The Rise Of Saigon

I was nervous about going to Saigon, and have been having a hard time getting myself to write about it. In fact, it took two shots of espresso to get my fingers moving to tell you about this day.

I grew up marching in the streets against the war in Vietnam. I remember the fall of Saigon, and couldn’t understand how an American could be welcome there today, even 50 years later. But I went, and I’m glad I did.

We started at the Rex Hotel, on whose rooftop garden were held the infamous daily press briefings during the war, known as the “five o’clock follies,” the content of which fell generally in the category of fake news, fed by the military to a cynical press corps.

Today the rooftop is a bar, where you can drink a delicious Vietnamese coffee and almost forget that there ever was a war.

Except, see that low building almost in the center, in the deep shade? That’s the former CIA headquarters, on whose rooftop the famous photo of people scrambling frantically up a ladder into the last helicopter out of Saigon was shot.

Even though today the hotel sports a glamorous lobby

housing a Cartier shop, everyone remembers that the place had another, darker life.

We visited a Buddhist temple nearby.

where we wrote our names on pieces of paper and attached them to hanging coils of incense. In a few weeks, when the incense finally burns our names, we’ll have good luck. It’s a long game.

When I asked our guide how the Vietnamese can forgive Americans he said it’s because they’re Buddhists, believing in reincarnation, and because they’re Asian, believing in going with the flow and letting time pass. The wheel goes around, he said, and that was a long time ago.

We visited the post office, the first example of French Colonial architecture in Saigon. The French colonized Vietnam for more then 50 years. They’re long gone now, their main legacy being these beautiful buildings and the Vietnamese people’s enduring love of baguettes.

We visited a market, where you can have a suit made in just one day. Time flows differently here.

We visited a lacquer workshop. It’s an ancient art, but time has changed the artists’ perspective, and the subjects are vivid and new, touched by history.

And we went to the place no one wants to go: the War Remnants Museum. It was first called the Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes, then the name was changed to the Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression, and now that we’ve somehow managed to establish a good relationship between our countries, it came into its present name. This museum, quite naturally, shows the war from the Vietnamese perspective. How could it be otherwise?

When I say that no one wants to go there, I mean that there were passengers on our cruise who refused to set foot in Vietnam at all, as well as some who went to Saigon but wouldn’t go to the museum. I know that I shuddered and took a deep breath before entering, and I saw others do the same.

It’s mostly a photographic exhibit, with detailed historical accounts in the captions. For that reason you have to get very, very close to each photo, if you want to read about it. Often it’s the photographer who wrote the caption, although there’s a section devoted to photographers from many countries who did not survive the war.

It was all terribly painful to see,

but I knew I couldn’t leave without finding the section on the My Lai massacre. I won’t tell the story here; if you don’t remember it you can look it up. But here’s a tiny part of how it looked.

The photographer had provided the caption for this last shot. He said that he saw soldiers surrounding this family, and asked them to wait while he took this photograph. He then turned his back and heard the gunfire. What you see here is the very last moments of the lives of these men, women, and children.

So that’s Saigon today, risen from the ashes.

In the van on the way back I was sitting in the very front seat, so I couldn’t see any of the nine people behind me. I said, to no one in particular, not knowing where anyone fell on the political spectrum, “All that, and 58,000 American lives lost too, for nothing.” And behind me I heard several voices echo emphatically “For nothing.” Then I said “And we never learn.” And others said, one after the other, “Never….Afghanistan…..Iraq”

That was one day in Saigon, one day spent in the dust of a war fought so long ago that all is now forgiven. Let it not be forgotten.


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3 Comments on “The Rise Of Saigon”

  1. Barbara Says:

    Abra, your story evokes memories from my trip several years ago at Christmas. You saw so much more of the human side of the war or should I say the wars, plural then I did. I found the Vietnamese extremely cordial and I didn’t make a secret of being an American with a French group. One of our guides, we had two, found it extremely difficult to talk about the Vietnam war because his family was divided in their political views. One highlight of Saigon was the huge Christmas tree in the hall of the famous post office, beautiful! My trip took us to the northern regions where the ethnic minorities live which was an absolutely beautiful area. One of my favorite trips!

  2. Heidi Husnak Says:

    Thank you for the post; painful as it was for you. My u derstanding is that many if not most Vietnamese refer to it as the American War.

  3. Vicki Says:

    My guide in Vietnam gave an interesting perspective. For ten years after the war Vietnam suffered greatly, starvation, etc. Then Bill Clinton opened relations with the country and the world followed. He is somewhat revered there.

    The recent PBS special on Vietnam reminded me that lies and nefarious behavior on the part of our political leaders is not a new thing. I too spent the Vietnam era in protest and was hesitant to visit there. My friends who served there are mixed, fascinated to see the place once more or absolutely determined never to go there again.

    Thanks for your interesting perspective and for your wonderful narrative and photos of every place you visit. We took this cruise ten years ago and reliving it via your blog is terrific.

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