Region Inconnue 6

There was a sawmill at the post and the manager came over for coffee. He had the gentle, humorous cynicism of a man who, having started out with a fund of ideals, has found them not quite sufficient to cover all life’s opportunities. Since heart-burnings were the order at the guards’ table the manager contributed to the tale of frustration by a description of some of his difficulties. The forest was full of Sao, a quite remarkable wood, impervious as he put it, to destructive agents, and favoured by the Chinese of old for the manufacture of their war-junks. There the wood was, enough to make one’s fortune ten times over and yet there was no way of getting it down to Saigon. ‘A hundred logs,’ said the manager, ‘and I’d leave you fellows to rot where you are and clear off back to France.’ One of the guards said that it only meant waiting a short time now, ‘till the roads are open again’. After that he could ship all the wood in Dak- Song. But the manager laughed. It would be no good at all if the roads were open. That would bring prices right down, only spoil things. What he wanted to find was some way to get the wood down there with the roads closed – like they did with the rice round Saigon. He’d have to find a smart Chinese that could take care of it for him with the Viet-Minh.
After lunch the Chef de la Poste showed us round and we happened to be there when a party of unusually handsome Moi’s arrived. Instead of being dressed as those of Dak-Song were, in tattered European shirts, these were splendid in tasselled loin cloths, earplugs and necklaces of beads and teeth. They had with them a pretty girl of about sixteen, with small, sharp breasts and the everted top lip of a child. One of the guards made discreet inquiries about her, but on learning that she was married, lost interest. They were members of a local tribe called M’nongs, a mysterious people the Chef said, who had only made their submission in 1939 since when they had assassinated eight administrators who had gone to live among them. Why? The Chef shrugged his shoulders. Nobody seemed to know. The M’nongs were quiet, well-behaved people but it was easy to upset them in some way or other without realising it. You did the wrong thing and you disappeared. For an administrator it must have been a bit like living in one of those police states, except that there was no clue as to what was expected of you. You would be getting on like a house on fire, a tribal blood-brother; you might even, as he had heard some of them did, marry two or three native wives. And then you slipped up in some way and nobody ever saw you again. By the way, the Chef added, they had one custom here it might interest us to hear about. The men were considered the property of the women, so that a mother bought a husband for her daughter from a woman who had a son to sell. The price in these days, the Chef said, was about 800 piastres, so that in the case of a woman with a dozen sons, ‘Elle re^oit du fric – n’est ce pas?’
If the Vietnamese had been indifferent, these M’nongs were oblivious. They did their business, which seemed to consist of paying a tax in rice, through one of the tame Dak-Song Mois. We walked round them looking at their ornaments but none of them so much as glanced at us. We might have been transparent. It was a coincidence that after this first encounter with the noble savage of Indo-China as he is when practically untouched by Western influence, only ten minutes should pass before I was given the opportunity of seeing the other side of the medal. The native guards brought in a half-crazed creature in rags who had escaped from one of the plantations. After having been severely beaten by one of the overseers he had run away and had made a journey through the jungle of three days and three nights to get here. The Frenchmen treated the man kindly and told the Moi’s to give him food and shelter. I gathered that it was part of their duty to see that he was sent back, but they said that they had no intention of doing so.
This was the general attitude of the lesser French officials I met. They had no use whatever for the plantation owners and would not lend their authority, unless they were compelled to, to the support of any abuse.
Sometime in the early evening a breakdown truck arrived from Ban Methuot in response to the radio SOS that had been sent. Suery went off in it and, as it had been arranged that I should continue my journey on the convoy that was coming through later that evening, we said goodbye. I was sorry to part company with Suery. He was the only Frenchman I ever saw a Vietnamese treat with affectionate respect, so that there must have been something exceptional about him. Suery thought more of Nha’s comfort than he did of his own and he told me that the thing that upset him most about wrecking the car was that it might maroon them both in Ban Methuot and thus prevent Nha from going back to Saigon to spend the New Year with his people – a terrible misfortune for any Vietnamese. He was most anxious to relieve Nha before nightfall and to be able to take him a good meal.

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