Travelling as a journalist

IN 2005, I LOST the ability to travel for pleasure. Until then, I would work until I'd banked about $30,000, then quit, leave the country and drift across the world until the money ran out and I took another job.

Then I had my first child, and he introduced me to a different kind of journey. I became absorbed in each fleeting stage of my son's life, until it was more important to me than my own, and then my perfect baby daughter came four years later. Although I was, among other things, a travel writer, I no longer enjoyed travel for its own sake. It seemed futile and immature.

But that did not stop me from travelling. I was always searching for new and exotic settings for my journalistic morality plays but, while once I wrote to keep travelling, now I travelled to keep writing.

Earlier this year, I took two trips to Vietnam. In February, I accompanied an Australian veteran on a journey back to his battlefields in the south. Six weeks later, I found myself on a promotional trip, organised by a tourism company, to some less-visited sites in the north. Each voyage presented me with different dilemmas. They forced me to think again about the impossibilities of journalism and the pleasures of travel.

My erstwhile employer, Good Weekend magazine, paid for the first trip, which was originally envisaged as part of the magazine's annual travel issue, an edition themed as bait for advertising from airlines, hotel chains and the manufacturers of unfeasibly expensive luggage. Even the best travel writing in Australia is not about being Herodotus, Marco Polo or even PJ O'Rourke; it's more often about selling handbags.

The package tour was run by seventy-one-year-old Colonel 'Sandy' Macgregor and journalist Jimmy Thomson, co-authors of Sandy's memoir Tunnel Rats (Allen & Unwin, 2011). Before I left Sydney, I had an idea of the shape of the story. Sandy, I knew, had suffered barely imaginable tragedy. More than twenty years after he had returned from Vietnam, three of his daughters were murdered by a madman, Richard Madrell. I read that Sandy had met their killer in jail and forgiven him. I knew he was also a patron of the charity that clears Vietnam War-era mines from Laos.

I imagined that Sandy, the first Australian soldier to enter a tunnel built by the Viet Cong, now believed his part in the war had been wrong, and had sought the same forgiveness from the Vietnamese that he'd given to Madrell. It was not a moral judgment, more a professional expectation. I'd read features like this, I knew how they turned out. I wondered if Sandy would cry. It makes for good copy when you watch people cry.


BUT SANDY WAS a bluff, commanding man and, as our coach party drove around the country, he challenged the local Vietnamese guide's studiedly even-handed commentary any time he seemed to lean towards sympathy or admiration for the North Vietnamese or Viet Cong.

At the Long Phuoc tunnels, a complex of underground defensive structures first employed by the Viet Minh against the French, Sandy pronounced the structures 'bullshit'. He said the tunnels were reconstructions, and if they had been there when Australian Engineers were in the area, his men would have found them. I repeated his claim in my story.

I didn't want to betray Jimmy and Sandy. I liked them, they were my friends, and I drank beer with them every night. During the course of the tour, I had begun to feel more like one of the organisers than one of the passengers. On Jimmy's request, I even gave a lecture about war writing, when our coach got stuck in a traffic jam. So I couldn't belittle them.

Meanwhile, our party repeatedly and unwittingly belittled the Vietnamese. At another tunnel complex at Cu Chi, half the passengers would not leave the bus to explore the Ben Duoc hero-martyrs' temple, which commemorates the deaths of more than forty-four thousand local people who died fighting on the Communist side. They were impatient because they were in a hurry to reach a firing range, where they'd been promised a chance to let off live rounds from an AK-47.

Sandy was deeply respectful at Ben Duoc but our regular guide, who had dealt with all the interruptions with great grace, finally lost his cool and shouted, 'Fifty thousand children's names! Fifty thousand children of this fatherland killed!' At the cemetery, he cried, 'Three hundred thousand missing in action we cannot find so far. Three hundred thousand. Three hundred thousand. Three hundred thousand we cannot find so far.'

But I'm not sure the other passengers even realised he was upset.


IT WAS AN episode loaded with drama and emotion. It left me feeling vicariously guilty and slightly queasy, but I didn't include it in my feature, because the moment wasn't about Sandy.

I read that line back to myself, and I don't fully believe it.

Our itinerary included a visit to the War Remnants Museum, formerly the Museum of American War Crimes, in Ho Chi Minh City. Sandy said it was propaganda; he'd been before and didn't want to go again.

I hoped he would face the photographs of civilians killed and mutilated by US forces. Here, perhaps, the tears would finally come. But what right had I to ask it of him? What trauma had I ever been through? The trip to Vietnam was a return journey for me too. I'd last visited the country twenty years earlier. I was travelling with my then wife, but our marriage was falling apart. We spent six weeks in Indochina but my memories are clouded with alcohol, guilt and grief. I can scarcely bear to think of that time, and I didn't have to watch my friends die.

In the end, Sandy, under pressure from Jimmy, agreed to attend the museum. It had changed in twenty years. The government had made it less confronting, less strident and, in Sandy's view, more accurate. He pronounced himself pleased with the museum's new outlook, and the changes it signified in Vietnamese society. No tears there, then.

At the end of the tour, I interviewed Sandy in his hotel room, the perfect setting for a seduction and betrayal. Sitting on the edge of his bed, he told me that, although he was curious to know if he had been forgiven by the Viet Cong, he felt he had done the right thing by fighting in Vietnam, and Australian actions had helped to stop the spread of Communism through Asia. He explained that not all returning veterans were making an apology, or even reliving a trauma.

'Others come back because they enjoyed part of their postings,' he said, 'where they went and what they did and their R&R in Vung Tau. It shaped a lot of people. In one year here, you grew up five or ten years of your life... You had mates that gave their lives for others, and you don't get that anywhere else... So that feeling, within each one of us, is a really good feeling.'

This was not the picture I had expected: the tired triptych of sin, contrition and redemption. I had to come to terms with a new narrative which, I felt, was more nuanced and less heard but harder to tell.

The other passengers on the tour offered a further narrative. Four of them were followers of a form of meditation popularised by Sandy in the wake of his daughters' murders. They had been to his seminars to learn the 'mind-control' secrets he'd employed to stop his loss from destroying him. But to mention them would have moved the story in another direction, so I turned away.

I wasted energy worrying that I wouldn't get the story, as if there were only one. It's nerve-wracking to travel overseas on your employer's money, and it tends to undermine any sense of satisfaction about the glamour of it all. I once met a businessman at a bar in Changi Airport in Singapore. He asked me if I knew I had the best job in the world. I knew it, but I could no longer feel it. That night, I missed my son.

I took time out from the Tunnel Rats tour group to explore Ho Chi Minh City's backpacker precinct, Pham Nug Lao, where I had stayed in 1992. I thought it might bring back the thrill of living on the road, but as I walked around the bookshops, bars and cafés, I felt nothing at all.


MY NEXT JOURNEY to Vietnam was a press-familiarisation trip sponsored by a tourism company. I travelled with five other journalists, and the company paid for our airfares (business class), accommodation (four– and five-star hotels) and meals (ten lunch and dinner banquets). We were accompanied by the company's Sydney representative, but used local guides in each destination.

It is problematic to accept this kind of hospitality. The company knows a page of good press can be worth more than two spreads of advertising, and is a lot cheaper to buy. But, of course, the company has to choose the right writers, and the selection process has helped give rise to a cohort of travel writers who are more publicists than journalists, and can be relied upon to see the best in everything, everywhere.

In 1997, while I was researching an Australian travel book, I approached a certain Australian company and applied for a place on its media program (which meant, essentially, a free seat on a journey). I was turned down because, the PR director said, 'I know what kind of a journalist you are' – i.e., a real one.

I paid my own way, and later read a story about the two-day outback trip in a broadsheet newspaper, in which the writer described the landscape as seen through her window as 'ever-changing'. From this, I calculated they must have looked out of the window once every eight hours.

At the foot of the piece was an acknowledgement that the writer was a 'guest' of the travel company. They knew what kind of journalist she was.

But there are legitimate reasons to take these opportunities. Newspaper travel sections do not, as a rule, send their staff to test out package vacations, even though their advertising suggests these are the kinds of holidays taken by their readers. And freelance travel writers, whose work fills much of the weekend travel pages, are continually pressed to accept less money for their words and hand over their photographs for free. They can't afford to pay their own way in expensive restaurants and four-star hotels. Without junkets, many destinations would go uncovered. With junkets, they go uncriticised.


IF FREELOADING JOURNALISTS weren't taken to international resorts, the only print coverage they'd get would be in guidebooks. I've written part of a Lonely Planet guide – Fiji, as it happens – and Lonely Planet's researchers cannot and do not stay in luxury hotels. A conscientious author might perform a quick room inspection – the bathroom tends to tell you much of what you need to know – grab the rate sheet and move on. Although this might offer them an idea of the accommodation, they can't judge if the rooms are noisy at night, or if the staff are incompetent or unavailable. On the other hand, travel writers tend not to point out these things either. Often, they have been given the best room, whereas package tourists will be sold the worst. And a journalist, as a mark of her integrity, might gently chide the hotel about the limited selection in the complimentary fruit bowl, but the endless, angry letters from travel-section readers whose holidays are 'ruined' by the most inconsequential events attest to their appetite for finer detail and a more critical eye. To read them is to realise the heights of their expectations for a perfect holiday, and the depths of their disappointment when something doesn't work out.

But journalists set up their readers for dashed hopes and frustration with their wild, exultant praise of the dullest, most prosaic destinations. For example, there have been many stories in the Australian press about Aggie Grey's Hotel in Apia, which is often used as the base for weeklong package holidays in Samoa. It's a nice enough hotel, but it's hard to fill an interesting weekend in Apia and a week lasts a lifetime. Yet to read the travel stories, you'd think it was New York.

Of course, journalists often genuinely have a different experience, because they can sample everything that's on offer – although, in Samoa, even that isn't very much. Journalists need not consider the expense, and everything is good value if you're not paying for it.

I eagerly accepted the second trip to Vietnam, but I found it difficult to decide how to write about it. A junket has no spine. The only story with a narrative arc is the development of the relationships among the journalists, and between the writers and their host – and even I would be loath to write that one. There has to be some point where I accept myself as a participant, and not simply an observer of myself in the company of others. It is sufficiently alienating to realise that, these days, each of us may appear in each other's blogs, without holding the threat of a serious analysis of our interactions over every coffee and cocktail.

Some of the more popular places we visited – such as the Thien Duong Cave, Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park and Cat Ba Island – were wonderful. Others were on the road less travelled because there was less reason to travel there. We may not have had any practitioners of the 'buy-me-a-trip-and-I'll-write-you-an-ad' style of journalism on the trip, but I'll be interested to see what any of us write about, for instance, the somewhat minimal remnants of the old citadel of Dong Noi.

Surprisingly, the food on the tour was generally bad. One meal in particular was outrageously poor, considering we were dining in a hotel in a country where a dollar can buy a delicious lunch on every second street corner. A proper food writer would've gone all Giles Coren on its arse. He would say the chicken had been napalmed, the greens defoliated, you would've had to destroy this meal in order to save it, all that kind of rubbish. But for well brought-up people like the majority of Australian travel writers, it seems ungrateful and ungracious to criticise, like telling your host at a dinner party what you really thought of her attempts to cook a pork belly twice.

Travel journalism should have the confidence, expertise and passion of contemporary food writing. Instead, it tends to display all the wit, insight and critical thinking of an infomercial. But I didn't demolish the meal in print, I didn't recommend it, I just didn't mention it.

I absented myself from our organised tour of Hanoi to wander the streets on my own. Once again, I feared I had no story: that, in this case, there was no story. It was a warm afternoon, with petrol fumes gathered like mist over the island ruin in Hoan Kiem Lake. I walked to the Old Quarter among coffin makers and tombstone masons. Newer businesses stocked enamel red star badges, sold to be pinned ironically, but only twenty years ago I was buying them as souvenirs for friends who would have worn them with pride. I felt sad for times that had passed, but suddenly exhilarated by the present too. I breathed incense, fish sauce, shrimp paste and tamarind, pork skin, lotus seed and engine oil. I saw tiny temples crammed between shophouses, watched a woman burn money in the street for her ancestors. I began to notice every detail, and not just because I was searching for adjectives. I realised I was in a wondrous place, at a moment that would never be repeated, when communism and Confucianism were both trying to accommodate consumerism, and I'm not saying that because I like the alliteration or I'm struggling to be clever, but because I saw history concertina from the cobbled pavements and timber shutters, the swarming scooters and the smiling face of Uncle Ho, the kindly murderer.

I remembered life hadn't always been just about the story. In the one-thousand-year-old city of Hanoi, where once I wrote love letters to a woman who had left me, I rediscovered the joy of travel.

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