25 – 29 January 2012
Ever since I read the 1955 novel “The Quiet American” by Graham Greene and watched the faithful 2002 film adaptation by Philip Noyce, I became obsessed with the story, the characters, the movie, the soundtrack —-especially Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City. There was no way that I’ll skip it since I’ve always wanted to take a look at Room 214 at Hotel Continental where Greene frequently stayed at as well as the bar there- a popular social outing for the boisterous men’s club. I also wanted to see the square, the city and soak up the atmosphere mentioned in his novel. I was excited to set eyes on the city. Not surprisingly, my favourite part of Vietnam is HCM City’s Dong Khoi Street area where you find Hotel Continental- an important setting where Fowler first meet the quiet American- Pyle.
Random songs from the soundtrack played continuously in my head as I spent a couple of lazy days around the area. I imagined myself sitting there sipping coffee from the posh Hotel Continental, watching the water sprout from an imaginary fountain, staring at the milkbar on the other side of the square, listening to the opera that went on in the adjacent building and watching locals move across the square with Graham sitting behind me….busily writing down the story of the Fowler, Pyle and Phuong.
Perhaps, it’s not Graham..perhaps I was there staring at Fowler and Pyle, both oblivious to their individual fates as the political situation of Vietnam crumbles around them. We all have a different way of travelling and seeing a city. My Ho Chi Minh memories will always be different, quiet and personal. This obsession makes it all very memorable and special. I had a smile on the whole time I was there at the Hotel and to this day, that is the only place in Vietnam that I wish to return to. Nothing gets better than reading the Quiet American and listening to Craig Armstrong’s composition ( QA’s Soundtrack) whilst having lunch at Hotel Continental (obsession to be continued in another post).
If you have a dream or want to do something then pursue it vigorously. Do not waste life. Try not to allow others to bend your views. Stick to your principles and remember: nothing is impossible in our century. My mentor Truong
Although it was hot in the South, it was certainly not boring in any way since I had a deadly obsession going on as well as great friends. As long-time residents of the city, Truong ( my friend but more like a mentor figure) and his beautiful fiancee Tam showed me around the various districts in the city.
District 7 – fancy apartments, modern architectural designs and riverside mansions with a price tag in the millions is one of the more richer suburbs. The mangrove swamp directly opposite of one neighbourhoods divided these well established houses from new construction sites. It was certainly different.
Truong and Tam allowed me to tag along to some of their daily activities and showed me both the scenic and culinary pleasures of this vibrant city. I followed them to a 1930 Grand Saigon Hotel which will be the reception place for their upcoming wedding. They also took me to a great lunch and we spent hours conversing about Vietnam – her current state, her developments, achievements and challenges.I was most pleased when they understood my obsession for the Quiet American and I was all ears when Truong told me how the Dong Khoi Street area (Opera house, Hotel Continental, Square) was closed off for the bombing scene (Death in the Square).
Ho Chi Minh City is a great base to explore South Vietnam and it was great to bump into Mara who shared breakfast with me in Hanoi a few days ago. Since our guesthouses were relatively close to one another, we joined a Me Kong tour to see some islands and local villages.
The following day, Vinnie’s friend Hien took me to see Reunification Palace. Also known as Independence palace, it was the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam during the war. We went inside and Hien became my guide.
“You see the tank? It’s from North Vietnam. On April 30, 1975, it bulldozed the main gate so that meant- the end of the war,” said Hien.
Basically, France attacked in 1858 and by 1867, it had conquered South Vietnam. To consolidate the new colony, the first stone of a new palace was laid. Many of the building materials that formed a palace and guest-chamber capable of hosting 8000 people along with a spacious garden came from France. In 1945, Japan was on a winning streak and defeated France, taking over Vietnam. The once Governor’s palace became the headquarters of the Japanese officials. Later on in the same year, Japan surrendered in WW2 and France returned.
In 1962, two pilots bombed the left wing of the palace hoping to kill the leader Diem. However, he wasn’t there so the left wing was later demolished and rebuilt. Diem did not survive a coup d’etat led by General Minh who lived in the palace from 1967 to 1975. He fled the country as the communist swept southwards.
After a loaded history lesson and tour of the complex, Hien made a sudden stop at her old High School. I can’t remember which movie was filmed at her former high school – perhaps it was Indochina or maybe The Lovers… anyways, it was great to listen to Hien as she told me about a scene where a girl ran along the corridors and across the courtyards. Since it was New Year, the school was closed but the guards were nice enough to let a foreigner in. Perhaps it’s not on everyone’s list but the quiet hours that I spent admiring the French-style architectural design of Hien’s school and sharing with her some of my stories from High School was uniquely pleasing.
A wonderful dinner meant that my Saigon days are coming to an end. It was superb to spent it with great friends and landmarks who all made my obsession deeper and my travels more unique. My connection with Vietnam, especially Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) will not be always understood by everyone. As long as I guard this with the same passion that I initially had then all is well.
I hope to return to my darling Hotel Continental. I’ll spend a day sitting there, reading “The Quiet American”, sipping on tea with my eyes closed and with a smile on my face, I’ll once again drift away with the beautiful soundtrack. I’ll let the music, the city, the sight and my imagination carry me away—back to a familar time and place.