The Viet-Minh

I BELIEVE that many political conspirators derive satisfaction from self-dramatisation and that this taste for situations based on fictional models often complicates their lives unnecessarily.
As soon as I had returned to Saigon from Laos I was invited to meet an agent who had just come from the headquarters of Nguyen-Binh, the General in command of the Southern Viet-Minh armies. He was to be responsible for my safe conduct into Viet-Minh-occupied territory. I was sure that the setting chosen for the meeting had been lifted from spy or detective fiction.
Visiting one of the Cholon dancing places in response to a note left at the hotel, I found there my dance-hostess friend. Excusing herself at the table where she had been sitting, she came over and gave me a piece of paper with an address on it. I was to go there at eleven next morning. There was no one I could ask for. She had just been given the address, and that was all she knew.
The address, I found, was that of a doctor’s surgery in a crowded back street of Cholon. Soon after my arrival in Indo-China I should have been delighted by this jostling vociferous humanity; the children playing with bottle tops, the coolies limping under their loads, the rich men in sharkskin, the beggars and the dogs; but now I was hardened and immunised. When I found that the place was a surgery, I wondered if I had been given the right address. There was a pagoda on one side and a cafe on the other, but no signs of any private houses. I went in and found myself in a waiting-room with Oriental patients lining the walls. It was probably the first time a European had ever been in that room, and I felt awkward and conspicuous, but, as usual, no one looked up. After a few minutes a door at the end of the room opened, and a woman carrying a baby came out. A white-gowned doctor stood framed in the doorway behind her, beckoning to the next patient. He did not seem to see me. Another woman went in, and the door shut behind her.
There seemed to be nothing to do but sit down and wait. I sat down in a chair left vacant at the end of one line, after all the patients had just moved up one. The door opened again and the woman who had just gone in came out. Through the opening I saw an interior lined with gleaming gadgets. Now the doctor would come again and this time he would see me. I was already quarter of an hour late for the appointment. When the rather stern-looking, elderly figure appeared again I made a slight gesture, but was ignored. The patient at the end got up and went in and we all moved up one. I was beginning to be convinced that I had come to the wrong address and could imagine a ridiculous situation arising when it came to my turn to enter the surgery. A few passers-by came in to chat with friends in the waiting-room, bringing with them the tremendous din of the street. After them squeezed a blind beggar with a splendid, old-fashioned Tonkinese hat, a yard across, and then came a seller of iced sugar-cane juice and a goldfish-hawker. A china cuckoo- clock ‘marque jazz’ shrilled the half-hour, and one or two of the patients, glancing up, began to unwrap their snacks. The surgery door opened again, and just at that moment the young man sitting next to me spoke. ‘Are you the foreigner who wants to go for a walk in the country?’ he said. I said yes, I was.
He introduced himself as Dinh – an assumed name, he assured me, with a wry smile. I was interested to notice, in support of a theory I was beginning to form, that for a Vietnamese he was very ‘unmongolian’ in appearance. He was thin-lipped and cadaverous and there was an unu¬sual narrowness across the cheekbones. If not a Frenchman he could certainly have passed for a Slav. There had been many Caucasian charac¬teristics about the other Vietnamese intellectuals and revolutionaries I had met, and I was wondering whether whatever physical mutation it was that produced this decrease in mongolian peculiarities encouraged at the same time the emergence of certain well-known Western traits, such as restless aggressiveness, an impatience with mere contemplation, and a taste for action.
Dinh informed me that all the arrangements had been made for my journey and that I should be taken wherever I wanted to go in Viet-Minh territory. The only difficulty would be in crossing the lines. He could not say exactly when we should be ready to start.
A young girl who had been sitting opposite now got up and came across to join us. Dinh introduced her as Gnuyet, adding that the name meant ‘moonlight’. She made a face at this disclosure and apologised for the name’s being so old-fashioned. She was the most beautiful girl I had seen in the Far East, and was sixteen. Dinh said that she would be travelling with me. She had been wounded and had been given leave to come to Saigon to convalesce with her parents. Having always under¬stood that there were no women fighting in the Viet-Minh army, I asked her how she came to be wounded. She said that she had been caught in a parachutists’ raid while giving a propaganda and theatrical show in a village. She had been prevented by her costume from getting away and had been shot and left for dead and had actually heard the order given for her burial, but had managed to crawl away after nightfall. She was obviously very proud to have been wounded, and anxious to get back. Her contempt for the frivolities of Saigon was measureless.

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