Although those of us passing through the 20th century have become accustomed to living amid the nightly news of more and less devastating wars -- Raymond Aron called ours the century of total war -- I have never seen one. Fortunately, no doubt, I seem to arrive on the scene either before the guns begin or after they have ended -- or, most likely, in that unnatural lull in between when everything is still for a moment, rather the way everything is quiet as the eye of the hurricane hovers, before the winds begin to blow again and destruction falls from the sky.
It was then that I arrived, young and very naive, in Vietnam, 15 years before the fall of Saigon that has been so amply recollected these past few days and six years after the fall of Dien Bien Phu -- in that calm, as I said, before the winds of war began to blow again, when it was possible to sit in the city's caf,es without thought of an explosive. Such a possibility never occurred to me, in fact. At that time, in 1960, there was no active war at all. Although there were areas outside of the city mysteriously, ominously closed to foreigners like me in hired cars, the government was attempting to encourage tourism, though not very successfully, and tiger hunting, of all things. That, at least, is what the faded brochure I found there said. Although I met people who were passing through, none of them seemed to be tourists and I heard of no one going on a tiger hunt. I heard of Frenchmen leaving their rubber plantations and returning to France, and of Australians pursuing trade, but not much else. I'm not exactly sure what I was pursuing -- not trade and certainly not tigers. I was not exactly a tourist, either; a young traveler, I suppose, with a young wife and a portable typewriter, in pursuit of adventure or something in a very foreign land.
Saigon seemed peaceful; indeed, drowsy. Although the Rue Catinat had become Tu Do Street since independence, it was still mostly referred to by the old French name, and to stroll along that broad, tree-lined but very tropical avenue when the heat of the day had passed was to "catiner," the French verb taken, obviously, from the name of the street. The city itself looked less like the pearl of the Orient it claimed to be than a provincial town in the south of France, all cream-colored and gone slightly to seed, with a thin layer of dust over everything. The dust was stirred less by the automobiles, which seemed in relatively modest supply, than by the many cyclos -- bicycle-driven cabs -- that pushed along the streets, carrying people here and there.
French, not English, was the Western language most often spoken, though English was gaining, due, perhaps, to the presence of the American advisers who filled the Majestic Hotel at the foot of the street near the river. It was the best hotel, but impossible to secure a room there because they were all taken by the recently arrived advisers, who kept to themselves and pretty much out of sight and didn't want to talk to me with my notebook. Loitering around the Majestic was not encouraged, and anyway there were too many exotic sights and sounds and smells to absorb; I didn't want to waste my time with a bunch of my countrymen when I could see them any day at home. And besides, I preferred my own hotel, known formally as the Saigon Palace but familiarly as the Sagging Palace, and with reason. It was said to be the center of black market operations, which gave it just the desired hint of danger and intrigue and made it all the more appealing. The man in the caf,e there made a delicious, creamy drink of fresh pineapple juice that no one else could duplicate. It was possible, then, as darkness fell over the city, to feel a bit like a character in a Humphrey Bogart movie -- like Bogart himself, in fact, smoking Gauloise and talking softly to the woman across the table about the price of piastres on the black market. I was too straight to buy any, of course, but it was fun to talk about.
It was in Saigon that I bought a copy of Time Magazine and read that the streets there were unsafe for Americans. I didn't believe it. In fact, I was astonished. I was an American. I felt perfectly safe, although I was thoroughly startled one night when I peered into what I thought was an empty cyclo and the driver jumped out at me. It gave me a story to dine out on at the Embassy officer's house later that week, where, I was assured, I was in the hard-drinking Orient now and I did my best to keep up -- a bit too enthusiastically, perhaps.
We left Saigon a few days later, but returned in a couple of months. The city seemed changed -- less attractive, less amiable, less interesting to us, and the man who made the pineapple drinks in the Saigon Palace was gone. We went to the shore for a couple of days, to an almost deserted resort still known by its French name at the edge of the South China Sea. The South China Sea! It made me feel as adventurous as Richard Halliburton, whose exotic travel books I had read as a child. At the resort were a very few French people and no one else. A couple of months after we returned to the United States, I heard that an American was killed walking out the door of that hotel. That was the first I had known about. And then, a few years later when the war was being waged with full force, I read that the pollution in Saigon from the exhaust fumes of military vehicles was so bad it had killed the ebony trees that lined the streets. Many thousands of Americans were killed there in the 15 years after my visit and before the Americans fled the city, and many, many more thousands of Vietnamese in those years of suffering. Still, it seems important to record that once there was a city whose streets were lined with ebony trees, and that there was a man in the Saigon Palace Hotel who made a delicious, creamy drink from the juice of the pineapple.