Australian journalist Luke Hunt opens up about his book, Punji Trap, and its main character Pham Xuan An, a Viet Cong spy masquerading as a journalist who managed to shape the outcome of the Vietnamese War. Photography by Lim Sokchanlina.
What is the Punji Trap about?
It’s about Pham Xuan An, who was the Viet Cong’s highest rated spy during the Vietnam War. At the same time, he was among the highest rated Vietnamese journalists working in the Western press and did enormous – depending on whose side you’re on – damage to the Americans and their efforts in South Vietnam. He was hailed a hero. The Americans didn’t land in Da Nang until 1965 and he was already entrenched with communists by the 1940s. The book is also as much about the journalists who worked there, a lot of people who I got to know and worked with over the years.
Why did you write this book?
It started when I wrote about An for my undergraduate thesis, when no one really knew who he was and not much had been published on him. I’d go up to North Vietnam in the 1990s and spend three or four days interviewing him. I made a lot of trips in 10 years and a lot more when I was here [Cambodia] – he died in 2006 and I was bureau chief for Agence France-Presse here in 2001. The biggest problem was when I’d interview these guys, they’d say, “This is on the record, this is off the record”. It made it impossible to write. In the end I decided to sit on it. When An and a few others died, I thought now’s the time to finish it off.
Why did you choose to write about Vietnam?
I grew up as the Vietnam War was unfolding on TV. I saw the footage of that little girl running down the street, watching it on the nightly news as it actually happened. We had a close family friend who was a marine that was killed in Vietnam. It evolved from there. I was always deeply fascinated with Southeast Asia, and still am. I love Cambodia, but it was always more about Vietnam for me.
How did An impact the war efforts?
The Vietnamese told enormous lies, and one of the great lies was told by An. After the Tet offensive in 1968, the world was convinced America was losing in Vietnam and the Americans had lost the Tet offensive. This was complete nonsense. The Americans annihilated the Viet Cong and the communists, and the communists would admit this 20 years later. An maintained that lie through who he was writing for in the media. He would set up bogus interviews and take journalists down alleys to meet these North Vietnamese communist types. He managed to convince the world. That turned popular opinion in America against the war, and once that had turned, even though they remained there until 1972, it was impossible for them to maintain the effort or war. An won five liberation exploit medals, including two for Tet.
Do you identify at all with An?
I’ve wondered about that. I can identify with him as a professional journalist, but he became communist in the early days. He never questioned it, he always assumed they had the answers and assumed it’s a war of liberation. He had plenty of opportunity to leave and get out. But he didn’t, he believed in the cause. Then the communists arrived, and he realised what it was actually all about. It was only then that he had his moment of clarity, the cathartic experience – “Oh dear, what happened here?” What he did was get a lot of people killed for a particular side. He was always the espionage. Being a journalist was his cover and a lot of people died because of his beliefs. He’s a terrific bloke, totally charming, extremely intelligent and bright. He was the cool man of Saigon among the press pack. He was extremely likeable, but I think he struggled after 1975 with the whole, “What did I do?”, because what they got wasn’t what they thought they would.
How did you get into journalism?
I was a natural born reporter. I did well at school in English and comprehension and I enjoyed it, it was never forced. I studied journalism and worked on outback and country newspapers in Australia before scoring a cadetship with AAP [Australian Associated Press]. I always wanted to do the foreign correspondent thing, and started working with AFP and went to Hong Kong, the Philippines and Afghanistan in 1998 and 1999. I was also at the invasion of Iraq, Cashmere and Sri Lanka. I had a really good run. I went freelance and worked with The Economist and New York Times, and over the years The Diplomat has been good to me. I was offered a gig to run a course in international relations at Pannasatra University of Cambodia, and this book was published by them as part of the recommended reading for that course, so it worked out really well.
How has the war reporting scene changed?
The biggest change is technology. I’ve covered wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for quite a few lengthy periods, and we’re always saying how much it changes. But it’s probably not the journalists that have changed, it’s how the task has changed, especially with smartphones. Combat zones are dangerous, and you have to weigh up the risks and costs before sending anyone there. Now you can call someone on the frontline and they can hold up their phone and show you what’s happening and take photos themselves. Why would you take the risk if it’s not necessary?
Punji Trap is now available at Monument Books.