Modern Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, is the sum of its historical parts. Many of the city’s most memorable buildings reflect the French colonial era.
When English author Graham Greene wrote his melancholic, opium-tainted novel The Quiet American in the early 1950s, he sat at a desk that I suspect was very much like the one I am at now, tapping away at an Underwood or another ancient typewriter. His workplace was in corner Room 214 of Saigon’s Hotel Continental, about six meters beneath my own room and 15 meters to the west.
I am in Room 311, not far from the apartment where “Perfect Spy” Pham Xuan An hosted fellow journalists and political leaders in the 1970s before passing their secrets to the Viet Cong. I am just down the hall from Room 301, where beautiful H’Hen Niê, a recent Miss Universe finalist, is at this very moment changing from pink chiffon to an elegant white gown for a modeling shoot.
Since it opened for business in 1880 as Vietnam’s oldest hotel, the Continental has always been at the center of the action. It predates (by 10 years) even the grand Municipal Opera House, a classic of French Third Republic style at the heart of modern Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). Just as Greene or Pham might have done, I pull a lace curtain aside and gaze through my window at this neighboring building. Bare-breasted marble maidens train the eye upward to unclothed angels whose wings frame a harp, a promise of heavenly music within.
It seems the Opera House hosts few events these days. Even before a dread of the Covid virus hammered Vietnam as it did the rest of the world, crowded productions were few and far between. But the Opera House is quite an attraction among models, brides and social media-conscious young people who make its concrete steps one of the city’s most popular locations for fashion shoots and “selfies.”
That would not have been so, of course, in Greene’s time. Even “Ho Chi Minh City” was a name he could not have known. To Greene, the city was Saigon. Hô Chí Minh was a person, not a place. And the street was Rue Catinat.
Changes in politics are often reflected in street names. By the time Pham was living in Room 307, his job as a trusted Time magazine correspondent having given him the ideal cover for his double-dealing, the French were gone and the street had been renamed Tu Do. American GIs knew it as such when they patronized its bars and nightclubs. That monicker lasted for only two decades. With the fall of Saigon to the communist government of the north in 1975, Tu Do became Đồng Khởi.
Đồng Khởi had been a mud track, “Road 16,” when the French arrived in 1860. Even now it is only about seven blocks long, with the Opera as its hub, 3½ blocks from the Saigon River to the south, 3½ blocks from the Nôtre-Dame Cathedral Basilica at its north end.
The cathedral is the most prominent souvenir of the era of French occupation. Built between 1863 and 1880, currently undergoing an extensive restoration, it has twin bell towers that rise 58 meters (190 feet) into the equatorial atmosphere. Roman Catholicism was practically synonymous with French colonization, but even now Vietnam has a substantial Catholic population.
Just across Công xã Paris is another colonial-era landmark, the Central Post Office. Originally based upon an 1863 design by Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame), the bright yellow building was reconstructed in the late 1880s with a vaulted wrought-iron roof supported by pillars. Visitors are welcome, and although the international telephone booths don’t get much business these days, the souvenir stands do.
Decades of change
Heading southward along Đồng Khởi from the cathedral to the river, one begins to get a sense of the city’s decades of change. The second cross street, Le Thanh Ton, runs between the modern Vincom Centre shopping and residential complex, on the left, and Saigon’s old Hôtel de Ville, another elegant French-era building from the start of the 20th Century. Since 1975 the home of the People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City, it remains a major landmark. Though closed to the general public, its main entrance, one block to the right of Đồng Khởi at the head of broad Nguyen Hue, is a backdrop to a famous statue of Hô Chí Minh, his hand raised in a pledge of loyalty to the people of Vietnam.
Some of HCMC’s finest stores and restaurants may be found along lower Đồng Khởi, especially near the intersection of Le Loi, terminal of a long-awaited underground rail system that is approaching completion. It’s hard to miss the invitation to drop into Louis Vuitton in the Opera View building. Nearby shops market Christian Dior fragrances and accessories, Godiva Chocolates and “ultra light down” parkas to get well-to-do city folk through cold spells like the one that has dropped overnight temperatures to 20 degrees Celsius (68 Fahrenheit).
Yet it’s not all upscale. Indeed, the culture on lower Đồng Khởi is a real mix of old and new. For every historic hotel, such as the imposing Grand or the riverside Majestic, there is a street-corner busker playing his guitar and singing Beatles riffs, a familiar melody accompanying incomprehensible lyrics. Perhaps Pham would have recognized some of those. For every shop selling aó dài dresses, bánh xèo crêpes or bò kho stew, there is a fashion-conscious bulldog waiting to go for a ride in its owner’s hot pink BMW.
Where tradition prevails
It’s hard to say just how much the Hotel Continental has itself been transformed in the seven decades since Greene wrote his famous novel. I’m led to believe the hotel has changed not much, although the city has grown from about 1.2 million people to an estimated 9 million, and the government has gone from colonial to republican to communist.
Initially built to accommodate French cruise-ship passengers, the Continental didn’t undergo a major refurbishment until 1986, under the direction of the state-owned Saigontourist Holding Company group. Today the original tile roof, over 140 years old, still slants gently toward the Opera House, and the frangipani trees planted in 1880 continue to offer color and shade in the open-air inner courtyard known as the Patio, where a breakfast buffet is served daily. If the polished rosewood furnishings in my guest room were not part of the hotel in its early years, they should have been.
Le Bourgeois, a sidewalk café that serves as the hotel’s principal restaurant, was a favorite gathering place for foreign journalists in the American War era. The tables from which I now view Porsches and Rolls-Royces parked bumper-to-bumper was the unofficial headquarters of “Radio Catinat,” and especially in the early ’70s, its tables were set up as miniature broadcast stations.
I wonder how autobiographical The Quiet American might have been. Greene was a correspondent in French Indochina between 1951 and 1954. He certainly knew the people of whom he wrote — ìf not personally, at least the types. I have no doubt that he was well acquainted with the cynical Fowler, a British journalist like himself, and with the idealistic Pyle, the novel’s title character and a young CIA operative. And even in modern HCMC, there remain many women like Fowler’s 20-year-old consort Phuong, who knows to serve her lover but to stay silent.