But still impatient with Saigon’s centre, I plunged quickly into the side-streets. I was immediately arrested by an agent of the customs and excise, well dressed in a kind of tropical knickerbockers, who told me politely that from my suspicious movements he believed me to be trafficking in foreign currency. Marched discreetly to the Customs House I was searched and then, when no gold or dollars were found, shown registers by the disappointed and apologetic officials to prove by the great hoards recently recovered that they rarely misjudged their man.
From this happening it was clear that Europeans rarely leave the wide boulevards where they belong, that if they sometimes take short cuts they do so purposefully, and that to wander at haphazard looked very much to the official eye like loitering with intent. For all that, it was my intention to spend my first day or two in the Far East in just such aimless roamings, collecting sharp first impressions while the mind was still freshly receptive; before the days came when so much would no longer surprise, would be overlooked, would be taken for granted. The business of organising the journey through the country could be attended to later.
It was clear from the first moment of picking my way through these crowded, torrid streets that the lives of the people of the Far East are lived in public. In this they are different from people in almost any other part of the world. The street is the extension of the house and there is no sharp dividing line between the two. At dawn, or, in the case of Saigon, at the hour when the curfew is lifted, people roll out of bed and make for the pavement, where there is more space, to perform most of their toilet. Thereafter they eat, play cards, doze, wash themselves, have their teeth seen to, are cupped and massaged by physicians, visit fortune-tellers; all in the street. There is none of the desire for privacy that is so strong in Europe and stronger still in the Islamic countries. Even the better houses seemed to consist on the ground floor of one large room in which the family lived communally while visitors drifted in and out through the open doors.
People took small snacks at frequent intervals, seating themselves at wayside booths decorated with painted glass screens that had perhaps been imported from Japan, as the subjects were Japanese: scowling Samurai and winged tigers. Great store was set by the decorative presen¬tation of food. Diaphanous baby octopuses were suspended before acetylene lamps. There were tasteful groupings of sliced coxcomb about cured pigs’ snouts on excellent china plates. Roast chickens and ducks, lacquered bright red, were displayed in heraldic attitudes, with gracefully arched necks, or completely flattened-out, like kippers. There were segments of pigs, sundered with geometrical precision which, after the denaturalising art to which they had been submitted, seemed with their brilliant, glossy surfaces as unreal as the furnishings of a toy butcher’s shop. Here the appetites were solicited under frivolous rather than brutal forms.
One wondered about the origin of some of the delicacies; the ducks’ heads fried in batter and the webbed feet of some wading bird or other. Were they the fruit of a laborious empirical process, appealing to palates of extraordinary refinement, since in either case fleshy sustenance was practically nonexistent? Or were they, as a Vietnamese suggested, along with such traditional Chinese dishes as edible birds’ nests and sharks’ fins, the last resort of famine-stricken populations who gradually devel¬oped a taste for what, in the original emergency, they probably ate with the greatest repugnance? If this hypothesis is correct some of the results show an ironic twist. Bears’ paws, once probably thrown to the beggars by the hunter, are now only within the reach of millionaires in the most exclusive Chinese restaurants. Saigon merchants have to pay about £50 per kilogram for first quality sharks’ fins, imported from West Africa, and the birds’ nests harvested from the islands of the Vietnamese coast contribute notably to the cost of the arms bought by the Viet-Minh, within whose territory this source of wealth is located.
Many people when making their purchases preferred to gamble for them with the merchants, and for this reason a bowl of dice was at the disposal of customers on most stalls. A double-or-quits basis was employed, with the odds arranged slightly in the merchant’s favour. Housewives are said to gamble consistently for their shopping on days shown as favourable in their horoscopes, which means that on slightly more than fifty per cent of such occasions they return home empty handed and with the housekeeping money gone. Even the children gambled for their sweets, using miniature dice in charmingly decorated bowls. Before making a throw the child usually invoked good luck in a musical phrase, consisting, as it happened, of the first four notes of the Volga Boat Song.
Gambling is the besetting sin of the Vietnamese. It is a national mania, assuming at the great feast of the New Year almost a ritual aspect, since a day is set aside upon which the Vietnamese of all ages and ways of life gather together to stake their possessions on the fall of the dice. The underlying motive seems to be religious in character; an act of submission to destiny and with it a sacrifice; a propitiation and an expression of faith.
Since the belief in the uncontrollable gods of Fortune seems upper¬most among Vietnamese credences, there is a universal demand for revelation of the future. There was an amazing variety of arrangements by which this demand was catered for. After the bashful and hesitant European tribute to the sciences of prediction, with its association of afternoon tea and church fetes, this display of the seemingly innumerable methods of augury was an astonishing spectacle. There were any number of splendid mountebanks, unbelievably endowed to play their parts, with wise, ancient faces and the straggling, white beards of Chinese sages. Before them on the pavement were set out the instruments of their art, the cards, the curiously shaped stones, the bowl of sand, the mirrors of catoptromancy, the divining bird. Behind them the walls were spread with backcloths covered with astrological charts, diagrams of the fateful parts of the human body, the bald heads and childishly drawn faces of phrenologists the world over, the signs of the Zodiac, and the equally picturesque Chinese years which are symbolised by animals.