MY wife and I are sitting on the rooftop terrace of the Rex Hotel in Saigon, five storeys above the cacophony of the streets below. The sounds of hooters and the rumble of traffic rises on the humid air. A broad boulevard sweeps past the Rex, carrying a dense flow of weaving vehicles. France’s hand in the imposing layout of Saigon is apparent. The city’s grand avenues remind one of those designed by Haussmann in Paris. These thoroughfares converge at squares and wide i ntersections, and sweep r egally past well-maintained gardens and parks, French colonial buildings and the tall, glittering skyscrapers of 21st-century Asia. Car and motorcycle horns bleat, and container trucks add their sonorous blasts to the r acket as t hey l umber t hrough t he crowded streets.
The traffic pauses at red traffic lights, filling the broad boulevard below us from side to side like water encountering a temporary blockage. The light changes, and the vehicles, predominantly motorcycles, surge forward like a thick column of ants. Some of the motorcycles are driven by leggy girls in miniskirts and high-heeled shoes who seem to regard the vehicle not only as a utilitarian means of transport, but also as an instrument for displaying their charms. Whole families – father, mother and solemn-faced children – manage to find space on a buzzing Honda. A man with a l arge wardrobe, precariously strapped to the pillion of his scooter, weaves through the crowded streets.
From the terrace of the Rex, there is a splendid view of the colonial Hotel de Vi l l e, now t he Peoples’ Committee building. This majestic symbol of French rule in Indochina gazes regally over a small park towards a statue of Ho Chi Minh, the man who played an important role in the destruction of France’s south-east Asian empire. The building is beautifully proportioned and its imposing façade adds an element of sophistication and majesty to Saigon’s centre, especially at night when it is bathed in the golden glow of floodlights.
A male singer emerges on the terrace, and stands in front of the band seated below the Rex’s trademark, a l arge golden crown that revolves at night. The man is middle-aged, with a round stomach pressing against his blue-and-white striped shirt. His trousers are white and he is wearing creamcoloured loafers. He sings in an easy voice, rather like Frank Sinatra.
is followed by the highly inappropriate The crowd on the terrace seems indifferent to his performance, concentrating on their drinks and bowls of peanuts, but his accent and the dated American lyrics remind me unequivocally that this year is the 35th anniversary of the surrender of the anti-communist government of South Vietnam to the North.
There are ghosts on the Rex’s terrace – military personnel, cynical war correspondents, bar girls, desperate politicians – and the singer’s voice stirs memories of a time when flashes on the horizon and distant rumbles did not presage t he approach of a t r opical thunderstorm, but the military bombardment heral di ng t he i mminent collapse of the pro-American South Vietnamese government.
During the war, the Rex Hotel, like other hotels in Saigon, was a social hub where American military personnel and war correspondents met. They would sit on this very terrace, drinking and possibly listening to the same songs that are being sung so smoothly on this sultry night more than 35 years later. Here, press liaison officers of the US military would give their daily briefings to the correspondents who referred to these sessions as the Five o’clock Follies.
Not far from the Rex, the Continental Hotel, a marvellous French-colonial b u i l d i n g c o mpl e t e d i n 1 8 8 6 , wa s patronised during the war by leading journalists such as Walter Cronkite, who could be found relaxing over drinks on the terrace facing the beautiful neoclass i c a l Ope r a Ho u s e , b e h i n d whi c h another favoured haunt of the war time press corps, the soaring Caravelle Hotel, rises against the murky sky.
Ot h e r wel l - k n o wn wr i t e r s who stayed at the Continental were Andre Malraux, Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene. Much of the action in Greene’s novel, took place at the Continental and on the major boulevard on which it stands, Dong Khoi, the Rue Catinat of the French colonial era.
Vietnam and war are synonymous. The recent history of the country has produced many images of violence that are rooted in the consciousness of those who f o l l o wed t h e p r o g r e s s o f t h e hostilities on television and in the newspapers in the 1960s and 1970s. They tell a vivid story of the tensions and intense suffering endured by the Vietnamese people as chaos swirled around rural villages and crowded cities were pounded by bombs.
For many older Vietnamese, t he middle of the 20th century was a period of continuous fear and destruction. The images are stark – billowing clouds of black smoke rise over the landscape as the Viet Minh forces attack Dien Bien Phu prior to the defeat of the French in 1954; a Buddhist monk expires i n a sheet of flame on a Saigon street in 1963; screaming children race, panicstricken from a napalm attack; a stream of people frantically scramble up a ladder to a helicopter parked on a roof top. The most enduring image is that of the N o r t h V i e t n a me s e t a n k c r a s h i n g through wrought iron gates, symbolising the unconditional surrender of the South.
These images of death and terror, of bitter resistance and grim determination seem at odds with the people of Vietnam today. The majority are young and many were born after 1975. They are extremely pleasant, sweet-natured and polite. Unlike in India, visitors are not a s s a i l e d by beggars wiel di ng di r t y children and wheedling with an embarrassing persistence.
There are few signs of impatience on the crowded sidewalks and congested streets. Traffic moves slowly, without any outbursts of road rage or the extravagant gestures associated with southern Europe. People squat on l ow pl as t i c s t ools on t he s i dewalks enjoying tea, a bowl of noodles or a glass of beer siphoned from a barrel. Foreigners are largely left in peace to go about their sightseeing.
Saigon has some wonderful hotels which offer exemplary service. They are beautifully restored and furnished in excellent taste. At the bottom of Dong Khoi, on the Saigon River, the Majestic Hotel, another French colonial gem, has a gorgeous art deco interior and luxurious rooms furnished in dark tropical hardwood. From its roof garden there are expansive views over the sluggishly flowing Saigon River and the glittering lights of the city. Opposite the Majestic’s ornate entrance is the terrace of the Catinat Café, a good place for a coffee or a beer before embarking on the long stroll up Dong Khoi.
On this street there are many shops and terrace restaurants, as well as the resplendent Opera House. In the distance, the slender twin spires of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the largest church in the French Empire, are an unmistakable landmark. Adjacent to the cathedral is the magnificent General Post Office, designed by Gustave Eiffel, and completed in 1891. It is a striking pink-and-cream building, which was a grand hub for France’s postal and telegraph services in Indochina. Its huge vaulted interior, with wrought iron pillars beloved by Eiffel, is a cool haven from the tropical heat. Far from destroying the physical symbols of France’s empire, the Vietnamese have meticul ousl y r e s t or e d many of t hes e f i ne buildings and put them to good use.
One can take the rapid lift to the roof bar of the Caravelle Hotel to enjoy a panoramic view of Saigon’s skyline. From here the vibrancy of Vietnam’s economy, and the rapid pace of development becomes apparent. Glittering s k y s c r a per s t o wer o v e r t i me-worn French colonial buildings. The blue glass Hyundai Tower near the Majestic Hotel epitomises the aggressive growth that is sweeping south-east Asia.
At the top of Dong Khoi stands the Diamond Plaza Mall, Vietnam’s largest and most exclusive shopping centre. The Plaza is crowded with shops offering high-price goods. Gucci, Hermes, Versace, Jimmy Choo, Ralph Lauren and Dolce & Gabbana compete for visitors’ attention. Do you want a Rolex, Omega, Tag Heuer? No problem, they are all available at the Diamond Plaza. To enter this lavish emporium is like stepping into the pages of Vogue. The Diamond Plaza panders to the s eemingly i nsatiable hunger of t he increasingly affluent Asian populations for glamorous clothes and accessories. It is a world of its own, comfortably insulated from the other, one might say real, world outside its pristine walls where the throbbing, noisy streets of downtown Saigon are swathed in damp heat and t he nos e - t i ngl i ng e x ha l a t i o ns o f a plethora of motorcycles.
A s hort walk f r om t he Diamond Plaza takes visitors to the Ben Thanh Market, built by the French in 1914. It sprawls over a large area, bounded by some of Saigon’s major boulevards. Ben Thanh is a place of enormous energy and bustle. Tourists and locals jostle in the narrow alleyways, crowded with stalls selling silks and textiles, coffee, tea, spices, l eather goods, cheap plastic items, soya and fish sauce, spirits, wines and beer. There is a busy food market with wonderful displays of fresh vegetab l e s , e x o t i c f r u i t s , s l a b s o f me a t , gleaming heaps of offal and tubs and basins filled with the squirming denizens of the sea and the mighty Mekong River.
Many food stalls sell Vietnamese delicacies at very reasonable prices. Ben Thanh Market is a congenial, if noisy place where one can savour the beguiling tastes of Vietnamese street food – the ubiquitous a bowl of broth with noodles and chicken or beef, or a pork-and-prawn pancake – – or a baguette (a legacy of French rule) s t u f f e d wi t h meat a n d v e g e t a b l e s a c c ompanied by a gl a s s of c hi l l e d Saigon beer.
Like many third-world nations, the contrasts and contradictions of Vietnam are stark. The Diamond Plaza’s air-conditioned shops are a short distance from the steaming Mekong Delta with its emerald rice paddies and simple villages amid groves of coconut palms.
A French-style patisserie faces a traditional shop selling paper lanterns. The government is communist, the economy br a s hl y a nd l oudl y c a pi t a l i s t . Tranquil temples and pagodas offer a peaceful haven from the growl of traffic and the thunder of jackhammers. Above all, it is a beguiling and seductive country, where the vestiges of France’s presence, well preserved and, in places, beautifully restored, merges smoothly and appealingly with a classical southeast Asian landscape.
SACRED SPACE: Notre Dame Cathedral, Saigon.
RIVER CRAFT: Travel on the Saigon River.
STATELY: The Rex Hotel presides over a busy thoroughfare.