In a letter dated July 22, 1964, I wrote:
At present I am still in Saigon, living in an air-conditioned hotel and generally having a good time. I have bought some books and dictionaries and am starting to learn Vietnamese. The people are very eager to help.
On Friday, the 24th, I will fly out to my station, which is a place called Phước Vĩnh, capital of "Happiness" province, about 50 or 60 miles north of Saigon. I'm told that there have never been any major battles up there, only occasional minor harassment by the V.C. (Việt Cong).
Next: Fever of unknown etiology
My third visit to Saigon wasn't until two months later, from November 17-20, 1964, when I stayed for three nights at the Dong Khanh Hotel in Cholon, the Chinese district of Saigon.
The copyright laws were not taken very seriously in Vietnam in those days, if they existed at all. Even the more serious book stores had numerous low-quality pirated books on sale.
In one of the book stores I found a smeary pirated edition of John Rechy's novel City of Night, which was a best-seller in the United States that year. Since I was slightly acquainted with John, having met him in El Paso through a mutual friend, I bought a copy of the pirated edition and sent it to him. (Which in fact he had asked me to do.)
In a letter dated November 19th I wrote:
I am still alive, healthy and presently enjoying a short three-day vacation in "The Paris of the Orient" -- not a very apt comparison, in my humble opinion. If I had to compare Saigon to some European city, I guess I'd call it -- I was going to say "The Barcelona of the Orient" but Saigon is at best a shoddy imitation of Barcelona. Saigon's street of flowers looks sickly compared to Barcelona's Rambla de las Flores, and in Saigon there are no hills, no Mediterranean, no Plaza de Cataluña, nothing even remotely resembling the Paseo de Gracia.
Today in a photography shop (where I was buying black market piastres) I saw some color pictures of Barcelona, which is what got me started on that kick. [. . .] (One of my most persistent slips of the tongue is to say peseta instead of piastre; this has become something of a standing joke in Tan Ba.)
But getting back to Saigon. The whole city has a peculiar smell to it. Most people don't like the Saigon small at first; in fact only the most anally-oriented ever get to like it at all. It's not exactly a garbage small or a sweat smell or an excrement smell, it's more like -- swamp gas.
Though nowhere near the South China Sea, Saigon is an ocean port and has an altitude of just about sea level, give or take a few meters either way. Any ocean going ship can steam right up the Saigon River and dock here. the city is entirely surrounded by water: one side by the river and three sides by swamp. Vacant lots on the outskirts are more likely to be -- vacant swamps.
The tallest buildings in Saigon are the hotels, sticking up 8 or 9 stories high in random places around the city, surrounded by low buildings and tumbledown shacks. Each hotel has a restaurant on the top floor, where you can get a fine view of -- the other hotels. All the hotels have a curious untrimmed look; they seem to have little wooden huts and various indefinable structures perched on the top of them.
Saigon does have a few advantages like on the Nguyễn Hué Boulevard there is a man squatting on the sidewalk with a paper-cutter, a pair of scissors, a charcoal-burning iron and several rolls of plastic. He does a thriving business putting plastic covers on paperback books.
[To this day I can still tell at a glance which books I bought in Saigon, because they all have clear plastic covers on them.]
1. Book shop and plastic cover making stand
2. USO map of Saigon, 1964
Next: Explosion on Christmas Eve
My fifth visit to Saigon was from January 31 to February 4, 1965.
In a letter from Saigon on February 1st I wrote:
Happy Chinese New Year --or Vietnamese New Year, as the Vietnamese call it ("Têt" in their language).
Most shops and offices will be closed for the next three days, some for a week or more. The V.C. have put out the word that they will let the people travel freely anywhere in Vietnam for the three days of Têt. The people of Saigon seem to be on their good behavior so far. They're all buying each other flowers and candy, those who can afford it, and the children begging on Tự Do Street have all learned to say "Happy New Year" in English. There has already been a coup this week, so everyone figures we'll get through the holidays without another one. "May your next child be a boy!" is the proper New Year's wish for a married woman; so our protocol experts tell us, anyway.
Note from 48 years later: After the reunification of Vietnam, Tự Do Street was renamed Dong Khoi Street. Tự Do means freedom, Dong Khoi was a movement that organized a series of uprisings against the South Vietnamese government in 1959-60, thus beginning the war that ended with the defeat of the Saigon government in 1975.
In French colonial times, this street was known as Rue Catinat. It was named after a French warship that took part in the French conquest of Vietnam from 1856 to 1859. The warship, in turn, was named after Nicholas Catinat (1637–1712), who was a French military commander and Marshal of France under King Louis XIV.
1. Dong Khanh Hotel in Cholon (behind the crane)
2. Children near Dong Khanh Hotel
3. Me taking a photo in an air-conditioned café on Tu Do Street (the guy sitting outside on the left is a guard)
4. Pedi-cabs near Tu Do Street
Next: Solar and lunar calendars
My sixth visit to Saigon was in March 1965, when I spent two nights at l'Hôtel des Nations before flying to Hong Kong for a week of R&R.
While I was in Saigon I visited the Central Market, which reminded me of similar market buildings in southern France, though the modes of transport in France were quite different -- no women carrying heavy loads balanced on one shoulder, and no men pedaling pedi-cabs.
It turns out that the Central Market in Saigon was built in 1914 by a French company called "Brossard and Mopin", which was based in Saigon.
From the tips of other VirtualTourist members who have been there more recently, I was glad to learn that the Ben Thanh Market still exists and is still a great place to hunt for bargains in the center of Saigon, if you don't mind bargaining and don't mind crowds.
1. Woman carrying a heavy load to the market
2. Some more women waiting at the market
3. A pedi-cab at the Central Market
Next: On my way back from Hong Kong
My ninth visit to Saigon was from May 14 to 17, 1965. Again I stayed at the Tan Loc Hotel, which is the one I described as "the second sorriest hotel in Saigon (the first being Hotel Saigon, out by the HSAS library)."
In a letter from Saigon dated May 15, 1965, I wrote:
Happy 2509th anniversary of the birth of Buddha! I am in Saigon for the occasion, quite accidentally. […] When I came into Saigon yesterday it was on a plush little executive-type plane: a two-engine, six-passenger Piper Apache. Very comfortable and smooth-flying. The pilot had dropped off some bigwig in Phuoc Vinh and was returning to Saigon empty, so he took me along.
For Saturday, May 15, I noted: "Swimming, walking, library: feeling scatterbrained, skimming everything, e.g. the Lawrence Durrell letters, math and astronomy popularizations, Mario Pei books, etc. Also atlases, encyclopedia articles on Iceland, travels, something called World of the Wind by Slater Brown, etc."
On Monday, May 17, I returned to Phước Vĩnh in a two-engine Caribou aircraft. This was a Canadian-built plane, by the de Havilland Canada company, which was designed particularly for carrying large amounts of cargo and for being able to land and take off from short runways.
The Caribou was no doubt a versatile and practical aircraft, but it had no windows, just a large loading door at the back, and was not at all comfortable for passengers -- the opposite of the Piper Apache that had taken me to Saigon a few days before.
1. Sidewalk market near the Tan Loc Hotel
2. Pedicab near Ciné Van Hoa
3. Saigon mosque
4. Sidewalk soft drink stand
Next: The Queen of the Chanticleer
My tenth visit to Saigon was in June 1964 for the purpose of having a physical examination.
On June 8 I left Xuan Loc on an HU-1B helicopter and flew to Bien Hoa. From there I went by car to Saigon, via route 1.
The main thing I remember about this visit was that I saw the film "La Reina del Chantecler" starring Sara Montiel (1928-2013). This was her 39th film, shot in Spain in 1962-63. It turned out to be the same film that had been playing in France under the title "L'espionne de Madrid" and in Italy under the title "La dea del peccato".
(In case you missed this film, the songs are all on YouTube.)
While I cannot claim to have seen all 47 of Sara Montiel's films, the ones I remember all followed roughly the same pattern, a series of songs connected by a more or less plausible plot, with Montiel playing a sultry femme fatale who uses men and tosses them aside.
In real life Sara Montiel was married four times (quite an accomplishment considering divorce used to be illegal in Spain), and she claimed to have had a number of other relationships including one-night-stands with author Ernest Hemingway and actor James Dean.
At first I didn't believe her story about James Dean, because I was under the impression that he was decades younger than she was, but it turns out they were only three years apart -- Montiel was born in 1928, Dean in 1931. My false impression no doubt arose from the fact that Dean died young whereas Montiel in her early eighties was still alive and well and was a frequent talk show guest on Spanish television. She died on April 8, 2013 at age 85.
The supposedly last photo taken of James Dean before his death in 1955 shows him together with Sara Montiel during a break on the set of the film Giant, which was released in 1956.
Next: The Nation's March Toward True Democracy
My tenth visit to Saigon was also in June 1964, and the reason this time was to have a dental checkup.
On Sunday, June 20, I flew from Xuan Loc to Bien Hoa in an HU-1D helicopter, which was newer and larger than the HU-1Bs we had been using up to then. From Bien Hoa to Saigon I had to ride in the back of a truck along highway 1.
On Monday I went to the dentist, and I spent most of Tuesday and Wednesday at Tan Son Nhut airport trying to get on a flight to Xuan Loc, which I didn't succeed in doing until Thursday.
Though I hardly ever read the Saigon Daily News (an uninformative government-line paper with the motto "The Nation's March Toward True Democracy"), I did take a photo of the front page of the edition dated Wednesday, June 23, 1965, with the headlines:
Step towards ending of war
Foreign Minister spells out conditions of just and durable peace
V.C. must stop subversive and military activities -- Non interference -- Right of V.N. to maintain law, order and security -- Effective guarantees of independence of the Republic of Vietnam
Next: Leaving Saigon on a Boeing 707 in July 1965
My fifteenth visit to Saigon was in also in August 1995.
On the evening of Friday, August 11, Nick and I returned from our three-day Mekong Delta Tour, which we were very satisfied with.
On Saturday we spent the day in Saigon and on Sunday we took a day trip, again organized by the Sinh Café, to the Cao Dai temple (their "Holy See") at Tay Ninh and to the Cu Chi tunnels, which turned out to be not far from Tân Ba, but in a different province.
We returned to Saigon the same evening. The next day, August 14, 1995, we flew from Saigon to Singapore and then home to Frankfurt am Main.
1. Street life in Saigon 1995
2. View of Saigon from one of our hotels
3. Me at the Cu Chi tunnels
Back to my first review: On my way to Saigon in July 1964
Back to my intro page: Fifteen visits to Saigon
Imported beer is available in Vietnam and some of these beers have breweries inside vietnam like Tiger Beer, San Miguel Beer, Heineken and more, although a number of domestic beers are brewed (Like Saigon Beer). Rice wine (rouo) is very popular, and there are many other local brands available. There is a variety of fruit wines such as apricot, orange or lemon. Soft drinks are processed from the many varieties of tropical fruits available and the list are endless like guava, watermelon, mango, coconut, dragon fruit, pineapple, melons and more. Water from the tap should be avoided, even though it has already been filtered and sterilized at 10ºC.
Fondest memory: assorted brewskies and beers in vietnam and moreso in saigon and the prices vary depending on where you ordered your brewksy.
This is one the most interesting, wonderful sights at Pham Ngu Lao area: the narrow streets between buildings off the main road (between Pham Ngu Lao and Bui Vien) where you feel like walking in someone's home. Locals sit down and chat, room of the living doors wide open let you peep in for few seconds. Noises from kitchen and from TV and radios penetrate those streets - it's loud in very different way from the loudness of the busy main streets. More beautiful - when sounds of Vietnamese traditional music is heard within these walls. Sometimes you get yourself lost and helpful local will point you the way out. This is most complex labyrinth: in some of these corridors there's no daylight (see the roof at the top of buildings) - yet is somewhat semi-public place.
Fondest memory: Walking through that labyrinth requires quite good orientation otherwise you'll find yourself in the part of the district you didn't plan to go to. This is challenge. I loved to explore these streets and was amazed how well Vietnamese are organized here in sense of living in such place, how things are - how people actually do live outside of their homes - yet their doors are right open to the street - a fact that can be afforded in those intimate communities where people know each other and feel safe to do it in such way.
yes, the names and the weird markings surrounding it. you have to be careful with this
if you are equipped with the address make sure that the marking are copied as well. the locals dont know how to read without this stuff.
Favorite thing: Often locals, and cyclo/moto drivers in particular, will invite you over to share some Bia Hoi (Draft Beer). It is usually around $0.20 a picture of beer and it isn't that bad. Be careful though. The Vietnamese can really put them away. They also play this game of saying "cheers" and downing half the glass. It goes simply like this: "Yeoh, 50 percent!" You then down half your beer. This can make you drunk very fast.
Everyone in Vietnam is engaging in doing something at all time. This auntie is striving to live in over populated Saigon by selling noodles.
Some of us would have long retired & enjoying ourselves at our beach house or touring the world
As the sun begins to set in HCMC, the street vendors all begin to appear. Our mums always told us to never eat from the vendors but the ones in HCMC are really good.
Especially for dessert items. You want a nice banana and coconut waffle? Get it from the street stalls. Heaps cheaper and yummy to boot!
Need something to wash that down? How about a nice chilled coconut. Just $1. Ok, I give you two for a $1.
Fondest memory: HCMC is a city that is alive. Not like some western cities that empty at night when the workers go home, this place comes to life with the setting sun.
Saigon' heart is located between the Le Loi Ave and the river. There you have the 2 main hotels (Rex & Continental), many restaurants and souvenir shops at Dong Khoi street (the one from Caravelle Hotel to the river).
If you follow Le Loi to the west, in 10 minutes you arrive to the Pham Ngu Lao area, full of backpackers Guesthouses, travel agencies and local restaurants.