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Sunday, 1 April 2007

From the Courts of Justice to the Hôtel Continental: Saigon: Vietnam

I had to fly back to Saigon to appear in court. This was one of those flights I loathed. Packed into a C123 Provider. Packing cases, military police with their dogs, soldiers everywhere. A short flight thank heavens.
The following morning I felt terrible. I'd been out to eat at a French restaurant called 'L'Amiral'. I had a violent attack of diarrhea and was in a foul mood when I arrived at the main criminal court in Saigon. The British vice-consul met me. My relations with the Embassy had been very distant. In fact non-existant. On arriving in Vietnam I had received a letter from the ambassador saying our presence was contrary to British government policy, as a result we were not their responsibility, and the Americans could take care of us. The vice-consul was one of the old school, Eton type, so was very civilised anyway. He asked if I had a lawyer. I said whatever for. I hadn't bothered as it was of no importance. He said I could get five years. The embassy were very law abiding. I'd forgotten what laws were. They also changed their pay at the official rate so were not very well off.
Inside the packed courtroom things dragged on slowly. I couldn't understand what was going on. Perhaps there was a system, but nobody seemed interested in me. It was a tribunal. There were three judges. The one who had interviewed me, a young woman who didn't seem to say anything and the one in the centre who presided. After an eternity, and many visits to a not very clean toilet I got fed up and just walked forward to the presiding judge and asked him if he could tell me what was happening. I was wearing clean pressed khaki drills. I gave him my United States Defense Department identity card, said I worked for the US military helping the South Vietnamese in their fight against the communists and had to go back up country and get on with the job. I forget now which language we spoke. I imagine it was French. He looked through his papers and told me I was fined so many piastres. About $20 US. I offered to pay then, but he said no, they'd send me a letter later. It was as I thought. No more than a minor technicality. A parking ticket or some such minor infraction. I wondered if I'd get my Swedish K and Smith & Wesson back.
I went with the vice-consul to the terrace of the Hôtel Continental. I had a cognac. The only thing really for an upset stomach, except Fernet Branca of course. I will talk more of the Continental later. It is what I considered one of my centres of the world.
The first time I had arranged to meet PB in Saigon for lunch I had said the Hôtel Continental. I had meant the terrace bar. I had waited an hour and then gone into the restaurant to eat. It was empty except for a woman sitting a few tables away. I couldn't see her face. Her hair had been done up and while eating my lunch I wondered to myself if she were beautiful. The hair certainly was. The woman got up to leave, walked out, the penny dropped, and I rushed out and got in front of her. It was PB of course. Women are a confounded nuisance when they change their hair style, wear a dress you've never seen before and then put on dark glasses. They then get irritated when you approach strange women trying to find the right one. She was much too well brought up to meet a man in the bar of a hotel. For me the terrace bar was steeped in history. The French colonies, Graham Greene etc. Actually when I first arrived in Saigon it was fairly respectable. At least by western standards. Not a place though for women. Later it would really sink. Full of transvestites etc. Even I avoided it.

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