|A modern day view of the Saigon River from the Majestic, one of the city's oldest hotels.|
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|
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.
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?”
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.