Thursday, April 11, 2013

Saigon 1967 Chapter Eight: Toy Ngoc Hau

Whenever I think of the sound of explosions and shots, my memory always jumps to a more personal and individual encounter with near combat than that semi-vicarious episode at Nha Bey.

I lived at the terminus of a dead end street named Toy Ngoc Hau. In other words, I lived at the dead end of a dead end. Both sides of the street were lined with two or three story residential multi-unit dwellings dating back to the days when Vietnam was a French colony. The residents were a mix of Vietnamese civilians, American civilians and American military. Security ranged from none in most places to QC guards in the building where I lived. The QC were ethnic Chinese that had been in Vietnam for generations, but were not really integrated into Vietnamese life. The ones who guarded my building were members of a paramilitary organization that preferred the American backed South Vietnamese regime to the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese. They were supposed to be great guards against terrorist incursions. I never had occasion to find out if they were great guards, but I was pretty nervous about the proposition.

On account of the location of my residence at the end of a dead end street and my lack of confidence in the security apparatus I frequently thought about what I would do if the Viet Cong were to try to attack the residence. The fact that it was an American military residence had seemed to me to make the possibility of an attack somewhat likely.

My residence was a reasonably large space, probably 50 square meters with nine or ten foot ceilings. I have learned from later life experiences in Paris that the same sort of configuration could have been converted into a very comfortable studio or even one bedroom apartment. The building was a French style two story building with balconies looking over the street below, with a roof terrace with some chairs and a lot of plants. The roof terrace with some chairs and a lot of plants does not translate to a roof garden, however. It was a roof terrace with some chairs and a lot of plants, no more.

In relation to the configuration of things in my 50 square meters, since it was Saigon 1967, not Paris many years later, instead of an apartment the space was 50 square meters with an enclosed shower and toilet.

That was it.

The room had one door that came in off the balcony. It was on the second floor. It was at the farthest end of the balcony from the access stairway. The shower and toilet were enclosed by a very thick wall that faced the door and paralleled the outer wall. At a right angle to that wall was a much thinner wall that joined with the back wall of the room and contained the door into the shower and toilet enclosure. Both of these inner walls stopped three or so feet below the ceiling. The front thick wall was so thick – maybe 3 feet or more – that, since there was a big space between it and the ceiling, it had become a convenient storage space for suitcases, duffel bags, empty stereo boxes and anything else that my roommate and I didn’t want to throw away, but needed to have out of the way. Directly opposite the wall that contained the door into the toilet enclosure was the outside wall of the building; I had an end of building location. Against that wall were our two beds – Dale’s and mine – which were arranged with the head against the wall and the foot extending into the room toward the toilet enclosure. Between the two beds was a big cardboard box with enough rigidity and strength to function as a table for my stereo equipment. Next to the stereo “table” was my little Sanyo refrigerator. It was quite homey.

These were the components at my disposal to defend myself in the event of a Viet Cong attack. I had no gun, and if they were to burst into my room, I would have to make some kind of use of the configuration and the components and contents of the room.

Based on this, I actually formulated a plan.

We were authorized a monthly ration of hard liquor and beer. The beer was uniformly so awful – usually Crown beer from Korea - that I never used my beer ration, but instead traded it to one of the enlisted men for one or two of their hard liquor rations. Enlisted men, I learned, drank beer. Officers drank liquor. There was no wine. So – between my rations and the supplements I traded from the beer drinkers - each month I had three or four liters to supplement what I drank at the various officers’ clubs and open messes around Saigon.

I had developed the routine of coming to the residence after work, changing clothes and going to one of a couple of off-base officer’s messes close to where I lived. One of them had movies in the mezzanine bar and I could sit at the bar and have a drink and watch a movie. When a good movie was on offer that is usually what I did after dinner. And then I would go home to bed. But on the evenings when the movie was bad, or there wasn’t one, I would go home after dinner, put some ice in a water glass and fill it with gin or vodka, and go to the roof for the balance of the evening. The choice of gin or vodka depended upon what had been available at the base liquor store that month. After several return trips for more ice and more gin or vodka things usually didn’t seem quite as grim as they had only an hour or two earlier.

If it was the beginning of the month, which meant that I had all the money I was going to have for that month, I usually felt somewhat affluent, and I would go downtown to the Mayfair restaurant. I didn’t know it at the time - because I was close to being as culturally unconscious as it was possible to be and still manifest generally human characteristics - but the Mayfair was a French restaurant. It was leftover from French colonial days. Somebody had told me to go there, and I had done so. It was one of the few pleasant experiences I ever had in Vietnam.

The Mayfair was run by Vietnamese, but, I figured out later, the menu was French. I always ordered the onion soup, some kind of deviled crab baked in its carapace and a San Miguel beer. San Miguel beer was from a brewery in the Philippines. It had been owned at one time by General MacArthur. Since MacArthur was an officer it was OK for me to drink it. That MacArthur had owned San Miguel Brewery may have been a myth. It was nevertheless the best beer I had ever drunk. The first time at the Mayfair when the soup arrived it was in a tureen. The surface was lumpy and brown and almost burned in places and solid over the entire surface area. It was what I learned later to be soupe a’l’onion gratine√©, which was to become one of my favorite foods. At the time of that first encounter it had been a new and strange adventure.

When I took a spoon to the brown lumpy surface it offered resistance. Soup slopped up and nearly sloshed out of the tureen onto the table cloth. The whole thing was kind of a crust on top of the soup. After some experimentation I discovered that it had chunks of French bread with some kind of melted cheese. The trick, I discovered, was to isolate small pieces of bread and cheese out of the mass and push it gently down into the liquid and retrieve it with a spoonful of liquid, using my fingers to break the skeins of cheese from the mass, so I could lift it to my mouth. It was rather like eating Pizza.

The Mayfair’s onion soup has remained in my memory as being among the best I have ever had anywhere, the best being at the Petite Chaise in Paris. And the crab had proved to be every bit as wonderful in its own way.

So the first of every month I went back to the Mayfair and ordered the same thing for the duration of my time in Saigon.

It was one evening when I was waiting for a bus downtown to go to the Mayfair that I had two odd experiences.

It was getting dark. I was standing at a bus stop. There were lots of Vietnamese civilians milling around doing whatever Vietnamese civilians did at that time of the evening out on the street. Since the bus stop was in front of some sort of public building there were also several white mice, as the Vietnamese police were called; they wore white shirts, hence the white part of their name. So there was an audience for the first experience. A young, probably American, woman appeared out of the advancing gloom walking up the dirt roadside which served as a sidewalk, with a dog on a leash. The dog was a Great Dane. It was probably the biggest Great Dane I have ever seen. The Vietnamese were amazed. Their eyes got very large, and everyone stopped and stared. I knew they were thinking about how many cutlets and steaks they could get off the beast. It was a moment of intense cultural differentiation.

The other thing, that happened next, was of a similar cultural nature. The woman and Great Dane had receded into the other end of the gloom and I was still standing in the darkness, broken by a weak street lamp, waiting for the bus. An old Vietnamese man who was walking along the roadside stopped and said something to me. He was carrying on his right shoulder a thing that looked like two wire circles each with a series of vertical spikes attached, with the circles attached to a central shaft. On each of the spikes was a lump of a reddish blackish substance. My impression was that it was probably some kind of meat.

He was trying to sell some of it to me. I wouldn’t have bought whatever it was under any circumstances, but I was really curious about what it was. I had never seen this sort of configuration of snack vending. In some manner I asked him what the lumps might be, and he said something. Of course I had no idea what he said. Of course he knew I had no idea what he had said. He said something else, and this time made a gesture up to the sky. He said something repetitively and pointed here and there above his head. Since it had become dark the sky above us between the trees had become full of flitting bats.

He apparently was a barbecued bat vendor.

It was several evenings after that encounter that I had the opportunity to test my plan for coping with a terrorist attack.

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