Do the continental
The most famous street in Ho Chi Minh City still has echoes of its lively past, reports Sian Powell
Fun ride: A rickshaw at Notre Dame
The Continental Hotel on Dong Khoi street is a silent witness to many of the historical events that have taken place in old Saigon lives there. Stuck in the sweaty southern delta, Fowler fondly remembers his life in Saigon: ‘‘You couldn’t believe it would ever be seven o’clock and cocktail time on the roof of the Majestic, with a wind from the Saigon River.’’
These days the Majestic appears much as it must have about 60 years ago. Built in 1925, on the corner of the former Rue Catinat and Quai de Belgique (now Tong Duc Than) it is decked with wrought iron, stained glass, chandeliers and marble. From Fowler’s cocktail bar, the open-air M Bar on the roof of the hotel, the broad and curving brown Saigon River is on full display below.
Visitors can sip a $US4 bloody mary (although Greene would have preferred a vermouth cassis) and watch the ferocious current force the cross-river ferries to edge crab-like from one bank to the other. All around are towering cranes, symbols of Ho Chi Minh City’s urge to build and grow. And there are a couple of massive building sites right on Dong Khoi where no doubt handsome skyscrapers will soon appear.
For all that, the avenue is a remarkably quiet one, and it’s easy for the strolling pedestrian to dash from one side to the other without fear of being killed (which is not easy to say of the city’s other thoroughfares).
Downstairs at the Majestic, the Cyclo Cafe, named for the once omnipresent bicycle taxis, has shucked the antigrenade grilles that once protected patrons from Vietnam War-era subversives (or patriots, depending on how you look at it). By the height of the hostilities, Rue Catinat had long been Tu Do, or Freedom Street, and hundreds of thousands of US and Australian troops had taken over downtown Saigon.
The Caravelle on Dong Khoi was the place to stay for many of the Vietnam War correspondents and the rooftop bar was an often sodden haven. Michael Herr, who wrote the Vietnam War tour de force was one patron.
‘‘In the early evenings we’d do exactly what correspondents did in those terrible stories that would circulate in 1964 and 1965; we’d stand on the roof of the Caravelle Hotel having drinks and watch the air strikes across the river, so close that a good telephoto lens would pick up the markings on the planes. There were dozens of us up there, like aristocrats viewing Borodino from the heights.’’ These days, it’s hard to see more than a glimpse of the river from the Caravelle’s bar (a new building has largely, and symbolically, blocked the wartime view) but crane sideways and the feathery tamarind treetops of Dong Khoi can be seen leading to the cathedral. The nearby central post office, with its barrel ceiling and enormous portrait of Uncle Ho, is yet another exemplar of graceful colonial architecture that has survived some of the biggest social eruptions of recent history. Another classic, if slightly overblown, colonial edifice, just off Dong Khoi on Nguyen Hue street, is the one-time Hotel de Ville, which houses the People’s Committee. Pillared and porticoed, it is an unlikely setting for communist bureaucracy.
Tu Do street was again renamed after North Vietnamese troops rode triumphantly into Saigon; the street has been Dong Khoi (or Uprising) since Vietnam’s reunification. These days, with the economic relaxation of the era of Dong Khoi is Ho Chi Minh City’s equivalent of Paris’s Champs Elysees, London’s Bond Street or even the Paddington end of Sydney’s Oxford Street. Gucci, Versace, Louis Vuitton and the big-label names all display their wares here.
Boulevardiers and bon vivants should note the name and locale of Dong Khoi. A certain with a Vietnamese tang, lives on.
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Down memory lane: