Number 214. The Continental Hotel, Saigon. This is the room Graham Greene stayed in while he wrote his epic novel, The Quiet American, about American involvement during the demise of French colonialism in Vietnam in the 1950s.
And this is the Continental Hotel – I can imagine Greene parked at a corner table, drinking and writing. The hotel’s history is brought to life through photos and datelines, in an exhibit down one hallway off the lobby. The Continental does not appear to have been updated much. It is Saigon’s first hotel, and the luxury hotels since then are far grander and more well-appointed. But this hotel has such interesting ghosts!
From The Quiet American to The American War of Aggression, Vietnam’s history of oppressors has left an indelible mark in Saigon. You can’t visit here (or you shouldn’t) without seeing the War Remnants Museum and Reunification Palace.
We began with the Reunification Palace. The Vietnam War was such a strong marker of our youth; imprinted even more throughly by the books and movies that followed. A stroll through the Palace was deja vu all over again. The tanks crashed through the gates on April 30, 1975, the day Saigon surrendered, and everything in the Palace looks exactly as it did on that date. We strolled through two floors of rooms, frozen in 60s limbo – drawing rooms, the President’s office, dining rooms. I recognized the teak furniture and the scratchy yellow and brown upholstery from my childhood.
Then we went to the bunker, where the President and his family lived towards the end, and where the command post was secreted away, complete with maps and phones.
That visit was a trip down memory lane, but it was a whole other story with the War Remnants Museum (once known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes).
It is no secret that the American War was a disaster that cost billions of dollars, millions of lives and millions more ruined, but the most gruesome part of this museum was the section devoted to Agent Orange and its ongoing effects. Originally used by the Americans as a defoliating agent to make detection of the enemy easier, the secondary effects were devastating beyond anyone’s imaginings.
We walked through one exhibit hall of hundreds of photos of malformed fetuses, conjoined twins, children born without limbs, horribly disfiguring facial features, mental retardation, blindness and skin diseases. We could not bear to walk through the whole thing, but the most horrifying aspect of Agent Orange is that it did not disappear with the first generation. The chemicals appear to have become part of each victim’s DNA, so that children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are still being born with significant deformities. Forty + years later and the effects of Agent Orange aren’t over yet.
Another hall showcased the great photojournalists of the day – Larry Burrows, Robert Capa, etc. – who died while documenting the war. Many of the photos are iconic; all of them are extremely poignant.
These great photojournalists captured such emotion -the viewer feels the fear of those children.
The section of war crimes on unarmed women, children and the elderly was stomach-turning. The My Lai Massacre is well-known and so is the attack led by Lieutenant Bob Kerrey, who confessed to those crimes decades later (as a U.S. Senator).
The Fine Arts Museum is a refreshing antidote to the heaviness of the War Remnants Museum. It is a stunning colonial building, whose architectural details alone are worth checking out ( old wooden lift, wrought iron everywhere, stained glass, soaring ceilings), but much of the art is contemporary and has war influences.
Young soldier home on leave.
Son and wounded father
And now for some random Saigon moments. I will begin with some Stephen silliness to change the mood. Lisa took us to the Russian Market and if you are a fan of Nike, Adidas, North Face or Under Armour, this place would put you in a cold sweat. Under Armour T-shirt = $8 CAD, three-season North Face down jacket = $35 CAD. These are not knockoffs – they are made in Vietnam, and that is the “firm price.” Lisa and I made Stephen buy a shirt, and with his requisite purchase in hand, it was time to entertain the ladies.
After our shopping excursion, we walked through the neighbourhood of modest apartments, alleys and pho stands. We were reminded of how sometimes we only see the outer layer of life as we walk by. Stephen spied a picturesque clothesline and backdrop outside a window, and as he was aiming his camera to take a second shot, a woman’s face appeared and she threw a glass of water down on him. It was only when he looked at the photos later that he saw why she might have felt invaded.
Alleys add to the mystery of Saigon – so little revealed from the street, but they are the arterial flow of the city. People live there, work there, have businesses – you just have to walk down one to discover a whole other side of the city.
Stephen photobombing the selfie girls.
On our last day in Saigon, we visited the Botanical Garden. The garden is a lush hideaway from the city, with a butterfly garden, orchid garden and many bonsai. The downside to the garden is it is ringed with a sad zoo – giant squirrels imprisoned in giant birdcages, demented gibbons hopping about in domed cages the size of an average suburban bedroom and a couple of hyenas sleeping on concrete – I couldn’t look any further. We did see lovely birds though – we think this is a giant ibis. Whatever it is, it is the size of a nine-year-old kid – this is a very big bird.
And this bonsai – dozens of them on display – beautiful.
There is so much more to tell you about Saigon – not nearly enough time or space. I’ll sneak in this one photo of the subway they are working on – hoping to relieve current traffic congestion and anticipating future growth.
But will a new subway or monorail lure the Saigon residents away from their motorbikes? As long as one is able to cut through traffic by hopping up on the sidewalk (warning pedestrians with a gentle beep) it may be a tough sell.
Good-bye Saigon – over all too soon. Next stop – the mountain town of Dalat.
5 thoughts on “Chasing Graham Greene: Finding history on every corner”
Another delightful if sobering blog. I wonder how many more of the memorials to man’s inhumanity you can stomach. Thank goodness the people of theses places are so resilient and have recovered their spirit in the face of such tragedies. I always thought that the US didn’t need to make war on Vietnam; it just needed to send Disney, Coke, pop culture figures and jeans and the communist takeover would have been stopped in its tracks with no loss of life, but big loss of culture! Hope Steve enjoyed his dousing, probably actually refreshing. He was lucky it was only water! Jon ps the bird is a stork, likely an Adjutant.
I think the fact that the Vietnam War was so widely denounced world-wide has helped to put these memorials in a different light. I am so interested in reading more about the history of the Vietnamese people – they have been through so much for so long, and still, they remain gentle.
Yes, we were wondering what exactly it was that woman tossed out the window. Luckily it didn’t hit Stephen, but it was an angry gesture. In Steve’s case, he didn’t realize a woman was there behind the laundry, but it is a tricky one. I love the kids – they are like a basket full of puppies, and I try to snap sneaky shots of them, but I’m quite sure most parents would not appreciate that.
Ah – thanks Jon – that is exactly what it is – I Googled Adjutant images and there they are. Puzzle solved.
Perhaps the Vietnamese will learn from China and at least start riding electric bikes. Lovely seeing the photos of Saigon. It is changing very rapidly.
Hi Sheila – We have seen electric bikes around, but very few. I’m wondering if it is a deeply-rooted cultural thing. Our friends Tim and Lisa were telling us that kids grow up on motorbikes – they are comfortable on them from babies, and the next logical step is to ride one of their own. But you’re right – even though this was our first time in Saigon, it is obviously changing greatly.
Hi Ginny & Steve; I remember riding on the back of a motorbike in Indonesia and again in Taiwan when my son & his wife were there, and seeing a family of five all on one motorcycle, and people hauling huge items somehow precariously balanced, and all the time weaving in and out of the river of traffic. Amazing to see, thanks for the reminder! And thanks for another very thoughtful and sensitive posting, I appreciate hearing about your perceptions and experiences, the Vietnam War era was such a troubling time, so sad to think we may have forgotten, not only the atrocities but also the changes in society that began in the ’60s with the great anti-war movement and other social movements that helped lead us to greater respect for each other; unfortunately that seems to be on the wane worldwide. So glad to see you’re experiencing something quite different as you meet people who have maintained their humanity, in spite of it all. Looking to the future as you say.