Although there had been some hints at Saigon of the possibilities of an Imperial hunting trip, I had never supposed that an official audience was taken so much as a matter of course and I said something to the effect that I hadn’t given much thought to the matter. The Schneiders seemed surprised. This was my first experience of the fact that writers and journalists travelling in the Far East are supposed to be anxious to interview any crowned heads that happen to be within reach, and that to neglect to show much anxiety is considered a little oafish – even a breach of good manners. It is really extraordinary that these august persons should be wounded in their self-esteem when some insignificant traveller fails to express a desire to be received by them. In any case, my hostess thought, the matter of an audience could quite well wait for a day or two as there was little likelihood of my being able to leave Dalat in under a week. It was further explained to me that I would have to return along the Saigon road to a point about seventy-five miles south where it joined the main road to Ban Methuot. There was a convoy due to leave Saigon for Ban Methuot next morning, but I should almost certainly fail to make the connection. The next convoy would leave in about a week’s time. I thought it strange that the people in Saigon should have arranged, in that case, for me to travel to Ban Methuot via Dalat, and Madame Schneider said that they had probably taken the map too literally. There were two jungle tracks that cut across country from a village called Djiring, about thirty miles away, but one was the Emperor’s private hunting track and his permission would have to be obtained to use it, while as for the other, which had only been completed two years previously, it might be months before – but suddenly Madame had an idea; hadn’t there been some talk of a Gendarmerie officer going to Ban Methuot in the next few days? Picking up the telephone she got through to the Gendarmerie, and sure enough, by a really remarkable chance, a Lieutenant Suéry was leaving next morning. He had a seat to spare in his car and would be pleased to call for me at the inevitable hour of five o’clock.
The doctor ran me over to the Baliverne Hotel. It was a pretentious building, externally a bad example of timid functionalism tempered with would-be Hispanic swagger. My reception was a good example of Vietnamese passive resistance. It started off with the doctor confidently announcing that he had reserved a room for me by telephone. The Vietnamese male receptionist consulted a list and shook his head. The doctor asked him to make sure and the receptionist went carefully through the rooms, one by one, apparently checking the name of each occupant. No, there was no reservation in that name. Much embarrassed the doctor turned to me. ‘It’s absolutely extraordinary. I telephoned myself.’
‘Would you mind making one final check?’ he asked. The clerk shook his head. ‘No room has been reserved.’
‘Well then let me speak to the manager.’
‘The manager is not here.’
In desperation the doctor asked, ‘and have you no rooms of any kind?’
‘Certainly we have rooms.’
‘Then why didn’t you say so before?’
‘You asked if there was a reservation, and I told you there was none.’ Tired but relieved I signed the register. The reception clerk seemed to remember something.
‘At what time will you be leaving in the morning?’
‘At five o’clock.’
‘Will you require breakfast before leaving?’
‘Well – if it won’t be too early – ’
‘Yes, it will be too early.’
While waiting for my luggage to be taken up I saw one of the most amazing sartorial sights I have ever seen. An American car drove up and in came a party of wealthy Chinese. The girls were dressed in rolled-up tartan trousers and cardigans. With them was what seemed to be a Vietnamese mandarin in a flowered silk gown, but wearing a flat tweed cap. A foretaste of the mysterious East to come!
My room was furnished with the cheapest of modernistic furniture, there was a smelly lavatory and an empty water bottle. The pageboy refused five piastres (1s. 8d.) and demanded ten. Huge lethargic mosquitoes floated about the room, but they were so slow in flight that I picked them all out of the air in five minutes. I was glad that my stay in Dalat would be limited to one night.
Awaiting sleep I considered the matter of the extraordinary accessibil¬ity of the oriental potentates of our times. Having with me Crawford’s Journal of An Embassy to Cochin China, which gives a fascinating account of the country at the time of his visit, in 1822,1 turned up the passage referring to his vain attempts to be received in audience by the Emperor of Annam – an ancestor of the present sovereign. Crawford, who was kept kicking his heels for two months, never achieved his purpose because it was objected that the Embassy was undertaken on behalf of the Governor-General of India and not of the King of England himself. His experiences throughout show a marked similarity to those of envoys sent in various abortive attempts to establish diplomatic relations with the Emperor of China.
Crawford soon found that although the Cochin-Chinese were hos¬pitable, cheerful, scrupulously polite and entirely lacking in the rapacity of the Siamese, they were ‘extremely ceremonious and partial to display and parade in little matters to the extent of ostentation’. In his pre¬liminary conference with a deputation of mandarins of Saigon, eight hours were spent in consideration of the wording of the letter he carried from the Governor-General to the Emperor. While agreeing that the intentions were probably respectful, the mandarins pointed out that it would be contrary to the laws of the country to present it in its original, barbarous form.
For example, the sentence ‘His excellency sends certain presents in token of his profound respect and esteem for His Majesty the Emperor of Cochin-China.’ ‘This was not to be endured, because, as the matter was explained to us, profound respect and esteem must be considered as a matter of course from anyone that addressed His Majesty of Cochin China.’
At the suggestion of the mandarins, the passage was rendered as follows, ‘I send your Majesty certain presents because you are a great King.’ Exception was also taken to His Majesty being addressed as ‘Sovereign of Laos and Cambodia’, in recognition of the fact, as Crawford says, ‘that he had just conquered a great part of these two countries.’ ‘The mandarins informed me that it was no honour for the King of Cochin China to be styled “a King of slaves”.’
At Hue, the capital, the Chinese translation of the amended document came in for further criticism. The mandarins were horrified by the crudity of the Governor-General’s reference to the death of the late Emperor, who ‘ought to have been represented as not dead, but merely gone to Heaven’. ‘This tedious matter’ (the further alterations) ‘occupied from
ten in the morning until five in the evening ’
But it was all to no purpose. The Cochin Chinese continued to be infallibly polite and most sympathetic.
‘ “It is natural enough,” said the mandarin with a smile, “that you should employ every expedient in your power to attain the honour of being presented to so great a king.’”
A hint was dropped of certain indiscretions committed by a predeces¬sor, a Mr Roberts, who on the occasion of his mission in 1805 had included in the customary presents ‘a series of prints representing the capture of Seringapatam, and the death of Tippoo Sultan’. A Chinese merchant sent them word that in his belief the Court ‘desired no inter-course whatever with them… the Cochin Chinese looked upon the men with red hair and white teeth – that is to say Europeans – to be as naturally prone to war and depredations as tigers’.
Crawford struggled on with his losing battle, but there was nothing to be done. He was entertained and banqueted, noting in one instance that they were served with three bowls of eggs on which hens had been put to sit ten to twelve days previously. By way of consolation he was told at the time of his dismissal that five years before a similar mission from the French king had met with the same rebuff and that the Emperor had refused to accept the presents accompanying it.
The comparison with my own subsequent experiences gives some measure of the decline in the prestige of the Indo-Chinese kingdoms.