One to rival the French
In Ho Chi Minh City, I chose to accommodate myself in the Hotel Majestic, rather than the older and much much more legendary Hotel Continental. In Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, the Majestic is mentioned in passing a few times as a place for doing business in; a sanctuary from the tedious and terrifying reality of war-torn Saigon, as opposed to the Continental, which is where one went to be in the thick of it all. In particular, the Majestic’s rooftop bar – cooled by the breeze from the Saigon river, and famed amongst wartime expatriates for its seven p.m. cocktails – is referred to as a slice of Paradise more than once by the main protagonist, Fowler, when he is caught in some untenable and potentially horrifying circumstance outside of the City. Given its majestic riverfront location, and my own intentions to evade the War at all costs, I decided that the Majestic would have to be my base while I searched for Saigon.
The Hotel Majestic opened its doors in 1925 and is a good 45 years younger than its more illustrious cousin down the street. Interestingly, it was built and owned by a local Chinese tycoon, Mr Hui Boon Hoa, who also quite a few other buildings in Saigon, and had desired of establishing a hotel to rival the French-built and designed Continental. In archival photos, I noted that the hotel’s Chinese name – 大旅館 (Grand Hotel) – had previously adorned the top of the building, where now, only its English name does, in big gold letters. Despite major face-lifts over the years, I expected that the hotel wouldn’t look too different than when Greene had patronized it in the 1930s, which is to say it still maintained a delicate, palatial Art Deco facade that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Cannes or Nice, on the French Riviera.
The Art Deco styling continues into the interior of the Hotel, which is ornately decorated with stained glass and coloured marble. Strangely, however, I found the hotel lobby cold (literally and metaphorically), a tad too dimly lit (even though it was bright sunlight without), and not very inviting. This was more than compensated, however, by the excellent and very professional Madame la Concierge. That’s her, right there in the photo above, dressed in a gold ao dai and directing a guest through the main door. The minute I checked in, Valerie – not her true name – took me firmly in hand, showing me my room and advising me on where to go to find authentic Saigonese cuisine for dinner that evening. Once again, my Singaporean-ness was a boon. She seemed to take an immediate, sisterly shine to me, warning me firmly to make sure all my valuables were locked in my in-room safe. “Vietnam is not safe as your country, Mr Ting” she said gently, “We still working on it.” And then she left me to my own resources, reminding me to seek her out – “My name is Valerie, Mr Ting.” – if I should need any assistance.
My room was quite simply delightful. With creaking wooden parquet floors and neoclassical detailing on the walls, it oozed colonial flavour. Some of the fittings weren’t all quite there – there was a hot and cold bath tap in the bathroom but no bath, for example, as though the bath had been torn right out and not replaced – but the slight imperfections actually made it more charming. The best part of the room was the balcony overlooking the Saigon River, and the very busy thoroughfare of Tôn Đức Thắng. I stood out there on the balcony for some time to absorb the atmosphere and to listen to the soothing hum of the thousands of motorcycles: from up high, they didn’t sound quite so loud and jarring. In the near distance to the right sat the Port of Saigon and the old Custom House, built in 1862, which now housed a Museum on Ho Chi Minh’s life. As I watched, medium-sized barges floated east across the river lethargically, weighed down by the goods they carried. The boats passed a trio of floating restaurants moored along the waterfront, and which would come alive with light and music in the evening. This was, I thought to myself, the most evocative and magical view I was likely to get all year.
Totally psyched, I decided to head down to the hotel’s swimming pool to beat the heat and to plan my agenda for the rest of my stay. Quaintly located in the hotel’s courtyard, and surrounded on all sides by the balconies of the hotel’s Pool-view rooms, the pool is completely cut off from the hustle and bustle of the world outside, and one can quite easily relax into a slumber. Which is exactly what happened to me that first afternoon in the city, at least, until I was awakened the shrill shrieks of Australian children splashing in the pool and their parents watching beamingly from the sides.
It was already 5 p.m. when that happened, and I thought it was time to check out the most famous part of the hotel – the rooftop bar. Refreshed and in a new set of clothes, I ascended to the 8th floor of the hotel and into a dramatically open space framed by an even better view of the Saigon River than in my room on one side, and by towering skyscrapers on another. The bar was silent and populated with a handful of Australian tourists – they would seem to be Australian all weekend. It had started to rain heavily then so I chose a seat as far out against the edge of the rooftop as I could without getting wet. It was clear to me that this couldn’t have been the spot where Greene had imbibed his cocktails four decades ago – the hotel had only 5 floors in those days – but sipping at my glass of sparkling wine, with only the torrential rain and the torpid river to accompany me, I thought I could just about feel what Greene felt up here; which is to say that up here, one felt time passing as sluggishly and luxuriantly as the River itself. Unfortunately, the DJ chose that very moment to start blasting American Top 40s music and my bubble was quite burst.
Re-focusing my Search
Valerie was scandalised to find out that I had squandered away my first afternoon in Saigon by the pool and in the bar, despite her best efforts at directing me outside the hotel. “You have to see the city!” she tutted, brows furrowed, “You can’t stay in hotel whole day!” I shrugged sheepishly in response, informing her that I did indeed venture out to one of the restaurants she had recommended for dinner, where I had very gamely tried local dishes like giant snail, some kind of shredded pork and rice ensemble. Laughing and shaking her head and laughing, she asked me what I thought of Saigon so far, and I couldn’t help but ask her the question that had been gnawing at me since I arrived. “Why do you call it Saigon, when it’s no longer Saigon, but Ho Chi Minh City?” She looked confused at the question. “What do you mean is no longer Saigon? Saigon never go away. It still here, inside,” she said, furrowing her brows further and patting her chest where her heart was, “And also there, outside. You not going to find Saigon sitting in hotel. You go out.” There was no argument at that point.
In the evening, however, I defied Valerie’s express suggestion that I dine out again, and instead, opted to have dinner at the Hotel’s Cyclo Café, serving bespoke Vietnamese Cuisine. Despite the positive reviews, it couldn’t have been a worse decision. For a start, the restaurant was completely deserted. There was only one other table occupied, and it looked like a business meeting was taking place. The minute I sat down at a table and placed my order, a three-piece traditional music ensemble was coaxed to take to a small stage at the corner of the restaurant, to regale me with a set of lilting, fluttering Vietnamese music. That seemed innocuous enough. I was embarrassed that they would go through all the effort just for me (the other table was strategically situated where they would not be able to see the stage), but the music was pleasant and atmospheric. I could sink comfortably into dinner with that music.
Wrapped up in the melody, I sipped at my glass of sparkling wine and stared out the window onto Tòn Đức Thắng street, glowing in garish neon shades. Without my noticing, a new melody was suddenly struck up; one that was considerably more upbeat, borderline techno. Turning around, I was aghast to see that a trio of dancing girls had taken to the stage, brandishing bright pink fans, and leaping and contorting to the music. They smiled valiantly as they danced, despite having no real audience to appreciate their exertions. I felt uncomfortable and tried my best to look at them so they didn’t feel too disheartened. But then my food finally arrived and I could excuse my inattention by digging into dinner; which, as it happened, was simply too salty.
I tried to console and amuse myself by thoughts that less than twenty years ago, the hotel had hosted the likes of Francois Mitterand, Catherine Deneuve, and dozens of other French celebrities, who would have responded gravely to a similar over-salted dinner with solemn and impassioned exclamations of “c’est magnifique, quoi!” and “franchement, c’est exquis!” that the French are wont to lapse into. It also struck me that such dinner-cum-cultural performances were staples of lesser-developed countries that depend on kitsch presentations of cultural heritage to attract undiscerning tourists. Yet another sobering reminder that for all the Singaporean-isation going on in the vicinity, this was still a very poor city.
The next morning, I headed up for breakfast at the Breeze Restaurant, situated on the fifth floor of the hotel, and adorned with an equally stunning view of the Saigon River as the Rooftop Bar had. Unfortunately, the view wore thin pretty quickly as the sun rose right in front of you, and made sitting outside in the charming al fresco area completely, sweat-drippingly unbearable. The breakfast buffet’s saving grace was the selection of local fruit available – tropical fruit that to me were absolutely familiar, existing also in Singapore; but to the hotel’s Australian and German guests looked about as appetizing as seaslugs. As I picked my fill of the more exotic varieties, I witnessed a German couple looking sceptically at the brightly coloured array and asking each other if some bright orange cubes on display were indeed papaya. Chuckling inwardly, I relished my own selection – passion fruit, guava, pomelo, chiku, jambu, and dragonfruit – a cornucopia of delights, all of which were deliciously sweet or lightly tangy where they ought to be.
After breakfast, I spent the remainder of my morning wandering the hotel’s corridors and taking shots of its more arresting architectural features. In my head, I reviewed all I had witnessed and assessed whether I had indeed achieved my goal of finding Saigon in the beast of a city that Saigon had morphed into. I decided that I had failed, quite resoundingly, and that the Saigon in books and movies was quite irretrievably lost in all the grime, noise and pollution. It was inevitable. One could not save a city that did not wish to save itself.
As it turned out, I was quite wrong. Without knowing, I had already experienced the essence of Saigon, all around me, except I hadn’t quite noticed. Looking through the photographs I had taken all weekend, I came across this one that I had shot that very morning while standing in my dressing gown on my balcony, overcome with emotion at the beauty of it all.
Here, on the banks of the River at dawn, was Saigon, in all its sensuous, timeless glory, and as far removed from the war as it could possibly be. After I uncovered this one glimpse of Saigon, the others fell into place – furtive and fleeting, no doubt, but very, very much found.
Feast your eyes on that, Comrade Ho.
* * * * *
Essential Reading, Viewing and Listening:
Marguerite Duras, 1984. L’amant. Paris: Editions de Minuit.
Graham Greene, 1955. The Quiet American. London: Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition.
Somerset Maugham, 1930. The Gentleman in the Parlour. Singapore: Marshal Cavendish Editions.
Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil,1989. Miss Saigon. Original Soundtrack Recording. NY: Decca Broadway.
Pam Scott, 2010. In Search of the Pearl of the Far East: Sài Gòn – Hồ Chí Minh City. Vietnam: Thế Giới Publishers.
Régis Wargnier, 1992. Indochine. Paris: Bac films.
 Nha Hang Ngon, a sister restaurant to Quan An Ngon, both of which are the best restaurants in Saigon for authentic Vietnamese street cuisine. Both restaurants are housed in a stunning colonial villas and are always heaving with locals and tourists.
 In my mind I could see Valerie shaking her head in disapproval.