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Thursday, 5 June 2008

The London School, Saigon. From before 1975

Whilst surfing on the internet yesterday I typed in a name and came up with nothing.
I will try to rectify that. As it was a chapter of my life I think there should be a reference to it on the web.

Before I went to Vietnam I had been in the army and then working on projects relating to the military. In Vietnam I worked for the United States Defense Department and therefore the army. We lived up country in military camps and led a rather rough if not wild life. This was not unusual during one’s first year there. Many people left after a year or eighteen months and never knew anything different.
Over the years I got to know some decent people, mostly women, and had started to appreciate Vietnam. Getting married helped as well.

At a certain moment after the end of a contract, the termination of a project and being British I had found myself downgraded to Third Country National. I never truly understood what that meant except one no longer was in a privileged position with the Americans. I was also a little tired of the war and the wild life and thought a little civilized living in Saigon would do me good.

The result was I shaved off my beard for a while and took up teaching. The beard was related to things I preferred to forget about. When later I grew it again during a rest in Dalat certain aspects of my past came back to haunt me. The school I worked at was called The London School, Saigon. I believe the Vietnamese name was Truong Hoc Luan Don. I did some teaching at the university and at a Chinese school in Cholon, but that is another story.

The woman who ran this school was a Mrs Contento. Wife of a missionary, protestant, she had spent most of her life in the Far East. China until the communists took over, India and then Vietnam. She lived in Cholon in a large rambling house full of Chinese students. I learnt a year or so ago on the internet that after the fall of Saigon she and her husband had moved to the Philippines. She died in 1985 and the husband about ten years later. There is a large article on the net devoted to his work.

Mrs Contento had been brought up in Edinburgh of Irish Scots parentage and took her degree at Edinburgh University. I had been stationed in Edinburgh with the Black Watch but stood guard at the castle and Holyrood Palace instead of studying at the University of Edinburgh.

Anyway she was a most formidable woman. I once referred to her as an old battle ax. Not afraid of anything. One day she complained because I closed the school down for half a day. There had been a student riot against the Cambodians in the morning. The rioters had got mixed up with our pupils. The riot police had charged everybody. Tear gas everywhere. I had locked the gates. The police wanted to get in. Chaos reigned. Mrs Contento couldn’t understand why I had closed the school for the rest of the day.

Talking about opium one day, she said that when she and her husband had first gone to China they had tried to eradicate it at their mission station. They took all the opium smokers, put them in a room, locked the door and left them there until they dried out. Cold Turkey or something. Even she admitted that the results were disastrous.

Anyway a most admirable woman. I feel the main problem with my relations with her was that my students were rather too beautiful, friendly and appealing. She didn’t quite appreciate this appeal of beauty to young men, in particular if they were married.

When I think back on the respect the students had for me, their desire to learn, the complete silence that was always present and look at the utter turmoil I see in French and English schools today I find I have no tolerance whatsoever for modern pupils or students or whatever. The Vietnamese were always well dressed. They wore uniforms of course. White ao dai for girls, although I remember one school that had pink. The private Couvent des Oiseaux had a blue skirt and white blouse. Most boys’ schools had khaki shorts and shirts. The only exception was the French Lycée Marie-Curé. A very high standard of teaching but the girls looked like dolled up mannequins.

The girls also always walked sedately. When on their scooters the girl riding pillion did so side-saddle; most elegant as well.

Anyway after the war I slowly lost track of the students I knew. I also completely lost contact with the teachers. They were a mixed bunch. Some were Vietnamese military, others were American, Canadian, German, Australian and New Zealanders. We worked long hours. Very few holidays. No excuse for being sick. I was very happy there. I would go to work on a cyclo-pousse. Later I would take my son with me and drop him off at his school. He was only three when he began. The Cirque Hippique was on my route so I could drop in there for a swim when necessary.

All of this was of course before 1975. I continued to receive letters for some years from the few who knew an address I had outside Vietnam. With time these letters stopped. Some got married, others ended in prison for re-education purposes. Perhaps some were lost trying to escape by boat. I know of two who died that way.

I am curious to know if I post this on the internet whether it will get any response. Are there in fact any old students from the London School, Saigon still out there somewhere? Or any old teachers for that matter? I’ve already found some men I worked with when I was working for the military. Internet is a marvelous thing in its way.

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