Passage of the Mekong to Tonkin

1887-1888

To ? do something with that.

Today, I’ll tell you this huge story – completely true and verifiable – that will take us back to 1887-88.

It is the story of the exploration of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam by a French telegraph engineer named Auguste Pavie. He wrote his logbook – which is on my desk exactly now.
There was no French colonization at that time – there was not even the idea for the French who were there that it could happen. No doubt this idea was floating around under the hats of the gentlemen in Paris – but on the spot, no. So Auguste Pavie was a kind of explorer whose testimony is incredible.


He tells everything – he is not a literary man, he does not do stories, figures of speech, not at all. He describes landscapes, many of which no longer exist, and the way people live, which changes from place to place, from place to place. He tells you how Siam had taken over the other countries and how this kingdom benefited from all this.

In the North – there is the danger: they are Chinese bandits, named the Hos – fought at the same time by Siam and by France: these bandits were very practical finally to allow Siam more warlike than the others to impose its domination – well… okay, and after them it will be the French, who defend themselves on the warlike aspect.
As long as Pavie was in the South, in Laos, this danger seemed remote to him and he tried to understand the cordial but strange relations that were established between the representatives of Siam, the king of Laos, the princes, the warlords.

Finally, he starts to march – the Siamese colonel, who gave him the authorization for the march, offers him a few more guns. Pavie feels a test – he asks the colonel for advice on this point – he will agree with him. The colonel is relieved – Pavie risks nothing, there are only tigers on his way – no bands – no hostile bands – so : no more guns, it will be cool & easy, trust me

So he leaves – he goes North to Dien Bien Phu – he tells of being bored while walking – until he hallucinated – in front of him, on stones, there were faces – animals – monsters – but looking closer, it was just stones – closing his eyes, reopening them, again faces – but hidden by moss, by ferns.
He thought he was sick – he asked his guides if they saw anything and it was the guides’ dismayed looks that made him realize that yes, there were sculptures – but they were very special. They had been carved to make it look like they were natural, that they were “accidents” of rock.
There weren’t just a few: there were over 12 kilometers of them.

The Nam Hou

There are sceneries like that on every page of his diary – each time he brings to light wonders – but these wonders are not made for him and he has the delicacy not to insist to his guides.
He approaches Dien Bien Phû – he talks with people – a young woman asks him a lot of questions, he doesn’t know what she wants, she has small children around her, he assumes she wants money but he doesn’t know what to do, when she asks him how much she would earn if she rowed for him. Surprised he gave her the price paid to the rowers. At this point she laughs, then blushes and admits that she had come to ask him if he didn’t have any needles – he gives her needles, money anyway, and realizes that hidden behind her are all the young guys in the village who were afraid of being drafted for nothing at all. Enchanted by the advertised price, they all volunteered to row –
They continue on their way

But the nice atmosphere will soon end, because the Chinese gangs come down and sow destruction –
No way to go on – in front it’s death, fury, carnage of everything.
They turn back – the young woman’s house has become totally empty – there is no one left – Pavie hopes she has managed to escape and then understands that his exploration, which was so magical, has fallen in the middle of a merciless turf war.

It will not be able to go North again for several months.
On his second attempt, instead of seeing before the panic, or after the damage caused by this ugly border war, he will be caught up in the battles, he will see the Chinese horsemen who terrified the world, he will see the retreating soldiers, he will see the bravery and the fear – he never judges, he tries not to participate, but can one always remain an observer when one becomes attached to people, to countries?

I don’t know how we can bring back to life these great moments of discovery of another world, these great moments of true adventure, with a true humanity without the horrible little side: look at the nice savages – and which are also great epic moments, terrifying, extravagant.
What I do know is that there is so much material in this logbook that would be so great to exploit.
Well, I know, it would work well as a film – but then again – there’s also plenty of material for great live performances – especially if you think about them in conjunction with developments in games and virtual reality.

This song was very very popular in France – I can’t talk about it without giving you the version by Josephine Baker in 1930. Time had passed since Pavie and France had taken on the task of helping the people who needed her so much – that’s what they said at the time, I think.

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Featured Image : old French Map of Cochinchine

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