SHORTLY AFTER HOW IT BEGAN
© MGW 2021 – All Rights Reserved
Note: These memoirs from MikeW are slightly out of order. For example, this one takes place right after the first.
Following a team’s completion of a mission, it was usual that they had ten days off. As our successful end of course operation, in Vung Tau, was conducted against a live Viet Cong target it, therefore, counted as a mission. After graduation, however, the other eleven course participants were scheduled to immediately undergo a basic parachute course at the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) Airborne School at Long Thanh and I, as an already qualified parachutist, was scheduled to accompany a number of the units other operatives, both Vietnamese and Caucasian, to Dong Ba Thin, the ARVN Special Forces Training Centre, to qualify for their parachute wings. It was, therefore, decided that both teams (Nga, Khan, Dung, Minh, Suong, and I forming one team, with the other six people on our training course forming a team in their own right) ten day’s stand-down would commence on their completion of the parachute course.
The basic parachute course was of three weeks duration, whereas the trip to Dong Ba Thin would be for only one week. I, therefore, would have two weeks to fill in on my return, whilst awaiting the return of my five fellow team members. To ensure the two weeks were not wasted, I used it to familiarise myself with Saigon and Cholon, and their immediate surroundings. In most instances I was accompanied on my expeditions by Duke, who knew both cities like the back of his hand, and, on other occasions, by either Bron or Tom, who also knew both cities extremely well, sometimes I was accompanied by both of them. I also ventured out, on solo expeditions, to downtown Saigon and the central and waterfront areas of Cholon. These forays were invaluable as I, whilst learning my way around, also got to know my three colleagues.
Whilst we went to a number of restaurants, in the evenings, one place Duke, Bron, Tom, and I never went to was the Aterbea Restaurant, on Nguyen Hue Boulevard. It was not that it was popular with Caucasians living in Saigon, nor that it served good food, nor that it was, allegedly, run by the Corsican Mafia, that turned us off. It was the fact that it was a favorite haunt of the foreign intelligence community, particularly the Americans from the Embassy, and the last thing we wanted or needed, was to be associated, or identified, with any of them.
Whilst it would probably upset most members of the fourth estate, who would probably feel that it impacted on their journalistic independence, however that might be interpreted, as they were then, and are now, mostly left-wing apologists anyway, Duke procured, through whatever means, sometime during the two weeks, both American and Vietnamese press accreditation for Nga and I to use as cover, as we saw fit. The two of us were now, on paper at least, officially Bao Chi. It would probably surprise the editor of the Area News, a small rural newspaper in Griffith, in the New South Wales Riverina, and the editor of a small-town newspaper, whose name currently escapes me, in provincial France, to know that their respective newspapers had full time, fully accredited, correspondents based permanently in Saigon, for a number of years, in the mid-1960s.
When Nga, Khan, Dung, Minh, and Suong returned from Long Thanh they all elected to return to visit their families for their standdown, they not having seen them for the past two months. Nga’s, Khan’s, and Dung’s families lived closest, as they all lived in Cholon, albeit Nga’s family lived in the affluent part and Khan’s and Dung’s families near the waterfront. Both Minh’s and Suong’s families lived on the outskirts of Saigon, out towards Tan Son Nhut, so they had a little further to travel, albeit only a short distance.
I thought that I would have the ten days alone, and would spend it relaxing, reading, and playing tourist. I was soon disabused of this notion as Nga informed me that, whilst she would be living at home and visiting her family and friends, she would spend her days playing tourist with me. And this is what we did. Each morning she would arrive at the Cong Ly Avenue villa, either resplendent in a pastel-colored ao dai, or a brightly colored sundress, or blouse and blue jeans, and we would embark on that day’s adventure. At this time there were not many Americans in evidence, nor Australians for that matter, as it was before the big build-up, commencing with the US Marines landing in Da Nang in March, followed by the first elements of the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment also in March, with the bulk of the Battalion arriving in June, and the 173rd Airborne Brigade in May (both the latter units being based at the Bien Hoa Air Base), and there was still a sort of laidback, relaxed, colonial feel to the place.
One day we spent the time amidst the tall, leafy, shade trees and the beautiful, well cared for, gardens of the Saigon Zoo, where we looked at the floral clock, which actually worked and indicated the local time, situated on the slope of a little hill, watched and fed the various animals, and visited the commemorative temple; on another day we went swimming at the Cercle Sportif, and people watched all the foreigners, mainly expatriate French, as they strutted around in their miniscule swimsuits, never entering the water to get them wet; on another day we went to the Phu Tho Racetrack, which, surprisingly, was extremely crowded, both with punters and spectators, even though it was mid-week; for two of our days we spent our time roaming the crowded streets of Cholon, with its vertical Chinse banners and the ever present smell of incense, visiting the Binh Tay Market and a number of temples, and eating the numerous choices of delicious Chinese noodles and other foods we bought from the street sellers; and, on another day, we café crawled Tu Do Street, which then was still shaded by the canopies of the large tamarind trees, and visited a number of cafes including the Brodard Café, where we sat in air conditioned comfort, eating delicious Viennese pastries and sweet cakes and drinking coffee, whilst watching the pedestrians walking in the heat on the street outside, Givral, where again we ate pastries, this time together with French cheeses, and drank coffee in the cool of the air conditioning, whilst listening to the French expatriates running down the, according to them, uncouth, arrogant, Americans, and La Pagode, where we ate delicious French pastries and drank coffee, whilst seated at a table outside on the footpath.
That evening we went to the L’amaril Restaurant, for what was probably the best French food in Saigon at that time. On several evenings we dined at the La Dolce Vita Restaurant, which was attached to the Continental Palace Hotel, where the managers were Simon and Anna Faby. Anna Faby, it turned out, was an old school friend of Nga’s from the Lycee Marie Curie. Each evening, after our day’s escapades, Nga was picked up by her father’s chauffeur-driven car to travel home to Cholon.
On the second Sunday Nga insisted I join her family at church, followed by lunch at a Chinese restaurant in Cholon. I tried to beg off, citing a prior engagement and that I was a Buddhist, but she was most insistent. What she referred to as church, it turned out, was the Roman Catholic Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica, at the top of Tu Do Street. There, the family had two permanent family pews of their own. I rode by cyclo there, from the villa on Cong Ly Avenue, and met Nga outside. We then entered the Cathedral together. What the other regular worshippers thought, seeing a tall, fair-haired, blue-eyed, foreigner, obviously accompanying the youngest of the Khanh family’s daughters, seated positioned between Nga and her mother, Linh, who was an older version of Nga, in one of the Khanh family’s permanent pews, I have no idea.
It doubtless provided them grist for the fertile gossip mill. What Nga had told her parents about me I do not know either, as they seemed very accepting of my presence. Like Nga, they spoke fluent Vietnamese, English, French, and Cantonese. Additionally, her mother also spoke Hokkien and Hakka. What the Monsignor who conducted the service (which I, not being a Roman Catholic, having no idea of the rituals involved), in Vietnamese and Latin, would have thought, if he had known, that at least two of the worshippers were armed (Nga and I) I, likewise, had no idea. It turned out that he was a lot more observant than I gave him credit for as, some weeks later, he discreetly approached Nga and I, after one Sunday morning’s Mass, and asked if it was really necessary that we carry guns (his word) in church. We politely told him that no, whilst it might not be necessary to carry them in church, it most certainly was necessary that we carry them, the moment we stepped outside the doors.
Following the service, Nga’s father insisted that I travel with him, his wife, and Nga, in their chauffeur-driven car to Cholon. When Nga insisted that I had to join her, and her parents, for lunch after church I was expecting that there would be just the four of us. Not so. When we arrived at the restaurant I found that the family had a very large, private, the dining room reserved and that, in addition to Nga and her parents, there were also the dozen or so family members who had been at the Cathedral earlier, plus a couple of dozen or so more who had not, in attendance. This was only the adults. There were numerous children and teenagers, who remained uncounted, the youngest of whom were running about everywhere. The lunch, comprising numerous courses and dishes, which stretched into the mid to late afternoon, was very pleasant. Everybody appeared to enjoy themselves, and it was obvious that this was a regular family occurrence. Nobody appeared to be surprised by my presence or, if they were, they were too polite to mention it. The one thing that was studiously avoided, however, by everyone, was any mention, or discussion, of Nga’s and my line of work. After lunch I politely declined Nga’s father’s generous offer of his car, to transport me back to the city, and insisted on taking a taxi instead.
All too soon though, the days of relaxation were over, and we had to return to work. It was surprising how good one felt, even after this short time, following the intense pressure of the past couple of months.