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It has been 53 years since I lived in Saigon as a reporter covering the Vietnam War.
The metropolis today is called Ho Chi Minh City in honor of the patron saint of the victors of what the country’s leaders call “the American War.”
That makes sense since Vietnam has prevailed over its enemies in so many different wars, including its ancient battles with China, Japan’s invasion during World War II and the French-Indochina War.
It is still okay to call it Saigon if you are in the heart of the city, where it has long been known by that name.
I was invited to return by the five-star Caravelle Hotel to be the keynote speaker at the hotel’s 60th birthday celebration.
The hotel figured that guests at the gala would be interested in the stories of a female war reporter who lived in Saigon in the 1960s soon after the hotel opened on Christmas Eve, 1959.
I would have loved to have resided at the Caravelle then. But single rooms at $14 a night were too expensive on my meager income as a 24-year-old who had paid my own way to cover the war.
I lived comfortably with a Vietnamese family in the center of the city just two blocks away from the hotel.
Most days when I was in the city I walked past the Caravelle and sometimes stopped in to visit reporter friends living there or to interview newsmakers in town on brief visits.
Occasionally, I was invited to have dinner in the Caravelle’s fancy Champs Élysées restaurant.
My friend, the reporter Kate Webb, once mentioned coming back to Saigon after covering a particularly bloody battle and being mesmerized by the white tablecloths at the Caravelle, the French bread and little pats of chilled butter.
I remember dining there once with the syndicated advice columnist Eppie Lederer, known to her millions of readers as Ann Landers. That was after I had spent the day with her, reporting on her visit to the Army Third Field Hospital in Saigon where she went as part of her Army-sponsored visit to cheer up wounded soldiers.
When we arrived at the hospital, we were mistakenly taken into a soundless, dark room of gravely injured young men. Some had no limbs. Another looked at us with most of his face missing. You could tell most of those soldiers were about to die.
They were the kinds of patients American field hospital doctors categorized in triage as “expectants” — doomed people expected to die yet closely monitored for any sign of hope.
Celebrity visitors were never taken to the rooms of “expectants.” Instead, they were escorted to brightly lighted wards filled with nurses and happy recovering soldiers who looked good and were getting ready to be sent home. Young men who would not depress the celebrities.
Ann Landers, a self-assured, intelligent woman, acted like everything was normal in the gloomy room of the soon-to-be-dead as she walked quietly from bed to bed, asking each soldier where he was from, smiling, offering words of encouragement. The wounded who were conscious seemed amazed and happy to see us.
When the hospital found out we were in the wrong ward, a major grabbed the columnist by the elbow and rushed us down the hall to the cheerful recovery ward we had been scheduled to visit in the first place.
At our meal at the hotel after the hospital visit, I remember her dinner order of frogs legs in garlic butter, a queer looking dish I had never seen anyone eat in my limited American 1950s meat-and-potatoes culture. I also remember listening to her ruminate about the pointlessness of the war.
“I didn’t come here to expound on my political views but there is something wrong when you see a 20-year-old boy with both his legs blown off,” she said.
The 9-story Caravelle, where we dined that night, towered like a skyscraper looming over the low-slung French colonial buildings. It was the tallest building in Vietnam then.
The Caravelle was where ABC News and CBS News located their offices and where their correspondents lived.
The Caravelle’s rooftop bar was famous almost from the day it opened as a place where patrons could sip German beer and ice-cold glasses of Scotch while gazing out to the countryside to watch the machine gun tracer bullets and artillery flashes in the nighttime sky of the war.
Vietnam was like that. Safe in the city. But dangerous when you went outside. So dangerous we traveled by helicopters instead of vehicles to do our reporting.
Today, the Caravelle, even with its new 24-story Opera Wing, is dwarfed by the high rises of booming Ho Chi Minh City. The tallest building now is 81 stories.
I figured in the more than 50 years since I left Saigon there would be a big building binge like the rest of Asia. But what took me by surprise were the city’s many small changes.
Givral, the Paris-style cafe I used to frequent for petit fours and homemade coconut ice cream served in real coconut shells, had disappeared. I kept walking around and around the block thinking it was my fault that I couldn’t find it.
During the war, it was a relief to go there to drink coffee and eat pastries and believe everything was normal at least for that moment.
Turns out the building where Givral’s was located had been torn down to make way for the new luxurious Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
Another small surprise was to discover my shabby and beloved neighborhood cafe, Brodard’s, had been transformed into a fancy bakery and restaurant.
Brodard’s was around the corner from where I lived with the family I mentioned: Nguyen Oanh, his wife Mai, their six children and three servants.
Their store, which featured traditional Vietnamese lacquerware, was on the first floor. They lived on the second floor. I rented two rooms on the third floor with a hot plate for cooking and cold water for showers, as well as a nice terrace that looked down on the many cafes and “girlie bars” on the street below.
When I returned from reporting in the countryside, I always stopped by Brodard’s for breakfast, hoping to catch up with friends over multiple cups of cappuccino and warm croissants while we listened to American music on the jukebox.
I usually played “California Dreaming” by the Mamas and the Papas, a mournful tune about better times that seemed to encapsulate the lamentations of the war.
The music we liked in Vietnam was like that: songs about escape like “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” by The Animals or ballads of regret like Otis Redding’s smooth “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.”
At Brodard’s, one of our favorite activities was watching the huge resident rat go through his routine, which began when he stuck his head out of the wall above the pastry counter like an actor coming on stage, then running down the wall in front of everyone, before scampering back up the wall again to disappear into his hole.
The Vietnamese patrons paid no attention.
“Funny, if it happened in a restaurant in any other part of the world, people would be mad, but here it doesn’t even matter,” said combat photographer Dana Stone one rainy morning as we glanced up from our coffee to watch the rat.
If that rodent danced across the wall at Brodard’s today, the well-dressed Vietnamese ladies sipping tea would dash out the door, leaving behind their half-eaten chocolate eclairs and probably never return.
Dana is dead now. On April 6, 1970, he and his close friend Sean Flynn, the son of actor Errol Flynn, disappeared on Route 1 in the Parrot’s Beak area of Cambodia. Their remains were never found.
Dana and Sean are among the 134 dead combat photographers now memorialized in an exhibit created by the late photographer Horst Faas and photographer Tim Page named “Requiem, ” which is on permanent display in Ho Chi Minh City’s War Remnants Museum.
The War Remnants Museum is one of the cruelest museums in the world. When it opened in 1975 it was called The Exhibit House for U.S. and Puppet Crimes. Gruesome photographs highlight what the museum portrays as atrocities and torture inflicted by Americans on the Vietnamese people.
No mention is made of North Vietnamese atrocities.
Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant sprayed from American planes, is a big topic with orange-painted rooms showing children and adults with physical deformities which many believe are linked to the use of the herbicide.
Not a word is mentioned about the deaths of an estimated 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers and more than 58,000 U.S. soldiers.
I admired the “Requiem” section of the museum for its balanced homage not only to the 71 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese news photographers killed in combat, but also to the work of the U.S. and foreign photographers who perished in Vietnam and Cambodia covering the “American War.”
One of the displays in the museum was the glass case featuring a blue Olivetti Lettera 32 portable typewriter, the favorite of many war correspondents, including me. I lugged my Lettera 32 from the Mekong Delta to the still tiger-populated forests of the Central Highlands, loving its lightness and beautiful design.
After walking through every display in the War Remnants Museum and checking out the abandoned American tanks and helicopters, I walked back to the hotel, angry about the museum’s one-sided presentation of the complexities and intricacies of a war during which so many on both sides suffered.
Saigon, as I will always call it, is where we once were very young reporters expecting to live forever. Now many of us are deceased or older than the Caravelle Hotel.
Our working tools have turned into museum artifacts and our cafes have disappeared.
It is like we were living in a dream. As the North Vietnamese soldier and writer Bao Ninh put it in his book “The Sorrow of War,” “Those were the days when all of us were young, very pure and very sincere.”
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