Central Annum 6

Back at Pleiku we discussed over a dinner of roast peacock – which was rather like tough veal – the possibility of my getting through to Stung Treng. Once again the Resident told me that he would willingly take me to Bo-Kheo, but thought that it would be extremely ill-advised to make the journey. I formed the opinion that he was secretly worried at the idea of my going so far, even as Bo-Kheo, because, as he later confessed, apart from any responsibility he felt over me, he frankly didn’t want to lose an almost irreplaceable car. This being a very reasonable and understand¬able attitude, I felt that I could not trespass any further on the Resident’s kindness. The original intention, as suggested by Monsieur de la Fourniere at Saigon, had been to take advantage of any lifts I could get with people who in the ordinary course of their duties were travelling across country. But the people didn’t exist, and it had never been any part of my intention to inveigle administrators, hard pushed as they were, into making special journeys, involving risk to their personnel and vehicles, on my behalf. I therefore told Monsieur Préau that I had decided against attempting to make the cross-country journey to Laos and would return, as soon as an opportunity offered, to Saigon.
The Resident then suggested as an alternative that I might go further north to Kontum, the ultimate town in French occupation. Kontum is the centre of the Bahnar country, where Bahnar villages are still to be seen, not as I had seen them in wretched degeneration at Mang-Yang, but unspoilt, with their amazing communal houses with steepled roofs and their primitive communism which is carried to such lengths that a single chicken will, if necessary, be divided into fifty parts. It was an attractive idea, but I felt that this delay might endanger the visit to Laos, which might be cut off by the rains before I could get there. When opportunities of this kind turned up one always had to think, not so much about the time expended in the actual journey, as the time one might have to waste, stranded somewhere, awaiting some means of getting back. The Resident then made another suggestion. He was obliged to make a routine visit to the village of Plei-Kli, which was one hundred miles on the road to Ban Methuot. If I wanted to take this opportunity to get back to Ban Methuot, he would come with me, as it would provide him with a good excuse to get away for a couple of days. This suggestion I naturally fell in with, only too relieved to find that I should not have to lose a week or two in Pleiku before an opportunity arose of getting away.

Our arrival at Ban Methuot coincided with the first day of the feast of Tet. All activity in the town was paralysed. The shops were shut and there was nobody about. For the Vietnamese this was the combination of all the religious feasts of the Western world, and, since there is no Sabbath in the East, it was the only holiday of the year. Just before midnight a ceremony had been staged in each Vietnamese house to take leave of the household spirit of the expiring lunar year, which is believed to return at this time to the Jade Emperor with a detailed report of the family’s actions, for good or for evil. The departing spirit had been provided, in addition to a lavish send-off meal, with money for the voyage, mandarins’ shoes, a winged bonnet of the kind that only spirits and mandarins are entitled to wear, and the legendary carp on which the spirit would ride to heaven. The feast would serve also to welcome the incoming spirit and to invite the ancestral spirits to participate in the ensuing New Year’s festivities. The day of our arrival would be dedicated to visits exchanged by families and friends, the Scottish custom of‘first footing’ in reverse, as there is some competition to avoid being the first to cross a threshold at the New Year, since to do so is to carry the responsibility for any misfortunes which may fall on the family during that year.
Monsieur Doustin was, of course, not at all surprised to see me again, but did not know how he was going to get me back to Saigon. The whole country would be in the catalepsy of the Tet for a full week, and, even after that, he had no idea when a convoy would be formed. The recent attacks had thrown the merchants into a panic. Ban Methuot, it seemed, was effectively sealed off by solemn feasting and by war. Back in my old room at the Residence I resigned myself to a prolonged appreciation of the view from my window, which looked out over a gracious garden with a peach tree in bloom. It seemed that one or two young couples had succeeded in evading the festive confinement and had made a pilgrimage to admire the classic distortions of the branches and to have themselves photographed against a background of blossom.
Perhaps twenty minutes of reflection were allowed to me before Doustin reappeared. The Emperor Bao-Dai’s plane was arriving in half an hour, and if it were to be returning to Dalat or Saigon he saw no reason why he shouldn’t ask for a lift for me. We therefore jumped into his car and shot out to the airport, arriving there just as the plane had touched down. It was a Dakota, and I was truly delighted to see that a dragon had been painted on the fuselage.
The Emperor was the first to alight, followed by a young lady in black velvet robes, whom from her carriage, which was even more regal than that of most Vietnamese girls, I stupidly presumed to be the Empress. I was later informed that she had been Miss Hanoi 1949, and had accepted the position of air-hostess on the Emperor’s plane. Several French officers and civilians followed but there were no Vietnamese in the Imperial entourage. I was presented to the Emperor who shook hands with reasonable vigour, while I recalled that up to the reign of his grandfather an even accidental physical contact with the Son of Heaven would have involved strangulation, although if the offender had committed the breach of taboo with the intention of protecting the Divine Emperor from some danger, he would have been posthumously promoted to a high rank in the mandarinate and furnished with an expensive tomb.

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