My first night in SaiGon and after unpacking and walking up the Nguyen Hue street (more on this later), I headed to the rooftop bar at my hotel, the Hotel Majestic (more on this later, too). The Hotel Majestic is a classic five star hotel that has been in operation since the French opened it in 1925. Normally, I wouldn’t stay at a place like this – I prefer the smaller, friendlier boutique hotels. However, truth be told, I decided to stay here because of this bar. From my reading of the last century of Vietnamese history, this location was the iconic power meeting place during the French and American periods here.
I first came across this spot reading Graham Greene’s classic 1955 novel The Quiet American. Set at the close of the French period here and the beginning of the American period, it was remarkably prescient on how things would turn out in the end. Many scenes were set in this bar and his evocative description somehow still works here for me …
“It would ever be seven o’clock and cocktail-time on the roof of the Majestic, with a wind from the Saigon River”
Also, in the new Ken Burns documentary series on the war, he recounts a mid-1950s dinner here on this rooftop between a young Senator John F. Kennedy and New York Times correspondent Seymour Hersh where the visiting Kennedy is talking about being impressed by how well the French are doing and Hersh telling him bluntly that the French are losing.
Sitting here, on a warm, humid SaiGon evening with a nice breeze blowing off the river, I can almost imagine those days and am wondering which table Kennedy and Hersh were sitting at.
And yet … down the elevator and just around the corner is the bustling Nguyen Hue street, SaiGon’s Times Square which looks very much like Fifth Avenue in New York, Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, or the rue de Rivoli in Paris, filled with young people whose grandparents and great-grandparents would have been the people on the streets below when Kennedy and Greene were drinking up here.
And yet … while I’ve been typing this post, a Vietnamese band has taken the stage up here on the roof and is singing American popular music … next to a Christmas tree!
Time does move on. And for Vietnam, I think that’s a very good thing!