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Sunday, 21 May 2017

The Road to Dalat: part 4: Vietnam, notes & photos 1965 1975

The Road to Dalat: part 4

The following morning I filled the car up with petrol, lit my pipe and we began the return trip. It was a lovely day, the air fresh and pleasant but not another car on the road. We descended what I would call the alpine part of the journey, past that imposing mountain now on our right, to the small airfield. We then continued across the area of what must have been a high plateau of plantations. I took some photos of PB, I still have them. At one point we stopped so she could buy some meat, buffalo(?) off a montagnard woman we came across, but we only had notes and the montagnard would only accept coins. Descending through the lovely green forests PB slept beside me. I was brutally awoken myself when the car hit a pothole, struggled to regain control of it and then continued wide awake. I dread to think what would have been the result of even a minor accident.

The drive was eventless and we passed again through rolling hills of tall grassland. As we approached the rubber plantations we stopped for a coca cola at some village. I have always found it the most refreshing of drinks on such occasions and gives one the force to continue. Then, surprise, a column of South Vietnamese armour approached from the south. The first vehicles we had seen in two days. I don't know what the US advisors made of me quietly sitting at a table with PB. Actually they gave a most friendly smile. Perhaps not for me.

Driving on we were stopped two or three times in the rubber plantations by Regional Force soldiers who wanted to be recompensed for guarding the road for us! I always kept a carton or two of cigarettes for that and usually two or three packets would suffice.

Reaching the Baria Saigon road PB wanted to go to Saigon, so I had to drive there and then back to Van Kiep. I think I must have driven a good eighteen hours during those two days. I could hardly move a muscle when I got back.

Three days after our trip the Viet Cong attacked the road in six places and held control of it for five days.

Sometime later two Decca employees driving in a jeep from Phan Rang on the coast up to Dalat went missing. In 1971, the British Vice-Consul, a certain Adrian, one of those very rare but most likeable of people was around at my house in Saigon and he told me that he had been interviewing a Viet Cong defector who said they had been stopped at a road block, taken prisoner and died in captivity. One was British and one American. On the other hand in the same period fourteen unarmed US civilian personnel in a US truck under I think Korean army escort were all killed on the same road when their convoy was ambushed. One had to use one's judgement whether to be armed or not, and if possible what means to travel by. One should also pray not to have been born under an unlucky star.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

The Road to Dalat: part 3: Vietnam notes & photos 1965 1975

The Road to Dalat: part 3

We now looked out on the most beautiful green I had ever seen. Below us there was wave after wave of all the shades imaginable, forest or jungle, I can't remember, but it was utterly lovely. Whatever shade of fear we were suffering from also disappeared. I think we had just put it away and pretended to ourselves it wasn't there. In any case we were committed now and it was too late to turn back. At one point I saw the backs of soldiers looking into the forest, and the sound of bursts of machine gun fire, and then nothing. Next we reached a high plateau with gently rolling hills covered with tea or coffee plantations. I should know which, but this is written after a forty year interval and although some of my memories are crystal clear as though they happened yesterday others are blends of colours and some only grey.

To digress. The old plantations had been owned by the French. I was to get to know a Vietnamese woman whose family owned one. I remember being given large bags of coffee grains freshly roasted, black and small, glistening with butter. The coffee in Vietnam was the Robusta variety. Very strong. It was usually drunk out of small glasses with lots of sugar but no milk. I used to drink far too much and my nerves suffered accordingly. The tea was drunk from large glasses, without sugar or milk, thank God. Outside Saigon at least it was usually free and accompanied whatever one was eating. On the rare occasions I stopped somewhere just to have a glass it was always given, so I usually bought a small cake or something. Anyway the water was usually of dubious quality and tea was safer.

We arrived at the civil airfield serving Dalat. Very small. No sign of any activity or any planes. I was to get used to, indeed to take part, in this Vietnamese habit, of going to an airfield for a flight and sit down and wait hopefully, looking up into the sky for hours for the sight of a plane. When no plane appeared that day they would go away and come back the next. The patience of the East. From here the road climbed steeply and the scenery changed again. One could have been in the Alps. The forest was now evergreen and there was a magnificent mountain off to our left. Unknown to us this was quite the most dangerous part of the journey and that mountain was full of tunnels infested with the Vietcong.

We arrived in Dalat. We had not seen a single motorised vehicle the whole journey, save for that lone catholic priest. I will deal with this town later when I was to get to know it much better. For us it was just a question of finding a hotel, a quick walk around, food and bed. The town maintained a rather French air. With my beard I easily fitted in. It was the one place in Vietnam where I was never exploited. There was no United States presence at all. In all my visits there I never saw more than one or two Americans. I do not want to criticise Americans in these articles. The problem was, the fighting aside, there was often an unfortunate relationship between the two peoples, both seeing the other's faults and never the qualities.

There was a curfew at eight o'clock. It was a town that had seen its heyday years before. Now it had the South Vietnamese military and police academies. It had the Couvent des Oiseaux. It was known for its vegetables which were sent by road to Saigon. Its girls had a lovely healthy glow to their cheeks. All of this for later. We spent a rather restless night. There were continual bursts of small arms fire throughout the night. Will I ever tell of any happy ones. There were many, but evidently not at the end of our excursions. We had to return the next day. I only ever had two days off unless arranged otherwise and as all my trips were unauthorised I preferred not to talk about them.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

The Road to Dalat: part 2


The Road to Dalat: part 2

I switched the number plates of my car and then we continued through an area of rubber plantations. By the time we reached rolling grass covered hills it had begun to enter my somewhat sluggish mind that there was no traffic on the road. I also knew by now what no traffic meant. I hid my identity papers and threw away my X numbered plates.

The few villages that there were seemed lacking in activity. Once we passed a lonely catholic priest on a motor scooter.

The road climbed steadily and we talked a little. PB was from Hanoi. They had also had a house in the country and been relatively well off. Her father, a nationalist, had been taken away by the Viet Minh one night and never seen again. The family moved south after Vietnam was divided. There was an uncle, a colonel, who had been a province chief. I think all province chiefs were military, possibly with one exception to try to prove the country was not exactly a military dictatorship or something. He had been on the wrong side in one of the numerous coup d'états. There was another tragedy in her life, but it is not for me to talk about here. Every Vietnamese had his own share of tragedies linked to the war. Her English was excellent and she had this delightful habit of mixing her adverbs and adjectives up.

We decided I needed another identity. I suggested being a French catholic priest. I was often mistaken for one in the province where I worked. PB pointed out that her presence didn't lend credence to that. I suggested being a press reporter. We rejected that, but later I was to join an obscure press agency, get the necessary papers, and use that cover in my off duty time. I would also work as a freelance. We settled on my being a teacher. I was to become one at some future date. Once when we were driving in the delta, I think near My Tho, and had stopped to buy some pineapple from a young boy by the road he had remarked that I was English. He had a brother studying in England. I worked with, was paid by and had a lot of friends who were Americans, but alone in the countryside they were the last people I wanted to be associated with. The road started to climb again and still no traffic.

Phu Bao on the road to Dalat 1967

Sunday, 30 April 2017

The Road to Dalat: part 1: Vietnam notes & photos 1965 1975


The Road to Dalat: part 1

We were driving around probably not too sure where to go. We must have been heading to Saigon when I saw this sign post on the right saying Dalat. I had heard the name. It was an old French hill station far to the north of Saigon. It had the good reputation of an agreeable place to go. It brought to mind tales of one of the old British hill stations of the RAJ. Simla? Anyway my curiosity was roused and I asked PB if she had been there and she said no. I turned right and off we went.

We were able to come to these decisions without any discussion which was good. On the other hand we didn't know how far it was. It certainly wasn't near. We didn't know what the road was like. I am not giving distances. I would have to check them on a map. I had no map then. Anyway even with a map I would not have been much better off. A detailed military map was the last thing one wanted to be caught with and anything else was worse than useless. The conditions on some of the roads were appalling and it was not unknown to travel mile after mile on second gear. Traffic jams in Saigon were monstrous and in the country side a blown bridge could cause a bottle neck with traffic three lanes deep on either side and no way for any vehicle to get through to clear the bridge. Or for that matter just a blown bridge and not a soul about. To compare a journey then with whatever distance is marked on a map today has no bearing on the reality of the situation.

What perhaps was surprising was the fact that the Vietnamese continued to travel the roads. Their driving was appalling. Driving licenses could be bought. If you were a foreigner you were always wrong. You could, had to, buy your way out of any accident. I read that coach drivers drove at high speed in the hope that if they set a mine off their speed would carry the driver over safely and only blow the rear end off the bus. The accidents were horrific. The Viet Cong set up road blocks and took away whoever they considered an enemy. I remember reading that a French consul in the highlands had his car break down, got a lift on a passing bus, was taken by the Viet Cong at a road block and reportedly died in captivity. The French usually considered themselves above this war and therefore immune.

It is possible that having known war for twenty five years when I arrived in 1965 the Vietnamese had developed a certain fatality to it.

Friday, 28 April 2017

The living and the dead. Vietnam 1965 1975 notes & photos

South Vietnam. Students in Saigon and dead vietcong in Phan Thiet.

Two Vietnams that lived side by side

A certain privileged upper class and those that died.

Monday, 24 April 2017

The French Doctor: part 2: Vietnam notes & photos 1965 1975


The French Doctor: part 2

I searched around Saigon and eventually found a doctor who pleased me. At this time there was an acute shortage of civilian doctors in Vietnam. Large cities like Saigon had a number for those that could afford them. I believe there were whole provinces that had none. The Vietnamese tended to rely on traditional medicine and only turn to medical help as a last resort. A German hospital ship in Saigon on a goodwill mission reported that by the time they got to see any sick people it was usually too late.

I thankfully never had to suffer from the pedal powered dentist's drill I saw in one dentist’s.
On the other hand you could go to a pharmacy, discuss what symptoms you had with the pharmacian and buy whatever medicine you needed without a prescription, if you had the money of course.

This doctor, Dr. Crozafon, had been in Vietnam most of his professional life. He knew the country the Far East and he knew men. It was the first time in my life I felt at ease in a doctor's surgery. He also had his own laboratory which helped. The system I arranged with him was this. I would arrive unannounced at his surgery at eight o'clock in the morning, having had no alcohol for 24 hours, no food for 12 hours, and his assistants would take the necessary blood samples etc. for tests. I would come by a week later and be examined by the doctor who would have all the results in front of him and I could then leave him knowing I was in good health. He had about half a dozen rather delightful pretty young assistants which helped matters. I remember him trying to explain Anglo-Saxon logic to them.

There were many diseases in the country, but it was usually a fear of things such as rabies that was uppermost in my mind. I remember being in a cinema in Saigon in those early days. There was a French woman sitting next to me. She was eating peanuts and dropping the shells on the floor, at the same time saying Nguyen Cao Khy was the man for her. I also thought she was playing footsies with me. When the light came on she completely ignored me, I looked down and saw a rat around our feet. I put my feet up on the seat in front of me and did so every time I went to the cinema in the future. The woman didn't seem to notice anything. I was in a restaurant with PB in Saigon when I heard a sort of hissing noise down by my feet and there was a rat sitting on its haunches begging for food. One of our spotter plane pilots at Van Kiep was bitten by a rat in his sleep and had to have anti-rabies shots. I think they were still in the stomach in those days.

We had an outbreak of bubonic plague in our province. I decided to risk another inoculation, bad side effects but less so than in New York. Not many dead from it and at least a general attack on the rat population. I did rather like reading Camus' ‘La Peste’ though.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

The French Doctor: part 1: Vietnam notes & photos 1965 1975


The French Doctor: part 1

I decided around this time I needed my own doctor. The medics at the camp were very good for anything minor. The field hospital for anything major but nothing in between. My own experience with doctors had always been very limited. A visit to one felt like being summoned to the headmaster's study at school to be punished. Perhaps it was never helped by the feeling of impending doom whilst in the waiting room; similar to that experienced outside the headmaster's study waiting for the order to enter. The only time I'd been on sick parade in the army I'd been charged with being incorrectly dressed. No pyjamas in my pack. That had been because of a very minor worry about my eyes brought on by reading Reader's Digest. Each edition had a medical article describing exactly the symptoms of something you had.

The US forces radio didn't help either. Every twenty minutes or so they came up with some announcement giving the symptoms of this or that fatal illness until you became hypochondrical. We had been vaccinated or inoculated against the usual typhoid, typhus etc. and the more exotic yellow fever and bubonic plague as well.

When I was in New York waiting for my flight I had had a bad reaction to the anti-plague inoculation and my arm had swelled horribly. I didn't want to tell the office or they might have postponed my departure. My girlfriend had a slight swelling in the groin and I said she had probably caught the bubonic plague. An instant look of utter terror was followed by a telephone call to her doctor and she was off for an appointment. Of course there was no real problem but it's funny the way people react. Her sister was married to a Decca man and there had been problems. One of my mother's best friend’s daughter's in the Bahamas had been married to a Decca man and there had also been serious problems. My mother didn't approve of us. She thought we were a danger to women.

When my final telephone call arrived one morning at 9 o'clock informing me that my flight would leave at one o'clock I woke up to find the abscess on my arm had burst, the bed was covered in blood and I had a hole in my arm big enough to put a little finger in. I showered, filled the hole up with antiseptic cream, wrapped it in a bandage, reported to the office to collect my ticket and travel orders, saw Laura again for a couple of gin and tonics, caught my flight and had my arm treated later in Saigon.

There were three other Decca personnel on the same flight but they were bumped off in Hawaii to make place for other higher priority passengers. I was the only one to arrive in Saigon and the office thought I was terribly keen, and they didn't know the half of it.

Monday, 10 April 2017

A New Car: Vietnam notes & photos 1965 1975

A New Car I managed at long last to get a car. For some reason, very high taxes I think, buying a second hand car in Vietnam was expensive. Maybe the locals didn't pay taxes, I don't know. We were able to import tax free cars, usually from Japan. The Japanese dominated the market in cars, motor scooters, and fridges etc. The word Honda became synonymous with motor scooter. The girls used to ride side saddle on the back, most elegant. I picked up my car in Saigon, a very underpowered Mazda, delightful to drive though, and took it back to Vung Tau. Driving in Saigon for the first time was quite an experience. Over the years it played havoc with my blood pressure. I had no Vietnamese driving license and didn't bother to get one for a number of years. When I eventually started conforming I was able to exchange my Bahamian license for one. Many years after that I was able to exchange the Vietnamese one for a French one that I still have. I didn't have any number plates either. We were given special numbers begining with an X on, I think, a green plate. This of course denoted that we were part of the US war effort. When I got back to Vung Tau and had the plates made up I had a set of local plates made which I used when travelling on roads where it was wiser not to be associated with the Americans. There were two colours of petrol, one for the military, and one for the local population. I cannot remember at that time the price of petrol ever being taken into consideration when running a car. I was also beginning to slip into my various identities. When stopped after curfew by the US military police I produced my Vietnamese identity papers. With my beard and strange accent they couldn't hold me. It rather confused them when I drove onto their airfield in a US 3/4 ton wearing my old basque beret, khaki drills, filled up with petrol and took off up country where they weren't allowed to go. When the Americans started to wear berets I switched to a bush hat. If stopped by the Vietnamese police I would produce my US Defence Department Identity papers so they couldn't hold me either. The thing was to always confuse the enemy, friend or foe and put some doubt in their heads as to who you were. I was to live under a curfew more or less permanently all the time I was in Vietnam. It varied according to the security situation etc. Usually in towns in periods of quiet, from midnight until five in the morning. In small towns or the countryside it could begin as early as eight. Being out after curfew was not too bad if you were recognized as a foreigner but some places were very dodgy, the Vietnamese local defence forces were very trigger happy.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

After the battle. Vietnam notes & photos 1965 1975

The victors take a break from the fighting whilst the dead pay the price of defeat.
South Vietnamese Regional Forces and their opponents the Viet Cong. Phan Thiet 1968.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

The Field Hospital: Vietnam notes & photos 1965 1975

The Field Hospital

One morning I was faced with an acute problem, 'prolapsed haemorrhoids'. Once the initial panic had subsided I made my way to the nearest road and thumbed a lift from a passing jeep which appropriately belonged to the Red Cross. I asked the driver to take me straight to the military field hospital. On arriving there, as I was not a stretcher case, I was told to visit the out patients at the other end of the airfield. As I could hardly walk they provided an ambulance. At the out patients they asked for a dollar before I could see the doctor. This was a dollar in the new military Scrip that was meant to combat the black market but which in fact created another one. I didn't have any so I had to go around trying to sell some of my piastres amongst the other out patients. The doctor then said I had to be admitted to the hospital but as there was no more transport I had to hobble back down to the other end of the airfield. Once admitted my dollar was returned to me.

I spent a not unpleasant week there. The patient in the next bed had a gaping shrapnel wound in his leg. The most seriously wounded were flown straight out to Japan or the Philippines.

They had female nurses who came round and massaged our backs every evening. Christmas Eve a medic produced a bottle of bourbon. I dislike bourbon and for that matter rye whiskey also. Christmas day John came round with a flask of brandy which helped. We also had a visit from Vietnamese school girls who gave each of their wounded allies a Vietnamese doll in the traditional Ao Dai. I didn't try to disillusion the young girl in front of me. All very sweet. Better than the woman from one of the agencies that provided succour to the wounded trying to give me some razor blades.

I always had a problem with my beard with Americans. They associated beards with hippies. This was the 1960,s; I with outdoor living. We had all worn them in the out islands in the Bahamas. The Royal Navy was not exactly hippy, although in the British army only pioneer sergeants could wear them.

We were covered by all sorts of medical insurance, Blue Cross, Blue Shield. etc. and still being young were not unduly worried about health. Anyway there was always a cold beer or a pipe of tobacco which cured most things. Being scared to death by real danger also helped.

An American fellow I worked with had explained it to me when I arrived. When the mortars come in you're on the ground trying to dig a hole with your hands. In the morning you’re glad to be alive without a care in the world. | Trang chủ | Tin thế giới
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