Cholon and Cochin-China

AIR FRANCE PLANES from Dalat were booked up three weeks ahead. By what I thought at the time was a miracle I got a seat on a plane run by a small company, without any delay. It turned out later that there was not much demand for this plane as the company had had one or two crashes on the run. There was not much hope of a successful forced landing in those jungles.
While waiting to take off, I chatted with a fellow passenger, a Viet¬namese student, who wanted to know what I was doing in the country. I told him, and the conversation immediately took a political turn. Which Vietnamese intellectuals had I met? I confessed that I had met none. The student didn’t see how I could form any objective opinion of the condi¬tions of his country when the only opinions I listened to were those of French colonialists. This reasonable point of view had already occurred to me and I said that the chief reason why I had made no contacts among the Vietnamese was that, judging from their manner, they would be difficult to approach. The student said that this was natural enough, as I would be taken for a Frenchman. He persisted so strongly that I should meet certain intellectuals that I was sure that he was about to suggest how this could be done when the plane took off. We were seated on loose camp-stools and as soon as the plane began to lurch in the hot air- currents we were thrown about rather badly. My friend, who was flying for the first time, was violently ill and I did not have the chance of speaking to him again.
Saigon was as rumbustious as ever, with lorries full of Algerians patrolling the streets and the cafes full of German legionnaires. I dined at a Chinese restaurant on the main road to Cholon. This was outside the European quarter and I enjoyed the district because of the turbulent processes of living that went on all round me. Although I noticed in my newspaper that this restaurant advertised itself as having an Emplacement discret, the walls were much scarred from a bomb which had been thrown in it the previous night. Perhaps for this reason it was crowded, in deference to the theory that two shells do not burst in the same crater. The waiter said that they hoped to have a wire-grille fitted by the next day, which would keep the grenades out. Their little incident had only con¬tributed two casualties to the grand total of seventeen for the night. But a colleague had been one of the unfortunate pair. His condition, said my waiter, was very grave, and, curiously enough, all this had been foretold by the resident fortune-teller, who I now observed to be approaching my table carrying the tools of his trade and smiling in anticipation of the grisly predictions he would unfold for suitable payment.
I had happened to read that a Vietnamese nationalist newspaper had been suppressed and this gave me an idea. Next day I called at the paper’s office and asked to see the editor. He was not there. When would he come? Nobody knew. Well, would he ever come? I was trying to pin down one of the blank-faced employees to commit himself to a definite statement, but, without knowing it, I was a beginner engaging in verbal ju-jitsu with masters of the art, whose forbears for several generations had schooled themselves to meet force with evasion. Too much direct¬ness on my part only produced a ‘pas connaisse’, and while still trying to talk my way out of this fog of non-cooperation I found myself manoeu¬vred out into the street. A Vietnamese was walking on either side but in a casual and noncommittal manner, as if they were going somewhere on their own account and they happened by chance to find themselves walking at the same speed as myself. Refusing to talk anything but the pidgin French which allowed for the maximum of misunderstanding, they suggested that I might like to disclose, without reserve, the full nature of my business with the editor. There was nothing for it but to tell them. Others joined them, friends it seemed, particles broken haphaz¬ardly from the great, anonymous crowd, and I was invited to repeat my story. While we strolled thus, separated continually by boys on bicycles, beggars, animals and children playing with toys, the thing was considered and at last – it was hinted at, rather than announced -1 gathered that if I called back that afternoon I might, or might not, see someone who would interest me.
I was naturally not surprised when I returned that no one I recognised was there. The faces of that morning were not to be seen, and when I called across the counter to one of the much-abstracted clerks, I got the ‘pas connaisse’ that I expected. There was a flight of stairs at the end of the room and I went up them into a first-floor room. A young man came out from behind a partition, and said in English, with a good accent, ‘Are you the Englishman?’ He wore thick spectacles and had a grave, studious expression. In starting to introduce myself I spoke French, and he asked me, a trifle sharply, to speak English. I told him the reason for my presence in the country and that as until then I had been exposed solely to French propaganda I thought that I should make some attempt to balance this with propaganda from the other side. This remark was not considered funny. With a sternly reproving glance the young man told me that all Vietnamese patriots were members of the Viet-Minh and that if I really wanted to see Vietnam, I should not bother with French- occupied territory but cross the lines to the Democratic Republic. I told him that I should be delighted to do so, if given the opportunity. He then asked to see any documents that might help to establish my bona fides, and I showed him my passport and various letters. The application he said would have to be submitted to the branch of the army of the Viet- Minh which dealt with such matters. He thought that it would take several weeks to get an answer and to make arrangements for ‘crossing over’. I asked whether he thought permission would be granted and he said, yes. He regretted being unable to give me his name and told me that I should be unable to get in touch with him again, but he would find means to contact me when the moment came.

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