Saigon re­flec­tions

Viet­namof­fers­di­verse­faces,writesSamSter­ban

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - TRAVEL 2010 -

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.

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