Saigon Ghosts

Can’t you just taste the history? An old hotel at the center of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, that since 1880 has played witness to the drama of Vietnam’s tough story – the final days of colonialism, the wars, the fight for independence and unification, and the subsequent struggles of politics and national identity. Foreign war advisers (and creators) stayed here as did the international troop of journalists who covered their bitter production. A Vietnamese journalist, the greatest spy the North ever had (The Spy Who Loved Us: The Vietnam War and Pham Xuan An’s Dangerous Game), spent his time around here freely conversing with fellow correspondents and military officials. Two floors above me Graham Greene gazed out the windows of Room 214 and gave us The Quiet American. The old Opera House still stands across the street. Right here on this very corner next to my streetside table, crashed the waves of history! And I…

… I’m drinking the worst damned cappuccino I’ve ever been served in my life. The rule of thirds for the ingredients has apparently been reconfigured, perhaps by a government decree after months in committee. I have one-sixth foam, one-sixth of what tastes like weakly brewed Nescafe, and then lukewarm water the rest of the way to the rim. Filling the cup too often seems to be the goal of untrained baristas. No one wants a half a cup these days of anything. Gotta fill that thing. Never mind the perfect potent punch of a tiny espresso – if that glass is a bit on the biggish side, keep a-fillin’ with the sputtering stained-water remains.

But it’s not just the coffee crime that has lessened the moment. The funny thing about visiting the places of writers, their inspirations, their balcony views, is that they often no longer exist or in some cases never existed to begin with. This one is only partly here. The Hotel Continental still stands as does the opera house (now Municipal Theatre) and the cathedral down the street. But imagining Greene’s Phuong stepping out of Givral Patisserie requires a bit of extra imagination now that the building has been gutted and prepared for demolition for a mall, parking garage and high-rise apartments. The torn out storefront is covered with tacky billboard-size ads visible from Greene’s window.

His suite has a mustiness that does more for allergies than nostalgia and I’m not sure I’d trust the balcony. Still, if you try hard enough, as some of us will, you imagine that new writing desk along the wall was how it might have looked when the original was there — assuming he had it against the wall. Greene’s world is being relegated to the mind’s eye. Not far outside this square abuzz with motorbikes is the rising future of Saigon – the bones of its first real skyscraper and its attendant cranes lurking like apparitions in an afternoon rainstorm. Perhaps a young aspiring writer will someday take inspiration from a view from much higher above this city. Maybe not.

I’ve hit two Greene haunts on this trip. The Hotel Continental here in Saigon and The Metropole in Hanoi. The latter will knock your socks off whether or not you know Graham from crackers. The former has a class you can still see if you squint a bit (except for the neon-lighted bar and massage parlor area upstairs which is just plain creepy like a Born to Be Wild tattoo on grandma). It’s definitely worth a visit. However, I would recommend sticking to beer or afternoon tea.

5 thoughts on “Saigon Ghosts

  • June 1, 2010 at 12:49 pm
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    I visited the Hotel Continental back in 2006 and I'd have to agree, the area can only be imagined as it once was.

    The whole area has been tagged for tourists and thus, been westernized and capitalized for the almighty dollar. Sad, but a fact of life for many SE Asia places of interest. The money is of course needed, but the rush toward large, un-thought out development usually ends up ruining the very places they are trying to promote. As always, if you want to see it, you better go now, but in many places, it's already gone.

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  • June 1, 2010 at 1:02 pm
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    Exactly right. If it all becomes just like a mall at home, who's coming here to see it? As prosperity comes to these places of course more and more locals are gradually getting a thrill out of having arrived in the Western material society, and one can't blame them. But the loss of their own history has its price too. Plus there's the inevitable larger portion of society that never gets access to Louis Vuitton or sees a benefit from razing history for "development."

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  • June 4, 2010 at 9:58 am
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    Kevin, very great article and very astute comment here. I have been watching this in Asia for 6 years, and you have nailed it precisely. It is disappointing to see, but progress can't be stopped sometimes. What is interesting is that once it turns into a mall, all the people still come, even Westerners.

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