Luxury and Rubble: Civility and Dispossession in the New Saigon
Luminos: 2016 (free to download online)
“Old Paris is no more (the form of a city changes more quickly, alas! than the human heart)”
– Charles Baudelaire
In Ho Chi Minh City a year ago, the last of the central bia hoi joints on Thi Sach, where colourful characters drank cheap watery beers from morning till night, bit the dust. On its final evening, a bunch of expats all took a break from drinking IPA and craft cocktails to toast the end of an era, exaggerating how often they went and how much they’d miss it.
Meanwhile, increasingly on social media, postcard-worthy images of the swinging ’60s are being shared, and Vietnamese, many of whom were born after 1975, write longingly of the quiet, quaint scenes. But was it ever so? When the writer Mary McCarthy came in 1967, she described it as an “American city, a very shoddy West Coast one”. Frank Snepp, the author of Decent Interval, went further a few years later, when confronted by a “grimy imitation of Dodge City” where cashed-up horny GIs had the run of the place, eating burgers made of water buffalo meat at girly bars. “Locals had either withdrawn or were cooking up schemes to profit. Shabbiness clung to the city like a scab. It reeked of urine.”
Snepp also came across a returning US army vet in ’71, reminiscing of the long-gone days of 1965, when there were “more tree-lined boulevards, the best Chinese restaurants in Southeast Asia, and equally superior brothels”. Not that the brothels had gone. Indeed, according to a memoir by Scott Laderman, recently published in the New York Times, when the last US combat forces withdrew in 1973, the director of the National Tourist Office of South Vietnam was considering the promotion of sex tourism to boost arrivals flying into Saigon. Many people wanted to visit, the official told a reporter, not to see the mountains, or for the shopping, but “to try, just once, our girls”.