The following article by Adrian Deevoy appeared in a December 1996 issue of The Sunday Times magazine...
Good Evening, Vietnam - Sting is an Englishman in Saigon - the first British musician to play in the land of the American nightmare...
As we glide through the rural Ho Chi Minh municipality in Vietnam, Sting gazes out of the window of the minibus at the rubber plantations, the goose farms and the skinny, cuppa-coloured lads fishing in the paddy fields. "It looks like the Amazon to me", he says, recalling his time spent in the rainforest, time that has come to symbolise the best and worst of eco-warrior interference with other cultures. "I really hope they don't ruin all this. It's got something that's very magical. Purely selfishly, I want the place to remain unspoilt. I'd love to come back, maybe take a trip up to Hanoi on my own motorbike." The mood changes when he notices a couple of young boys watching a cockfight. There are slivers of sharpened steel fixed to the roosters' feet and, as they kick, their opponent's flesh rips. The contest is over when one bird has disembowelled the other. It is cruel, pointless and grimly poignant.
Tonight, Sting will take to the stage in downtown Ho Chi Minh City (the area most Vietnamese still call Saigon), the first British musician to play in the country since the war ended 21 years ago. He is enjoying his foray into what he clearly regards as unspoilt territory - as unspoilt as any country can be that has suffered invasion, the excesses of black-marketeering, prostitution and poverty, napalming and virtual genocide within the fast 30 years. Vietnam is the last leg of his Far Eastern tour he has already been to Japan and Thailand. The surreal nature of the trip is enhanced by the presence of Sting's agent, Ian Copeland, brother of the former Police drummer, Stewart, and the son of CIA consultant Miles Copeland. Sting is a Vietnam virgin. Ian, however, signed up to come here in 1968 and stayed for 366 days.
Several unanswered, possibly unanswerable questions, thread our way through the countryside. Is there really a demand for Sting's music here, or is he a pawn, albeit a willing one, in Vietnam's glasnost game? Does the government see this is a massive tourism exercise? Do the poiltburo boys just want to have fun? Earlier in the day we had travelled on Highway 13, which heads out northwest from Ho Chi Minh City across the infamous Iron Triangle, a three-point field covering 60 square miles between the Cambodian border, the black hills of Tay Ninh, and Saigon. This was one of the most heavily bombed and defoliated areas in the whole war. Today, between the shanties where mothers and babies nap in hammocks, rice farmers tend their crops in conical sampan hats or squat at low tables sipping green tea.
The silvery fields induce a meditative state. Sting seems lost in thought. Perhaps he is wondering how a school teaching son of a milkman from the north-east of England ever came to be an international superstar. How, on the strength of a smouldering smirk and a winning way with a memorable tune, he became so rich that he didn't rumble his accountant until he had helped himself to over £6m of Sting's personal fortune. Equally, he could simply be pondering on how Newcastle have done at home this afternoon. The woad-daubed campaigner so given to environmental deliberations and planet saving gestures that he ended up with compassion fatigue in 1989 doesn't seem to care quite so consciously any more. At times you are left with the impression that the former king of the jungle doesn't give a monkey's.
We stop off at the Cao Dai temple in Tay Ninh. Sting is serene and still, but he puts this down to a numbing hangover. He has, none the less, done his homework. "Cao Dai is a kind of catch-all melting pot of a religion; he improvises. "Part Christianity, part Buddhism and part Confucianism. I always think it's a good idea to hedge your bets when it comes to religion." He is sporting a close blond crop that looks like the result of a romantic liaison between a Zen master and a homosexual skinhead. People stop and stare, but it is impossible to tell whether they are drawn to him as a celebrity or just because he is some funny-looking white bloke. Strolling around the nearby village, we meet an overzealous Vietnamese English teacher, keen to practise his second language. He scrutinises Sting, who is having his photograph taken. "Your friend must be a film star", he decides. "Ah, yes, most very handsome, with blue eyes and tall and strong with a lovely big nose." You haven't the heart to inform him that this film star once paid a cosmetic surgeon a small fortune to reduce the dimensions of this particular attribute.
Ninety minutes later we are at Cu Chi, where, in one of the war's most ingenious manoeuvres, the Vietcong went underground. Their survival slogan was "Walk without footprints, talk without sound, cook without smoke, become invisible in all activities." In all, 210 miles of labyrinthine, hand dug tunnels were laid, some even running around and beneath American base camps. There is a shop where dead GI's cigarette lighters and now fashionable items of Vietnamese uniform can be purchased. Walking through the jungle towards the tunnels, we receive some bad news: there are 133 snakes indigenous to Vietnam. The good news, we are assured, is that only 130 of them are poisonous.
Sting is the first into the tunnels. He drops down 12ft to the mouth and then, on our guide's instructions, scrambles along the airless tube on all fours, staring into solid blackness. This is what hell must be like, except not so hot and less cramped. Sting asks Copeland if there is any technique he can recommend to make our passage more bearable. "Yeah," pants Copeland, crawling closely behind him, "don't fart." Out through another tunnel and up some crudely hewn steps, and we are standing, squinting in the sunlight. The surrounding area is pitted with craters, the visible attempts of B52 bombers to destroy the tunnels. Sting surveys one of the vast holes; then looks up at the sky and sighs. "It's just so tragic" he says, and wanders off alone to examine a burnt-out helicopter. Copeland has other plans. He is already on the adjacent shooting range, an M16 rifle in his hand. Without waiting for the instructor to give him the green light, he fires off 10 rounds, hitting three bulls-eyes several times over. He lowers the gun and walks away dripping with sweat. "Kid's still got it," he says proudly.
John Pilger once remarked that he "used to see Vietnam as a war, rather than a country; and in recent years the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam has set out to reverse that thinking. Although trade with the West is minimal at present, the current administration encourages development and private enterprise. General Vo Nguyen Giap, first commander in chief of the People's Army of Vietnam, caught the popular mood when he said, "My generation washed away the shame of losing our country's independence, and now it is your turn to wash away the shame of being a poor and backward Country" Southeast Asia is a strong market for any rock musician, but business is not profitable: Sting's team have already acknowledged that the groups gains will be slender and barely cover the group's travelling expenses. But, to satisfy curiosity if nothing else, the visit seems worth it. "I want to do this because it will be memorable; says Sting. "When you play these weird places, you're always rewarded more than you would be playing 25 basketball arenas in America. I'd like to be invited back. That would be success for me."
A press conference is called a day before the concert: Before Sting takes the podium, the National Assembly's minister for culture and information salutes this writer of many good songs and hopes that "if anything goes wrong during the concert tomorrow, you will please forget it". Sting tries not to laugh. The journalists prepare to grill him on the cultural significance of his visit. He wrong foots them immediately by announcing that there isn't one. "I don't feel as if I've come here as a cultural ambassador," he says. "I've come as a musician. There's always this grandiose idea that you're bringing the West to Vietnam. I'm not. I don't represent our culture very much, I represent myself. I don't represent rock'n'roll. I don't care whether they have any more rock bands here or not. I suppose it's better that I come than some dreadful heavy metal band, but that's it".
A reporter asks Sting how he feels about the fact that most people in Vietnam have only ever heard his music on bootleg CDs and even then they don't understand a word he's singing. Sting speaks about music being a universal language that communicates in more than mere words, and say's he'd rather people heard his music on pirate recordings than not at all. "That question really threw me," he says afterwards. "What was I meant to say: 'Yes, I'm delighted that people are stealing my material, and no, I couldn't give a shit if they don't get the lyrics'?" Another writer inquires if Sting still considers himself to be a 'chess pariah'. This turns out, after an awkward series of repetitions, to be "jazz player'. Another asks him to solve a Confucius-like riddle: if music is architecture, then what type of structure are you building? The obvious reply is "A bridge, but words fail him and all he can think of saying is "An outside toilet". "When you go back home," grins a nervous stranger, "perhaps you will be writing the song An Englishman in Saigon?; a reference to his international hit An Englishman in New York. Sting, who hears this hilarious suggestion in virtually every country he plays, remains courteous to the last. "No," he says flatly, "I won't."
Even hard-bitten road rats who have been on tour for 20 years can get excited about a night out in old Saigon. Anticipation is heightened by the news that one of our number has already been mugged by a transvestite and ripped off by a dope dealer. With watches, wallets and earrings safely at the hotel, the 15-strong Sting party, now including personal and tour managers, musicians, technicians, translators the tour accountant and the regional promoter, journeys through the 90 degree heat and 100% late-monsoon humidity to the air-conditioned sanctuary of a Vietnamese restaurant. Considerable volumes of Thai beer and French wine are sunk, and although the domestic snake wine - a whole cobra floating in a fluid of dubious vintage - is politely refused, it isn't long before the talk gets earnest. "The way I see it," Sting says, is 60,000 American soldiers and countless Vietnamese died for no reason. Maybe that's a simplistic view, but what on earth did 500,000 American troops think they were doing here in the first place? These people are peasants, simple country folk, they weren't a fighting machine.
"What's forgotten", contests Copeland, "is that we did succeed in our mission, in that we basically kept the North Vietnamese out and spent the latter years supplying and training and arming the South Vietnamese so they could fight their own war". It dawns on the company that Copeland doesn't believe that America lost the war. "That's a popular misconception," he says. "The American army were not handed their asses".
Mercifully, another wave of unfamiliar food arrives and Sting's attention is drawn to the female trio playing classical Vietnamese music on what look like ancient knitting machines. "It sounds beautiful," he croons. "We should get them to support us tomorrow night." Kim Turner, Sting's co-manager, springs into action and makes the house band an offer they can't understand but manage not to refuse. We swim out into steaming, seething Saigon streets, where we are immediately besieged by a swarm of beggars, drug peddlers and pickpockets, few of them older than 15. Armed only with a mantra that translates as Go away or I'll run you over in my tank" we are offered oral sex, opium, heroin, and hash - smartly packaged as regular cigarettes - as well as more conventional souvenirs. The initial asking price for anything is "fi' dollah".
A woman with a baby approaches Sting. The child has been taught to hold out its hand for money. "What chance has that kid got?" Sting asks the mother exasperatedly, sounding like a bad actor in a worse film. "What land of life will he have if you're teaching him to behave like that?" the mighty conscience goes on but he is hitting a wall. The woman doesn't understand English. She stares blankly, repeatedly demanding money, until they are both distracted by a girl who is attempting to show Sting her stump. "Oh, God", he groans. "Let's get another drink". Inside Stephanie's Bar, Sting is encircled again, this time by petite women in tight satin dresses, offering sexual congress at never to-be-repeated prices. He settles for a neck massage and a beer.
The concert is to be held in a 4000-capacity municipal sports hall in Ho Chi Minh City Ticket prices are high - a months wages for the average Vietnamese - and the front rows are inevitably filled with moneyed ex pats. High to the right of the stage is an area marked VIP, where members of the Communist Party and the local People's Council sit. The VIP seats have cushions should any anti-imperialist buttocks cramp during the show. Cheap tickets are limited and there are many younger Vietnamese who fail to understand why the prices are so high. There is an atmosphere of expectancy, although nobody quite knows what they are expecting. After all most of them have never been to a gig before. The support band are weaving their mysterious magic and getting a great response (the knitting machines turn out to be traditional instruments called ty ba). Sting looms out of the backstage shadows in his tight black stage attire and frowns. "They're going down too well", he huffs, half joking. "Get them off".
The noise that greets Sting and his band is not the regular, rounded rock-concert roar. It is more of a cry of recognition, underpinned by uninhibited shrieking from the ex-pats. Only the white audience members rise to their feet the Vietnamese are too circumspect and, who knows, if you stand up, someone might pinch your seat. Sting has learnt to say, "Hello, Vietnam, I'm delighted to be in your wonderful country", in Vietnamese. But he gets such a huge laugh when he says it that he immediately starts to worry. Has the interpreter, abetted by his mischievous tour manager, set him up? Has he actually said, "Hello, Vietnam, I find your water buffaloes sexually irresistible"? We never find out.
There is a small detail in the current show that has become a feature of the tour, which has already pitched its tent in more than 70 American, European and Japanese cities. During the song 'I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying', Sting invites an audience member up into the spotlight to assist him with the vocals. This evening, he persuades a porcelain-skinned Vietnamese girl to join him, but midway through his teacherly briefing she interrupts to ask, "Can't we do a song I know?" "No, we bloody can't", scolds Sting. "Now get on with it". She giggles, acquits herself well and receives a heartfelt sitting ovation from her countrymen.
Although Sting made the decision not to tailor his set, many of the songs take on a new resonance. 'If I Ever Lose My Faith in You' sounds like an anthem for the new Vietnam; 'Roxanne', given the country's prostitution problem, is pertinent; Shape of My Heart, a meditation on conflict, is played with fresh conviction, and 'Every Breath You Take', usually a sinister tale of surveillance and seduction, sounds positive, almost optimistic. But it is the closing song, 'Fragile', with its unequivocal antiwar message, that touches the audience most deeply. And did Sting, ever the unshakeable professional, really choke with emotion as he sang the line "Nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could"? "No", he insists later. "I belched."
After a post-show shower, Sting pads softly into the hotel restaurant in sandals, half mast Chinese trousers and an expensively demoralised jumper. "That's something to tell the grandchildren," he declares. "We played Vietnam... and won". He runs a finger down the menu and chooses some white bean soup and a meatless noodle dish. He loves the idea, he says, that everyone gets around on mopeds and bicycles, as opposed to sitting in their BMWs and stinking the place up, as in Thailand. The fact the Vietnamese might like the option of polluting their own country, could they afford to, seems lost on him. We discuss the country's prostitution, which he describes as "a step beyond decadence; it's just sad". But he adds, "It's an economical problem and it's difficult to be judgmental". Surely it isn't difficult to be judgmental when you are being offered sex with a child for five dollars? "Of course", he says. "That's wrong. Prostitution has always been there, always will be, but child sex I can't tolerate. I think the appetite for it comes from the West, doesn't it? We've got to do everything we can to protect children from this kind of abuse".
Sting has been on tour for eight months, with two to go, and he is tired. After Christmas he will take a year off. No touring, no recording, nothing. At 45, he needs to take stock, reassess. He is missing his wife, Trudie Styler, and his six kids (Giacomo, 11 months; Coco, 6; Jake, 11; Mickey, 12; and the son and daughter from his first marriage to the actress Frances Tomelty: Kate, 13, and Joe, 19). "I want to think and be with my family and see my youngest son and take care of the important stuff; he says. "I have to prepare for change. I want to be happy when I'm older. I want to have a fulfilled life, and you have to plan for that". One day, of course, he will give up. "I'll say, 'Put the corset away, I'm not going on stage tonight,' and that will be that." But will it ever happen? In reality, rock musicians seem very reluctant to retire. "It's an interesting one, isn't it", he puzzles. "Rock music is supposed to be rebellious, but most of the people who are making it successfully are landed gentry. It's a real cliché, the English rock star becoming the lord of the manor, but... I kind of like it". He laughs loudly and sets down his chopsticks. "Anyway; he shrugs, "deep down I'm still a yobbo from Newcastle".
Tomorrow, Sting is off to Australia. Everyone is delighted that the Vietnam idea became a reality, and Sting has already been invited back. Maybe he will take that motorbike trip to Hanoi after all. Enticed by the schoolboy chortling, Ian Copeland comes across to join Sting for a nightcap. It has been an emotional trip. Everyone has found a land of peace, though some ghosts refuse to be lain to rest. They live on at the nearby Museum of War Crimes, in the photographs of American tortures and atrocities and in the glass jars containing the deformed foetuses of Agent Orange victims. "Did you lose anyone close?" Sting asks. "No, not close", says Copeland. "You didn't get close". But he must have horrific memories of death, of killing? "The really bad memories blot themselves out" he says. "Your mind won't let you carry that stuff around". It's getting late and there are early flights to catch. But, before lights out, there is a final toast: to friendship, the future and Vietnam: a country, not at war.
© The Sunday Times