The Universal Religion

THE FIRST IMPORTANT TASK of the visitor to Saigon on a journalistic or literary mission is to present his credentials at the Office of Informa¬tion and Propaganda. The reason for this is that only through the sponsorship of this office will he be able to move about the country, as tourist accommodation rarely exists in the hinterland and, in any case, a circulation permit is required before any journey can be made.
On the second day after my arrival I therefore presented myself at the office in question and was received by the director, Monsieur de la Fourniere. I was prepared for a certain amount of official discourage¬ment of a project which involved travelling over as much as I could of a country where a war was in progress. At best I hoped for permission to visit one or two of the larger towns, travelling possibly by plane. At worst I feared that I might be told quite flatly that I could not leave Saigon. I was therefore amazed to find this interview going entirely contrary to my expectations. The consistent contrariness of travel is one of its fascinations, but usually it is the other way round. The difficulties and frustrations turn out to be worse than one had feared.
The director was young, expansive and enthusiastic. I had hardly begun to outline my hopes before he took over. Far from being surprised that anyone should want to travel about the country at such a time, he seemed to find the idea both reasonable and praiseworthy. Taking up a firm stance before a wall map, he began to demolish distances and dangers with bold, sweeping gestures and in rapid, idiomatic English. The outlines of the journey were sketched in, in a few firm strokes.
Laos first, I suggest,’ said the director. ‘An earthly paradise. Can’t imagine it, if you haven’t been there. I say, first, because you want to get there before the rains wash the place away. Probably be just in time. Otherwise you might find yourself stranded.’
‘Mean travelling by plane,’ I suggested.
‘No,’ the director said. ‘Planes can’t take off. More likely to find yourself cut off until they rebuilt the bridges at the end of the year. That is, unless you could get to the Mekong. That’s why it’s better to go now. No point in taking unnecessary chances.’
The director drew a short, firm line on the map with his pencil. ‘First stage – Dalat. Centre of the elephant-hunting country. Go and see the Emperor. Might get him to take you on a trip. Better to go by convoy though. You’re sure to find it more interesting than by air. Attacks getting infrequent these days. Anyway, nothing venture, nothing have.’
I agreed, enchanted with the breathtaking novelty of this attitude in an official. The director plunged on confidently through half-explored jungles towards the central plateaux. ‘ You aren’t looking for a luxury tour I suppose? That is, you don’t mind pigging it with soldiers occasionally?’ We hovered over Kontum. ‘Malarial,’ the director said. ‘Rather nasty type too. Nothing to worry about though, if you keep moving. Normal hazards, that is… The Viet-Minh? – Well naturally you’ll inform yourself on the spot. No sense in putting your head into the lion’s mouth.’
We now turned our faces to the west. The director thought that it wasn’t advisable to go further north, as some of the tribes hadn’t made an official submission, and, in any case, the country wasn’t accurately mapped. Of course, one might jolly one of the local administrators into getting up a little expedition on the side. He hesitated, evidently toying wistfully with the prospect, before putting it, reluctantly, from his mind and turning a Balboan eye to survey the few hundred miles of jungle and swamps separating us from the border of Siam.
‘We want to get to the Mekong River somehow or other. Probably find a soldier or professional hunter going somewhere, in a Jeep. What we call a moyen de fortune… Paksi, now, that’s an idea.’ With a wave of the hand the director vanquished the many bands of vulgar pirates, as the French call them, which infest that area. ‘… or if not Paksf, Savannakhet?’ Soaring above the degrees of latitude separating these alternatives, the director whisked us back to our crossroads in Central Annam and set us off in another direction, clearing with an intrepid finger a track subsequently described as digeri by the jungle. ‘Once you get to Mekong… ’ the director shrugged his shoulders. The adventure was practically at an end, for only a thousand miles or so in a pirogue had to be covered before reaching Saigon again. ‘… unless you happen to hit on a moyen de fortune going north to Vientiane. Then, of course, if you felt like it, and the opportunity came along, you could get across country to Xien Khouang in the Meo country . . . perhaps from there up towards the frontier of Burma or of Yunnan.’

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