The Viet-Minh 3

Next afternoon I left Saigon in the car belonging to a director of the engineering firm. It was driven by one of the junior employees who had just arrived from Europe, was not a Frenchman and knew nothing whatever of the political situation. It was he who had staggered the French in Saigon by his description of how he had fraternised with a Viet- Minh patrol. He had been swimming in a river at the time and had found them waiting for him when he came out. A quite friendly chat followed and when the patrol found out he was a foreigner they shook hands and went off. My friend who still didn’t know the difference between Viet- Minh and Vietnam believed his nationality a kind of talisman protecting him from dangers of all kinds. I told him that to a Vietnamese all Europeans looked exactly the same, but he refused to believe it. He was quite sure that his extra ten per cent of Mediterranean characteristics was universally recognisable.
After Laos, Cochin-China was harsh and brilliant. It was as if the earth had gone to rust at the tail-end of the dry season. Sometimes there was a crystalline glitter where the sunlight shattered on the tiles of a flattened tomb. Buffaloes scrambled over the parched earth, bearing gleaming crescents of horns. The lagoons had blackened in stagnant concentration, and the peasants groping for fish were stained by the muddy water so that at a distance their circular hats seemed to float like brilliant money on the water. Junks were moving hull down through the canals and rivers, and only the sharks’ fins of their sails could be seen cutting across the plains. An armoured car had nosed into a clump of palms, where several white-haired, pink-faced Teutons of the Foreign Legion hid from the sun.
The town contained a single, sordid, colourful little hotel. You went in through a cafe, passing under an awning of dried fish, to mount a narrow staircase in complete darkness. The rooms had swing doors like saloons, but the town must have lived through former days of grandeur as each chamber had a bath alcove. A Chinese lady was taking a bath in mine, but she soon dressed and came out and we smiled and bowed to each other in the passage. Radio sets appeared to be going at full blast in every room; all tuned in to different stations. Soon after my arrival the proprietor came up and asked me to pay. He brought with him a bottle of cherry-brandy and presented me with a drink on the house. The change was brought by a small Oriental chambermaid, who sat on the edge of the brass bed, singing, while she counted out the incredibly filthy notes which she hoped that I would return to her in disgust.
A few minutes later the proprietor was back, with a Vietnamese girl of about twelve, who, he said, had come to take me to the house of a friend. Following this child I was taken to a gloomy little palace in a back street. Here I was invited to seat myself in a carved chair that was all the more throne-like from the fact that it was raised on a low dais, and left alone. A few minutes later the little girl was back again with a glass of lemonade and then once again with a saucer of nuts. The dragons and unicorns writhing through the mother-of-pearl-studded surfaces of the furniture gradually sank into darkness. It was night.
I was dozing when Dinh arrived. He was accompanied by a rather chinless and bespectacled youth called Trang and seemed cheerful and nervous at the same time. Both of them wore dungarees and carried Stens. Dinh had brought a pair of rubber boots which he told me to put on, but they were too small. He seemed worried about my white shirt and trousers, but when we got outside we found ourselves in brilliant moon¬light. The dress made no difference. If possible they were more conspicuous than I was in their black against the broad, whitewashed surfaces of wall and road.
The streets were quite empty. Bao-Dai troops garrisoned two towers on the other side of the town, but Dinh said that they had orders never to leave the towers after sunset. We heard several distant rifle-shots which set the dogs barking, the barks ending in howls as the dogs were kicked into silence. We walked in the shadow of a wall; Dinh in front, followed by myself and then Trang. In a few minutes we were outside the town and scrambled down a low embankment into the rice-fields. We were on very low ground by the river, threading our way through a morass of quicksilver. Mist trailed in banks above the water. In the moonlight its surface was curiously solid. When we splashed through shallow pools a phosphorescence exploded round our boots. An enor¬mous owl came flapping down to inspect us, and passed on with a strange, booming cry.
We reached a canal where a sampan awaited us, hidden among the water palms. Two soldiers standing in the boat held out their hands to steady us as we climbed aboard. They, too, were dressed in dark dunga¬rees and wore Australian-type bush hats. We sat in the bottom of the sampan while the two soldiers, one standing at each end, began to row it along the canal. They rowed by a long single oar fastened to a post. After a short distance, one of them stopped rowing and tried to start up an engine. He had great difficulty, and Dinh held a torch while he took the carburettor to pieces. Trang said that the petrol was of very bad quality. They bought most of it from the Chinese who usually adulterated it with paraffin. In the end the engine was started. It was fitted with a very efficient silencing system, which Dinh said was of their own design. There were a few mechanical rattles, but no exhaust noise could be heard.

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