1956-1958: Early years at Dalat School

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August 4th 1956
Published: May 13th 2011
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Dalat School Campus in 1956Dalat School Campus in 1956Dalat School Campus in 1956

Boys Dorm to the left and girls dorm to the right with classrooms down below
I was six, almost seven, so it was time for me to start school. Missionaries in Southeast Asia sent their children to boarding school at Dalat, in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

Vietnam was part of French Indochina until 1954 when it was divided into North and South Vietnam, with Ho Chi Minh and his communists in charge of the government in the north, and Ngo Dinh Diem as the president of the supposedly democratic South Vietnam, but he was really a dictator. Many Catholics moved to the South to avoid persecution by an atheist government. In 1956, when I first started at Dalat School, the communist Viet Cong had not yet organized their terrorism campaign to overthrow the south so traveling to Dalat was pretty safe.

My parents and I took the train to Bangkok, and then to the airport. I was very excited to be going to where all the big kids had gone in previous years. The missionary kids occupied most of the seats on the plane. We flew on an Air Vietnam (we referred to it was Air Nuoc Mam – which means fish sauce) DC-3 to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and then on to Saigon, Vietnam. The plane flew very low so we could see the betel nut trees and farmers using water buffalo to plow their rice paddies. I remember the stewardesses giving us orange drink; and then hitting air pockets which made us air sick. To this day I avoid orange drink as it makes me nauseous. To entertain ourselves during the flight we would collect all the pillows and make a fort, and proceed to have a pillow fight. I don’t recall having any adult supervision on these trips. I’m surprised the Air Vietnam didn’t ban us from future travel.

Upon arrival in Saigon, we would sometimes stay at the mission guest home if it was too late to drive to Dalat. The trip to Dalat was 300 km and took about 8 hours. We passed rubber tree plantations and at the halfway stop were large boulders.

Dalat is at about 5000 ft, so is cool and forested with pine trees. There are lakes and waterfalls. The town has many French villas, as this was a mountain resort for the colonialists to escape the heat and humidity of the lowlands.

For the next two years I would spend eight months each year at Dalat School. We would have two four month semesters each separated by a two month vacation.

When I first arrived, the compound only had two main buildings. The boys’ dorm was a French villa. The boys’ dorm rooms were on the second floor and the office, lounge, dining hall and kitchen was on the first floor. The girls’ dorm was built on a hillside. The first floor had an auditorium and bedrooms, and the lower floor down the hillside had classrooms.

We roomed by class, in two double bunk beds to a room. My dorm parents were Uncle Archie and Aunt Betty. After they moved to Ban Me Thout Uncle Archie was captured by the Viet Cong on May 30, 1962 and never seen again.

At Dalat everything was by the bell: getting up, going to breakfast, lunch and dinner, and starting and ending classes. After breakfast we returned to our room to complete chores. Each of us had a task which would rotate each week. One swept the floor; one collected the laundry; one dusted; etc. Lights out at 7 pm was particularly trying. No one was allowed to make any noise. That’s not possible for little kids. Punishment was either a paddling or missing Friday late night. Friday late night was organized fun, and often a Disney movie that one of the U.S. military advisors would bring to the school for us to see. So paddling was preferable; at least it was over with quickly.

I remember my first day of class. Miss Heikkinen was the teacher for first through fourth grades, all in one classroom. Miss Heikkinen had taught at Dalat since 1929, and this semester would be her last before retiring. As I sat at my desk, I was overwhelmed with homesickness. I put my head down on the desk and wept. My cousin Bonnie Gay, who was in third grade, and Jodie, who was in fourth grade, came over to comfort me. I got over it, but each time I left home, I was homesick.

Discipline in class wasn’t always meted out as spankings. During one recess, I was punished by having to “sit in the corner,” in this case on the front steps of the main building. I decided to use this opportunity to get some vitamin C for my teeth, so raised my face to the sun and opened my mouth. Soon the others were asking what I was doing. They thought it was a good idea, so we all sat on the steps grinning at the sun. In 2009 Johnny and I recreated this event when we visited the school. The communist director sat between us, but didn’t make a fool of himself like we did.

Having four grades in one room was interesting. After having our lesson, we were supposed to practice what we learned. I usually listened to what she taught the other classes. I remember one assignment dealing with coins. We were supposed to add two dimes and a nickel and tell what that made. Either answer, 25 cents or a quarter, didn't make any sense as I didn’t know what cents, dimes, nickels, or quarters were.

We often did art projects collectively. As a class we drew a mural on long paper taped against one wall. I think I did a tree. We also did individual art projects. I don’t remember mine, but Kay Joy, in second grade drew a red fire engine with white snow flaks falling on it. I didn’t remember ever having seen snow.
Miss Heikkinen with third and fouth gradesMiss Heikkinen with third and fouth gradesMiss Heikkinen with third and fouth grades

Picture courtesy of Burt Houck

After the first semester Miss Forbes became our teacher. I really liked her. She was from Bend, Oregon; and she brought her arrowhead collection with her. She told us all about the American Indians. On Halloween she picked me to lead the costume parade, which really made me feel special.

After classes were over, we ran to the dining room where Bep, the cook, had prepared a snack of cold cocoa and cinnamon toast. Sometimes we used our allowance to buy nougat candy at the store at the end of the gully across from the school. After our snack we played Hide and Seek, Tag, Kick the Can, Prisoners Base, Capture the Flag, Red Rover, and Cowboys and Indians (to be replaced by Romans and Greeks after we saw the movie “The Robe”). We also played with our Dinky cars. My first one was an Army jeep; then I got a tank and tank carrier, and a scout car. My last one was a Jaguar XK racing car. We carved roads out of the clay soil on the hill by the lower tennis court. Occasionally we would expose a termite nest which when emptied made for great garages.
First and second gradesFirst and second gradesFirst and second grades

The four boys in the far right row were first grade: Merrill with his back to us, Bob (me) with a mischevious grin, Johnny with part of his head blocked by mine, and Darrell who is rising out of his seat. Picture courtesy of Burt Houck
While digging, we would also find black glassy rocks with pock marks. They turned out to be tektites, the molten splatter resulting from a meteor hitting the ground.

More recent objects that we could find were live bullets from when the Japanese occupied the compound during WWII. We would pry the bullet heads off, and dump the black powder onto a piece of tinfoil. We would place a match on the gunpowder and wrap the tinfoil around the top of the match. We would then apply a flame until the match inside went off and set the gun powder off resulting in a rocket.

Besides bullets, the Japanese left a couple of caves that went quite a distance through the hills around the school. We used the one behind the school for Halloween parties, as there were nooks and crannies where the ghosts and goblins could hide, and then jump out on unsuspecting trick or treaters.

Another fun activity was building pine needle forts. We would tie a long stick between two pine trees and the lay other sticks against the first one to as a frame upon which we piled pine needles. One end was open for us to get it. Merrill and I also pretended that we were Indians and Karen was the Indian Princess. The pine needle fort was our hiding place. The forts also served as protection during pine cone fights.

We built another kind of fort in the woodpile behind the school. We started by taking pieces of wood out of the pile and thereby “digging” a tunnel some twenty or thirty feet into the huge woodpile. The tunnel could have collapsed on us at any time!

During my first two years my only interaction with the Vietnamese people was with the kitchen staff and the barber who came every week. He didn’t have electric clippers so each squeeze of his clippers pulled on our hair. It was excruciating. Nevertheless we learned some basic words in Vietnamese, and learned to love Vietnamese cooking; especially cha gio’s. (deep fried spring rolls). We would compete to see how many we could eat. We also competed to see who could eat the most pancakes.

One of the recurring issues was health. Every semester our school nurse, Miss Chandler, would like us up for shots for cholera, typhoid, and assorted tropical diseases. We dreaded that day. Nevertheless, it was common to have outbreaks of three day and two week measles, mumps, chicken pox, where we would be quarantined in the clinic until there were enough sick to fill a room. With two week measles we had to have the room dark the whole time. We survived.

At the end of second grade in April 1958 my parents drove with another missionary couple to Dalat to pick us up. We would return to Bangkok overland through Cambodia. The open back Land Rover was pretty crowded and the roads not so good. Our major destination on the way was Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, the 12th century capital of the Khmer Empire. It wasn’t the major tourist destination then as it is now; still pretty much how Henri Houhot found it the mid-1800’s. It was great fun to explore each temple, still captive of the surrounding jungle. Upon our return to Khon Kaen, it was time to pack up for our second furlough. We left my dog Punky with other missionaries. This time we would sail around the world with a one year break in Nyack, New York. Returning to Dalat in 1959 was my introduction to the nascent Vietnam War, as the Viet Cong became more active.

Additional photos below
Photos: 18, Displayed: 18


Border between Vietnam and CambodiaBorder between Vietnam and Cambodia
Border between Vietnam and Cambodia

My sisters Sue and Judy in the forground
Helping to excavate the ruins at Angkor WatHelping to excavate the ruins at Angkor Wat
Helping to excavate the ruins at Angkor Wat

Bob pushing Sue...that's all we were interested in...not the ruins.

30th December 2011

How times change!
A great account of your early years! I just love that picture of the border crossing between Vietnam and Cambodia. If only life could still be so simple.
6th May 2018

I lived in Saigon during those same years at the same age
My father was Air Attache in Saigon during 1956-1958 when I was nine -eleven. Our paths probably crossed. We used to visit Dalat and stay at an Inn or lodge there. I don't remember the name but there was a staircase with bannister we used to slide and a juke box with American hits of the 40's. I have such fond memories and enjoyed reading your blog. I'm writing a memoir for my grandchildren.
7th May 2018

Great to hear from you!
We didn' t go to school together, but we shared a similar life! It wasn't until the early 1960's that U.S. military kids started going to Dalat School. That's when we got to watch Disney movies making the AAFES circuit.

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