Central Annum 3

The manner of my friends, therefore, when we were received by the notables of Phu-Tho, was courteous but not genial. It seemed that we had arrived a little sooner than expected because a dignitary, meeting us with clasped hands and low bows at the flower-decorated arch of entry, begged us to wait until the official drum was fetched. This arrived a few minutes later, carried on poles by a scampering group of notables, who gravely lined up before us and, hoisting their pennants, conducted us with slow and solemn pomp to the pagoda.
There is more poetry in a Vietnamese village but less art than in a Moi one. Under magic compulsion the Mois carve the objects dedicated to the spirits with designs which have come to have a secondary, artistic value. There is little of this kind of art about poor Vietnamese villages. Unlike the Moi who is non-specialised and self-sufficient, the Vietnam¬ese belongs to a money society and is a market for manufactured products, most of them shoddy; although he may have one or two good pieces of pre-war Chinese porcelain about the house. He does not object to living in a hovel provided that it contains a vase of flowers, and the essence of the perfect household represented by the bright and blossom¬decked niche dedicated to the ancestral spirits. The Vietnamese is fortunate in that his household lares do not suffer from the fussy obsession for order of their Moi counterparts.
The pagoda of Phu-Tho, then, was nothing more than a wooden shack, with a corrugated-iron roof – the most valuable part of its con¬struction – which would have disgraced any Moi village. For all that, it was gay with jonquils, narcissus and chrysanthemums, coaxed into choice and grotesque shapes by the devoted cunning of these serene-faced patriarchs. One wall of the pagoda could be opened up completely, and before this opening we sat on a row of chairs, while joss-sticks were lighted and gongs reverently thumped. An official presented us with a rectangle of vermilion paper apiece, excellently painted with Chinese ideograms for conventional New Year’s greetings. Mine read ‘five felicities under the same door’. These Chinese New Year’s greetings are much prized throughout Indo-China, particularly in remote districts of Cambodia and Laos where there are no Chinese. Here the meanings of the ideograms are unknown and the consequent element of mystery enhances their magic virtues. One sees them pasted on most door posts in some villages, where they are carefully preserved the year round.
Our visit to the pagoda was in deference to a principle no different from that followed in Moi villages. We were being presented to the tutelary spirit. The pagoda of a tutelary spirit is to be found in every Vietnamese village, and sometimes there are two or more. In the past the ancient cult has been modified by the system of Confucius and by Buddhism, but now the driving force in the two great philosophies has faltered and waned, and the cult still survives. The tutelary spirit was once some outstanding village personality, or even its founder, for whom, in return for services rendered, has been created a sort of spiritual baronetcy. In Phu-Tho there was nothing particularly colourful related of the character of this semi-divine distinguished citizen, but at another village I visited he had been a thief of quite extraordinary prowess. For the annual feast some meritorious person was granted the privilege of repre-senting him in a ceremony which consisted in the representative’s breaking into the pagoda at night and carrying off the sacred tablets. He was then chased, caught, pelted with mud and refuse by the indignant villagers, and received a ritual beating to which every tax-paying male was allowed to contribute his blow. Having recovered from this treatment, he became the guest of honour at the subsequent feast.
It was inevitable that the presentation of the pagoda should be fol¬lowed by the Vietnamese equivalent of the alcohol jar. Unfortunately the civilities of the morning had provoked in the case of each of us a severe attack of the kind of indigestion that follows an excess of rice-alcohol. We were alarmed then, when, cramped with heartburn, we were led into the Spanish-type patio of the chef du conseil’s house, and observed a table laden with bottles of sweet, heavy, French aperitifs. We took our seats at the table eyeing the bottles dully, while the notables filed slowly in, and stood in a circle facing us, round the walls. They were dressed in black coats and turbans and white trousers. There was a moment of confusion when it was realised that someone had usurped the Resident’s chair of honour, distinguished by a towel that had been hung over the back, but this was soon put right, and the chef du conseil standing forward, with head bent slightly and clasped hands, delivered a fairly long speech of welcome in Vietnamese. As soon as this was over the notables advanced implacably with cakes of rice, honey and nuts, stamped into the shapes appropriate to the season, others arriving with cups of tea, while yet others resolutely uncorked the bottles – chosen I was certain for their colour, as they were all red – and poured out a white bakelite mugful of Cap Corse, Suze or Campari – whichever happened to be nearest. Our attendants then took a respectful pace back to allow us to drink. There was a moment of hesitation while the notables looked on anxiously, then the Resident, abstemious by nature, but conscientious in his duties raised his glass. Murmurs of approval came from the onlookers and now, to our consternation, we saw that bottles of champagne were being uncorked. But the notables were all smiles and highly delighted with the miniature explosions of the popping corks, reminding them, no doubt, of celebra¬tory firecrackers, and therefore highly suitable to the occasion. For the champagne the white bakelite mugs were removed and replaced in the interests of colour-harmony with pale blue ones.

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