THE WHOLE DISTRICT of the Dak Lac is seen as if through dark glasses. There is not a great deal of colour. It is a study in smoky blues, greens and white. The light has a cool Nordic quality and the lake itself is an Icelandic vatyn with the mountain reflections blurred in the dim sparkle of the frosted surface. The islands seemed edged with ice, but this edging is a packed fringe of egrets and when an eagle drops among them the ice dissolves as the egrets rise, to reform again as they settle. One’s views of the lake seem always to be obtained through the spare branches of the frangipani or the Mas de Japon – negligent brush-strokes on silk, with a sparse adornment of white blossom.
In the morning the mountains float above a cauldron of mist in which islands slowly materialise, and along the near shore, below the administr¬ator’s bungalow, the topmost branches of the trees are elegantly supported upon layers of vapour. Later the scene solidifies and the lake is seen to be encircled by mountains, covered to their peaks by a tight webbing of jungle. The water’s edge is feathered by bamboos. As the sun drops in the sky, its light is no longer reflected from the moss-like sheath of vegetation on the distant highlands, which, instead of glowing with yellow light, as they would in Northern climes, turn to the darkest of smoky blue. Fishing eagles turning against this dark background show their white underparts and the end of their dive is marked by a fountain rising from the water. At this hour the butterflies appear and fly down to the lake. They are black, slashed with lemon and as big as bats. Egrets pass in drifts on their way to roost. The last movement is a curved line of cranes, with black, heraldic silhouettes against the darkening sky. All day and all through the night the cool sound of gongs comes over the water from unseen Moi villages.
The administrator’s bungalow was built on a prominence by the lake’s verge. Standing on the balcony you could look down at the groups of white herons mincing through the shallows beneath, and flapping their wings in a sudden flurry of panic to free themselves from the entangling weeds just below the surface. The bungalow was sur¬rounded by a defensive palisade and there was an inner belt planted with sharpened staves, their foot-long protruding points hidden in the grass. Below was a military post with a few Moi’ conscripts. The post stands at the head of a pass guarding the way to Ban Methuot. At the other – the eastern end – of the winding, marshy valley is the coastal town of Nha Trang. But long before Nha Trang, and not very far, in fact, from the post at Dak Lac, are the first outposts of the Viet-Minh. Up to the present the Viet-Minh have not troubled to come up into the mountains. But one day my friends supposed they would and when they did it would certainly be up that valley, where every morning we could hear the schools of monkeys howling at the dawn.
Apart from the huts the Moi guards and their families lived in, there was only one other human habitation in sight. This was the Emperor’s new shooting box, in the process of completion, which crowned a pinnacle still higher than that of the administrator’s bungalow. It was less than Imperial in style; a cubic structure of vaguely Germanic inspiration. There was more of the pillbox than the pleasure-dome about it, an unconscious reflection, perhaps, of the unhappy times. A steamroller – a truly amazing apparition in such an environment – was flattening the surface of a well-laid asphalt road leading to the summit when I visited the site. It had been chosen, they said, so that His Majesty, when not actually hunting could have the satisfaction of watching herds of wild elephants from his windows. On the occasion when I made free with the Imperial viewpoint, it goes without saying that there were no elephants to be seen.
My friends at the post were Ribo, the administrator, and Cacot, an inspector of schools, who was spending a short holiday with him. Ribo had 118 Moi villages, with a population of about 20,000, under his jurisdiction. Both of these young men were well under thirty, genial, expansive, optimistic by temperament and pessimistic by convinction. The post turned out to be not only an outpost of French Colonial domination but of existentialism. On my first evening there, after a full- scale French dinner, with two wines and a liqueur, I was expected to make an intelligent contribution to a discussion on Marcel Ayme’s Le Confort intellectuel which had just arrived from Le Club Francais du Livre.
Before this, however, we went out shooting on the lake in a Moi pirogue. The pirogue was very long and narrow. To avoid upsetting it, it was necessary to sit or crouch perfectly still in whatever position one elected to adopt. Cacot, whose intellectual pessimism never extended to such matters as hunting, proposed to return with the pirogue’s bottom covered with duck, but I was beginning to realise by this time that this kind of luck was not to be expected when I formed one of a hunting party.
The pirogue slid over the water, its rounded bottom stroking the matted aquatic plants that lay just below the surface. The mountains had now put on their featureless mantle of dusky blue and brilliant white clouds bulged up from behind them. Swallows kept us company, zigzagging around us, and eagles wheeled in the sky. Large fish jumped occasionally and brought fishing hawks swooping over their position. A village somewhere was playing the gongs – two slow and four fast beats repeated over and over again.