Paris of the Far East

Still enroute to Dalat

Interestingly, I have very few pictures from my time in Viet Nam. I do not remember it with the fondness I have for Cambodia.

When my dad’s contract in Phnom Penh was complete, he was re-posted to Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City, way too much of a mouthful, in my opinion.

We were assigned a two-bedroom apartment near the Chinese neighborhood of Cholon. There was an attached servants quarters which occasionally provided interesting entertainment.

Our maid was an attractive, smart, no-nonsense young woman called Tan. Her husband, whose name I have long since forgotten, was a Chinese chap who rode a motor-scooter and worked in a bank. They also had a servant, the sad and unhealthy-looking Phuong who seemed to do most of the housework. My parents were not responsible for her, but I’m sure my mother helped her out at times.

Whether or not my parents understood the goings-on in the servants quarters, I don’t know, but I suspect they were more than happy to mind their own business. Periodically we would hear loud shouting, followed by random objects being tossed about. It sounded a little alarming, although I was only concerned when it happened on Christmas Eve as I had purchased two parakeets as a gift for my parents, and I was hiding them overnight in the servant’s living-room.

Happily the parakeets lived to tell the tale although they could never be coaxed to speak of it. Tan never sported any injuries, nor seemed the least bit downcast. Phuong may have been a little more pale-faced than usual, but I never knew who was the brunt of the altercations that took place in the downstairs servants quarters. I missed the friendly relationship I had had with Sai See in Phnom Penh.

However, now that I spoke French, more or less, I was soon enrolled in the Lycee Les Oiseaux (“The Birds School”, I guess we were supposed to be the birds). It was quite a distance from the apartment, so I went to school each day in a blue and white Renault 4CV taxicab.

My parents were a little vexed when we arrived in Saigon to discover that the large fleet of taxis was painted blue and cream.

The Austin Cambridge my dad had recently purchased in Hong Kong was painted the exact same colours.

It’s colour scheme was the least of that poor car’s problems. It received daily abuse from my father who hated driving at the best of times. Every day the Austin was called a different name. When not on the road it was referred to as “Flamer”, as in “that flaming car..%!@&%$*@ !!!!”

Not my picture, but this is what the taxis were like

The nuns would have been shocked by my father’s language, although they perhaps would not have understood the words he used. Les Oiseaux was the first of several convent schools I went to. Considering that my father was a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, I find this a little strange, but perhaps there were not many choices.

Our scholastic efforts were graded using a system of coloured stars, green for mediocre, silver for good, gold for excellent. At first, while I tried to understand and figure out the latest system of teaching to which I was subjected, I received a number of greens, but before long I was bi-lingual and I proudly brought home silver and gold. I presented these to my mother who said something like “very nice, darling, put it over there”. My parents really did not seem to take my education seriously.

On days when I was not in school I used to accompany my mother to the rue Catinat which seemed awfully sophisticated after the dusty roads of Phnom Penh. Saigon used to be called the Paris of the Far East, and you could see why. I don’t remember that we did much shopping, but Mum liked to stop at Brodart for coffee and a pastry, or sometimes we went into the horribly over-refrigerated Broadway for a milkshake. Then we would walk all the way up to the Post Office to see if the new issue of stamps had been released. My dad’s collection flourished in those years. I still have it.

From the Post Office we would catch a taxi back to the market, which was on our way home and there we would pick up vegetables and cheese, and often a chicken that had been poached from the American PX. Local chickens really did not constitute a meal, poor scrawny creatures that they were. At boarding school, later on, I gained first hand knowledge of this!

Next stop the bakery where we would get a delicious bagette. It smelled so good and the loaf would still be warm from the oven, so then we would continue the short distance home and have a lunch of french bread and cheese.

The clamor we sometimes heard in the servants quarters was not a random event. There seemed to be a lot of angry people roaming the streets of Saigon then. It was particularly the women who seemed ill-tempered. Usually they were just screaming at each other, sometimes there was a bit of hitting or kicking, but no-one paid much attention. The only time I was affected by any of this behavior was one day in the market when a woman came up to me and ran her nails down my bare arm. She said something in Vietnamese, which I could not understand, and then walked off. No blood was drawn and no fuss was made but I decided this was not the friendliest city.

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