Down The Mekong – Part 2
It will be recalled that in Part 1 of this trip down memory lane, we had just spent 10 days or so in Cambodia and were now passing into Vietnam on the good ship La Marguerite on the Mekong River.
Almost immediately on entering Vietnam, the riverbank scenery changed, the green fields and accompanying agrarian lifestyle giving way to built-up areas and commercialization. Even the river traffic was noticeably heavier and again, commercial in the main, with the small individually oared sampans having been replaced by sand boats, towing their huge overloaded barges. The sand had been farmed from the very river on which they were shipping their 'harvests' downstream to be transferred and shipped to the likes of Singapore and China. Unlike Cambodia, even the moped riders wore helmets, although not strangely enough the children … maybe children's heads don't break as easily as adults? Vietnam has become the Tiger of Asia, the economy having grown at a phenomenal rate over the past few years before tanking in the last year, driven by an incredibly strong work ethic and desire to move ahead. Over 65% of the population of 86 million are below the age of 35, so whilst we perhaps best remember the country as the backdrop for a war, most of today’s population was not even born when it ended in 1975.
One of the more memorable excursions was for me a trishaw ride in the town of Tan Chau after having visited a weaving factory. We rode past small village shops and houses where rice had been laid out to dry on mats in the road, food was being prepared, coffins were stacked in the coffin makers shop and for a brief moment we were part of this simple village life.
The last couple of days on the boat went by in a blur. Excursions to shore in Sa Dec, visiting the small home of the Chinese lover of Marguerite Duras, which in its heyday must have been beautiful. This was followed by what in my opinion was a somewhat pointless trip to Xeo Quyt, supposedly a base of the Viet Cong, but in reality a walk through a jungle swamp, with holes in the ground, which were used as shelters from the bombs dropped from American B52’s and a few thatched huts.
We enjoyed Cai Be a small town in the Delta, where we saw snake wine and rice paper being prepared, how rice is ‘popped’ much like popcorn, but flavoured with fruit and then made into fragrant and sweet confectionery. We sampled Mekong whiskey – the latter not be recommended, unless one has a strong stomach and head, I have a feeling that the hangover from this beverage, would be long and ugly! The central focus of this small town is however the French Gothic Cathedral which dominates the town centre and waterfront. It was here that we got into conversation with more small children who were resident at the attached Catholic orphanage. Although we did not get the usual, "One Dollar please Mister" we sadly we had no more pens or pencils left to give them.
Our last evening was spent moored mid-stream in My Tho in the Delta for an early morning disembarkation and short 1½ hour coach transfer to Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City to give it its correct name, which was our final destination and would be our base for the next 4 nights.
I cannot believe that the drive into the city is now on a 4 lane toll highway where we were continually passed by upmarket cars. My memory still contains images of the old narrow potholed 2 lane road that took one down to The Delta. The city begins to take shape as we near the centre and I am horrified to see huge Korean high-rise office blocks and fancy shopping malls selling genuine designer brand names. Where was the Saigon of my memories?
Although not the political capital of Vietnam, Saigon is the largest city and commercial hub of the country. It's a city that rarely sleeps and is constantly busy, which allied to the mugginess of heat and high humidity typical of the tropics, makes for tiring days. With the constant sound of traffic and crowds it can be overwhelming. But be patient and it will reward you with a fascinating glimpse of Vietnam, of its past and present. Even though the Saigon of my memory is perhaps not so obvious, digging a little deeper below the surface revealed that some traces do still remain.
The city now has a population of close to 10 million, with almost 70% of those living within the city itself. An eclectic mix of ethnicities and religions, with small, but significant Catholic population being a left-over from the days of French colonialism and occupation.
Back in those days of my first visit to Saigon, it had been a city of wild excesses, still tied in many ways to its very unique French past, based as it was on the 3B's – Bars, Boulevards and Brothels. At one stage it was said by some to have been the biggest whorehouse on earth. But it was also a city of love and spontaneous friendships, most of the latter I have maintained to this day two decades on. On this visit there were still a few remaining traces of the old Saigon that I fell in love with all those years ago. The hectic markets, the small pavement cafes, hair salons, acupuncture clinics, century old pagoda's and ramshackle small shops selling god knows what. Today, these sit side-by-side with modern skyscrapers and designer clothing stores. There is even a 66 story Financial Centre with a huge Heliport cantilevered out over space on the 50th floor level. Saigon has become one of the fastest growing and most forward-looking cities in Asia, driving the current economic boom. Investments have materialized in a proliferation of 5 star hotels and restaurants, trendy nightclubs and high-end boutiques. Sadly many of the older buildings were being demolished to make way for all this 'progress'!
Saigon – just the name conjures up exotic images of opium dens and the likes of Graham Greene and his ‘Quiet American’ taking coffee on the terrace at the Continental Hotel opposite the Opera house, with young Vietnamese girls cycling to school wearing the traditional Dai Ao and conical hats. Today the opium dens have closed down and The Quiet American is no longer in residence, but the memories linger, tainted slightly by the proliferation of "Good Morning Vietnam" T shirts on display everywhere. Hollywood, as ever, has a lot to answer for!
This chaotic city boasts an electric, almost palpable energy. It's one of Southeast Asia's most vibrant and liveliest cities. For the casual visitor, Saigon – and it will always be Saigon to those who have lived there, is a chaotic mess of traffic-clogged roads and urban bustle. But this tropical city seduces you thoroughly, she gets under your skin and creates a constant and unstoppable itch to return time and time again.
Today the city has moved on and up, even since I was last there a couple of years prior to this trip, but much changed from the time I lived here back in 1997/98. What has not changed however is the pavement café and coffee culture, serving the uniquely Vietnamese treat, 'Ca phe da', (ice coffee) This is strong black coffee poured over ice and mixed with condensed milk – an extremely sweet, but remarkably refreshing concoction! The locals have a huge affinity with coffee resulting in many up-market brand name coffee bars and cafes having sprung up. Sitting alongside them is an increasing number of informal pavement cafes, where patrons sit on small children-sized plastic chairs taking their coffee, tea, or in some cases the locally brewed and extremely cheap local Bai Hoi beer. This is freshly made, literally on a daily basis and is traditionally served on ice for about 25c a glass.
Being home to close 10 million people and what seems to be a similar number of scooters and mopeds, but in reality, these are declining at a rapid rate. Whereas one used to do what I referred to as ‘the ghost walk’ when crossing the road 'through' the wall of two-wheelers, confident in the knowledge that as long as you didn't make eye contact or make any sudden changes in direction you would be relatively safe – the riders would go around you. Today however, one has to be very aware of the increased number of cars, including some very upmarket Merc’s, BMW’s, Lexus’s and even Bentleys, which are not quite so manoeuvrable, nor as pedestrian forgiving. So crossing the road for the uninitiated is a hair-raising experience for the first day or so.
We stayed at one of the better and more famous hotels – The Caravelle, set in the very heart of Saigon in Lam Son Square, overlooking the beautiful French styled Opera House. The hotel was made even more memorable as it was from its rooftop Saigon-Saigon Bar that the final and well televised helicopter rooftop evacuation of the American Embassy in April 1975 was filmed and reported to the world from. During my time in the city back in the 1990's, the most famous former US embassy in American history was a regular sight that I passed each day on my drive to work out in the Thu Doc area. This was the very symbol of American influence in South Vietnam. After more than two decades of American support, billions of dollars in aid, and the loss of countless lives, this is where the US government ended its commitment to South Vietnam. In April of 1975 this virtual fortress was a scene of total panic, chaos and desperation as thousands of South Vietnamese mobbed the gates, attempting to escape the advancing communists.
TV cameras captured the scenes of a continuous stream of American helicopters taking off from the embassy rooftop and gardens as they evacuated embassy staff, Marine guards and many fortunate Vietnamese refugees, flying them to the coast, landing on aircraft carriers of the 7th Fleet’s in the South China Sea. South Vietnam had finally been abandoned to the advancing communists, who captured the city that same morning of 30 April 1975, by symbolically crashing through the gates of the State Palace, now known as The Reunification Palace and raising the North Vietnam flag from its first floor balcony.
The US government managed to get their old embassy back in 1995 when diplomatic relations were re-established. However the original six story chancery building with its rooftop helipad was demolished towards the end of 1998, just as I was leaving Saigon. Apart from the fact that after more than 20 years of neglect in the tropical climate, the building was no longer habitable. It was also considered that building's history carried such negative connotations for the Vietnamese and did not fit with the new U.S.– Vietnam relationship. The site is now a small park, with the new high-rise US consulate built next door. In one quiet corner of this park is a small memorial, listing the names of those US servicemen who died during the 1968 Tet Offensive attack on the Embassy by the Viet Cong. To my knowledge this is the only memorial marker in the whole of Vietnam, dedicated to Americans that died during that long conflict.
On one corner of the new consulate building is another memorial with sticks of incense left in remembrance. This memorial is for the Viet Cong that died in the same attack, bringing the war into horrific focus for those at home in the US. At that time, President Johnson was telling Americans that the Vietnam War was going well. The VC attack on the embassy, along with the Tet offensive, proved him wrong. In the ensuing fire fight 5 American soldiers and 19 of the VC were killed. Like the Tet Offensive, the embassy attack wasn’t successful, and ended with heavy losses for the communists. Although they had entered the embassy compound, the VC weren’t able to enter the chancery building, but they had proved a point. They couldn’t destroy the embassy, but they had turned the site into a battlefield. In doing so they brought the battle right to America's front door – and in the very heart of Saigon, which like its latter day Green Zone Baghdad equivalent was considered safe. Even in defeat, they had gained a major propaganda victory.
This was the start of change with the feeling at home in America becoming ever more negative. Vociferous in the many antiwar resistance movements springing up, with many believing that the Vietnam war could never be won. And so turned public opinion.
Afterwards we took the short walk to the relative peace and tranquillity of the 1960's built Reunification Palace. It was here – in a dramatic scene recorded by photojournalists and shown around the world that a communist tank of the North Viet Cong crashed through its gates on 30 April 1975, signalling the official end to the war. That same tank is today proudly on display in the grounds. The Presidential building is not perhaps the best of tourist attractions, having relatively little to see, but its kitschness and cheesiness of style and furnishings are the real star of the show. But perhaps the most fascinating is the basement, in what could be called war rooms, with what was then state of the art radios and communication equipment with wall maps detailing the conflict in detail. There are also a labyrinth of tunnels , where slowly revolving old ceiling fans chop the thick humid air. As one is escorted around the various displays by guides, towards the end of the tour is a video, depicting the history of the palace. At the end of the tape, the national anthem of Vietnam is played – and to show your respect, you are expected to stand.
Whilst an interesting part of history, the Palace it is still sadly no match for Churchill’s Cabinet War rooms in Clive Place, London though!
We did the other usual tourist sights of the beautiful old French Post Office, with its signature outside clock and domed ceiling interior. Sitting opposite is the French built Notre Dame Cathedral, with all its building materials having been imported from France. Cholon – Chinatown in District 5, is home to many of the nearly 1 million Chinese population that go to make up the melting pot that is HCMC. It was here in Cholon where I was introduced and seduced by Vietnam when I first arrived back in 1997, staying in an excellent 5 star hotel, ostensibly for only a two week work assignment, but ended up staying nearly a year.
I was anxious to return to Cholon, to relive my first experience of Saigon all those years ago. I had however completely forgotten that it was also home to one of the largest and horrendously overcrowded, hard-to-navigate markets in Saigon. Ben Thay wholesale market, meaning that I was once again dragged into yet another shopping expedition by my female companion. Fortunately the heat, humidity and general overly oppressive experience took its physical toll and we were quickly allowed to leave.
The centrally located Ben Thanh market in District 1, with its signature clock tower, together with the surrounding streets are the unofficial icon of old Saigon and comprise one of its liveliest areas.
Within the tropical heat, the narrow and crowded passageways of the market, everything that’s commonly eaten, worn or used by the locals is piled high and available. There are silk clothes, cosmetics, kitsch souvenirs, spices, exotic fruits and live seafood. Amongst other more 'exotic' items, there are such tropical delights such as snake wine, complete with a dead cobra still in the bottle, or snake blood. Also there is an entire section in the centre of the market selling old military equipment and paraphernalia, including alarmingly, ammunition for rifles and grenade launchers, sold as key chains – one can only hope that they have been disarmed!
Although we did not have an interest in purchasing any of these latter items, I was aware that there were a huge proliferation of fakes among what must be an ever-decreasing number of genuine antiques. The most glaring counterfeit examples were the ubiquitous and iconic Zippo lighters. Great lengths had been taken to make them look old and weathered, with some having been dyed, or scratched, some having been engraved.
The stall owners are very determined and skilled liars, claiming that they are all genuine. “Old from war,” they tell us unconvincingly. These poor selling skills are somewhat bettered by their haggling, with the resultant prices typically being higher than elsewhere in the city. Although there are 'Fixed price' signs everywhere, with my previous Saigon experience I advised my equally determined female shopping companion to ignore.
Taking a traditional Saigon 3 wheeled cyclo we made for the War Remnants Museum (fortunately now renamed from its previous 'Museum of American War Crimes') with its outside display of US armoured vehicles, artillery pieces, aircraft, bombs and infantry weapons. The museum, which although somewhat one-sided in its propaganda, does convey the brutality and horrors of war and its civilian victims. In particular, the use of napalm and Agent Orange, the defoliant used in many parts of the Delta with its horrific mutant side effects depicted in startling black and white photos and two horrifically preserved foetus. Some of these photos illustrate US atrocities, including the My Lai massacre. In my opinion, black and white photography is always a far more dramatic and horrific medium than colour; as we had previously witnessed at Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh a few days previously.
We visited several of the many temples that dot the city, but as I've said previously, once you've seen one, you've more or less seen them all. Another case of being all templed out for me I'm afraid.
I was keen to revisit at least one of my old drinking haunts, so one evening we had dinner at the rooftop bar and restaurant of the Rex Hotel, with its signature garden statuettes or gnomes as I prefer to think of them. The food was better than I remembered, even if the original Le Loi streetside entrance to the hotel was now home to many designer shops.
The Rex Hotel has had a fascinating history and has morphed into many guises over the years. Starting out life as a French garage, it became a trading centre, and included cinemas, dance hall and cafes; only much later was its final incarnation to a hotel. During the war, the American Information Service made its base there, which soon became a favorite haunt of U.S. officers and the scene of daily press briefings to foreign correspondents, or “five o’clock follies”, as they were called. Images of the press conferences held by Saddam Hussein's Chemical Ali during the first Iraqi invasion spring to mind.
“Ho Chi Minh is not the Saigon it once was. Everything changes following the developing trend”. However, the memories remain. The Rex is more than a hotel"… from the 5 o’clock follies to this freaky reunion of a hundred comrades, four decades down line". This was a quote by Tim Page, one of the better known war photojournalists, on the occasion of a reunion of over 100 foreign correspondents and veterans on the same rooftop of The Rex 2005.
Sadly we did not have the time, nor in my companions case, the inclination to visit the Cu Chi tunnels north-west of the city, home-base to many thousands of Viet Cong right under the very noses of the Americans in some places. The humidity having been in the 85 – 90+% range was finally taking its toll on her, nor I suspect the desire to experience the claustrophobia of the knee high tunnels! Also there was understandably little motivation to shoot off live rounds of ammunition from aging AK47's from the adjacent shooting range.
There are some cities that burn into our consciousness the moment we arrive. Saigon in 1997 was such a place for me. I will never forget that very first day I that I landed between the rows of derelict Russian aircraft and other wrecks parked haphazardly in the reinforced concrete air raid bunkers and gun emplacements at Tan Son Nhat airport. This alien impression was reinforced by the take-your breath-away heat and humidity when the aircraft door was opened and again when we were herded into the large shed that passed for an arrivals hall in those days. During the war years of the late 1960's/early 70's, referred to as 'The American War' by the Vietnamese, Tan Son Nhat Airport was one of the busiest airports in the world, with its constant military movements.
It wasn't the airport that overwhelmed me with its constant traffic movements, but rather the madness of the streets of downtown Saigon. As we drove to the hotel in the black American CIA type SUV with blacked out windows, accompanied by an armed guard I will never forget. On that brief ride into the city, I'm sure we saw all five million motorbikes, (still the Honda Dream of my early memories) that inhabited the city in those early days of development. The symbol of Saigon I was to learn was, and still is, the motor bike or moped, all moving slowly along the boulevards and narrow streets, the crowds of private easy-riders and xe om motorbike taxi's. They belong to the image of the city … I was convinced that I had never seen traffic like this anywhere else in the world.
Although the old airport buildings are no longer, having been replaced by a sleek new glass and steel edifice. The city centre apparently seems to have shrugged off much its socialist and communist past, but still manages to get under one’s skin. It's difficult to understand in so short a time and even more so as it’s continually changing, but it is still a city of whispers, intrigue, defiance , with a mysterious and evocative history.
Thoughts and images of the past obsessed me as we wandered the city streets today, past the beautiful French designed Opera House and the magnificent original Hotel de Ville. Built in the classical French style over a century ago, it’s now the official Ho Chi Minh City Hall government building, occupied by the People’s Committee. We walked down Le Loi Street, named after a guerrilla leader who fought the Chinese. Long before America’s war here, China occupied Vietnam for nearly 1,000 years. Our target was the 25 story black Saigon Tower where I used to live on the 19th floor overlooking the busy waterway that is The Saigon River.
We stopped for a coffee at the cafe that was now located on its ground floor and scenes from all those years ago came flooding back to me. A small boy approached us selling some tourist tat and in surprisingly good English asked if this was our first visit to Saigon. "No", I replied, "I used to live here"…
There are still many undercurrents at play in modern-day Vietnam, notably the continued simmering dislike of China and the Chinese, fuelled by many years of fighting them. Ironically the Vietnamese dislike the Chinese far more than they dislike Americans. Given their history of fighting China, it is therefore perhaps not surprising that there more statues throughout Vietnam to heroes who fought the Chinese, than there are to those who fought the Americans or French. It shows who the Vietnamese think their worst enemy was, and who today they still fear to some degree.
The usual northerner versus the southerner feelings of unease still remain; the expats, no longer the cowboy pioneer types of the 90’s in their bars and clubs. All this, and more add to the ambience of the city with its unique Vietnamese flavour, just as its famous Pho noodle soup. A paragraph comes to mind from Graham Greene’s novel, The Quiet American, “They say you come to Vietnam and understand a lot in a few minutes. The rest has got to be lived. They say whatever it was you were looking for, you will find here. They say there is a ghost in every house, and if you can make peace with him, he will stay quiet”.
Our last evening in Saigon, I had negotiated the evening off and had arranged to meet up with a couple of old work colleagues now back in the country. We had agreed to meet at that well known bar-cafe-Disco, 'Apocalypse Now'. The name is of course taken from the war movie of the same name, based on Joseph Conrad's book, 'Heart of Darkness', which co-incidentally was actually set in The Belgian Congo. The place hadn't changed much since my visits back in the late 90's, the decor was still dark and dramatic, the light fittings, made from US army helmets, painted red, giving the appearance that blood is dripping down them. On the wall, a surfboard is painted with that famous line from the movie, “Charlie Don’t Surf.” Upstairs the bar is made of sandbags, much like a military bunker. The wall's top is lined with barbed wire. Disappointingly the old Huey chopper that used to hang over the bar is now gone.
Despite my recalling scenes from those visits of years earlier, the place wasn't as wild as then. Although there was some surreptitious groping and kissing going on, there was far less hip grinding and suggestive dancing. As readers will know, one of the contradictions of Asia, is that public displays of affection are not considered acceptable. Partying is done in a more conservative manner; there were no go-go dancers here. The government doesn’t want HCMC turning into another Bangkok.
Whilst not perhaps as overtly obvious, was that the beautiful Vietnamese hookers were still in evidence. Prostitution has unfortunately always been part Vietnamese culture. So as usual there was the mix of working girls, along with others who were merely trying to find a western husband. Ignoring the advances of a couple of the more obvious working girls, I made my way through the crowd to the bar, where my chums Peter and Mike were, both of whom were working in Saigon on temporary work assignments. As I ordered a 333 beer, I looked around me and breathed in the unmistakable ambiance of Saigon – it was good to be back …
We moved to a table in the outside courtyard away from the dance floor, allowing for conversation. A short while later, there is a commotion at the bar. A bar stool sails into the crowd, thrown by an angry Chinese patron. The Vietnamese hooker he was aiming for retaliates and counter-attacks with her own weapon – her high-heeled shoe. Remembering that these girls invariably hunt in packs we were not surprised when one of her girl friends climbed into the fray and the hapless Chinaman. I think it was probably at that stage that he began to regret his hasty anger! The group was quickly separated by the black-shirted security heavies. Apart from the only real damage being to individuals self-esteem and pride, it appeared that nobody was seriously hurt, as they were all thrown out onto the street.
Whilst I have rarely witnessed bar flights such as this in Vietnam, but regretfully several in Thailand, but it seems that when they do occur, one needs to beware of flying bar stools and high-heeled shoes!
With the evening's excitement over, the crowd gradually thinned. As the lights go up, signalling the clubs closing, the last remaining revellers weaving towards the exit, the last track was played – The Doors and Jim Morrison's, 'The End'.
A fitting tribute to my departure from Indochina once again on the morrow…
Sadly and all too soon our Asian adventure was over, for me it was once again sad to be leaving a country I fell in love with some 15 years ago, but know that I will continue to return. The opening paragraph of Jon Swain’s book, River of Time starts, “Indochina is like a beautiful woman, she overwhelms you and you never quite understand why. Sometimes a man can lose his heart to a place, one that lures him back again and again”. I was once asked what it was about Vietnam that captured my imagination and heart. That paragraph for me perhaps sums up Indochina, beautiful, exotic, historic, mysterious and always somehow, just out of your reach, but like first love, somewhere something you never quite forget, luring you back, time and time again – you can never get quite enough of her.
After a brief flight on Turkish Airlines from Saigon to Bangkok … once again becoming horribly lost in Bangkok's 'Swampy' airport looking for our transfer desk; we finally made it in the Thai Airways lounge. After a relaxing Thai massage, snack and couple of drinks, it was soon time to board our Boeing 777 for the 12 hour flight home. Reclining in our lie flat seats, we slipped into the arms of Morpheus and dreamt of Indochina, her mysteries and the exotic charm of the River of Time, finally arriving in home exhausted, but exhilarated!