Cholon and Cochin-China 4

There were four days to spare before the car went to Cambodia and I filled in this time by going on one of the more-or-less standard excur¬sions round the re-conquered part of Cochin-China arranged for foreign correspondents by the French army. These trips could be quite exciting if one ran into action, and this made the French a little chary about them, because sometimes correspondents saw more than they were supposed to see, and sent back a batch of unfavourable telegrams. Bob Miller, of the United Press, for instance, was in an armoured barge going up a canal at ten o’clock one night when three sampans were picked up ahead by the searchlight. Two of them failed to stop and were riddled by machine-gun fire. The third gave up and three peasants – an old couple and their son – were brought aboard. They were carrying rice; travelling by night, prob¬ably to avoid the exactions of local officials. Their cargo was tipped into the water. The boy, who tried to escape by jumping over the side, was killed by a hand-grenade thrown in after him. The officer in command was exceedingly young, charming and cooperative. He was convinced that the peasants had not been partisans of the Viet-Minh, but they had broken the curfew regulations, and what followed was the logic of warfare. In a country where they were enormously outnumbered by a hostile populace, it was only by making people understand that breaches of regulations would be punished with extreme severity that they could hope to keep the upper hand. But this kind of logic is apt not to be so apparent to non-combatants, including newspaper men, who some¬times protest that it was the attitude of the Nazis in occupied countries. The scenes and sensations of the next four days followed each other so thick and fast that the memory of them is a photo-montage, a jumble of hardly separable images; the enemy strongpoint seen through the bam¬boo palisade – irresponsive to the machine-gunner’s provocation; the thump of the armoured barge nosing through the sedges, ibises rising up from its bows; the soldiers in isolated posts, reining in their minds with spinsterish occupations, mat-making or knitting; the resigned homage of the notables of fifty villages; the cannonading at night heard from the dim, daemonic interior of a mandarin’s palace.
Luong Hoa stands out. There was a Catholic church with a statue of an Annamese saint standing before a junk, and a remarkable grandfather clock which might have become a cult-object, since the priest bowed slightly in passing it. The clock was covered all over with those rather sickly illustrations which usually accompany religious texts, but it was evident that this was local work as a few Chinese lanterns had been fitted in among the roses and angels. Ever since the Jesuits first went to China, the Far East has been bombarded by clocks, and the palaces of most oriental potentates are as cluttered with them as a French municipal pawnshop. But this, if only on account of sheer size – it must have been nine feet tall – was certainly a worthy object of the villagers’ pride. Luong Hoa had recently suffered forty casualties in a battle with the Viet-Minh.
The French senior officer commanding in this section who showed me round was a man in his middle fifties who bore an astonishing resemblance to the French film actor Raimu. He was a typical pere de famille, bluff-natured and mildly eccentric, who liked to have a drink with the sergeant in charge of any post we visited. Dogs took to him wherever we went, and hung about snuffing affectionately at his boots. He carried a tin of condensed milk in his pocket and every now and then would pour out a dollop for them to lick up. It seemed impossible to associate this man with the bloody happenings that must have occurred within the zone of his command, and perhaps by his orders.
We went stumping together through the next village on foot. It was a delightful place, with half the village fishing in a stream by the side of the road and brightly painted houses with good quality coffins displayed for the neighbours’ benefit outside most of them. Bougainvillaea exploded streakily across the ceramic-tiled front of a pagoda; a benign dragon writhed across the roof-top, and a dancer, embarrassed by trailing robes of porcelain, waved her cymbals across the gables at a jovial savant facing her. The Commandant patted the heads of Vietnamese children and said that to attempt to drive through the village after dark, let alone walk, would be certain death. He was another of those French officers who remembered with affection some dingy jumping-off point in England for the invasion of Europe, and we were joined from the first moment by the bond of our common experience of Ellesmere Port.
Our road threaded continually through Catholic and Cao-Daist areas which were said to war incessantly with one another. The local Cao- Dai’sts, although in some way schismatic, recognised the Pope at Tay Ninh, even if they did not subject themselves wholeheartedly to his authority. The Commandant said that they specialised in piracy on the waterways with which the province was networked. It had always been Cao-Daist policy to attempt to duplicate French administration with their own exact counterpart on the ecclesiastical level, but now, he said, they were trying to extend this principle to their military organisation, and only the other day a complete Headquarters’ Staff arrived from Tay Ninh to be attached to his own HQ at Tanan. He sent them packing.
The Catholics, said the Commandant, with no diminution in cheer¬fulness, were an even worse menace. Some of them hadn’t had an ordained priest since the missionaries were expelled in the early part of the last century and they spent their time raiding other villages, gathering in their church for two hours every evening to howl the canticles, after which they raped their female captives. Every village we passed was surrounded by double or triple stockades, and sometimes a moat, and overlooked by miradors. Some of these structures, said the Commandant were so rickety through neglect that they would topple over if anyone tried to climb up them.

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