It was evident that the director was loth to return from these exciting prospects to the drab dependabilities of Saigon, where the moyen de fortune had no place.
Moyen de fortune. The phrase was beginning to touch the imagin¬ation. It was one that rang continually in my ears from that time on. It became the keynote of my journeyings.
It was the duty of a subordinate, a Monsieur Ferry, to clothe the director’s flights of creative fancy with the sober trappings of organisation. Ferry’s first glance at the suggested itinerary produced a pursing of the lips. As for the terra incognita to the north and west, he couldn’t say. No doubt the director knew what he was talking about. It was his job to see that I got to Dalat, where a Madame Schneider would take charge of me and pass me on to a Monsieur Doustin at Ban Methuot. After that – well – it would all depend upon the direction I chose, and, of course, local conditions.
Monsieur Doustin, a very knowledgeable man would see to all that. Ferry presented me with the three maps of the country, physical, ethno¬graphical and geological, that are given to all official visitors and journalists. These were followed by a collection of publications; special numbers of French magazines devoted to Indo-China and government papers on the contemporary economic and political situation. It was a highly intelligent and efficient method of presenting the French point of view, and I was mildly surprised to find that such a breadth of interests was taken for granted in the visitor.
Above all it was reassuring to gather that any aspects of this journey that might have savoured of the conducted tour looked like disappearing as soon as one was a reasonable distance from Saigon, to be replaced by the fickle and planless dispositions of fortune.
Ferry went with me to the office of the bus company that ran the service to Dalat. He was disappointed to find from the seating plan that all the best places had been sold. The choice seats were those that flanked the interior aisle, because, if the convoy happened to be attacked, you were protected in this position, to some slight measure, by the bodies of those who sat between you and the windows. I had a corner seat at the front of the bus, which afforded an excellent field of vision, accompanied, of course, with the maximum vulnerability on two sides.
Since I would have a few spare days in Saigon, Ferry had an attractive suggestion to put forward. On the following day, M. Pignon, the High Commissioner and foremost French personality in Indo-China, was to pay an official visit to the Pope of the Cao-Daist religion, at his seat at Tay-Ninh, some fifty miles away. For this occasion, a strong military escort would be provided, and as it was a great opportunity to escape the boredom of life, hemmed-in in Saigon, anyone who could possibly do so would get themselves invited. For a journalist, it was only a matter of applying.
From Ferry’s description, Cao-Dai’sm sounded extraordinary enough to merit investigation. There was a cathedral, he said, that looked like a fantasy from the brain of Disney, and all the faiths of the Orient had been ransacked to create the pompous ritual, which had been grafted on an organisation copied from the Roman Catholic Church. What was more to the point at the present time, was that the Cao-Daists had a formidable private army with which they controlled a portion of Cochin-China. The French tolerated them because they were anti-Viet-Minh, and therefore helped, in their way, to split up the nationalist front. There were also militant Buddhist and Catholic mi-norities among the Vietnamese, all of whom scrapped with each other as well as the Viet-Minh, but these lacked the florid exuberance – and the power – of the Cao Daists. Ferry thought that it might help in extracting the maximum benefit from the experience, if I spent a few hours reading the subject up. He, therefore, presented me, on behalf of his office, with a work entitled Histoire et Philosophic du Cao-Daisme (Bouddhisme renove, spiritisme Vietnamien, religion nouvelle en Eurasie), by a certain Gabriel Gobron, whose description as European representative of the faith, sounded, to my mind, a faintly commercial note. Gobron was also described as having ‘quitted his fleshly envelope of suffering in 1941’.
I returned to the hotel at about seven-thirty, switched on the enormous ceiling fan and went to open the window. The square below was brightly lit and the sky was still luminous with the aftermath of sunset. As I pushed open the window, there was a momentary, slight resistance, and a violent explosion thumped in my eardrums. Across the square an indolent wreath of smoke lifted from the cafe tables and dissolved. Two figures got up from a table, arms about one another’s shoulders and reeled away like drunkards who have decided to call it a night. Other patrons seemed to have dropped off to sleep with their heads on the tables, except for one, who stood up and went through a slow repertoire of calisthenics. A passer-by fell to his knees. Now, after several seconds, the evening strollers changed direction and from all quarters they began to move, without excitement, towards the cafe. I went down to see if there was anything to be done, but already the wounded were being tended in their cramped attitudes and the discipline of routine was taking charge. Waiters snatched the seemingly wine-stained cloths off the tables. A boy with a stiff broom and pail came out and began scrubbing at the spotted pavement. An officer, one hand bound up in a napkin, sat clicking imperiously for service with the fingers of the other. Within ten minutes every table was full again. This hand-grenade, one of eight reported to have been thrown that evening, caused fifteen casualties – a Saigon record to date. The mortar-fire in the suburbs did not start until after ten o’clock. Before going to sleep, I set myself to the task of extracting the doctrinal kernel in Gobron’s book from its formidable husk of metaphysical jargon. I learned that Cao-Daism was officially founded in 1926, originat¬ing among one of the many groups of Cochin-Chinese spiritualists. The favoured congregation were informed, through the agency of an instru¬ment known in English as the planchette, or in French as la Corbeille-a-bec-a platform-like device carrying a pencil upon which the hand is rested – that they were in touch with Li-tai-Pe sometimes known as the Chinese Homer, who, in the Tang Dynasty, after ‘the burning of the books’, re-established Chinese literature.