Friday, 10 February 2017
The maid; that most necessary person in Vietnam: Notes & photos Vietnam 1965 1975
We were very well looked after by the Americans but I have always felt that one should try to be a part of whatever community one was living in. It was not easy in Vietnam. There were many barriers. Language for one. I spoke some French which was useful and I was able to improve it a little. The Vietnamese language is tonal, and although I enjoy music my ears are not tuned to the different tones as singers would be. It is a language I have always struggled with. At the beginning I could just learn to function in it, but I always felt it would have been better to start in the cradle. We were not helped by the Vietnamese who tended, not necessarily maliciously, to double up with laughter at our attempts to use it.
I started to use Vietnamese restaurants. The sea food was beautiful in Vungtau. I would go in to the restaurant and then enter the kitchen and point to certain food items. Unfortunately instead of giving me the lovely dishes served up to the locals they made a hash of it trying to serve up some western concoction. There were perfectly good French restaurants if I had wanted western food. Running out of tomato juice they would mix tomato paste or sauce with water and serve that up. I had to master using chop sticks fairly quickly. The first time I was out to dinner with some people in Saigon was very, very embarrassing. The simplest way to eat local food was to eat in the street at the stalls. It became a very agreeable habit.
There were two local beers. A beer called Larue, in large bottles. Rather weak and tasteless. And 33 or 'ba muoi ba' usually pronounced bummyba. I can't put the proper accents on any Vietnamese words I might use with this computer. It's the only beer I've ever seen ice put into. Very strong, the foulest hangovers but rather necessary to life. The US beer was rarely available out of their bases or clubs. That was rather gassy and weak. Frankly there was no really good beer anywhere. The Australians? That was for later.
Apart from adapting to the heat and humidity one's stomach had to get accustomed to the local bugs. Ten years later I felt the battle had never truly been won. In the provinces though I never really had any trouble but Saigon was another matter. There, there was an acute sanitation problem and I sometimes got very sick, particularly from mussels.
I decided to rent a house. It was in an area full of former refugees from the north. I hired a maid who washed my clothes and cooked for me when I was off duty. She only had two little charcoal stoves to cook with, electricity was intermittent. According to the season the water came off the roof or out of the well or from a public tap some hundreds of yards away; she would send a boy with a bucket to collect it. I showered with an empty coffee tin. My clothes were perfectly pressed. I used two or three shirts a day. We had another maid at the camp at Van Kiep. I probably got off to a bad start the first night as the dogs kept me awake and I fired my revolver in the air two or three times to quieten them. Mind I never had anyone try to break in. Rats were a headache I would have to learn to live with. They utterly revolt me. Much more on them later if I can stomach it.
She was quite the most marvellous maid I have ever had. Utterly devoted, she would also clean my pipes, my shoes, serve me a beer in bed when things were rough and was a superb cook. Going to the market every day to buy fresh food of course helped. I had a small fridge which sometimes worked, but usually the maid bought great chunks of ice from vendors. She lived twenty yards away on the other side of a pond I hoped my sewage didn't enter. I also hoped that was not the source of water for my well. I had a fish swimming around the bottom of the well which gave me hope it was not too poisonous. I drank beer. Her husband was a draft dodger and she would sometimes appear with a black eye. There are certain people one meets in life who leave lasting impressions on one. She was one.