When did you go to North Vietnam, how long did you stay, and how widely did you travel?

Iarrived on the 22nd September, and stayed for 57 days. Originally I’d been invited for three weeks, but I explained to the Vietnamese authorities it was very difficult to get the feeling of the place and the facts right in only three weeks, so little by little they accepted my staying there longer. I was supposed to stay about 50 days, and the extra week was due to the fact that no planes were getting in or out of Hanoi, so I just couldn’t leave. I travelled over 3,000 kilometres by car, quite apart from what I did on foot or by bicycle. I went east to Haiphong, and west almost to the Laotian frontier, where they have a lot of ethnic minorities—Muong, Mans, Thais—and where, on the first approaches to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, I saw the lorries that were obviously going down south that way. Several times I asked to go to the 17th Parallel, but they wouldn’t let me for security reasons, so I couldn’t go further down than Thanh Hoa, beyond the Hamrong bridge. They explained that the risks were much too high, and even after I’d written a few articles and I told them jokingly that I’d done my duty, they still wouldn’t let me go. They put it in a nutshell by saying, ‘Your job is to write and not to get killed.’

But apart from that, the programme I suggested was completely fulfilled. The only restrictions concerned taking photographs. You can get permission to photograph a SAM or a gun emplacement, but I wasn’t particularly interested in pictures—I’m not a particularly good photographer anyway. There was no censorship. When I say censorship, I mean nobody would cut out pieces from an article. Twice they asked me to alter details in articles, which I did very willingly, because they could conceivably have given information to the Americans about a certain type of set-up for a ferry. But apart from that, it’s very remarkable, there is no censorship. Some Russian journalists there even ring up Moscow directly. In fact there’s an almost unbelievable atmosphere of freedom. Frankly, I felt much freer in Hanoi at war than in East Berlin—which may be only three-quarters of a peace, but where there is no war actually going on. The security system, I’m sure, is extremely strong, but there is no police atmosphere in Hanoi—that is very striking. You walk into the Foreign Ministry and there’s just one guard. If you talk to a Minister one afternoon, suddenly in the street that evening you may pass somebody and think, ‘I’ve seen that man somewhere’, and it’s the Minister. Of course I’m sure President Ho Chi Minh and Premier Pham Van Dong and General Giap, and one or two others have guards and are escorted, but not excessively. Far less than in any East European country. That is very important. In the provinces, for instance, when I went around with fairly important cadres, leaders of provincial administrative committees, they were never armed—at times I was almost worried about it. And this even in very remote districts—those districts where the Americans at one stage of the game hoped they could send commando groups—the jungle and forest districts around the Laotian frontier. The relations between the cadres and the people are obviously extremely good.

How has the war affected the lives and work of the people of Hanoi?

Hanoi, with Haiphong, are the only two towns that have not been razed. Haiphong, as I saw during a two and half day inspection—at that time it was the middle of October—has been almost half wiped out. Hanoi has not been wiped out, and the Americans have not yet decided to raze the town, which I think they could do from a military point of view, though they would incur heavy losses. It is obviously a capital at war, with machine guns and guns all over the place, military lorries, militia men and soldiers—in limited quantities—walking through the streets. But at the same time a terrific, a formidable effort is made to keep life going. The atmosphere is one of normalcy. This expresses itself not only in the theatres, cinemas, and cafés that are open, and the surprising, smiling atmosphere of the town, but also in the fact that whenever a street is hit, whenever a house is destroyed by American bombing, the North Vietnamese clear it up immediately. They repair things, they try to keep the town as normal as possible.