his country on the sidelines of the Viet Nam War and his subsequent returns to a land that changed his life.
Luckily, despite the reservations that arise from this unusually honest preface, what follows is an engaging mix of travelogue, memoir and historical account.
Branson, now a respected American law professor, served in Viet Nam for a year in 1966. He led inshore patrols operated by the so-called 'Brown Water Navy' of the title from the nuoc mam (fish sauce) heartland of Phan Thiet.
Now, nearly 50 years after his wartime experiences he has written his first-hand account of the conflict, followed by descriptions of two return visits he made to Viet Nam in 1995 and 2011 (forming his 'three tastes of nuoc mam').
Branson makes it clear from the outset that he does not wish to portray himself as a hero. His aim, now that many years have elapsed, is to simply offer a 'presentation of the lighter side' of the conflict and 'show how loose and unrestricted things were?. He succeeds in the second aim, but only occasionally achieves the first.
The book starts strongly, with Branson drawing the reader in with his vivid description of what it was like to be on the very edges of the action - rarely involved in fighting but unable to relax either. He offers many great insights about how the boredom and endless bureaucracy inspired some officers on patrol to begin acting as if they were cowboys in the Wild West rather than officers in one of the world's most advanced militaries.
For all of its interesting moments, the first section concentrating on Branson's year of service would have benefited from some more thorough editing. Often his reminiscences drag as his attention to detail gets the better of him, with numerous acronyms, asides and technical terminology interrupting the flow of his otherwise very readable prose. While it is clear that he knows his stuff - and military historians will find much to interest them here - the casual reader may be put off by this disjointed style, which affects the moments of comedy that Branson is aiming for, relegating some of them into 'you had to be there' territory. This said, there are laugh out loud moments, most of all a scene in which the unit's farcical commanding officer (one of many well-realised characters) loses his temper in the camp canteen over the lack of his favourite ice cream.
Branson's is better on more serious ground, such as recounting the atmosphere of tedium and unease that surrounded his unit. A particularly strong chapter is devoted to describing the feeling of living with ninety-nine per cent boredom and one per cent terror. Often war literature is so engrossed in recreations of battles and bloodshed it fails to accurately portray the other side of war, where storms and sea serpents are almost as frightening as exchanging fire with an unseen enemy.
Interestingly, despite this being a memoir of sorts, we do not learn much about Branson at all during his year at war. The first time his own feelings come strongly to the fore is on his anti-climactic return home from his tour of duty. He finds himself in a changed America where far from a heroic reception; he receives ridicule and contempt amidst a blooming anti-war movement. I found this section of the book to be the most interesting, as Branson attempts to adapt back to normality and find explanations for the things he has witnessed in Viet Nam. His search leads to him thoroughly examining the historical and political roots of the conflict.
What follows is a chapter containing one of the clearest and best researched accounts of the conflict and its beginnings that I have read. It is a good starting point for people who want to learn more and adds much-needed context to the opening chapters. Although now an eloquent opponent of the War, Branson makes many sensible points about the need to approach the conflict objectively and examine the mistakes committed by both sides.
In the second and third sections of the book, the author returns to post-war Viet Nam as an older and wiser man. Here he adopts a conversational and good-humoured writing style that fits in surprisingly well with all that has preceded it. It is fascinating to see him reflect on his long-awaited return, although he wisely tries to react to the country on its own merits rather than letting his memories of the War sway his judgment.
Not much has been written about Viet Nam in the dark years around Doi moi (renewal). This is when Branson first returns and his insights into how run-down and broken Viet Nam seemed to him in that period demonstrate how far the country has come in a very short space of time. On his second return in 2011, he arrives to find the country changing before his eyes.
Here, his musings as he travels from HCM City northwards provide a useful guide to visitors to the country. He challenges some perceived wisdom perpetuated by guide books and offers plenty of recommendations of his own. While remarks about food, culture and the benefits and costs of the tourism boom are well-argued, his opinions on Vietnamese women are often outdated and prove an awkward inclusion. His outrage, for example, over discovering women wearing sun protective clothing and thus transforming from 'sprightly, beautiful Vietnamese damsels driving bicycles, a near ethereal sight, to mummies, devoid of any style whatsoever', would have been best left to himself.
This complaint aside, for the most part Three Tastes of Nuoc Mam succeeds in offering new and interesting insights into Viet Nam during its war years and beyond. It should appeal to many readers, from people with a particular interest in the conflict to those who want to learn more or are visiting as tourists. Happily for Branson, it seems that despite his reservations he did have plenty to say after all. — VNS