River of Time: A Memoir of Vietnam - Jon Swain River of Time is mainly a memoir of Jon Swain's time as a journalist in Cambodia leading up to the takeover of the Khmer Rouge, but it also includes parts detailing his time in Vietnam, Laos and Ethiopia. This memoir is very emotional, and you can tell that the author has a lot of emotion for the area he writes about. The early part of the book is devoted to the naive and peaceful view of the Cambodians and foreigners in and around Phnom Penh, while at the same time the rest of the country was falling slowly but surely to the Khmer Rouge. After being stripped of his working visa in Cambodia (he still doesn't know exactly why it was taken away), the news service he was working for transferred him to Vietnam. He then describes his memories in Vietnam, which are dominated by the memories of the half Vietnamese half French woman he was with at the time, Jacqueline. The book then goes on to give examples of the horror and suffering that Swain saw when he returned to Phnom Penh, which was on the verge of falling to the Khmer Rouge by the time he arrived. And with this we get to the main reason I wanted to read the memoir, which was his experience of the fall of Phnom Penh. It is a very good description of the madness and uncertainty of Phnom Penh, as people were being rounded up, with the political opponents executed and everyone else being forced out of Phnom Penh on a mass exodus to work on collectivized farms. Much of this chapter will be fairly familiar to people who watched the movie The Killing Fields. After being taken to Thailand, he then briefly describes his life there, his short stay in Laos, and finally his visit to Hanoi. After a description of the horrors and suffering of the Vietnamese boat people, he tells of his return to Europe and his decision to accept an assignment to Ethiopia- during which he is captured and held prisoner for being a suspected "imperialist spy". During his time in Ethiopia as a prisoner, Swain reflects on his childhood and his time in the French Foreign Legion, although he never actually finished training, but he was in it for a brief period. After being freed from Ethiopia, he went back to France and then to London- And while in France, his relationship with Jacqueline ends, she being tired of his constant running away without her, and having already lost a journalist husband in Cambodia, she could not bare to go through it again. After a period working a desk job at the Sunday Times of London, he received a message from Dith Pran saying that he had survived; Swain then returned to Cambodia to see his old friend and experience the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge. The Phnom Penh he returned to was not the one that he had left; it had been so thoroughly destroyed that the hotel he was staying in (Only two had been reopened in the year following Phnom Penh's liberation by the Vietnamese, and one was being used strictly to house foreign aid workers) could not even serve meals because they did not have any utensils. There were no phones, no paper, no monks and no currency; the libraries had been emptied of all there books, and had just reopened a few days before his visit, with only two English novels in the entire library: Little Women and George Orwell's Burmese Days. The country had nearly been obliterated. Swain says that if it had not been for the Vietnamese invading when they did, Pol Pot may have succeeded in completely destroying any vestige of Cambodian society. After this he returned to "liberated" Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City), and saw the suffering and poverty that were now rampant in the city. Many of his friends were suspected of being Western spies, and only the families of rich Communist officials from Hanoi were doing well under this new regime. Swain ends the book saying he hopes that Indochina will eventually return to what he remembered it as, but that it is difficult to keep his hopes up that Indochina will return to its former self.


This was a very good memoir, and I would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in Vietnam or Cambodia. It is one of my goals in life to visit every country in Indochina. Although I have yet to step foot out of the United States, I have done a lot of reading on Indochina and have an immense interest in visiting (and maybe even living) in the area. I am not entirely sure why, but since the age of 12 or 13 I have always wanted to visit.