My fifth visit to Saigon was from January 31 to February 4, 1965. My photo above is the 1960s version of a selfie, with me taking a picture of myself in the mirror in an air-conditioned café in Tự Do Street (= Freedom Street). The guy sitting outside on the left is a guard.
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.
Notes from half a century later: After the reunification of Vietnam, Tự Do Street was renamed Dong Khoi Street. Tự Do means freedom, and 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 Nicolas Catinat (1637–1712), who was a French military commander and Marshal of France under King Louis XIV.
I never knew much about Nicolas Catinat (or de Catinat, as he was later called) until I started reading up on his friend Vauban, Louis XIV’s Commissioner of Fortifications.
While I was in Saigon for Têt I saved this calendar page to show how the Vietnamese keep their solar and lunar calendars straight.
The big section at the top is the solar date in French, Saturday, January 30, 1965. Below, in Vietnamese and Chinese, is the corresponding date on their lunar calendar: Saturday, December 28.
In a letter dated February 9, 1965 (by the solar calendar, of course) I wrote:
We had a good vacation in Saigon Jan. 31 – Feb 4. I stayed in the Hotel Dong Khanh in Cholon, the Chinese twin-city of Saigon. Did a lot of walking, writing, studying, also saw the movie version of Flower Drum Song again, this time in French.
For the benefit of those who are too young to remember Flower Drum Song I should explain that it was a Broadway musical by Rogers and Hammerstein set in San Francisco’s Chinatown. It was later made into a film starring Nancy Kwan.
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.
My seventh visit to Saigon was also in March 1965, when I spent one night at the Hotel Saigon after returning from my week in Hong Kong. My photo shows Le Loi Boulevard, with the flags of nations which were at least nominally supporting the South Vietnamese government in 1965.
In French colonial times this boulevard was called Boulevard Bonnard, not after the painter Pierre Bonnard, as I naively assumed, but after a General named Ennemond Bonnard (1756-1819), who commanded French troops during the Revolution and Napoleon’s Empire.
In a letter dated March 14, 1965, I wrote:
Hong Kong was a welcome relief from the idiocy and injustice — and heat — of Vietnam. I had a very fine time; did a lot of walking around the hills of Hong Kong island. I also spent three days in Saigon, before and after Hong Kong. So it was a good, long vacation.
From another letter of March 15, 1965:
Hong Kong was a good thing: cool, peaceful, clean — well, not really clean, but the accumulated filth doesn’t fester like it does in Vietnam, nor does Hong Kong have the pervasive smell of swamp- and fart-gas that hangs over Saigon. [. . .]
Best, in fact only redeeming feature of Saigon these days is the Centre Culturel Français, the only public building in Saigon that is not surrounded by barbed wire; there, in air-conditioned comfort, one can see the only decent films in town, for free; also recitals, lectures, etc. There is also a Goethe Institute in Saigon (and in Hong Kong, for that matter) and, of course, on the busiest corner of the largest boulevard in the center of town, the USIS library with the big plate-glass show windows. Look at the workmen, replacing all those plate-glass windows. All I can say is, USIS (commonly known as “Useless”) must have a hell of a lot of plate glass windows stockpiled someplace around here.
My eighth visit to Saigon was from April 23-26, 1965. I stayed in the Dong Khanh Hotel again, and I remember that I went swimming several times at an outdoor pool that belonged to a formerly very suave French colonial club, now not so suave and exclusive but still very nice.
I also saw some films at various Vietnamese cinemas where I was often the only non-Asian person in the audience. The films were quite multi-lingual affairs. The dialogues were all dubbed into French, but in the case of musical films the singing was left in the original Spanish or English. There were Vietnamese subtitles and sometimes also Chinese titles that were projected with a slide projector or filmstrip projector (remember those?) off to the side of the main screen. So the Vietnamese subtitles appeared automatically, but someone had to change the Chinese titles by hand to fit the dialogues.
Apparently most of the people in the audience understood French, because I noticed that they laughed at the funny parts even before the titles appeared.
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 earlier 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.
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 as 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 remarkable 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.
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
My twelfth visit to Saigon was in July 1965, when I went there to catch a plane back to the United States after completing my year in Vietnam.
When I left Vietnam there were roughly one hundred thousand Americans in the country — ten times as many as when I arrived a year earlier.
My plane this time was a Boeing 707. The year before I had come over to Vietnam on a Douglas DC-8, which was the other commercial jet airliner in common use at the time. (Boeing and Douglas were still competitors in the 1960s. In fact they didn’t finally merge until 1997.)
My photos in this post are from 1965. The text was last revised in 2017.
Next: Ho Chi Minh City 1995 (coming soon)