Retreat from Cao Bang by Richard Baker

Richard Baker’s Retreat From Cao Bang: A Short History and Guide for Tourists (Ink and Lens, 92. pp., $8.50, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is just what the title and subtitle claim: a short—pithy, even—guidebook. Baker, who served in Vietnam with the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Band, packs a lot of information into fewer than a hundred pages. There are many photographs in this small book, and they give a good sense of the history of Cao Bang in far northern Vietnam, where the Viet Minh defeated the French in a large battle in 1950.

Baker’s information is detailed and helpful. For instance, when he tells the reader about a war memorial worth visiting, he says, “Do not arrive between noon and 2 pm. Like everything in Viet Nam, the entire country shuts down at this time causing great frustration to tourists who are most active during these hours. Not even a bottle of water can be bought.”

If you are a collector of hand-woven fish traps, this book tells you where such an item can be obtained. Baker also offers details on a park where you can see twenty species of bats and forty species of reptiles. I pictured those beasts peeking out of my boots.

Baker cautions the reader that few relics of the French and Viet Minh era remain visible along any route. This materiel has long since been melted down “for more useful purposes even as the bomb craters from the American war have been ploughed under.”

The point is made more than once to not drink the water. One of the reasons the French lost their war in Indochina, he says, was due to thirst that drove them to drink the water, which caused dysentery and other stomach and intestinal ailments. “Viet Nam is flooded with water, none of it potable,” Baker tells us.

The racism of the French that helped lead to their defeat is discussed; it reminded me of my time in Vietnam. “They never imagined the Viet Minh were capable of hauling guns through the jungle and into the hills,” he writes of the French, “so they had not prepared for such an attack.”  We did not learn from the failures of the French.

NVA Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap (pointing) following the Battle of Cao  Bang in 1950

The French wanted “set-piece battles” from the Viet Minh, who failed to oblige them, preferring to fight using hit-and-run tactics. Many memoirs and novels I’ve read by Americans complain bitterly that the enemy would not stand and fight like men. But, as Baker shows, the Vietnamese communists knew that fighting a European-type war would result in disaster. So they avoided it.

There is lots to appreciate in this little book.  I highly recommend reading it before you embark on a tourist journey of battlefields in Vietnam.

The author’s website is www.asiaoncall.com

—David Willson

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