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Sunday, 22 January 2012

A seat at the theatre. Saigon. Vietnam memories 1965 1975

A seat at the theatre. Saigon.

From time to time riots took place. There were always power struggles going on between the President, Thieu, and his Vice-President, Ky. Whenever there were rumours of a coup d'état somebody in the house would go out and by a fifty pound sack of rice.

At one time the students were rioting against something or other, I forget what. They often tried to parade in front of the National Assembly. This was the old French theatre in front of the terrace bar of the Hôtel Continental. I would go down and find a comfortable chair, order a cold beer, and have a front seat to watch some real live theatre.

The students would arrive and unfurl there banderolles demanding this, that or the other. About fifteen or twenty minutes later the riot police would arrive armed with their batons and bamboo wicker-work shields. Battle would be joined. If the wind was in the right direction I would be spared the tear gas that started to cover the square. There was also frequent use of stun grenades, the noise of which could deafen quite a few observers as well.

The authorities were very allergic to any form of protest and relatively brutal in their repression. Once, following a demonstration in some other street I found myself in front of the students when the police appeared out of a side street and charged. I was caught in the middle. Apart from nearly being overcome with tear gas or some kind of vomit gas they used I managed to get myself out of that. I was not over worried as I had my press card if the authorities asked what I was doing, and the students were not the mobs of crazed rabble that were sometimes active in certain countries.
I would never have done this had the mob been Indonesian or Chinese workers. The Vietnamese students were on the whole very decent civilized people and I knew a good many of them. Doubtless there were communist agents infiltrated amongst them but the powers that be tended to over react. Some of the police were decent also. One evening I came across a lone civil policeman, a tear gas grenade in one hand, an MI carbine in the other, holding off a mob of several hundred people. What the devil he was doing there alone I don't know, tempers were up on both sides, but nobody went over the brink.

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