A Walk Down Memory Lane in Old Saigon
Yesterday afternoon I walked through downtown Saigon. It was a journey to the past. I spent more than three years of my life in this country, on and off. Most of the time was in the first half of the nineties, organizing and leading tours for a travel company from the Netherlands.
In the early days our groups stayed in the Saigon Hotel in Dong Du Street. The doorman of this hotel recognized me, after more than 20 years…if I add up the nights I probably stayed in this hotel for about two months in total! The lobby of the hotel has undergone a facelift, but I am not sure about the rooms.
Strolling through Dong Du Street reminiscing of past days when there was only electricity from 6 pm until 6 am. Being woken up by excessive sweating because the ceiling fan stopped working. Every evening having drinks and meeting travelers and expats in the Apocalypse Now bar, which was a hole in the wall on Dong Du street. Playing pool in the Good Morning Vietnam bar, in a parallel street. Pedalling the streets of Saigon on a rental bike. Shopping in the department store on the corner of Nguyen Hue Boulevard and Le Loi Boulevard, where all the salespeople spoke Russian. We were often called “Liên Xô” (Soviet in Vietnamese) because Russians were the only non-Asian visitors until the early nineties when backpackers started to arrive in numbers.
Before and between tours I stayed in a guesthouse on Le Lai Street, parallel to Pham Ngu Lao Street where Kim Cafe and Sinh Cafe where the backpackers hangouts. Downstairs was a pharmacy.
I witnessed the construction of the New World Hotel, one of the first of many new hotels. Those were the days of the travel permit on which you could list not more than 10 places where you were going to spend the night. Everyone could arrange that permit for you. There were restrictions for travelers, which was understandable after decades of war and unrest followed by a traumatic period of international isolation and more war with China and Cambodia.
Hotels had separate prices for local Vietnamese, Lao, Cambodian, overseas Vietnamese and…tourists. For trains and planes tourists paid often three times as much as locals. Vietnam Airlines flew with Tupolev and Yakovlev planes. Air-conditioning produced fog in the plane.
The biggest banknote was VND 5,000. Changing USD 100 left you with a stack of banknotes. Parking your bicycle or motorbike in a guarded parking set you back VND 200.
For me these were formative years, extremely exciting, intense and interesting but sometimes very frustrating. There was never a dull moment though. Lots of adventure and above all lots of fun. Vietnam and its people will always be special for me.