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Newsletter No.4, September 2021

SAIGON 1991. I took these photographs during one of my first visits to Vietnam. The country was, in 1991, just opening up to foreign visitors for the first time since the end of the war.

After the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 friendly relations were established between Vietnam and the Russian Federation. The Soviet Union had been a benefactor to Vietnam throughout the 1980s, but after its collapse this arrangement weakened significantly. During my trip I saw several shops in which the only products on display were tins of Russian caviar - stacked in their thousands in six-feet-high pyramids. No one wanted this caviar or could afford it. The communist hammer-and-sickle flag can still be seen in Vietnam today. The red-roofed building to the rear of this shot is the Hotel Continental (see next photo).

Looking north west along Đường Đồng Khởi. This street includes the Opera House and the Notre Dame Cathedral. At one time the buildings along this street were home to the French High Commissioner and, in later years, the General Staff of the US Army. On the right of this photo is the Hotel Continental, which was built in 1880 and named after the Continental in Paris. During the First Indochina War the hotel was frequently referred to as Radio Catinat, since this was the rendezvous point where correspondents, journalists and politicians met. Among the hotel’s notable long-time guests is Graham Greene, who always resided in Room 214. Greene’s book ‘The Quite American’ was conceived in the hotel. Part of the book’s story is centred in and around the hotel itself.

I took this photograph looking along Lam Son Square toward the Opéra de Saïgon, which is a beautiful building. Built in 1897, the architectural style of the 500-seat Opera House is influenced by the flamboyant French style of the time, with the façade shaped like the Petit Palais, built in the same year in France. Inside and out, the Saigon Opera House is in excellent condition and, last time I was there, in February 2020, performances were held on a regular basis.

My only photo taken inside what was then called ‘The Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression’ (Nhà trưng bày tội ác chiến tranh xâm lược). The original 1975 name of the museum was ‘The Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes’. It has since been changed again, to the more tourist acceptable, ‘The War Remnants Museum.’ When I visited in 1991 I was the only visitor and was escorted around for the whole time by a member of the staff whose job it was to tell me, ‘You no photo.’

Post-war ordnance was still in full view around the city in 1991. In the markets I was offered all sorts of stuff that a) I didn’t want and b) I couldn’t have carried on a commercial flight if I’d wanted to. On reflection, I’d say that most of the things that were for sale back then were genuine war artifacts/memorabilia. A few years later, the markets were still heaving with this stuff, but by then it was all reproduced tat, manufactured for the tourists.

I took three photographs from the roof of the Rex Hotel, which overlooks the square immediately in front of Ho Chi Minh City Hall. City Hall was built in the French colonial style between 1902 and 1908. The roof bar on top of the Rex Hotel is quite famous, or maybe that should be infamous. During the war the hotel roof bar was the site of the US High Command’s daily press conference, derisively named ‘The Five O’clock Follies’ by cynical journalists who found the optimism of the American officers somewhat misguided. This Rex Hotel roof bar was a well-known hang-out for senior US military officers.

A ‘Five O’clock Follies’ picture that hangs in the Rooftop Bar of the Rex Hotel.

Another shot taken from the Rooftop Bar of the Rex Hotel looking east along Lam Son. This area is now pedestrianised and that traffic island is no more.

During a trip outside of the city I found this wreck of a US Bell UH-1 Iroquois Helicopter, otherwise known as a ‘Huey.’ Whilst my government escort official went into the bushes for a bathroom break I got our driver to take this shot before the official returned. It took me a minute or two to climb in as I wanted to make sure there were no snakes inside the helicopter. According to official figures 1,925 Hueys were lost in combat during the war, while a further 1,380 were lost in operational accidents. This actual photograph also appears in my new book 'Along the Southern Boundary.

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