City spirits

City spirits
The frenetic streets of Ho Chi Minh City Photo Credit: Sanjoy Ghosh

Remembering Vitenam's erstwhile capital, Saigon, in Ho Chi Minh City

Kai Friese
July 01 , 2014
10 Min Read

My ticket says Ho Chi Minh City but my suitcase is going straight to Saigon: the IATA call sign for Tan Son Nhat airport is still SGN. It’s a pleasing felicity. I’m going to Vietnam for the first time but my baggage is mostly a peculiar kind of nostalgia. And as the plane drops from the clouds to circle over the extravagant bends and loops of the Saigon river, glittering in the bright light of noon, I know that I will be constantly reminded that in this city, the past really is another country.

 Yes, I’m old enough to remember the collapse of the Republic of Vietnam and the dramatic fall of its capital. And not just from Hollywood’s cinematic reprise. I followed these events in real time, in print. Which is why my temporal lobe keeps up its insistent jingle: “Khe Sanh, Da Nang, Cam Ranh, Napalm,” it goes. “Viet Nam Cong Hoa.” And why it copy-edits with such cracked insistence: the airport should be Tan Son Nhut. Not Nhat! It used to be an American airbase.


 It doesn’t help that I’m arriving in early February, in the last days before Tet, the Vietnamese ‘Chinese New Year’. The Year of the Pig is ending, the Rat approaches. But forty years ago, in February 1968, at the dawn of the Year of the Monkey, the Viet Cong launched a massive offensive across the length and breadth (in this serpentine country it’s mostly length) of South Vietnam. It would be crushed with tremendous bloodshed. But it was a defeat that laid the spores of the Communist victory, seven years later, in April 1975, the Year of the Rabbit.

 I’m a Rabbit myself, in case you’re wondering, from 1963. When you’ve been hopping around as long as I have, History gets personal. And so does Geography. Visiting Calcutta for the first time, in the early 1980s, I can remember savouring the sense that I was on the edge of another subcontinent, one that stretched from the Ganges Delta to the Mekong Delta. India Extra Gangem. All geography is fantasy, but my own construction of Indochina has an appealingly romantic aesthetic, of post-colonial torpor, peeling paint and creaky louvered shutters. The tropical verdure, the Graham Greenery. He is baggage too, of course. Lurking in my knapsack is a 1955 first edition of The Quiet American (with the grey, chatai-patterned dust jacket). A time bomb I procured long ago on Free School Street. Still unread.

A bumpy landing brings me back to 2008, and I disembark to the global trill of reactivated Nokias. Half an hour later, I’m sweeping through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) in a Japanese van, fighting the panicky apprehension that unlike me, the city may have moved on. I wind up in the heart of Bui Vien street, the city’s backpacker alley, a disconcerting facsimile of Paharganj — not my favourite neighbourhood back home. The hotel itself is cheap, clean and cheerful. It’s also about fifteen feet wide and eleven — yes, eleven — storeys high. Trying not to think about it, I hit the streets to get my bearings. The temperature is reassuringly tropical, particularly after the intemperate chill of New Delhi this year. There is a Calcuttan languor to lanes but as I wander on to the thoroughfares, the city seems to rise from its siesta and soon I’m facing HCMC’s legendary torrents of two-wheelers (“four million motorcycle!” a xe om or motorcycle-taxi man tells me proudly). There is a technique to crossing the roads, which I will soon master: ten percent courage and ninety percent trust.

 That said, HCMC is a delightfully easy city to roam. The downtown District 1 where I am staying is entirely walkable, and xe om pillion rides are immediately and cheaply available. But I prefer the iconic cyclo trishaws. They may have lapsed into a tourist novelty, with corresponding prices, but I am happy to be taken for a ride.

 I settle into a pleasant rhythm, rising early, walking out to have a hot glass of the dark, buttery Ca phe sua nong (filter coffee with condensed milk), at a pavement stall. Then, a morning round of sightseeing, back for a siesta, and out again on foot in the sociable cool of the evening, in search of a scenic perch for dinner or a drink. At this civilised pace the city reveals itself with an endearing formality. It’s like getting to know a charming and slightly disreputable aunt — the one they all talk about.

 And everything they said was true. God knows, this fallen capital has a past, and she flaunts it with roguish flamboyance. The town is encrusted with Belle Epoque townhouses, Third Empire mansions and Palladian galleons, whose custard-washed façades flake and crack like bad makeup. The avenues are fraying seams of colonial elegance, lined with stately, ageing trees, festooned with scarlet banners. Flags of convenience, they survive because they are so easily ignored by everyone — including the Communists themselves.

 In a city that has seen so many pants-down surrenders — the French, the Americans, the Southern republic — it’s plain that Saigon is still her own mistress. The broader boulevards, remorselessly commercial, are emblazoned with all the gigantic slogans of globalisation. It’s really only in the former Presidential Palace that I feel the presence of that Old Time Socialism. Now called the Reunification Palace, the building is a coolly accomplished piece of architectural modernism: the suave cold war capitalism of the sixties and seventies, and its flirtation with praetorian regimes. But some genius apparatchik deserves the Order of Lenin for the brainwave of preserving the palace — its throne rooms and banquet halls, casinos and war rooms — frozen in that moment of triumph and emasculation, on the thirtieth of April, 1975. Apparently they still use it for state banquets.

The palace really gives me the chills but I storm all five floors and the labyrinthine basement bunkers in ten minutes flat. I’m even quicker at the nearby War Remnants Museum, and at the now innocuous Pho Binh noodle shop — a secret Viet Cong HQ in the Tet Offensive. Here I interrupt the proprietor at his lunch but he graciously shows me pictures of his father, Ngo Toai, who died three years ago, a decorated Hero of the Revolution, and I inscribe my hasty gratitude in the Visitors Book. Outside, I interrupt my cyclo driver’s cigarette break again. It’s a widespread nugget of tourist apocrypha that HCMC’s cyclo men are mostly South Vietnamese ARVN veterans, reduced to this profession by the justice of the victors. I know I’m not doing the old pedal pusher any favours, but he’s the reason for my hurry.

 One night, on the roof of the Rex hotel (once a favourite of US officers, I’m told), I watch the incredible tableau of joyriding crowds pouring down the Boulevard of Nguyen Hue, their headlamps a twinkling river of light. There’s an utterly intoxicating air of optimism, freedom, independence and, well, shopping. The low-testosterone putter of all those small engines is transformed into the confident throb of the swarm. It’s a cliché of Vietnamese resilience, this collective mojo. But it’s also the roar of peace.

 Of course I can’t join it, I can only watch. The perfumes of Tet are tinged with the lingering poignance of that book. The Quiet American is a slender novel, with a thrillerish plot, but this is not one of Greene’s ‘entertainments’. The story of the ageing English journalist Fowler and his fatal rivalry with the American, Alden Pyle, for possession of the young courtesan Phuong, is charged with a presentiment of the worthlessly prolonged end of imperialism. And for me at least, by Fowler’s voice, thick with the quiet panic of masculine middle-age. It begins on a February evening just after Tet. “Inside my room the tree I had set up weeks ago for the Chinese New Year had shed most of its blossoms. They had fallen between the keys of my typewriter. I picked them out.”

 I spent a lot of time picking blossoms in his footsteps. “One is not jealous of the dead,” Fowler says, but visiting Greene’s room (# 214) on the second floor of the Continental Hotel on Dong Khoi, the old Rue Catinat, I’m…emerald with envy. Still, I can afford a beer and a riverfront vista at his chosen bar on top of the gleaming Hotel Majestic. Here, the ceiling fans still croak above a ruinously restored façade. A wedding cake today, in Greene’s time it was fluid with balconies, still poised at the tipping point between Art Nouveau and just plain Gaudi.

 Roaming the Chinatown district of Cholon, my cyclo guide Hai promised to show me the location of the ‘House of 500 Women’ where the Quiet American himself had reacted with the same naïve horror as I had on the kerb of Le Lai, when a young woman on a scooter tapped me on the shoulder and whispered in my ear. Her girlfriend, riding pillion, nodded encouragingly. “No, thanks, I already have a room,” I blustered, prompting her to bellow: “YOU PHAC ME HOTEL ONE HOUR!” ‘“It’s terrible. I wouldn’t have believed...”’ Alden Pyle said ‘with sad awe’. ‘“They were so pretty.”’ They really were. But when we reached Cholon’s central bazaar, Hai gave up the chase. And then he proffered another frisson, in consolation, I suppose. It was a laminated picture of his younger self in uniform. “1969,” he said. “American army.”

 Even travel writers get the blues.

 On the crossing at the end of Bui Vien, there is a modest tower crowned with the ultimate brand of my generation: “Perfect USA,” it says. Down on the street the old cyclo men murmur “Marywanna?” But for me, in this city, Time is the drug, whispered at every corner.

 Returning to my room, I sit by the second-floor window, watching wandering troupes of lion-dancers chase the Year of the Pig back home. And I finish reading The Quiet American. But at 2am my dreams of 1950s Saigon are shattered by a blast of karaoke singalong from the bistro down the street. “Byee byee”...Don McLean’s raucous wake for the 1960s, the decade that will not shut up. “Noisy Americans!” I want to shout, only, they sound like Aussies. Burying my head in a pillow, I summon a gentler lullaby. The soft-spoken Michael Stipe hums another American elegy in my ear. “Twentieth Century, go to sleep.”

The information

Getting there

There are no direct flights from India to Ho Chi Minh City, but you could pick a flight that has a stopover in Bangkok (from approx. `30,000). 

Where to stay

It is best to stay in District 1, or in ‘Backpacker Central’, the Pham Ngu Lao area. The An An hotel (from $40; +84-8-38378087, on Bui Vien Street, is fine and reasonable. Among the high-end options there’s a clutch of nostalgic favourites in the colonial centre of town, including the Continental (from $115; 38299201, and the Majestic (from $148; 38295517,

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