James Sullivan Perches High above Ho Chi Minh City
Excerpted from To Vietnam With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, available from ThingsAsian Press.
On my first night in the Caravelle Hotel, I parted the curtains draping my room’s windows, and eighteen floors up, gazed out over Lam Son Square, the cinematic heart of Ho Chi Minh City. Looking up Dong Khoi Street, toward the twin spires of Notre Dame Cathedral, I caught sight of an arresting image that I hadn’t read about in any of the guidebooks but is seared into our collective memory of the war: the elevator shaft.
Together with The Girl in the Picture, The Burning Monk, and The Viet Cong Execution, The Last Helicopter ranks as one of the most iconic photos of the Vietnam War. For many, this image barely warrants description, but for the forgetful or the young, picture this: A helicopter precariously perched on the stub of a penthouse elevator shaft, a pilot leaning over to lend a hand, and a line of Vietnamese evacuees bunched up on the treads of a steep stairway. No other photo captures the desperation of those finals days in Saigon as powerfully. But its poignancy is more than a function of the evacuees’ anguish, for in that image, in the suspect stability of that helicopter and that haphazard attempt to get people out, is the humiliation of a superpower for whom things had gone wrong, so terribly wrong over the previous decade.
Even today, newspapers still incorrectly identify the Hubert Van Es image as a photo of the US Embassy. It wasn’t, though embassy employees did live in the apartment building. Nor was it the last helicopter to lift people out of the city; it was the last to lift evacuees off that particular perch. In fact, the shaft is located at 22 Ly Tu Trong Street, known during the war as Gia Long Street, in a building whose dominant tenant today is a construction company.
On subsequent trips to Ho Chi Minh City, I made a parlor game of what other legacies of the conflict could be glimpsed from the rooftop bar of the Caravelle Hotel, itself a wartime venue that comes into the present as a fabled prop in the infrastructure of a tragedy. CBS, ABC, and for a time, NBC, all ran their bureaus out of it. Otherwise, correspondents once heeded the after-hours summons of the same rooftop bar that I now frequented. Michael Herr, author of Dispatches—not only the best book about the Vietnam War, but also one of the most stunning tours de force in all of American literature—wrote this about being up there:
“In the early evenings we’d do exactly what correspondents did in those terrible stories that would circulate in 1964 and 1965, we’d stand on the roof of the Caravelle Hotel having drinks and watch the air strikes across the river, so close that a good telephoto lens would pick up the markings on the planes. There were dozens of us up there, like aristocrats viewing Borodino from the heights.”
With a bit of informed reconnaissance, many colonial and wartime landmarks are still visible from this perch. There are the obvious landmarks, of course, that make the grade in so many recollections of Saigon: the Notre Dame Cathedral, whose towers could be seen far from the city as passenger ships wended their way up the Saigon River in the colonial era; the Continental Hotel, opened in 1880 by a French appliance salesmen; and the Municipal Theatre with its broken mansard roofs and remarkable arched façade.
But the city’s lesser known venues are somehow more evocative for being half-forgotten. Take the Eden Building, for example, located diagonally across the square from the Caravelle. On the ground floor is the Givral Patisserie where Graham Greene’s Phuong stopped for her “elevenses,” or afternoon tea, in The Quiet American. Further back in time, when the French author of The Lover, Marguerite Duras, was a colon, her mother played piano in a theater located in this same building. During the war, the AP bureau was located on the fourth floor. Otherwise, the Eden was home to “families, business operators, foreign journalists, spies and who knows who else,” according to Richard Pyle, an AP correspondent who worked in Saigon during the war. To look at the Eden’s drab, uninspiring façade today, you’d almost think the building was borne out of a Soviet inspiration. Not the case. I’ve seen at least one reference to the building in a pamphlet published in 1942, and students of architecture can likely pick out more than a few Art Deco details on the exterior.
In the early days of the war, the US military briefed the press on the events of the day on the ground floor of the Rex Hotel, a conference known derisively then and now as “the Five O’Clock Follies.” But the Follies didn’t dawdle at the Rex for all of the war; they were shunted 150 meters away to a building on the corner of Lam Son Square and Dong Khoi Street, where the attractive new Artex Building now stands. Here’s Richard Pyle on how he survived the Follies’ location: “A single grenade tossed from a passing Honda motorbike could have taken out a sizeable part of the Saigon press corps and the only reason it never happened might be that the Cong believed the Western media were really helping rather than hurting their cause.”
From the Caravelle, you can also see Gia Long Palace, the pearl-gray colonial French monument from which President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother fled on the fateful night of their assassination in 1963. There’s the roof of the Sûreté Building farther up Dong Khoi Street, built in 1917 as the headquarters of the colonial French police. There’s also Dong Khoi Street itself, laid out by the French as a Far East version of the Rue de Rivoli in Paris. Initially, the French referred to this thoroughfare, from the Saigon River to the Cathedral, as Street 16. Later, it acquired a name that’s achieved the most legendary appellation—rue Catinat. When Graham Greene lived in Saigon, and when the colons sipped their citron presse in the afternoon on the terrace of the Continental Hotel, it was on rue Catinat; as well, after the French ceded Vietnam to the Vietnamese in 1955, legionnaires marched down this boulevard. And during the wild and woolly days of the Vietnam War, the street was known as Tu Do (Freedom) Street and home to countless go-go bars. After 1975, the name changed yet again to Dong Khoi (General Uprising).
After living in Vietnam from 1992 to 1994 and now again since the summer of 2005, I keep telling myself that there’s so much more to Vietnam than the legacy of the war. And there is. But the war’s no less fascinating for all that, especially when so much is laid out before you still from the roof of one of its most significant monuments.
19 Lam Son Square
Ho Chi Minh City
To find out more about To Vietnam With Love, go to ThingsAsian Press.
To read more essays from To Vietnam With Love, click here.
Published on 4/14/08