‘In the maquis we only eat twice a day,’ she said, with austere satisfac¬tion. ‘A little fish with rice. Some of our brothers and sisters who have been used to over-indulgence find it difficult at first, but they soon get used to it. But then, the life is very healthy. We start the day at five with physical exercises. And, of course, running and hiking are very popular. It is all good for the health. People are full of joy. They are always smiling. In the liberated territory there is a great deal of music. Everyone is expected to play a musical instrument. But not decadent music, of course. Beethoven and Bach – yes. We like them very much.’
And so, breathlessly, it went on. It was a revivalism, but an Asiatic brand of revivalism. An ultra-puritanical movement is launched at the drop of a hat in these countries. The prohibition of smoking (‘some of our brothers and sisters do it in secret on the junks’), of gambling, of drinking, of feminine make-up; the rough standardised clothing, the communal pastimes, the obligatory sports, the compulsory culture (‘in our spare time we volunteer to educate the peasants’) … it is all repugnant to Western individualism and habits of freedom. But state interference in almost every aspect of the citizen’s existence was the normal thing under the paternalistic system of government of Vietnam before the European’s arrival. A modern communist state is libertarian by comparison with Vietnam under Gia-Long, the last of the great Emperors.
Dinh’s enthusiasm was more reasoned than that of the girl, and when the girl had gone out he even allowed himself a slightly bitter reflection. I asked in a roundabout way if Viet-Minh losses had been very heavy, and he said that practically all those who were in the movement from the beginning had been killed. ‘All except the intellectuals,’ he then added. ‘The intellectuals don’t get themselves killed.’
I asked him why the Viet-Minh permitted minor acts of terrorism in Saigon, such as the nightly throwing of grenades into cafes and into cinema entrances. He said that the reason for this was that the owners had failed to pay their contributions towards Viet-Minh funds, and were therefore made an example of. In a way, it was also to show disapproval of such frivolities when there was a war on. He said that jobs of this kind were done by selected ‘executioners’, and, using the word, he grimaced with distaste.
These tentative arrangements fell through. It was unfortunate for me that at this time the Viet-Minh started several small, simultaneous offensives, the most serious of them being at Tra-Vinh, about thirty miles south of Saigon. Nothing could be done while the battle was going on.
After a few days I had another interview with Dinh; once again in the doctor’s waiting-room. As it seemed as though I might be kept waiting for weeks to make the official visit to the General’s headquarters on the Plaine des Jones, I asked whether something less ambitious could be arranged. I mentioned a certain engineering firm I had heard of, which, although working on the French account, was actually allowed to pass unmolested in any way through Viet-Minh territory. The engineers used to travel every day in a private car down a road where not even a French armoured vehicle would have dared to show itself, and Viet- Minh soldiers sometimes strolled up to watch them at their work. It was another of those privately organised live-and-let-live arrangements, like the one by which foodstuffs are imported by Chinese go-betweens from Viet-Minh areas into Saigon. In this case, the construction work was allowed to go on because the Viet-Minh were clearly of the opinion that it was they who, one day, would derive the benefit from it.
I now asked Dinh whether, as I knew the engineers, and they had agreed to take me with them, it would not be possible to enter Viet-Minh territory in this way, and whether he could not obtain for me a safe conduct to allow me to move about freely once I got in. But the Vietnam¬ese are formalists and bureaucrats by tradition. They revere the written word, documents that have been properly signed, stamped and counter- stamped, passwords, countersigns and standing orders. Having been governed for many centuries by a civil service into which it was the ambition of all to enter, they are respectfully familiar with all the delaying devices which such a system imposes. Behind the smoke screens of his excuses I was sure that the real trouble was that Dinh would have to refer back to higher authority for a decision.
The most important objection he raised was that the suggested area was cut off from the main body of Viet-Minh territory and that I should therefore miss all the showpieces: the broadcasting station, the arms factories, the cloth mills, the schools, the 105mm howitzer recently captured from the French, and, most important of all, the ‘re-education’ centres. I told him that as funds were running out and I should not be able to stay much longer in Indo-China, anything would be better than nothing at all. He agreed to inquire what could be done, and to give me the answer in two days.
When the two days had passed the Tra-Vinh battle was still being fought. The Viet-Minh had captured a large number of defence-towers and instead of withdrawing as usual with the captured equipment, they brought up reinforcements and awaited the French counter-attack. Am¬bushes were laid for the French troops rushed from other areas, and further diversionary attacks were launched in neighbouring provinces. Neither the French nor Dinh knew whether any of these might not develop into the general offensive the Viet-Minh had promised before the dry season broke. It was therefore agreed that I might go with the engineers to the town in question, where I was to wait at a certain hotel, and an attempt would be made to pick me up. If the worst came to the worst it would simply mean sleeping a night there and being brought back by the engineers – who made the trip daily – next day. Viet-Minh troops and partisans in the town would be warned of my presence.