Monday, October 22, 2012


A modern day view of the Saigon River from the Majestic, one of the city's oldest hotels.
District 1 is where the action was, and still is, in the former Saigon. This downtown zone includes stunning French colonial architecture, government buildings old and new, and famous hotels that the international press corps used to call home. After years of communist stagnation, the heart of the city is bustling anew once again. The promise of foreign investment has brought big business and foreign corporations back into Vietnam. The country joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1995, and later the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2007. With so much money returning to town, the resulting construction boom is forever changing the old city’s skyline.
Since it’s a lovely sunny day, and since the downtown is fairly safe, I decide to make my way around on foot.I begin at the Bellevue, an open air restaurant bar high on the old Majestic Hotel in the heart of District 1. Standing at the railing, I take in the scene of the Saigon River, and the best riverfront view in the city. This colonial hotel dates all the way back to 1925. During that time when Europeans arrived on the docks in front of me, the territory was known as Cochinchine. Affluent French colonists, weary from their long journey, took their first steps onto their conquered land onto the river walk below, before checking into the Majestic to rest from their long voyage. Atop the rustic hotel, I watch the ferries and cargo boats make their way steadily back and forth across the flowing brown waters. The craft chug along slowly, with the relaxed pace of Asia. It wasn’t such a serene scene here when the French left in the 1950’s, as their colonial empire was collapsing.
“We were evacuating the French. They were getting their butts kicked,” my Uncle Jim once told me, of his time on the Saigon riverfront. Then he was a US Navy sailor, aboard the destroyer USS Walker. “We were loading up the French nationals and taking them out.”

The former colonial masters had become refugees. They were loaded onto LST’s, and taken north to Taiwan. LST means “Landing Ship Tank”, and these flat bottomed navy vessels were used to transport troops and cargo. Only this time, the LST’s were crowded with so many French civilians, they didn’t have room for cargo. 

Hot drinks in Vietnam today
"They would only let them leave with one small suitcase, my Uncle Jim recalled. "They showed up there with grand pianos, and their cars. They had to leave them all on the pier." With all the excess baggage and debris crowding the dock, what wasn't looted was pushed by a bulldozer onto a barge.  He believed it was taken out to sea, and dumped overboard. With the chaos of those days, my uncle never even made it off of the destroyer. "I didn't want to get off the boat," he said of that troubled time. "My sailor outfit would have made a good target."

Later during the American war years, American military officers and diplomats stayed here at the Majestic. Hotel guests with a riverfront window occasionally had a front row seat to the war too. Looking across the river, jets would occasionally bomb Viet Cong positions on the opposite side. The hotel wasn’t immune. Shortly before the fall of Saigon in 1975, an NVA rocket slammed into this hotel, destroying the penthouse suite.

Looking around, I see guests here are rich tourists and businessmen. Like the city, the Majestic is making a comeback. Downstairs the hotel has a casino, but Vietnamese are barred from entry. Apparently, they only want to suck money out of foreigners. Since I only came here for the view and not a meal, I head to the elevator and step onto the streets. Across the way, I see a coffee shop, the Catinat Café. This is a rare reference to this street’s former French colonial name, the Rue Catinat. For decades, this street had a very seedy reputation. Back in the days of Cochinchine, the neighborhood was well known for its opium dens. The Saigon of old has been called many things. ‘Pearl of the East’. ‘Whore of the Orient’. The odd thing is, various writers of old have labeled colonial Shanghai and Singapore with the same names. Any way you look at it, all three of these locales are former colonial cities with dark pasts.

A few doors down is Maxim’s, catering to rich Vietnamese. Open since 1964, it’s a rare business still open from the war years, thought it's evolved. Besides offering live music and cabaret shows, they have succumbed to the Asia craze of karaoke.

When the French era ended, the Rue Catinat took on a new name. Reflecting its new independence, this road became known as Tu Do Street, which meant Freedom Street. During the American era, Tu Do was the most infamous street in all of Saigon. Back during those years, Tu Do resembled Las Vegas, with countless bright neon signs. There were many night clubs and bars here, catering to American soldiers and the local elite. The street was full of prostitutes, hustlers and drug pushers. One of the streets more notable residents was the journalist Sean Flynn, son of the movie star Errol Flynn. The well known star of ‘Son of Captain Blood’ had turned his back on Hollywood to make a name for himself in Vietnam as a war correspondent. In between his trips to the battlefields, Flynn used to live in an upstairs apartment on this seedy street. Like many in the 1960's, Flynn did his share of drugs, so he fit in just fine on Tu Do Street. Along with the rest of the city today, the street has changed quite a bit. The bright neon lights of Tu Do’s girlie bars are gone now, although there are a couple of low key ‘lady bars’ and massage parlors still in the neighborhood. Most of the street is now a respectable part of the city. This also means more expensive. Many of the shops here now are high end boutiques selling fashionable clothing, expensive jewelry, and artworks.

Vietnamese woman in District 1 stands atop a 4th floor balcony. 
No elevators here.
The strangest shop on the street today is named ‘Old Propaganda Posters’. Taken from the American war years, these framed posters prints are sold as souvenirs, a curiosity from days gone by. Here they sell brightly painted scenes of smiling Vietnamese cadres, gun toting soldiers, and old Uncle Ho. Smiling workers labor in the rice fields. Viet Cong militia take aim at high flying American jets. These prints are now fairly rare, you never see anti-American posters in public anymore. With the war long over, they’ve been replaced by billboards and advertisements. The Vietnamese government now seeks more American contact, not less. 

Out on the street, a cyclo rolls by, with an old driver pedaling along a mother and child as passengers. If you’ve not seen a cyclo, it looks like a backwards tricycle. A one speed bicycle makes up the back end, with a covered chair between two wheels at the front. Saigon once had many thousands of these cyclos, but few are left now. Those that remain are used mostly for tourists. Many cyclo drivers are ex-ARVN soldiers, or former civil service professionals from the old regime. Banned from their old jobs, this was the only work that they could get in the city.

Coming up the sidewalk, a group of schoolboys no older than eight approach me. The bravest one asks, “Hallo, how are you?”

“Fine,” I reply, “and how are you?” They answer by giggling and smiling, and the whole group scampers away. White foreigners are still something of a novelty to many Vietnamese. 

With dinner time nearing, I look for a place to dine. During the 80’s there were few eateries left in town that catered to foreigners. These days there are downtown restaurants of every style. Italian, French, Indian, Japanese, American food, and more. Economic liberalization brought about an explosion in culinary diversity.

A band performs in the dimly lit Tu Do Liberty Bar, 
on what is now Dong Khoi Street.
I stop in a basement restaurant aptly named, “The Underground Bar and Grill”. Although British themed, the chef is French. I order lunch, and then head for the pool table for a game of nine ball. As I play, I look around at the patrons, and notice two odd couples. Each has an older European man, sitting with a much younger, much better looking Vietnamese woman. Indeed, one of the men looks old enough to be not just his girlfriend’s father, but grandfather. Of course, these kind of relationships aren’t unique to Vietnam, they happen in many poor countries. Old, divorced men come to find a young pretty girlfriend or wife. Many attractive young Vietnamese ladies hope to marry an older westerner, seeing it as their ticket out of poverty, and as a way to help their families.

I lose at nine ball, and a waitress approaches, bringing my food. She asks, “Where you from?”

“America,” I answer, wondering what her reaction will be.

“I like America,” she says with a big smile. It seems my country has a better reputation here than I expected.

On my way out, I’m amused by a poster on a bulletin board. “Don’t miss, ANNIE GET YOUR GUN. VIETNAM’S FIRST FULLY STAGED BROADWAY MUSICAL! Featuring the Ho Chi Minh City Ballet Symphony Orchestra and Opera, with the International Choir of Ho Chi Minh City, and The Saigon Players. Showings at the Hung Dao Theater.” I wonder, could it be that Ho Chi Minh City is developing a taste for American musical theater? I don’t think they’ll be showing ‘Miss Saigon’ here anytime soon though.

Back out on the street the sun’s gone down, and I pass by old shop house boutiques. Colonial shop houses were built tightly together, packed one after another. There are still plenty of these in the city, but in District One they are increasingly being torn down to be replaced by larger, modern structures. Continuing down the street, I reach a construction site taking up a large section of the block. Plans are for a skyscraper to be built here. The name of the development is not befitting Vietnam: ‘Times Square’. HCMC hopes to emulate big time capitalism, at least in name.

Back when the communists took over in 1975, they didn’t want anything resembling ‘freedom’ to be seen in Saigon, so Tu Do street was renamed ‘Dong Khoi’, which translates as ‘Uprising’. (This refers to the 1960 rebel uprising against the old dictator Diem’s regime.) In recent years, those restrictions have been relaxed. Down the street I see a reference to the street’s old name, the Tu Do Liberty Restaurant Bar. This ‘Liberty’ restaurant is owned by the communist government. The downstairs restaurant has live music, and there’s dancing upstairs. I climb the stairs to check out the second floor entertainment. 

Walking in, I’m met with a dark scene. The lighting is very dim, and my eyes struggle to adjust. There is only low lighting surrounding the bar, with stage lighting illuminating the entertainment. I’m directed towards some dark tables, but I grab a bar stool instead.

Up on the stage, an older chanteuse in an evening gown is belting out a Vietnamese love song, accompanied by a five piece band. The manager tells me she’s famous in Vietnam, although I wouldn’t know the difference.

After a few minutes, my eyes adjust, and I finally see who’s at the tables. There are much older Asian men, sitting and drinking with young Vietnamese women. It turns out these women work for the bar. I’ve come upon a ‘hostess bar’. Vietnamese men with money come up here to drink and chat with the pretty young hostesses, who keep pouring them more drinks. These couples are much like the others I saw over at the Underground, except that here, they prefer to cozy up in the darkness. In HCMC it’s common for rich men to leave their wives at home, and take out their mistresses to a dimly lit club like this. They have less chance of being seen snuggling here in the dark. For them it’s all about appearances really.

I leave the couples in the dark, and return to the street, with a brighter building facing me on the next block. It’s one of the tallest in town, the 23 floor Sheraton Saigon. With its high end shops and restaurants, it’s for foreign businessmen and tourists with deep pockets. Would you like the Presidential Suite? It will only cost you $2,000 a night, which is more than most Vietnamese earn in a year. I move on.

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