BACK IN SAIGON I had a day to spare before the real journey began.
It was Sunday, and in the morning I walked slowly to the Jardins Botaniques. Clusters of Vietnamese beauties on bicycles were bound in the same direction, floating, it seemed, rather than pedalling, as the trains of their silk gowns trailed in the air behind them. The robes worn by Vietnamese ladies recall those of ancient China, before the sumptu¬ary laws imposed by the Manchus. White silk is the material preferred, and as Vietnamese girls are always utterly immaculate and addicted to swanlike movements, the whole effect is one of unearthly elegance. The park was full of these ethereal creatures, gliding in decorous groups through the shady paths, sometimes accompanied by gallants, who, in their cotton shirts, shorts and trilby hats, provided a sadly anticlimactic spectacle. The girls thus arrayed belonged to the classes which included shop assistants and all ranks above. Domestic servants, or boyesses, as they are pleasantly known by the French, were dressed just as charm¬ingly, but more simply, in pyjamas only. It is curious that members of the lower social strata are permitted to protect themselves from sun¬stroke by conical straw hats, whereas the bourgeoisie, although employing every hairstyle, from an uncontrollable torrent of tresses reaching to the waist to a permanent wave, do not allow themselves a head-covering. In passing it should be observed that the kind of coolie- straw that a girl wears for her best is a beautifully made piece of headgear, of lacquered, semi-diaphanous material, lightly stitched over a frame¬work of circular ribs. It is held in position for Sunday strolling with a strap of silk with a bow at each end and a third bow under the chin. The result is extremely coquettish and I felt sure that the shop girl or typist must regret being prevented, by her social position, from wearing such a becoming adornment.
Photography is a popular excuse for these decorous fetes-champetres of Saigon. There were several accepted backgrounds for portraiture which were in constant use. The archaeological museum is housed in a pagoda-like building and a group of legendary maidens loitered constantly in the vicinity, awaiting their turns to be photographed, caressing the snout of one of the decorative dragons. Another favoured site was the lake verge. The water had dried away leaving a few inches of liquid coated with a patina of scum, through which unsupported lotus flowers thrust a yard into the air. There was a punt, a standard photo¬graphic property, which could be set adrift only with great difficulty, in which the lady to be photographed balanced herself, looking mysterious and rather forlorn, while the photographer camouflaged the painter with lotus leaves before taking his shot. The moment the exposure had been made, the punt was hauled in, another lady floated into photogenic position while her predecessor drifted away at the side of her escort.
The natural history of the Jardins Botaniques is charming rather than exciting. One does not look for sinister manifestations of nature-in-the- tropics in a public park, but I was surprised at the absence of all troublesome insects, such as wasps or flies. A few undistinguished butter¬flies fluttered about, looking like those to be seen on any English heath. There were few flowers, but sprays of purple blossoms, with thick velvet¬looking petals, sprouted from the trunk and thicker branches of one of the trees. Since it was a local tree, there was no way of discovering its name. The only trees labelled were exotic specimens from Dakar and Madagascar, so presumably one would have to go to these places to study the vegetation of Indo-China. Cranes were building their nests in the topmost branches and a beautiful and very Chinese sight they made, with the sun shining through the lavender-grey plumage of their wings against the pale green foliage. Somewhere, too, just above my head, wherever I went, but always invisible, a bird produced tirelessly a single, mournful note. It was as if a cuckoo had flown into a great, hollow jar and there repeated incessantly the first note of its call. This was a sound which later I was to realise is hardly ever absent from the background of Indo-China.
The deportment of the Vietnamese in such places is beyond reproach. There is a gently repressive, Sunday-school atmosphere. Docilely, the visitors admired the caged deer; threw dice for ice-cream – folding the paper containers and stowing them in their pockets; viewed in silent satisfaction their choice of the eight original films of‘Chariot’, shown by a 9.5mm., hand-cranked cinema contraption, rigged up on a bicycle; patronised the fortune-tellers, who counted their pulses and examined their eyeballs with magnifying glasses before disclosing the edicts of the fates; bought tributes of artificial flowers from a kiosk bearing on its pale blue awning, for decorative purposes only, the words, ‘Employez le pate et savon dentifrice de … ’ the manufacturer’s name having been removed.
It was all very delightful and civilised.
Down by the river, where I went in the afternoon, the feeling was very different. Half the Vietnamese population of Saigon lives on the water and whenever I happened to be in Saigon, and had an hour or two to spare, I used to go there to enjoy the spectacle of the vivid, turbulent life of the common people. In my many walks along the river bank, I never, except within fifty yards of the Cercle Nautique, saw another European.
The original reason for taking to the water must have been that it was just as cheap to build a small sampan as a hut, the risk of fire was lessened, and there was no question of ground rent. Moreover, if one liked an occasional change of scene, nothing was easier than to move. The temperature on the river is quite a number of degrees cooler than in the town and one can take a dip whenever one feels like it. The laundry problem is facilitated for the womenfolk, and by keeping a few lines in the water one can occasionally catch a fish. All in all, there seems to be no real excuse for living anywhere else. Owing to the immense population now living in sampans on the Chinese Creek and its tributaries, numerous floating services have come into being to cater for them. There are sampan-restaurants, with cauldrons of noodle soup; water sellers who carry drinking water in the white-enamelled bottoms of their boats; shops of all kinds, and, of course, river-borne magicians.