Missing Saigon

Saigon's Nortre DameAll about town I was looking for a sense of bloody battles, for lingering spots of debauchery that lie with billeted troops, for a feel of tanks rolling in, for the American Consulate and for other terraces from where the superpower scrambled out of Saigon. In the War Remnants Museum, and in the Reunification Palace, I searched the faces of the (mostly young) Americans, looking for remorse on faces of people who weren’t even born when their nation was engaged in war there. Now, back home, I’m squirming like I’ve been a voyeur.

I went to the former house of the late Ambassador Henry Lodge and looked in the rooms for the air of brutal politics. Only four other visitors were in the building, which is now owned privately by a Vietnamese, who allows visitors to walk about the house as in a museum, and shows a short video on what the Vietnamese call the American War. The visitors were young Americans learning to cook Vietnamese style, making rolls this afternoon.

While watching the video my thoughts turned inward to a memory in black and white from when I was four and on my way to the kindergarten, when another kid only a little older than I—who was squatting beneath a tree cobbling a slipper—stopped me and asked me to go home because school is closed because a great man, the President of America, has been killed.

The war was ended by the activism of masses of unarmed, conscientious Americans, so, even if America lost, Americans won. In the War Remnants Museum, the American faces in which I searched for remorse were nevertheless somber. While on the ground the heart broke for the Vietnamese peasants and soldiers and the children and the aged, and the jungles defoliated by Agent Orange, the pictures on the walls on the upper floors broke the heart a second time, this time for the American kids—fresh-faced kids with the looks of Hollywood stars, doomed in trenches and watery terraces and alien jungles. They didn’t deserve the war as much as the Vietnamese didn’t, so how is one to estimate whose tragedy was the greater? Theirs who lost 58,000? Theirs who lost 3 million?

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Graham Greene’s Thomas Fowler says of the Notre Dame which terminates the Dong Khoi Street that it is hideous. I liked it, and sat at the Coffee Bean and watched it over a cappuccino. Some young men were shooting a lovely little lady who posed for them astride a scooter; I went over and took pictures of them all; they turned round and shot me. The next day they were shooting two girls, one in pink ao-dai, another in black western.

Photoshoot before Saigon's Nortre DameFrom the Cathedral the Dong Khoi street runs all the way to Saigon River. It is a shaded street, and must’ve been lovelier in its avatar as rue Catinat. Now it is taken by cafes and hotels and restaurants and art shops selling paintings depicting young Vietnamese women in ao-dai and the conical hats, in the fields, on bicycles, in rickshaws, and sometimes in gardens, enveloped by the autumnal foliage of temperate places, making leisure under conical hats. The favorite is of a lady in purple ao-dai alighting from a carriage onto cobblestones, in the moment the toe has touched the stone and the heel is still high—the picture was on every storefront.

From the window of Vietnam House, on rue Catinat, where I ate lunch, I could see the Lhuong Sen Hotel, which offered buffet lunch & breakfast, sauna, jacuzzi, pool, and, of course, foot massage and body massage. So much on offer, and yet none went in, and none came out, at any time I looked in the pauses between courses, all the three days I ate there.

A short walk from there, the Ben Thanh Market was desolate also, but for a very few, white people pinching cloth and rolling beads on strings hung on stall-fronts. It is a clean market, also where they sell fish, where as I watched a lady washing fish in a tub also thoroughly rinsed her face in it. The main aisle is wide and attractive, where they sell nuts and such, and further on, the sideways are so narrow the clothing on one side brush the dresses on the other and walking through them is as going through a car wash, a dry wash in this case.

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A cool place to rest the feet after a walk in the 34-degree sun was Gustave Eiffel’s Post Office, on one of the curved benches at the entrance, exchanging looks with a clear complexioned Ho Chi Minh sporting a face beaten neither by weather, nor by war—just kind, and friendly, and good looking. The hall is pleasing. Even if people flowed constantly it wasn’t crowded. Slender steel columns are topped by gilt capitals on either side of the hall. Green arches connect the capitals broadside, an arch for every counter, and the vaulted ceiling rises from another set of gilt stucco bases rising from the capitals.

It was even cooler over drinks on the nineteenth floor, the Club Floor, of my hotel. The sun was an orange and yellow splash on the Saigon River, whose skin was wrinkled and unmoving. The Prudential Building was tall and proud on the left, and the Park Hotel was very tall also, on the right, at about the spot where, in the film Indochine, a nice Citroen dealership showed briefly behind Catherine Deneuve when she crossed the street to the Continental. Down below, about the foot of the hotel, the tiled tops of colonial buildings were squat among lawns that looked like neat green mats.

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Gustave Eiffel's GPO in SaigonI’m home now, reclining this moment on my couch with Vietnam for the connoisseur and National Geographic’s Vietnam and Karl Marlantes's Matterhorn, upset with myself for having returned seeing so little of an exciting place.