Saigon and the Vietnamese

IN 1949, a curtain which had been raised for the first time hardly more than fifty years ago in China, came down again for a change of scene. Low-grade clerks in air and shipping offices all over the world were given piles of leaflets and told to stamp the word ‘suspended’ over such place names as Shanghai, Canton and Kunming. Later they used the ‘service discontinued’ stamp. If you had wanted to go to China it was too late. You would have to content yourself with reading books about it, and that was as much of the old, unregenerate China as you would ever know. At this moment the scene shifters were busy, and they might be a long time over their job. When the curtain went up again it would be upon something as unrecognisable to an old China hand as to Marco Polo. And when this day came you had a feeling that curious travellers might find themselves restricted to state-conducted tours, admiring the marvels of reconstruction – the phoenix in concrete.
Now that China had passed into the transforming fire, it seemed that the experience of Far-Eastern travel, if ever to be enjoyed, could no longer be safely postponed. What then remained? Which would be the next country to undergo this process of change which was spreading so rapidly across Asia, and which would have to be seen now, or never again in its present form? I thought that Indo-China was the answer, and it was all the more interesting because, compared to the other Far-Eastern countries, so little had been written about it.
In the middle of January 1950, deciding to risk no further delays, I caught an Air France plane at Paris, bound for Saigon.
On the morning of the fourth day the dawn light daubed our faces as we came down through the skies of Cochin-China. The passengers were squirming in their seats, not sleeping and not waking, and the air hostess’s trained smile came stiffly. With engines throttled back the plane dropped from sur-Alpine heights in a tremorless glide, settling in the new, morning air of the plains like a dragonfly on the surface of a calm lake. As the first rays of the sun burst through the magenta mists that lay along the horizon, the empty sketching of the child’s painting book open beneath us received a wash of green. Now lines were ruled lightly across it. A yellow pencilling of roads and blue of canals.
A colonel of the Foreign Legion awoke uneasily, struggling with numbed, set facial muscles to regain that easy expression of good- fellowship of a man devoted to the service of violence. Becoming interested in something he saw below, he roused a friend, and they rubbed at the window and peered down. We were passing over a road that seemed to be strangely notched at intervals. ‘The defence towers,’ murmured the colonel, smiling with gentle appreciation. A few minutes later there was another moment of interest as we passed above that gauzily-traced chequer-board of fields and ditches. Down there in the abyss, unreal in their remoteness, were a few huts, gathered where the ruler-drawn lines of roads crossed each other. From them a wisp of incense curled towards us. To have been seen so clearly from this height it must have been a great, billowing cloud of smoke. There was a circle of specks in the yellow fields round the village. ‘Une operation,’ the colonel said. Somehow, as he spoke, he seemed linked psychically to what was going on below. Authority flowed back into the travel-weary figure. With the accession of this priestly essence he dominated the rest of the passengers.
Beneath our eyes violence was being done, but we were as detached from it almost as from history. Space, like time, anaesthetises the imagination. One could understand what an aid to untroubled killing the bombing plane must be.
It was a highly symbolical introduction to South-East Asia.
In air travel, first impressions are stifled in banality. At Saigon, the airport – a foretaste of the world-state, and as functional as a mortuary – was followed by a bus-trip down Napoleonic boulevards to an inter¬nationalised air terminal. Then came the hotel; an unpalatial palace of the kind that looms across the road from French railway stations. So far the East was kept at bay. Grudgingly conceded a room, I flung open the shutters for a first impression of the town from a high vantage point, flushing as I did a covey of typical London house-sparrows.
Saigon is a French town in a hot country. It is as sensible to call it – as is usually done – the Paris of the Far East as it would be to call Kingston, Jamaica, the Oxford of the West Indies. Its inspiration has been purely commercial and it is therefore without folly, fervour or much ostenta¬tion. There has been no audacity of architecture, no great harmonious conception of planning. Saigon is a pleasant, colourless and characterless French provincial city, squeezed on to a strip of delta-land in the South China Seas. From it exude strangely into the surrounding creeks and rivers ten thousand sampans, harbouring an uncounted native popula¬tion. To the south, the once separated China-town of Cholon has swollen so enormously as to become its grotesque Siamese twin. There are holes in the urban fabric roughly filled in with a few thousand branch and straw shacks, which are occasionally cleared by accidental fires. The better part of the city contains many shops, cafes and cinemas, and one small, plain cathedral in red brick. Twenty thousand Europeans keep as much as possible to themselves in a few tamarind-shaded central streets and they are surrounded by about a million Vietnamese and Chinese.
I breakfasted, absurdly, but after a twenty-hour fast, on a long, saffron-coloured sole; pleased that the tea served with it should have a slightly earthy, hot-house flavour. This finished I went out into the mild, yellow light and immediately witnessed a sight which compensated one for Saigon’s disappointingly Westernised welcome. There was a rapid, silendy swirling traffic in the streets of bicycle rickshaws mixed up with cycles; a bus, sweeping out of a side-street into the main torrent, caught a cyclist, knocked him off and crushed his machine. Both the bus driver and the cyclist were Chinese or Vietnamese, and the bus driver, jumping down from his seat, rushed over to congratulate the cyclist on his lucky escape. Both men were delighted, and the cyclist departed, carrying the wreckage of his machine and still grinning broadly. No other incidents of my travels in Indo-China showed up more clearly the fundamental difference of attitude towards life and fortune of the East and the West.

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