Ban Méthuot

MONSIEUR DOUSTIN, chief representative, in the temporary absence of the Resident, of the French civil authority in the province, accepted the time and manner of my arrival with the imperturbability of a true diplomat. To judge from his manner nothing could have been more normal than my appearance at his door filthy and dishevelled, about thirty hours after I had been expected. When, shortly afterwards, seated before a meal of great complication, my plans were discussed and I mentioned my hope of getting across country to Pakse, there was no exasperated raising of the eyes. In the presence of such lunatic hopes Monsieur Doustin allowed himself only the faintest of sardonic smiles. The trouble with the people at Saigon, of course, was that they just didn’t know what was happening; which, said Doustin severely, was a little surprising considering that they were the official source of information. Ban Methuot to Pakse! The sardonic smile deepened a little. No one had done the trip for a year or two. It wasn’t even known whether the track was practicable, or whether it had vanished into the jungle by now. In any case, nothing whatever was known about the state of security of the region. These people that stuck to their offices in Saigon were carried away by their imaginations. There wasn’t much traffic leaving Ban Methuot in any direction, and unless one had a positive mission it was just as well to be philosophical and go wherever the first moyen de fortune happened to be going. Even that might mean quite a few days cooling one’s heels. And why not? There were few more interesting areas in Indo¬china, or the Far East, if it came to that. An anthropologist’s paradise, Doustin said. And one that was passing away before your very eyes. I had arrived, in fact, just in time.
There was another important point to remember, the Chef de cabinet said. In the Darlac province, he personally would guarantee my safety; but once I passed beyond the frontiers of his jurisdiction, ah, that was another matter. Pirates everywhere. People who called themselves nationalists, or freedom fighters, but who really took to piracy just as their ancestors before them had done, because it was the easiest way of making a living. This brought up the convoy attack and Doustin said that he had heard that eight vehicles had been destroyed out of the thirty-odd that made up the convoy. The conversation turned to the tranquillity of life in our respective home countries. Doustin had memories of service in England with the Free French, spent in what I had always thought of as drab provincial towns, but where, according to him, all the problems of existence had been solved. I was continually being invited by French officials to share a nostalgia for such unlikely places as Birkenhead or Dover – Peterborough was Doustin’s choice – seen now across the years of fierce, sunny exile as congeries of quaint pubs, full of tenderly acquiescent maidens and wrapped in a Turner sunset. It is extraordinary, too, the experiences that people can succeed in remembering with affection. Doustin had even come to believe that he had liked Naafi tea.
A room had been prepared for me in the Residence. It was not a large building, but conceived in the grand manner, with a wide ambassadorial entrance and a flight of steps worthy of an Italian customs house. Sentries ensconced in the bougainvillaea woke up and slapped their rifle-stocks furiously at our approach. As soon as we entered the house white-clad Mo’i domestics with tamed, empty faces flitted at our heels.
Tomorrow morning,’ announced Doustin with the voice of decision, ‘you will be tired. Very well, breakfast at eight o’clock. An English breakfast, naturally, with an omelette. You don’t take beer before eleven, do you? Ah, the English light ale!’
And now came the moment of efficient unbending – efficient, because Doustin could not be otherwise. ‘If you want anything don’t stand on ceremony. Just stand at the window and holler. Poussez un grand coup de gueule.’ A light, saloon-bar slap on the back and I was dismissed for the night. The quick, confident footsteps receding down the marble corridor. The yelp of the guard-commander. The sharp acceleration of a car being driven competently, dashingly, away. I put out the light and opened the windows. My cheeks, ears, chin were brushed by soft, disgusting contacts. Hundreds of moths were coming in.
As I was not to see Doustin before ten in the morning, I spent an hour or two before that looking round the town. There was not much to see. Before 1946 there had been a native town, but it had been burned down in the trouble with the Viet-Minh. Now there were a few French villas on each side of a dust road, a sluttish-looking hotel built of wood and green-painted, and a Vietnamese market with a few shack-lined alleys leading off it.
The Vietnamese shops sold a great collection of improbable rubbish; celluloid dolls and soapboxes, plastic belts, calendars with pictures of Chinese girls playing hockey, spurious rhinoceros horn used as an aphro¬disiac and fake tigers’ teeth as a medicine. There were dried and salted flatfish no bigger than five-shilling pieces. Thousands of them. They were strewn about on counters mixed up with haberdashery and bottles of blood-coloured lemonade. There were innumerable hideous Ali-Baba jars, brown and green and with a glaze like toffee. These are made by the Vietnamese and sold to the Mo’is for use in their drinking ceremonies. The most popular personal ornament on sale was an enamel brooch depicting a Flying Fortress. For the house one could buy a picture of Sun- Yat-Sen in a mother-of-pearl-studded frame, a landscape decorated with artificial flowers and grass, or a mirror painted with planets with aero¬planes encircling them. The most popular utensil, and undoubtedly the one of greatest utility in the East, was the jerrycan. Bicycle repairing was the most popular industry represented in the market. After that came portrait photography; particularly booths which offered a large number of different poses – photomaton style – for a fixed sum. The Vietnamese trotted in and out of them continually. Few Mois were to be seen but I saw one ultra-civilised Moi woman, probably a convert of some kind, wearing nothing above the waist but a ridiculously inadequate brassiere, and carrying a blue plastic handbag.

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