Frangipani trees grew in the market place. They were leafless with polished, swollen-looking branches, and bore sprays of white, thick- petalled flowers. Hundreds of house-sparrows perched in them.
At exactly ten o’clock I was shown into Monsieur Doustin’s office. He awaited me poised beneath a wall map, ready to organise my movements in the period immediately ahead. I was harangued briefly on the military situation, which was presented, as far as I could see, with complete frankness. Doustin was too subtle to indulge in crude propaganda. He would have considered this inefficient, preferring to expose some of the weaknesses as well as all the strength of his side. The Viet-Minh were devils incarnate and the French, well, sometimes they lost patience – went a bit too far. What could you expect with men fighting in these terrible conditions. A couple of years out in the bush and always seeing the same half a dozen faces. How would you like it yourself? Doustin also thought that there was far too much loose, anti-colonial talk about. In this part of the world France had nothing to be ashamed of. They were doing good work and he wanted me to see some of it for myself. So, as there was not much chance of being able to get away from Ban Methuot for a week or two, he was going to arrange a side-trip for me through the most interesting part of the Moi country. It was all arranged. I was to start tomorrow, and a young administrator and an inspector of schools would be going with me.
Although there was an ominous suggestion of the conducted tour in this, it did not, in fact, work out that way. Whether at heart Doustin was really as confident of being on the side of the powers of light as he seemed, I don’t know. My opinion is that whatever his doubts he cast them out, counting them as weakness. He was almost the last of his kind that I met among the French. The rule thereafter was an ability to see two sides to any question, leading to a Hamlet-like infirmity of purpose and sometimes to the darkest of pessimism. Doustin produced a final suggestion. Before visiting the Moi country he thought I should see a Doctor Jouin, who had lived among the tribes for many years and was considered the leading living authority on their customs. Doctor Jouin was the head of the medical services of that nebulous enclave in Vietnam of undiluted French authority: Les Populations Montagnardes du Sud Indochinois, and the author of sev¬eral weighty anthropological works, published under the dignified auspices of the Musée de L’Homme.
I found him at a table cluttered with the charts and mathematical figures that seem to enter so much these days into what one would have thought the least mathematical of sciences. He was white-haired and gentle, his face permanently illuminated with the Buddhistic peace generated by complete absorption in an urgent and valuable task. From the inside information available to him in his official position, the doctor informed me, he had decided ten years ago that this engaging race was doomed in quite a short time to disappear from the earth. He had therefore set to work to learn what he could of their attractive if primitive civilisation before it was too late. In the beginning the task had seemed simple enough and, in any case, he had not intended to probe too deeply. But then he had made exciting discoveries and had been lured on into an unknown country where the horizons constantly receded. Every attempt to clear up some limited aspect of his subject had uncovered endless others. And now he found himself in a trap. He had committed himself to labours which could never be finished. And time and the conditions of the country were against him. It needed a dozen workers like himself to occupy themselves with the still enormous volume of material available which, however, was melting away and which in a few years would be lost for ever.
We started talking about the Moi’s in the early afternoon and it was evening before I left the doctor’s villa, carrying with me various mono¬graphs as well as the manuscript of a work in progress. From these and from our conversation much of the following information has been extracted.