The villages were stockaded, with strong points at the angles of the fortifications. Inside there were towers and miradors as they are called locally; structures like oil derricks supporting a machine-gun post. Sometimes truncated towers had been built into the roofs of the larger houses. It was said that one could enter these villages with safety only in daytime, and some of them, not even then, unless in convoy. The surface of the road here had been ruined by the habit of Viet-Minh sympathisers of digging trenches across it. For miles on end convoy speed had to be reduced to a walking pace as we bumped across the endless corrugations produced by this rustic sabotage. The landscape on the village outskirts was peaceful enough, with the ancestral tombs scattered about and taking up, incidentally, a great deal of cultivatable space. The more imposing tombs had been built on what slight eminence could be found and great attention had been paid, for the benefit of the ancestral shades, to the view they afforded. It was evident that a certain amount of landscape gardening had occasionally been attempted in the vicinity. The tombs themselves were of pleasantly weathered stone, sometimes charmingly tiled. Often it looked as though a group of villas had been engulfed by some terrestrial convulsion, leaving only the flat roofs with their ornamental balustrades above the ground.
Our first stop was Bien Hoa, where all the passengers got out and bought food. I had not yet reached the stage when I was able to fall in with the scheme of things and buy myself a bowl of Chinese soup or a dried and salted fish, so I went hungry. I was soon to be cured of this reluctance of self-adaptation to a new environment, for I never remember any subsequent journey during the whole of my travels in the country when the hour of departure was late enough to permit me to get breakfast, or rather petit dejeuner. It would not, in any case, have been easy to eat in comfort at Bien Hoa as a whole tribe of beggars came out of the village and performed a mournful pilgrimage down the convoy displaying their ghastly sores. Among these were many cases of elephantiasis. The presence of these beggars seemed, by the way, to disprove the French allegation that the Vietnamese never give alms.
It was here too that I noticed that the telephone wires had been colonised by innumerable spiders, which had woven their strands about the wires in such a way as to incorporate them in an enormous, elongated web. At evenly spaced intervals a four-inch spider watched over the territory allotted to it in this vast cooperative enterprise, but as no flies were caught within my sight during the half-hour we waited at Bien-Hoa, I was unable to draw any Bruce-like inspiration in support of collective effort.
Soon after Bien Hoa we plunged into the forest. For many miles it had been cleared for perhaps a hundred yards on each side of the road. Then suddenly the jungle returned, pressing about us so close that the slender, bowed-over bamboos stroked the bus’s roof as we passed beneath them. When faced with the tropical forest the problem of the writer and painter is alike. The forest is fussy in detail, lacking in any unifying motive and tends to be flatly monochromatic. There is a baroque superabundance of forms, which, unfortunately, do not add up to a Churrigueresque altar- piece. In the depths of our jungle there may have been superb orchids and even certain flowers indigenous to this part of the world whose blooms are several feet across. But all we could see was a dusty confusion of leaves like one of those dense and often grimy thickets cultivated by people in England to safeguard their privacy.
There was a single moment of excitement, when a colossal boa constrictor slithered across the road ahead of us. It was a serpent of the kind one has always seen coiled motionless in the corner of its cage at the zoo. Now it was quite extraordinary to see one in such purposeful motion. Somehow the driver missed it, stopped, reversed and was just too late to run over its tail, which was withdrawn with a mighty flexing of the muscles. Behind us the following Chinese lorry went charging into the fernery to avoid us. There were none of the bellowing recriminations one comes to expect at such times. The Chinese lorry was driven out under its own power and on we went.
The midday stop was at a village rather romantically named, I thought, Kilometre 113. There was a ring of the frontier outpost about this that stirred the imagination. We were still in the forest, which had thinned out a little, and we were perhaps a thousand feet above sea-level. Strewn about all over the place were huge, smooth, mysterious-looking boulders. Some of them had huts built on the top with ladders leading up to them, and others even small forts. It was here that I saw for the first time a sight imagined by many Westerners to be extremely typical of South-Eastern Asia – the uncovered female breast. There was a Mo’i village somewhere close by and several Mo’i girls were hanging about the garrison’s sleeping quarters. They were thin and undernourished looking, with, however, the invulnerable torso of the Polynesian, wreathed in this case only by garlands of small violet-coloured flowers. Several groups of Mois of both sexes padded past down the road while we were there. They looked dirty, degenerate and miserable, the inevitable fate, as I later learned, of these tribes when they come into contact with civilisation. Several of them, with grotesque effect, wore British battledress tops but had bare posteriors.