Graham Greene immortalized French Indochina in The Quiet American (1955), his prescient novel of CIA intrigue. The novel has endured. I saw tourists reading it on the plane, perhaps hoping to find in Vietnam a surviving outpost of Greeneland: world-weary colonials gone to seed, opium fumeries, and exotic taxi dancers. The French era (1887–1954) has left its mark, but in present day Saigon—now Ho Chi Minh City—I had more success finding English-speakers.
I was in Vietnam with my mates to jointly celebrate our 30th birthdays. We checked into the Hotel Continental on Lam Son square. Norman Sherry’s exhaustive three-volume biography of Greene recalls that a bomb was detonated in the square in January 1952. Another bomb exploded simultaneously a block away, killing eight Vietnamese and two French nationals. Although initially blamed on Viet Minh communist guerillas, responsibility was swiftly assigned to the dissident Colonel Thé. Greene would use the bombing (with minor changes to chronology) as the centerpiece of his novel, tying Thé’s terrorism to the covert support of the CIA for a ‘third force’ in Vietnam.
When I arrived at Lam Son, workers had begun to gut an entire block opposite the Continental along Dong Khoi, the former rue Catinat. Mass redevelopment was imminent. The bricks and broken glass and powdery plaster spilling from the gutted shops onto the footpaths inadvertently recreated what Lam Son must have looked like when the bombs exploded. A grim sight. Only a few meters away street vendors hawked pirated The Quiet American paperbacks.
The Continental dates from 1880. Here Greene’s Thomas Fowler first meets the American operative Alden Pyle. A bar called the Continental Shelf used to be the meeting place for European and American foreign correspondents and diplomats. That bar is now gone. I went into the hotel’s newer street level bar, La Dolce Vita Café, facing Dong Khoi. I drank two gin and tonics in a wicker chair under ceiling fans, sweating hard in the ambience of the colonial Far East. Greeneland! Spoiled only by a pounding Pussycat Dolls soundtrack.
My second story suite had a balcony overlooking the square and the Municipal Theatre. The room featured lacquered chairs with mother–of–pearl marquetry, a white bath robe and slippers, bureau à gradin, flat screen TV, Parisian toilet. The hotel has a central open courtyard for breakfast dining. Wrought iron chairs. Glass-topped tables with bamboo place mats. A small fountain. Lacy white spheres hanging from spindly branches. The walls enclosing the courtyard were pale pink with white trimmings.
I took long breakfasts of baked beans on pumpernickel and French fries and paw paw as I worked on a long story based on my days in Greece. Once again, it was one of those “maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan” kind of things. It was easy to imagine Greene at work here, too, under the trees.
In the streets of Saigon you smell petrol fumes, carbon monoxide, shit from corrupted sewers, fish sauce, the Saigon River. Everything mixed together. Across the city there’s little division between upmarket tourist restaurants and tin-roofed greasy-spoons for the locals. Usually they’re next door to each other.
On the periphery of the Ben Thanh Market I passed stalls selling dragon fruit and custard apples. I bought a bunch of lady-finger sugar bananas for 25,000 Vietnamese dong – just over $1(US). This fruit tasted so much richer than anything I ever find in Sydney. A woman in the markets tried to sell me a fake vintage U.S. Army Zippo lighter. Not for me. Back on Dong Khoi I walked towards the waterfront. I admired the black-haired Vietnamese beauties in traditional ao dai dresses or simple jeans and t-shirts. I passed the Grand Hotel, mentioned in Greene’s novel, as well as clothing shops, cafés, and the ubiquitous happy ending massage parlours.
The Majestic Hotel lies at the waterfront end of Dong Khoi. According to Sherry, it was here Greene met the air hostess who inspired the Phuong character. I also saw a picture of Catherine Deneuve, apparently a guest during the filming of Indochine (1992). Up on the eighth story balcony I found a new watering hole called M Bar. Out on the terrace the wind was cool above the baking traffic. I drank a mojito while gazing past the river across the swampy District Two towards high-rise residential buildings in the distant north-east. Only recent construction is raising this very horizontal city.
Back down at street level I took a boat tour across the Saigon into District Two, former Viet Minh territory, a delta of wilderness with glimpses of the city in the background. An entrepreneur could sell it as an Apocalypse Now theme park ride. Shacks and shanties on the swampy banks, kids splashing in the mucky brown water, fishermen drawing in nets, guys snoozing in hammocks. There were almost no birds around. Maybe a lone ibis. No mosquitos, either. The river was clogged with tangled branches, fruit peels, PET bottles, putrid café au lait currents.
In 1986 the Vietnamese dictatorship instigated market reforms after a decade of Marxist central planning. What they have now seems less like communism and more like low level unregulated capitalism: no paternalistic restrictions on the sale of smokes and booze, no legal redress for mass copyright and trademark infringement, all prices negotiable. Streetside vendors flog bottles of tap water, refilled Coke bottles, pirated DVDs, cigarettes, cans of Heineken and Tiger beer, anything you need. Cyclo drivers and shoeshiners hassle you for business. Barbers cut hair under the trees.
The place teems with activity. You see straw-hatted women skewering rubbish into dumpsters. Uniformed kids hang around the English language schools. Motorbikes and scooters weighed down by boxes or animal carcasses or even refrigerators scream through in huge packs. This all happens beneath telegraph poles that hold up hundreds of electricity and telephone lines snaking every which way. Hundreds!
The War Remnants Museum has captured U.S. Army fighter jets and helicopters and tanks in the forecourt. When I arrived cementing was going on between the milling tourists. Nobody roped off the work for safety. There was a recreation of a ‘Tiger Cage’ prison where prisoners were tortured during the Vietnam (or American) War. The exhibit, which highlighted US atrocities – carpet bombings, massacres, Agent Orange-related birth defects – had an archaic propagandistic tone. Trust me, Vietnam: you don’t have to push the hard sell. Everybody was silenced by what they saw.
I encountered the same tone at the Cu Chi tunnels outside Saigon. Our tour guide called himself John Wayne. I don’t know whether he was being ironic, because his uncle had been a Viet Cong guerilla. At the site, a 250km network of underground jungle hideouts, we got to see what guerilla warfare would have been like. Charlie everywhere but invisible. Saw lethal spiked bamboo traps (“Why you call them boobies?” asked John Wayne. “Aren’t boobies something else? Ha Ha!”).
At the shooting range my mates and I were armed with AK–47s to blast away at targets. Quite a kick to the shoulder and noisy as all hell. I hit the bullseye a couple of times. Then my magazine jammed. I was afraid a shell would explode in my face. After that we descended into a tunnel for 100 meters. One guy exited after 20. Claustrophobia. I shuffled on, crouching down. It was tight, even though widened for foreign tourists.
The author and his friends outside the Continental Hotel, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) / Photo (partial) by © Ben Packham