Cholon and Cochin-China 6

Than Phu, the exemplary village, was followed by the ideal French post. It had been the work of a sergent-chef who, like the Commandant, would shortly be returning, demobilised, to France, where it was obvious that they would both spend the rest of their days in a Kiplingesque nostalgia for Indo-China. And yet, much as the colonies had become his spiritual home, and depressed as he was at the thought of his repatriation, the sergent-chef was extremely proud of the fact that he had made his post a Corner of France. And at what a cost. He had imported bulbs by airmail and there had been a painful sprouting of tulips, dragged inch by inch from that ochreous soil, their heads now hanging a little wearily in the nooses that attached them to their supporting canes. Over them reared up exuberant ranks of canna, grown only to afford shade for the Euro¬pean importation. A native hut, too, had been pathetically camouflaged as a bistro, a rendezvous des sports for the benefit of visiting NCOs. Anything to shut out for a while the hateful sight of bamboos, the memory of which would become so dear in a few months’ time.
The sergent-chef also kept a boa constrictor in a cage. It was fed monthly with a live duck, a ceremony which collected appreciative crowds. He said that the snake refused to interest itself in food that was not alive.
A new Vietnamese village had formed like a series of cells round the ideal post. In their tragic situation, the prey of every kind of gangster and bandit, the peasants’ one craving is for protection and stability. Their village destroyed in military operations, they live uncomfortably dispersed in temporary shelters and eat the shrimps and undersized fish caught in the irrigation ditches. As soon as a military post goes up in their neighbourhood they are naturally attracted to it, and under the cover of its machine-guns they rebuild their huts, plant their vegetables, establish a market. They are encouraged to do this, and tragedy only happens when the Viet-Minh, first terrorising the villagers, use its cover to attack the post. Massacres have occurred in the subsequent reprisals, which, since by this time the Viet-Minh have left, are directed against the villagers.
The new village without a name was, temporarily at least, prospering. The sergent-chef had appointed himself unofficial mayor and was insist¬ing on European sanitary standards, which, to his surprise, were scrupulously carried out. He held a daily inspection of the streets and market place, made vendors mark the prices on their goods, awarded certificates of merit for the best-kept houses. He helped to fit up a town- hall and a theatre – the two essentials of Vietnamese communal life – and presented the information centre with a frivolous dragon which he found in a deserted ruin. The Vietnamese, who had probably seen their last village blown off the face of the earth, were as surprised, no doubt, as they were gratified. It was a pity, the sergent-chef said, that we had not been there the day before, because he had helped the villagers to celebrate the Tet by organising a regatta, with sampan races for both sexes and all ages, and he had taken the liberty of offering a few tins of army rations as prizes. The Commandant nodded in benevolent approval.
This, I believe, was the average French soldier’s attitude. If given half a chance he would make a kind of pet of anyone who was dependent upon him – even Vietnamese peasants. He soon began to feel as responsible for their welfare as the administrators I met did for that of the Moi’s. The soldiers had none of the civilian prejudices towards the Vietnamese. I asked the sergent-chefii it was a fact that they had no sense of humour, and he was staggered by such an absurd suggestion. I wondered how the Commandant and his NCO would have reacted if called upon to put into practice paragraph four of the military proclamation which says, ‘every native quarter situated in the immediate neighbourhood of a point where an important act of sabotage has been committed, will be razed to the ground’.

The situation at Binh Long Dong was less favourable. I was in another Zone of command now, and the familiar warring factions in the neigh¬bourhood had been overshadowed by a partisan-chief, an unsmiling mountain of a man, who had been decorated with the Croix de Guerre, and lived in a magnificent fortified villa, full of paddy and streamlined furnishings. The main piece of furniture, however, in the reception room was a rack, an intelligent adaption of the umbrella stand, on which guests hung their weapons. The room was gay with the most expensive artificial flowers of cloth and paper, and we were offered champagne and sweet biscuits. This man was a rare sport of nature, the archetype of a Vietnam¬ese pirate turned Governor, or a Chinese War-Lord. One wondered if whatever factor it was that had produced all this bone and muscle from the slender Vietnamese stock had also created the fierce, resolute charac¬ter. He was quite illiterate, but had recently begun to interest himself in the choicer rewards of success, and had built pillars of precious wood into his house, specially brought from Tonkin, at a cost of three thousand piastres each.
About half the land of this community was owned by big proprietors who had been finding it practically impossible to collect their rents. If they put the screw too hard on the peasant farmers, they were liable to be kidnapped by the Viet-Minh and receive a period of‘re-education’ and an enormous fine before being released. Nowadays they could hire bodyguards from the partisan-chief who specialised in protection for prominent citizens and industrial enterprises. But even this, they were beginning to realise, wasn’t doing them much good, as the farmers had got into the habit of telling them when they called for the rent: ‘Too late, I’ve already had to pay it to the Viet-Minh.’

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