Do the con­ti­nen­tal

The most fa­mous street in Ho Chi Minh City still has echoes of its lively past, re­ports Sian Pow­ell

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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.

Check­list

APT has early-book­ing dis­counts of up to $500 a per­son on new tours in Viet­nam. A 22-day Viet­nam and Riches of the Mekong hol­i­day is from $7695 a per­son twin-share (usu­ally from $8195); the itin­er­ary in­cludes Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An, Hue, Hanoi and a Ha Long Bay cruise plus a de­tour to Siem Reap in Cam­bo­dia to see Angkor Wat and a seven-night Mekong cruise back to Ho Chi Minh City. In­ter­na­tional flights are ex­tra. For the dis­count, book by Septem­ber 30 for se­lected de­par­tures from Oc­to­ber on­wards. More: 1300 656 985; www.ap­tour­ing.com.au.

www.viet­nam­tourism.com

Pic­ture: Sian Pow­ell

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