The old and long-established Central Chidlom shopping mall or department store in Bangkok is an almost sacred institution to upper class or hi-so Thais. The best of the best is on offer, be it garments, sportswear, China tableware, luxury kitchen appliances or mattresses. The food hall on the ground floor is particularly renowned and classified amongst the best of its kind worldwide. One could say Central is to Bangkok what Macy’s is to New York or Harrods to London. Personally, I like going to the top floor and the excellent food loft offering country-themed food at reasonable prices and in pleasant surroundings. It’s an ideal lunchtime venue. Sometimes I would meet friends for a relaxed lunch break, on other occasions business meetings on appointment.
But this get-together a few months ago, in December 2016, was totally impromptu. It took some time to place the guy and remember the name. Later Patrick admitted having felt the same way. He was now retired and living in Nakhon Pathom. Close enough to the capital for regular visits, he said. As is customary when meeting friends you haven’t seen for a while we started reminiscing about old times and our very own memories soon focused on a trip we took 20 years earlier to Vietnam or Indochine as Patrick still calls it. He is a Frenchman, and so to the very core. The next gesture then was ordering a bottle of rouge Français (French red wine) plus oysters on special offer that day as we settled in one of the booths overlooking lower Sukhumvit. Thus we celebrated our reunion after a long of separation. We last personally interacted in Phuket almost 20 years ago when we were both eager to visit Vietnam. The reasons however were quite different.
Patrick’s father was an officer in the French military. When Mao Zedong’s Liberation army swept into China in 1949, Ho Chi Minh’s revolutionary movement in Vietnam was an immediate beneficiary. French Indochina was under menace. Patrick’s father was summoned to the then French colonial territory. First to Saigon, later when the Viet Minh became menacing up north, near the Chinese border. It’s where the French army suffered one of their most humiliating defeats in the battle by Dien Bien Phu. Later when his father was repatriated back to France he was a disillusioned and diminished man having suffered not only physical but psychological injuries. How could the French army be defeated by what he called a bunch of amateur soldiers, a mere nuisance to “la Grande Nation” at least by General deGaulle’s reckoning at the time. Patrick, still a child then, was compassionate but only many years later when an even grander military nation was defeated by the same Viet Minh did he start to understand the reality of the situation. Ordinarily people commemorate the sites of their country’s historic victories. Not so Patrick, he wanted to go and see the venue where his father had lost his “joy de vivre” as a young man. A noble pilgrimage on Patrick’s part.
My own reasons to join him on that journey were much more mundane.
My sister lives in Corseaux. A small village. It is now integrated into the municipality of Vevey, Switzerland. UK citizens aged over 50 know this as the town where Charley Chaplin spent the last 2 decades of his life. From her front balcony my sister has a magnificent view over lac léman and the French Alpes. In the forefront lies Nestlé’s imposing world headquarters. Out the back or kitchen window there’s an equally good view over Corseaux cemetery that she calls affectionately le boulevard des allongés. Another illustrious Englishman of Chaplin’s generation lies here. Graham Green. He too spent his autumn years on the shores of Lake Geneva.
As a young exchange student learning the English language one of Green’s book (The heart of the matter) had been compulsory reading in class and later subject to analysis and discussions. Later in life I came to appreciate some of the other books and especially his novella The Quiet American. Later in 2002, a film was made. I liked the movie especially as one of my favorite actors, Michael Caine, played a leading part. But as always in cases when books are adapted to movies the substance remains to be found in the book. For me, discovering the places where the events of Green’s novel took place was the main reason for the trip to Vietnam.
The decision was made. We would travel to Vietnam, first to the south, Ho Chi Minh Ville, then up north. After Songkran 1997, later in April we set off to Don Mueang International Airport then on to Vietnam. Arriving in Saigon started with a bit of a disappointment that concerned the Continental Hotel, an important element in Green’s narrative. It was either fully booked or under renovation, I don’t remember which. Saigontourist, who organized the journey, booked our second choice, the Rex. It too brought back memories from the height of the Vietnam War. Often in those day’s TV updates would end with the news anchor’s mention: from our correspondent on the terrace of the Rex Hotel in Saigon”.
The following days we visited Cu Chi tunnels, the Mekong Delta and other tourist attractions or landmarks. All abundantly described in hundreds of travel brochures. Next on to Nha Trang and finally Hanoi for more sightseeing. We were both impressed by the beauty of Halong Bay, the friendliness of the Vietnamese people in general as well as the fairly good standard of hotel facilities. However for Patrick that was all just preliminaries as by that time he was getting impatient for what was to be the meat of the journey.
Leaving Hanoi early morning in an old Citroën car with the driver & tour guide. A very long drive all the way to Dien Bien Phu, much longer than we had anticipated. And that in a car that was spacious but who’s suspensions had seen better days. Also part of the road had no tarmac coating, just natural ground that made the journey very rough and bumpy at times. We stopped on several occasions on the way for drinks and food. Near our destination another interesting stop at a small hill tribe’s village near the border to Laos. Inhabitants insisted they were Lao and not Vietnamese. Curiously the older Ladies chewed the region’s traditional betel nut leaves while the younger ones proudly showed us their packets of Wrigley’s chewing gum. Oh well, Americans had been here long before us after all!
To say we were tired when arriving at the hotel that was really a kind of an upgraded guesthouse would be an understatement. I would have been happy to crash into bed there and then but Patrick wanted some food. And that was a good idea after all especially when Patrick was served with a decent French wine accompanying a tasty meal. His mood uplifted further when after another early rise next morning he discovered on the breakfast table authentic French baguette and freshly baked, crispy croissants. All served with unsalted butter, homemade confiture (marmalade) and plenty of strong coffee. When a middle-aged Canadian couple next to us asked for American breakfast and were politely turned down by the waiting staff Patrick’s transformation in to the proud Frenchman was immediate. With a heartily laugh he got up to sermon the couple in polite but firm manner “once French Indochina, always French Indochina”.
Then it was time to visit the battlefields. Patrick not surprisingly had studied the course of events all those years ago in the early 1950s. The local commander, Colonel de Castries had chosen to establish several defensive satellite positions around the town and named them after his former mistresses (or so the legend goes). Patrick’s focal point was a hilly terrain called Eliane. Here his father had suffered a severe broken leg and other bodily injuries. Later after being captured by the Viet Minh he was forced to march over 600km on improvised crutches to a prisoner of war camp. He remained there several month before being repatriated to mother France. Our guide took us to the very spot where the battle had taken place and Patrick was left to collect his thoughts, paying solemn tribute to his father.
We remained a few more days in what was a pleasant little town 20 years back. Growing quickly these day’s as we were told by more recent visitors to the region. Our guide insisted to take us on a tour around the province of Dien Bien. Production and trafficking of Opium seems to have been a significant source of income years ago. Even then, visiting tribe villages we were offered more than once to taste the local brands of the drug in ancient, handmade pipes.
Finally, after a last night at the guesthouse time was up and we had to return. Neither of us wanted to travel again on that arduous road journey back to Hanoi. Fortunately there was an airstrip, built I believe by the Japanese occupying forces during WW 2 and we were able to take a flight back to Hanoi and on to Bangkok after another night in Hanoi.
But back to our meeting in Central Chidlom’s food loft last December. While the Vietnam trip was the focal point of our discussion, we also caught up on more recent times and events. Apart from a very few e-mails during the 20 year gap since our last meeting we had hardly any news from each other. Patrick then was a simple tourist on a visit to Southeast Asia but now, retired, he had settled in Thailand. My question then seemed legitimate: how and why does a French retiree end up in Nakhon Pathom, Thailand. I expected him to shrug it off or perhaps answer it’s my wife’s hometown. But that’s not the case at all. In fact the reason turns out to be much more interesting, even adventurous. But that perhaps one day will be the contents of another story.
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