By the time we arrived all the personnel of the post, with the exception of the duty staff, were already in bed. Dinh explained that the last meal was taken at five o’clock, and after that parties went canoeing, swimming or walking, or to their improving labours in the villages. But for the last week they had all been virtually confined to barracks owing to the fighting in the neighbourhood. Radio warnings had been received of several marine-commando raids in their area, and once they had been obliged to send men to create a diversion when a nearby post had been attacked. We had timed our arrival, it seemed, most unfortunately.
The commander of the post now came in. He had been out watching the attack which we had heard and which had been directed against a group of towers held by Bao-Dai forces. He was about twenty-five years of age, small, slight and grave, with features blunted with deep pock marks. He carried no badges of rank, but was the equivalent, Dinh said, of a captain. Officers were not saluted and were called brother, like anyone else. ‘A respect for his superiors is second nature to any Vietnamese. It could not be increased by the addition of titles.’
Apologising for being too busy to show me round in person, the commander said that there had been a flare-up of activity in all sectors and that Bao-Dai troops drafted into the area had just received orders to attack them. I asked how they knew that, and the commander smiling rather distantly said that it was their business to know. To forestall any such attack, it had, at all events, been decided to capture all the towers, and a combat team had been sent with the necessary assault equipment. Asked whether the towers would be held when captured, the commander said no, there was no point in it. They would be demolished. Two towers had been taken that night, but he thought that army headquarters might have decided to make a daylight attack on those that remained. Where possible they liked to have a cameraman filming such actions so that the staff officers could see how the commanders in the field were doing their jobs and correct their mistakes where necessary. Films of well-organised attacks also served instructional and propaganda purposes.
I asked whether it would be possible to see such an operation, and the commander, with a trace of coldness in his manner, said he thought it was extremely unlikely. He had no authority whatever to give permis¬sion. Regretting perhaps his somewhat blunt refusal, he then said that actions of this kind were sometimes dangerous. Usually the tower sur¬rendered without opposition at all, or only a token opposition, because they were always attacked in greatly superior force. But on one occasion recently, after a surrender had been arranged by peaceful negotiation, and at the moment when the Viet-Minh party was advancing to take over, the tower had opened fire, killing the officer commanding and a high official who had been sent to observe from headquarters. That, said the commander, was a rare example of a bungle. But it went to show that accidents did happen.
Among the statistical charts with which the room was decorated was a propaganda poster. It consisted of a map of the world with China and the Soviet Union united in a huge red mass. Across were written words in Vietnamese, which the Commander said meant, ‘These people are with you.’ He added, ‘Our enemies are slowly converting us to communism. If it is only by becoming communists that we shall achieve our liberty, then we shall become communists.’
We slept on bunks in the guard-hut. Mosquito nets were provided and there was a box of anti-malarial tablets open on a table. I was awakened before dawn by a bugle blowing but went off to sleep and awoke again when the sun was well up. Washing was done in a hut fitted with wooden bowls lined with sheet-metal. Large jars full of water were provided. Dinh, who was already up and came into the washroom, said that filling the jars from the river was one of the rota fatigues, like cooking and other domestic tasks.
Afterwards he suggested a dip and we went down and swam about in a pool of warmish, yellow water. Dinh mentioned that this was reserved for males only and that the ladies’ bathing pool was further along the river, modestly screened, I noticed, with an unusually dense growth of water palm. There had been a period, Dinh said, when ‘naturism’ and mixed sunbathing had received official sanction as cultural relaxations, allotted their half-hour in the day’s approved activities. But now they were viewed with disfavour, along with the composition of lyrical poetry, as unfavourable to the development of a realistic attitude towards present problems. Love affairs, too, were detrimental to efficiency and were something to be kept, like smoking, for furtive indulgence in the bottoms of junks.
At ten o’clock the first meal was served; a Quakerish affair, girls on one side of the table, eyes demurely lowered, and men on the other, all dressed in black calico. The temptation to stare at the European must have been great. Dinh said that in the interior of Viet-Minh territory some of the young people have not seen a Westerner since early child¬hood, and that their first experience of the fierce, red, and often bearded features of the enemy was particularly terrifying.
The meal consisted of tit-ca- pork stewed in coconut milk – and balls of rizgluant. Gluant, which means sticky, is exactly what the rice is not, and it could not possibly be more unlike the boiled rice eaten in England. Each separate grain is firm, greyish in colour and practically dry; but the cooking is done in such a way that the grains adhere to each other and can be kneaded into balls. There was a poor quality nuoc-mam to dip it in; thin, black and powerfully malodorous. The food was eaten rapidly and in silence, fifteen minutes being allowed. It would be followed by fifteen minutes’ rest and then a short period of calisthenics, Dinh informed me. The commander corrected him. Conforming to a new directive, the second morning period of physical culture had been discontinued, but could be replaced, if circumstances permitted, with community singing. A jug of water and a bowl stood at the door of the hut, and all washed their hands as they went out to their rather staid, oriental version of Strength through Joy.