Comment Opinion & Features

Vietnam’s heartbreaking half-century

The home of Bui Thi Nhung, believed to be one of the 39 Essex lorry victims (Getty)

The reports of 39 people – now assumed to be Vietnamese – who froze to death in a lorry container coming from Zeebrugge, and found in Essex – has been hugely distressing. A friend rang me last weekend to say she couldn’t get the sufferings of those afflicted souls out of her head.

Smugglers and people traffickers – who so heartlessly exploit the hopes of would-be migrants – should be found, charged, and, if guilty, made to face the consequences.

But an essential question remains: why are young people – they are mostly young – so desperate to leave Vietnam? Is life so penurious and so unpromising that it’s worth any risk to get away?

And a further question occurs to me, too. What do the now elderly Western radicals think of the Vietnamese cause so many of them championed back in the 1960s – the cause of Ho Chi Minh and a communist Vietnam?

My late husband, Richard West, spent more than 40 years reporting from Vietnam and wrote three books about it, one with the artist Gerald Scarfe. His opinions matured over the years, from the 1960s to the 1990s, and in his last book, War and Peace in Vietnam, he took a much more nuanced view of that divided country, which he loved, than he had during the Vietnam War.

It will be recalled that America first got embroiled in Vietnam when it tried to prop up the South Vietnamese regime against the communist North. Dreadful bombings ensued, as well as massacres, and Richard never changed his mind about these odious methods of war. But he did come to feel that “the gallant South Vietnamese fought on their own against all odds”; and that Saigon’s aspiration to be democratic was honourable, while communism nearly always turned out to be wretched. He also came to deplore the cruelty with which the North Vietnamese regime treated mixed-race children.

And strangely, when the war was over, and the Americans withdrew, Washington under Nixon, and even Reagan, subsequently seemed too anxious to support Hanoi – probably to appease its powerful neighbour, China.

The “boat people” fled Vietnam as soon as the country came under communist rule. And now, struggling migrants seem to be willing to take any risk, pay any price, to make a life in Europe. Heartbreaking.

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During the half-term holiday, the Antony Gormley exhibition at the Royal Academy in London was awash with schoolkids viewing (and interacting with) it. Children often like modern sculptures, because they’re a vivid and concrete form of artistic expression – sometimes literally in concrete.

The exhibition – which continues until December 3 – includes a sort of boxed tunnel, through which you can walk, or feel your way. The kids love that.

All the installations are impressive, but what seems to draw most attention is the Iron Baby, which lies, curled up in a foetal position, in the Royal Academy’s courtyard in Piccadilly. It’s based on

Sir Antony’s newborn daughter.

People feel the need to touch Iron Baby and it particularly engages children. The sculpture is both striking and vulnerable. The artist has written that “its density suggests energy potential like a small bomb. The material is iron (concentrated earth), the same as the core of our planet.”

A compelling representation of the awesomeness of newborn – and perhaps preborn – human life.

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Strictly speaking, the Church is not supposed to do politics, but last weekend our local parish priest in Deal, Kent, underlined one aspect of the Brexit deal (no pun involved) that dismayed him: the French might put a special tariff on imported champagne. Quelle horreur!

Fr Duncan’s appreciation of “the sparkling wine of eastern France”, as it was once called, is one of his own standing jokes, and a point of cheer to the congregation. And why not? The appreciation of the fruit of the vine is perfectly biblical – and perfectly European.

When I was 19, I had a summer job at a convent in the French Pyrenees, where my duties were, simply, to speak English to the Sisters. It astonished me to see them knocking back the local wine at lunchtime with gusto.

In Ireland, at that time, I imagined nuns would need a special dispensation from a bishop to sip a glass of sherry…

Follow Mary Kenny on Twitter: @MaryKenny4