The Golden Chersonese and the way thither, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter vi

A Cochin China River — The Ambition of Saigon — A French Colonial Metropolis — European Life in Saigon-A Cochin–Chinese Village — “Afternoon Tea” in Choquan — Anamese Children — Anamite Costume — Anamite River–Dwellings — An Amphibious Population — An Unsuccessful Colony — “With the Big Toe” — Three Persecuting Kings — Saigon

S.S. “SINDH,” CHINA SEA, January.

This steamer, one of the finest of the Messageries Maritimes line, is perfect in all respects, and has a deck like that of an old-fashioned frigate. The weather has been perfect also, and the sea smooth enough for a skiff. The heat increases hourly though, or rather has increased hourly, for hotter it cannot be! Punkahs are going continually at meal times, and if one sits down to write in the saloon, the “punkah-wallah” spies one out and begins his refreshing labors at once. But we took on board a host of mosquitoes at Saigon, and the nights are consequently so intolerable that I weary for the day.

The twenty-four hours spent at Saigon broke the monotonous pleasantness of our voyage very agreeably to me, but most of the passengers complain of the wearisome detention in the heat. In truth, the mercury stood at 92 degrees!

At daybreak yesterday we were steaming up a branch of the great Me-kong river in Cochin China, a muddy stream, densely fringed by the nipah palm, whose dark green fronds, ten and twelve feet long, look as if they grew out of the ground, so dumpy is its stem. The country, as overlooked from our lofty deck, appeared a dead level of rice and scrubby jungle intermixed, a vast alluvial plain, from which the heavy, fever-breeding mists were rising in rosy folds. Every now and then we passed a Cochin Chinese village — a collection of very draughty-looking wooden huts, roofed with palm leaves, built over the river on gridiron platforms supported on piles. Each dwelling of the cluster had its boat tethered below it. It looked a queer amphibious life. Men were lying on the gridirons smoking, women were preparing what might be the breakfast, and babies were crawling over the open floors, born with the instinct not to tumble over the edge into the river below. These natives were small and dark, although of the Mongolian type, with wide mouths and high cheek bones — an ugly race; and their attitudes, their tumble-to-pieces houses, and their general forlornness, gave me the impression that they are an indolent race as well, to be ousted in time possibly by the vigorous and industrious Chinaman.

After proceeding for about forty miles up this mighty Me-kong or Cambodia river, wearying somewhat of its nipah-fringed alluvial flats, and of the monotonous domestic economy of which we had so good a view, we reached Saigon, which has the wild ambition to propose to itself to be a second Singapore! All my attempts to learn anything about Saigon on board have utterly failed. People think that they told me something altogether new and sufficient when they said that it is a port of call for the French mail steamers, and one of the hottest places in the world! This much I knew before I asked them! If they know anything more now, no dexterity of mine can elicit it. There was a general stampede ashore as soon as we moored, and gharries — covered spring carts — drawn by active little Sumatra ponies, and driven by natives of Southern India, known as Klings, were immediately requisitioned, but nothing came of it apparently, and when I came back at sunset I found that, after an hour or two of apparently purposeless wanderings, all my fellow-passengers had returned to the ship, pale and depressed. True, the mercury was above 90 degrees!

Arriving in this condition of most unblissful ignorance, I was astonished when a turn in the river brought us close upon a considerable town, straggling over a great extent of ground, interspersed with abundant tropical greenery, its river front consisting of a long, low line of much-shaded cafes, mercantile offices, some of them flying consular flags and Government offices, behind which lies the city with its streets, shops, and great covered markets or bazaars, and its barracks, churches, and convents.

The Me-kong, though tortuous and ofttimes narrow, is navigable as the Donnai or Saigon branch up to and above Saigon for vessels of the largest tonnage, and the great Sindh steamed up to a wharf and moored alongside it, almost under the shade of great trees. A French three-decker of the old type, moored higher up, serves as an hospital. There were two French ironclads, a few steamers, and some big sailing ships at anchor, but nothing looked busy, and the people on the wharf were all loafers.

After all my fellow-passengers had driven off I stepped ashore and tried to realize that I was in Cochin China or Cambodia, but it would not do. The irrepressible Chinaman in his loose cotton trousers was as much at home as in Canton, and was doing all the work that was done; the shady lounges in front of the cafes were full of Frenchmen, Spaniards, and Germans, smoking and dozing with their feet upon tables or on aught else which raised them to the level of their heads; while men in linen suits and pith helmets dashed about in buggies and gharries, and French officers and soldiers lounged weariedly along all the roads. There was not a native to be seen! A little later there was not a European to be seen! There was a universal siesta behind closed jalousies, and Saigon was abandoned to Chinamen and leggy dogs. Then came the cool of the afternoon, i.e., the mercury, with evident reluctance, dawdled down to 84 degrees; military bands performed, the Europeans emerged, smoking as in the morning, to play billiards or ecarte, or sip absinthe at their cafes; then came the mosquitoes and dinner, after which I was told that card-parties were made up, and that the residents played till near midnight. Thus from observation and hearsay, I gathered that the life of a European Saigonese was made up of business in baju and pyjamas with cheroot in mouth from 6 to 9:30 A.M., then the bath, the toilette, and the breakfast of claret and curry; next the sleeping, smoking, and lounging till tiffin; after tiffin a little more work, then the band, billiards, ecarte, absinthe, smoking, dinner, and card-parties, varied by official entertainments.

Rejecting a guide, I walked about Saigon, saw its streets, cafes, fruit markets, bazaars, barracks, a botanic or acclimatization garden, of which tigers were the chief feature, got out upon the wide, level roads, bordered with large trees, which run out into the country for miles in perfectly straight lines, saw the handsome bungalows of the residents, who surround themselves with many of the luxuries of Paris, went over a beautiful convent, where the sisters who educate native girl children received me with kindly courtesy; and eventually driving in a gharrie far beyond the town, and then dismissing it, I got into a labyrinth of lanes, each with a high hedge of cactus, and without knowing it found that I was in a native village, Choquan, a village in which every house seems to be surrounded and hidden by high walls of a most malevolent and obnoxious cactus, so as to insure absolute privacy to its proprietor. Each dwelling is under the shade of pommeloe, orange, and bamboo. By dint of much peeping, and many pricks which have since inflamed, I saw that the poorer houses were built of unplaned planks or split bamboo, thatched with palm leaves, with deep verandas, furnished with broad matted benches with curious, round bamboo pillows. On these men, scarcely to be called clothed, were lying, smoking or chewing the betel-nut, and all had teapots in covered baskets within convenient reach. The better houses are built of an ornamental framework of carved wood, the floor of which is raised about three feet from the ground on brick pillars. The roofs of these are rather steep, and are mostly tiled, and have deep eaves, but do not as elsewhere form the cover of the veranda. While I was looking through the cactus screen of one of these houses, a man came out with a number of low caste, leggy, flop-eared, mangy dogs, who attacked me in a cowardly bullying fashion, yelping, barking, and making surreptitious snaps at my feet. Their owner called them off, however, and pelted them so successfully that some ran away whimpering, and two pretended (as dogs will) to have broken legs. This man carried a cocoa-nut, and on my indicating that I was thirsty, he hesitated, and then turning back, signed to me to follow him into his house. This was rare luck!

Within the cactus screen, which is fully ten feet high, there is a graveled area, on which the neat-looking house stands, and growing out of the very thirsty ground are cocoa palms, bananas, bread fruit, and papayas. There are verandas on each side of the doorway with stone benches; the doorway and window frames are hung with “portieres” of split reeds, and a ladder does duty for door steps. The interior is very dark, and divided into several apartments. As soon as I entered there was a rush as if of bats into the darkness, but on being reassured, about twenty women and boy and girl children appeared, and contemplated me with an apathetic stare of extreme solemnity. Remember the mercury was 92 degrees, so the women may be excused for having nothing more than petticoats or loose trousers on in the privacy of their home, the children for being in a state of nudity, and the man for being clothed in a loin cloth! As I grew used to the darkness I saw a toothless old woman smoking in a corner, fanned by two girls, who, I believe, are domestic slaves. Near one of the window openings a young woman was lounging, and two others were attentively removing vermin from her luxuriant but ill-kept hair. Mats and bamboo pillows covered the floors, and most of the inmates had been rudely disturbed in a siesta.

I was evidently in the principal apartment, for the walls were decorated with Chinese marine pictures, among which were two glaring daubs of a Madonna and an Ecce Homo. There was also a rude crucifix, from which I gather that this is a Roman Catholic family. There were two teapots of tea on a chair, a big tub of pommeloes on the floor, and a glazed red earthenware bowl full of ripe bananas on another chair. A sort of sickle, a gun, and some bullock gear hung against the wall. In the middle of the room there was a sort of trap in the floor, and there was the same in two other apartments. Through this all rubbish is conveniently dropped. A woman brought in a cocoa-nut, and poured the milk into a gourd calabash, and the man handed me the dish of bananas, so I had an epicurean repast, and realized that I was in Cochin China! They were courteous people, and not only refused the quarter dollar which I pressed upon them, but gave me a handkerchief full of bananas when I left them, being pleased, however, to accept a puggree.

The neat gravel area, the covered walls, and neatly tiled roof, the lattice work, the boards suspended from the door-posts, with (as I have since learned) texts from the Chinese Classics in gold upon them, and the large establishment, show that the family belongs to the upper class of Anamites, and leave one quite unprepared for the reeking, festering heap of garbage below the house, the foul, fetid air, and swarming vermin of the interior, and the unwashedness of the inmates. I bowed myself out, the gate was barred behind me, and in two minutes I had lost what I supposed to be my way, and having left the maze of cactus-walled paths behind, was entangled in a maze of narrow village paths through palms and bananas, flowering trees covered with creepers and orchids, and a wonderful profusion of small and great ferns. Getting back into the cactus hidden village I found groups of pretty, dark-skinned children, quite naked, playing in the deep dust, while some no bigger were lounging in the shade smoking cigars, lazily watching the clouds of smoke which they puffed out from their chubby cheeks.

Finding my own footsteps in the deep dust, I got back to a pathway with a monstrous bamboo hedge on one side, and a rice-field on the other, in which was a slimy looking pond with a margin of pink water-lilies, in which a number of pink buffaloes of large size were wallowing with much noise and rough play, plastering their sensitive hides with mud as a protection against mosquitoes.

With some difficulty, by some very queer paths and with much zigzagging, I at last reached Cholen,* a native town, said to be three or eight miles from Saigon, and was so exhausted by the fatigue of the long walk in such a ferocious temperature that I sat by the roadside on a stump under a huge tropical tree, considering the ways of ants and Anamites. Children with brown chubby faces which had never been washed since birth, and, according to all accounts, will never be washed till death, stood in a row, staring the stare of apathy, with a quiet confidence. They had no clothes on, and I admired their well-made forms and freedom from skin disease. The Mongolian face is pleasant in childhood. A horde of pariah dogs in the mad excitement of a free fight, passed, covering me with dust. (By the way, I am told that hydrophobia is unknown in Cochin China.) Then some French artillerymen, who politely raised their caps; then a quantity of market girls, dressed like the same class in China, but instead of being bare-headed, they wore basket hats, made of dried leaves, fully twenty-four inches in diameter, by six in depth. These girls walked well, and looked happy. Then a train of Anamese carts passed, empty, the solid wooden wheels creaking frightfully round the ungreased axles, each cart being drawn by two buffaloes, each pair being attached to the cart in front by a rope through the nostrils, so that one driver sufficed for eleven carts. The native men could not be said to be clothed, but, as I remarked before, the mercury was above 90 degrees. They were, however, protected both against sun and rain by hats over three feet in diameter, very conical, peaked at the top, coming down umbrella fashion over the shoulders, and well tilted back.

[*Cholen, i.e., the big market, has a population which is variously estimated at from 30,000 to 80,000. I am inclined to think that the lowest estimate is nearest the mark. — I. L. B.]

After laboriously reaching Cholen, I found far the greater part of the town to be Chinese, rather than Anamese, with Chinese streets, temples, gaming houses, club houses, and that general air of business and industry which seems characteristic of the Chinese everywhere; but still groping my way about, I came upon what I most wished to see — the real Anamese town. There is a river, the Me-kong, or one of its branches, and the town — the real native Cholen — consists of a very large collection of river-dwellings, little, if at all, superior to those which we passed in coming up. I spent an hour among them, and I never saw any house whose area could be more than twelve feet square, while many were certainly not more than seven feet by six. Such primitive, ramshackle, shaky-looking dwellings I never before have seen. As compared with them, an Aino hut, even of the poorest kind, is a model of solidity and architectural beauty. They looked as if a single gust would topple them and their human contents into the water. Yet, if it were better carried out, it is not a bad idea to avoid paying any Anamese form of rent, to secure perfect drainage, a never-failing water supply, good fishing, immunity from reptiles, and the easiest of all highways at the very door.

These small rooms with thatched roofs and gridiron floors, raised on posts six or eight feet above the stream, are reached from the shore by a path a foot wide, consisting of planks tied on to posts. The river-dwellings, I must add, are tied together with palm fibre rope. One of average size can be put together for eleven shillings. In front of each house a log canoe is moored, into which it is easy to drop from above when the owner desires any change of attitude or scene.

I ventured into two of these strange abodes, but it was dizzy work to walk the plank, and as difficult to walk the gridiron floor in shoes. Both were wretched habitations, but doubtless they suit their inmates, who need nothing more than a shelter from the sun and rain. The men wore only loin cloths. The women were clothed to the throat in loose cotton garments; the children wore nothing. In both the men were fishing for their supper over the edge of their platforms. In one a woman was cooking rice; and in both there was a good store of rice, bananas, and sweet potatoes. There was no furniture in either, except matted platforms for sleeping upon, a few coarse pipkins, a red earthen-ware pitcher or two, and some calabashes. On the wall of one was a crucifix, and on a rafter in the other a wooden carving of a jolly-looking man, mallet in hand, seated on rice bags, intended for Daikoku, the Japanese God of Wealth. The people were quite unwashed, but the draught of the river carried off the bad smells which ought to have been there, and, fortunately, a gridiron floor is unfavorable to accumulations of dirt and refuse. These natives look apathetic, and are, according to our notions, lazy; but I am weary of seeing the fevered pursuit of wealth, and am inclined to be lenient to these narcotized existences, provided, as is the case, that they keep clear of debt, theft, and charity.

Below this amphibious town there is a larger and apparently permanent floating village, consisting of hundreds of boats moored to the shore and to each other, poor and forlorn as compared with the Canton house boats, but yet more crowded, a single thatched roof sheltering one or more families, without any attempt at furniture or arrangement. The children swarmed, and looked healthy, and remarkably free from eye and skin diseases. There were Romish pictures in some of these boats, and two or three of them exhibited the cross in a not inconspicuous place. In my solitary explorations I was not mobbed or rudely treated in any way. The people were as gentle and inoffensive in their manners as the Japanese, without their elaborate courtesy and civilized curiosity.

Having seen all I could see, I turned shipwards, weary, footsore, and exhausted; my feet so sore and blistered, indeed, that long before I reached a gharrie I was obliged to take off my boots and wrap them in handkerchiefs. The dust was deep and made heavy walking, and the level straightness of a great part of the road is wearisome. Overtaking even at my slow rate of progress a string of creaking buffalo carts, I got upon the hindmost, but after a little rest found the noise, dust, and slow progress intolerable, and plodded on as before, taking two and a half hours to walk three miles. About a mile from Cholen there is an extraordinary burial-ground, said to cover an area of twenty square miles. (?) It is thickly peopled with the dead, and profuse vegetation and funereal lichens give it a profoundly melancholy look. It was chosen by the Cambodian kings several centuries ago for a cemetery, on the advice of the astrologers of the court. The telegraph wire runs near it, and so the old and the new age meet.

On my weary way I was overtaken by a young French artillery officer, who walked with me until we came upon an empty gharrie, and was eloquent upon the miseries of Saigon. It is a very important military station, and a sort of depot for the convicts who are sent to the (comparatively) adjacent settlement of New Caledonia. A large force of infantry and artillery is always in barracks here, but it is a most sickly station. At times 40 per cent. of this force is in hospital from climatic diseases, and the number of men invalided home by every mail steamer, and the frequent changes necessary, make Saigon a very costly post. The French don’t appear to be successful colonists. This Cochin Chinese colony of theirs, which consists of the six ancient southern provinces of the empire of Anam, was ceded to France in 1874, but its European population is still under twelve thousand, exclusive of the garrison and the Government officials. The Government consists of a governor, aided by a privy council. The population of the colony is under a million and a half, including eighty-two thousand Cambodians and forty thousand Chinese. According to my various informants — this young French officer, a French nun, and a trader of dubious nationality, in whose shop I rested — France is doing its best to promote the prosperity and secure the good-will of the natives. The land-tax, which was very oppressive under the native princes, has been lowered, municipal government has been secured to the native towns, and corporate and personal rights have been respected. These persons believe that the colony, far from being a source of profit to France, is kept up at a heavy annual loss, and they regard the Chinese as the only element in the population worth having. They think the Anamese very superior to the Cambodians, from whom indeed they conquered these six provinces, but the Cambodians are a bigger and finer race physically.

I do not think I have said how hideous I think the adult Anamese. Somewhere I have read that two thousand years before our era the Chinese called them Giao-chi, which signifies “with the big toe.” This led me to look particularly at their bare feet, and I noticed even in children such a wide separation of the big toe from the rest as to convey the perhaps erroneous impression that it is of unusual size. The men are singularly wide at the hips, and walk with a laughably swaggering gait, which is certainly not affectation, but is produced by a sufficient anatomical cause. I never saw such ugly, thick-set, rigid bodies, such uniformly short necks, such sloping shoulders, such flat faces and flatter noses, such wide, heavy, thick-lipped mouths, such projecting cheek bones, such low foreheads, such flat-topped heads, and such tight, thick skin, which suggests the word hide-bound. The dark, tawny complexion has no richness of tint. Both men and women are short, and the teeth of both sexes are blackened by the constant chewing of the betel-nut, which reddens the saliva, which is constantly flowing like blood from the corners of their mouths. Though not a vigorous, they appear to be a healthy people, and have very large families. They suffer chiefly from “forest fever” in the forest lands, but the rice swamps, deadly to Europeans, do not harm them.

I rested for some time at a very beautiful convent, and was most kindly entertained by some very calm, sweet-looking sisters, who labor piously among the female Anamese, and have schools for girls. The troops are stationed at Saigon for only two years, owing to the unhealthiness of the climate, but these pious women have no sanitarium, and live and die at their posts. Various things in the convent chapel remind one of the faithfulness unto death both of missionaries and converts. In this century alone three successive kings rivaled each other in persecuting the Christians, both Europeans and native, over and over again murdering all the missionaries. In 1841 the king ordered that all missionaries should be drowned, and in 1851 his successor ordered that whoever concealed a missionary should be cut in two. The terrible and sanguinary persecution which followed this edict never ceased, till years afterward the French frightened the king into toleration, and put an end, one hopes forever, to the persecution of Christians. The sisters compute the native Christians at seven thousand, and have sanguine hopes for the future of Christianity in French Cochin China, as well as in Cambodia, which appears to be under a French protectorate.

I do not envy the French their colony. According to my three informants, Europeans cannot be acclimatized, and most of the children born of white parents die shortly after birth. The shores of the sea and of the rivers are scourged by severe intermittent fevers, and the whole of the colony by dysentery, which among Europeans is particularly fatal. The mean temperature is 83 degrees F., the dampness is unusual, and the nights are too hot to refresh people after the heat of the day.*

[*The chief production of the country is rice, which forms half the sum total of the exports. The other exports are chiefly salt-fish, salt, undyed cotton, skins of beasts, and pepper. About seven hundred vessels enter and leave Saigon in a year.]

After leaving the convent I resumed my gharrie, and the driver took me, what I suppose is the usual “course” for tourists, through a quaint Asiatic town inhabited by a mixed, foreign population of Hindus, Malays, Tagals, and Chinese merchants, scattered among a large indigenous population of Anamese fishermen, servants, and husbandmen, through the colonial district, which looked asleep or dead, to the markets, where the Chinamen and natives of India were in the full swing and din of buying and selling all sorts of tropical fruits and rubbishy French goods, and through what may be called the Government town or official quarter. It was getting dark when I reached the wharf, and the darkness enabled me to hobble unperceived on board on my bandaged feet. The heat of the murky, lurid evening was awful, and as thousands of mosquitoes took possession of the ship, all comfort was banished, and I was glad when we steamed down the palm-fringed Saigon or Donnai waters, and through the mangrove swamps at the mouths of the Me-kong river, and past the lofty Cape St. Jacques, with its fort, into the open China Sea.

I. L. B.

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31