A Convoy to Dalat

THE DALAT CONVOY left at five o’clock. Suspecting-as indeed proved to be the case – that the hotel boy would not call me, I lay awake most of the night, perspiring gently, listening to the occasional explosion of distant mortar bombs and to the rumble of army trucks patrolling the streets. I was travelling in a shirt and shorts, and my bag was packed with the bare essentials for a journey of unknown length: a pair of long trousers and a jacket for formal occasions (if any), a mosquito net, anti-malarial tablets, insect-repellent cream and a camera. A French acquaintance had suggested, in all seriousness, that I should carry a pistol; not so much for self-defence as to be able to Save The Last Bullet for Myself, should I fall into the hands of the Viet-Minh. This suggestion I had rejected. I was carrying a travelling permit obtained for me by the Office of Information, importantly styled ‘Ordre de Mission’, in which I was described as ‘Lewis Norman, fieri vain Anglais, habilite par M. Jonathan Cape, Thirty Bedford Square’. This paper had to be frequently renewed, the description suffering in consequence both compression and distortion. In the end I became ‘Louis Norman Thirsty Bedford’, and it was under this agreeable title that I finished my journeyings.
At half-past four, feeling not particularly refreshed, I got up, dressed quickly and went down into the square to find a cyclo. As usual, there were three or four, drowsing over their handlebars, outside the hotel. I sat down in the chair, arranging my bag awkwardly under my legs and we pushed off. As cyclos are not supposed to understand French one does not give them verbal directions. They just pedal straight ahead and one flaps with either hand when the time comes to turn.
We found the civilian part of the convoy in the process of assembly behind the redbrick cathedral. The spectral figures of my fellow- passengers lurked by the bus, leaving it until the last possible moment before getting in. I was the only European present and no one took the slightest notice of me. In these times the whites preferred to travel by air.
The bus was equipped internally to carry about twice the number of passengers one would have supposed from its external dimensions. This had been achieved, quite simply, by fitting seats that would have accom¬modated a ten-year-old child in comfort and by arranging it so that one’s legs were clenched firmly by the seat in front. I thanked heaven, in the circumstances, that I was travelling with the silent and introverted Viet¬namese and not, for instance, a busful of excited Arabs. The travellers were dressed in their workaday clothes of black calico, except for the driver, who wore black satin pyjamas embroidered with the Chinese characters for good luck, and a most expensive-looking, golden-brown, velour hat. He was about five feet in height and weighed, perhaps, eight stone; physically somewhat ill-endowed, it seemed, to control this over¬loaded juggernaut. Very sensibly, I thought, watching him hauling on his mighty wheel, a notice pinned to his back asked passengers, in two languages, not to distract his attention by talking to him.
Sitting next to me was a well-preserved lady in middle age. Her hair was arranged in a complicated chignon, set off with jewelled pins in the form of small daisy-like flowers. Having neglected her fine set of teeth, the white bone was showing slightly through their coating of black enamel. She was heavily perfumed with jasmine and as most of the female passengers showed a predilection for such pungent attars, the atmosphere of the bus was soon heavy with a funereal sweetness. My travelling companion carried a small box, like a powder compact, from which, shortly after we moved off, she selected betel nut and began to chew. At quite long intervals she leaned over me and shot a thin stream of juice through the window. When later we stopped I noticed that the wind-carried splash of orange betel against the blue side of the bus was, in its way, not undecorative.
Before and behind us the convoy stretched as far as the eye could see. It seemed to be composed entirely of the lorries of Chinese merchants. They looked like motorised covered wagons with their tops of plaited bamboo. Their sides were painted with the usual Chinese characters for good fortune, peace, longevity and riches. It was a bad thing in an attack, they said, to be sandwiched between Chinese lorries, which were said to panic in the most unphilosophical manner at the first shot fired. At each end of the convoy there were armoured cars, and on the rare occasions when the road was wide enough, they came fussing along the line of the convoy, like hens marshalling nervous chicks. The trouble was that the road rarely permitted the passage of two vehicles abreast and, naturally enough, it was in the narrow sectors, where the convoy might be spread out over five miles of road, with the armoured cars wedged in immutable position, that the ambushes took place.
For the first thirty or forty miles out of Saigon we were still in the flat, rice-growing country. We passed many solitary villas by the roadside – the ‘big-houses’ of Cochin-China, with dragons of smoky-blue china undulating like sea-serpents across their roofs and a menagerie of ceramic lions and elephants in their gardens. Vietnamese animal figures are never intimidating in their aspect. Their expressions are always genial, even flippant, and one suspects that the intention is humorous as well as ornamental. The rooftops seemed to be the favourite place to assemble china figures of all kinds; perhaps because they would be silhouetted in this way to the best possible effect. The best examples included jovial, bearded philosophers in the act of beating tambourines, with one leg skittishly raised, or else ogling ladies who enticed them coquettishly. Souvenirs of family visits to the seaside perhaps. Who knows? At all events most of the houses were deserted, or had been requisitioned by the military; but where the family remained there was invariably a platform on a pole placed somewhere near the front door with offerings to the spirits: a bowl with rice, a pot of tea, joss-sticks, even a packet of cigarettes.
This was the Borri country, where the first Jesuit missionaries had set out upon their labours, enchanted with the civility of their reception, although perturbed by the prevalence of devils. ‘They walk about the Cities so familiarly in human Shapes, that they are not at all fear’d but admitted into Company.’

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