There was an eating place in the village that was serving pork and peas – take it or leave it – and where you could buy weak beer at the equivalent of five shillings a bottle. Here, too, the frontier atmosphere was very marked and obviously enjoyed by the soldiers who waved aside the eating utensils and preferred to manipulate their victuals with a clasp knife and a chunk of bread. However, the French are poor hands at licentious soldiering, being, perhaps, a little too close to the polished sources of our civilisation for this. The restaurant with all its faults and at its toughest would probably have been like the salon of a Hapsburg Pretender compared with any pub in Gibraltar with a Yankee warship in port.
Setting out again we found that we had acquired an escort – a Vietnamese soldier with a tommy gun, who was followed into the bus so closely by a white butterfly that it might have been his familiar spirit. He sat down beside the driver and went to sleep with the butterfly flapping in his face. We were now entering the most dangerous phase of the journey, where a year before most of the vehicles had been burned in an attack and there had been several hundred casualties. A couple of spotting planes circled overhead ready, if necessary, to radio the alarm. After attacks, parachutists are usually dropped but it takes an hour or two for them to get to the scene and by that time it is all over. The Viet-Minh who usually attack in strength have their will with the convoy, and by the time the relieving force arrives they have disappeared.
The road mounted slowly and the vehicles lumbered painfully round the hillsides, so that seen from a bend, the convoy looked like the severed segments of a caterpillar. Gradually we freed ourselves from the dense vegetation, emerging finally into a savannah of coarse grass with occa¬sional clumps of deciduous trees that looked like cork-oaks but were sparingly adorned with pale lemon flowers. The heat was terrific. Having been designed for service in some far northern clime, the bus’s windows could only be forced down a few inches and as the sun’s decline in the sky began, the bus was flooded with an incandescent glare, from which there was no escape. Slowly we ground our way on towards Dalat. Our passage out of the Valley of the Shadow was marked by our escort’s waking up, uncocking his gun and stopping the bus to get out. Now I noticed that the trees had rid themselves of their coverings of parasites, that the swathings of creepers were no more and that lianas ceased to drip from the branches. The road widened and began to look like a corniche in embryo. Pines made their appearance. We were driving into Dalat.
Dalat is the playground of Indo-China and has a fair share of the dreariness so often associated with places thus advertised. Taking full advantage of an altitude of 3000 feet and the pine forests, a forlorn attempt has been made to encourage a sub-alpine atmosphere, but it remains nothing more than an uninspired imitation; a not very magnifi¬cent failure. Even imitations, if carried to sufficiently daring lengths, sometimes generate a fascination of their own. But the spuriousness of Dalat was cautious and hesitant. It looked like a drab little resort in Haute Savoie, developed by someone who had spent a few years as vice-consul in Shanghai. Of Dalat, though, one thing must be admitted; that life there, even in peacetime, is not entirely divorced from adventure, since there is a chance, one in a thousand perhaps, of knocking into a tiger if one strolls in the streets after dark.
We skirted a sad little lake, with edges cropped like a pond on Hampstead Heath and wound up the main street past the Salon de The, the Crillon Grill, a dancing, the Chic Shanghai Bar and into the square. We had covered two hundred and fifty miles in thirteen hours. Now a problem arose. I had been told in Saigon to contact a Madame Schneider, who held some important, but undefined, post and was responsible for foreigners. Madame Schneider would be able to find me a room in a town which might be overflowing with visitors and would make all necessary arrangements for the next stage of my journey, to Ban Methuot. Her address? Well, as far as anybody knew, she didn’t have one. If it came to that, no one in Dalat had addresses, certainly not important people like Madame Schneider. The first person one met in the street would be able to point out where she lived.
As a telegram had been sent from Saigon to warn Madame of my arrival, I half hoped to see either her or her representative awaiting me at the bus terminus. But no; one by one the passengers were claimed by their relations, the crowd thinned and melted away. It was after six, the streets were deserted and the daylight was waning. The local taxicab service consisted of tiny traps drawn by the Indo-Chinese equivalent of the Shetland pony. Only one of these remained and I approached the small Vietnamese boy in charge of it.
N.L. Est ce que vous connaissez Madame Schneider?
SMALL BOY. Moi connaisse.
N.L. Ou est ce qu’elle habite?
SMALL BOY. La bas. Moi connaisse. (A vague sweep of the arm towards the darkening pine-clad slopes.)
N.L. Mais, elle habite en ville?
SMALL BOY (impatiently). Oui, oui. Moi connaisse. Madame Sle-le.
It seemed pointless to continue the interrogation in face of the child’s rather surly assurance. I got in, the pony’s head was turned towards the wilds and we set off. We had reached the town’s outskirts when the trap stopped outside a small grocer’s shop. ‘Madame Sle-le,’ said the boy.