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Sunday, 18 July 2010

Vietnam memories: the story: 28 & 29: The Road to Dalat



28

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.


 29

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 their 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.

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