Literature and the City - Saigon
11 Apr 2016
Visiting Ho Chi Minh City after a week or so in Hong Kong was a fascinating contrast, not least because the weather in Hong Kong had been unseasonably cool and wet. The rain tested the performance of the Art Central tent, which bore up pretty well, but it did not dampen the enthusiasm of the Hong Kong residents, who came in even greater numbers than in 2015.
Saigon, as it is still called locally, was warm and dry, with a refreshing breeze in the evening to cool the day down. It is a bustling, industrious and commercial place where you can still sense it’s French colonial past as the pace of modernisation increases. Having read a lot of Graham Greene it was time to re- read The Quiet American, written in 1955 in the dying days of the French colony and set against the backdrop of Communist insurgency from the North which would in time trigger the Vietnam war, or as the Vietnamese say “The American war”.
From Hugo and Dickens to Amis and McKewan, literature has always been a good way to get under the skin of the industrial city and Greene’s novels always paint a picture of places quite brilliantly. Fowler, the principal character, spends most of his time in the centre of Saigon, and the drama unfolds against a backdrop of the city and its bars, hotels and boulevards. A lot of the buildings and places that Greene describes have been lost in the last 10 years, and it is only the grander edifices, the Cathedral, Opera House, the Post Office, The Majestic and The Continental Hotels for example that are still there. But sitting on the fifth floor terrace bar of the Majestic overlooking the river, as Greene did, it is possible to imagine what it was like to be in Saigon 60 years ago. The streets below flowing with scooters and motorbikes rather than bicycles and rickshaws. Two wheels are still preferred to cars, economic prosperity will inevitably change that.
Go deeper and Greene’s Saigon is still there to be imagined, opium houses are now fashionable restaurants and bars, the lanes and alleys of the Japanese quarter conjur up the past, where even scooters find the passageways too narrow. Rue Catinat has been renamed but it retains it’s Parisian majesty and is a pleasant way to walk to the Post Office and Cathedral and beyond.
The Quiet American accurately predicted the folly of American involvement in Indo China, and those of us that are old enough will vividly recall the horrors of that war and the inevitable American withdrawal in 1975. Whilst the American Embassy has been and gone, CIA HQ can still be seen. The images of helicopters landing on the roof to ferry out the top brass is one of the many iconic pieces of photo journalism from that awful war.
The South Vietnamese Presidential Palace, now called the Reunification Palace, has been preserved by the Communist authorities as a symbol of the fall of the regime and the reunification of Vietnam. It was designed in the 1960s by Ngo Viet Thu, and it is a rather wonderful example of international modernism that is in tune with the climate and spirit of the place. Wandering around the empty rooms and corridors, visiting the residence, and ending up in the war rooms in the basement, complete with firing ranges and escape tunnels, it is not difficult to sense the last days of the South Vietnamese regime.
Modern history seen through the imagination of a writer or the lens of a photo journalist seems to define this City for now. These are powerful ways to deconstruct and understand the place, but for how long it is hard to say. Whole blocks are being replaced with bland malls and office buildings that have nowhere near the subtlety of Ngo Viet Thu’s Vietnamese modernism. The best Cities retain a sense of their history as they move on, I hope that the authorities in Saigon recognise this before it is too late.