Sunday, 12 December 2010
Memories of Vietnam 1965 1975: part 71: Adieu to Phan Thiet 1968
The Post Office: Phan Thiet: Vietnam
After a long month of intense activity on the part of the Viet Cong the situation eased up somewhat. There had always been long periods of relative calm broken by sudden flashes of fighting. The US army could put soldiers into the field for a year with one minor break half way through and then withdraw them. It was rare for them to spend two one year tours in Vietnam and three was exceptional. If wounded, once they had been medevaced by chopper they could be in a field hospital within half an hour and if necessary in Japan or the Phillipines a day or two later.
The Viet Cong, now supported by North Vietnamese regulars, were in the war until victory or death. A wound more often than not was fatal. In fact there was a policy to wound as many as possible as these were considered more of a burden to them than the dead. Malaria was always present. We took our pills every Sunday morning at breakfast. The enemy's medical support was rudimentary at best. They were extremely motivated.
For the local population the war was unending. Phan Thiet quickly went back into a more or less normal routine. One of the sights that was most heartwarming and beautiful was that of girls leaving their schools. I read about it later in the library of The Cirque Sportif in Saigon in a book that a Frenchman had written thirty years before. I myself had opened a post office box to receive my personal in country mail. There was of course no normal mail for us outside the military. No telephones either. Actually the mail delivery for the Vietnamese was exceptional considering the war, but we at the camp belonged to the US military system and all our mail, as I have stated came through the 7th US Air Force and California.
The company had its own letter box at the post office in Saigon. PO Box P 12. I still remember the number as I was to take it over as my own later on. However, when one of our English Decca employees received an urgent telegram about a death in his family that required his immediate return to England it lay there two weeks because our rather incompetent American secretary couldn't be bothered to pick the mail up from there.
Anyway I would go by the local post office to pick up my mail, from PB mostly, before going to the adviser's mess for lunch. Being a young man I would stop the 3/4 ton and watch this long line of schoolgirls leaving the local high school. They would all be wearing their long white Ao Dai's, some with waist length hair, others with conical straw hats. They would usually walk in pairs. Unhurried, they would move sedately along, sometimes serious, often quick to laugh or smile. The war could have been a thousand miles away. I've probably said this before but it was one of the most moving sights in Vietnam. It also had so much dignity and has probably left me in utter contempt of the unsightly hordes of hooligans I was to later see leaving the schools of the so called European culture, if that is an appropriate word. I think they found me slightly amusing with my beard, serious unsmiling face, sitting there in the US 3/4 ton with it's big white star on the side. I have no photos. That would have been in bad taste.
Adieu to Phan Thiet
Back to Saigon again. When I landed at Tan Son Nhut there was not a soul to be seen. A deathly silence hung over everything. I wandered around till I found a bunker and on entering found it full of people. Nobody seemed to know what was happening except that there was some kind of alert.
After the all clear I went to the office. The new manager told me to spend the night in town and then go to Van Kiep. His manner of talking irritated me, very uncouth, and I refused. I had no desire to go back there. Too many memories and any way I needed to sort my own life out. A new offensive had been launched against Saigon, mostly in Cholon, and the city was in some turmoil but nothing like the previous time. Its amazing really how life can seem quite normal in one part of the town and a few streets away there is fighting going on.
I saw PB and decided I needed a house or apartment in Saigon as a base. Not easily done as there was still an acute accomodation problem. An occidental would take up the same space as a Vietnamese family of ten. Privacy was always a problem. There was an acute overcrowding because of the war and the refugees, but in Asia people were accustomed to living one on the top of the other whilst we weren't. I eventually found a small house, newly decorated, very clean and bright, that would later become my home for the next few years.
I had been summoned to see a judge over this business of my confiscated weapons. The Vietnamese were using a variation of the French system of having one of the judges of the Tribunal investigate the case. The French investigating magistrates of course do not sit in judgment when the case is heard. A very charming fellow. Shook my hand, which I found very civilised. We had a long conversation in French. He told me not to worry, which I hadn't been doing anyway and said I would be summoned again later to appear before the court. I treated the whole affair as though it were a parking ticket.