The Continental Palace was one of those typical imposing, yet stylish French hotels in Saigon built during the colonial era at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. It did not stand alone of course; right across, on what probably once was a square, the French had built what could arguably be called Saigon’s most beautiful building, The National Assembly – nowadays better known as the Opera House and more than likely used as such by the French and South Vietnamese upper classes during, “The Good Old Days”. Back in 1973 and ‘74 however, it was surrounded by a fence signalling that it was definitely off limits to mere mortals.
On the other side one would find the Caravel Hotel frequented by anything from journalists to spooks and part time prostitutes. If one cared to walk down Tu Do Street all the way down to the Saigon River one would find the most prestigious of them all: The Majestic. It didn’t look like all that much from the outside maybe, but the inside with its mahogany wood panelling and stained glass was definitely worth a visit. Even Catherine Deneuve has stayed there during the colonial days.
But a hotel without visitors would be like an empty shell, a sad relic of a glorious past or what could and should have been. Saigon in the nineteen-seventies was a bustling yet drab and war-fatigued city and tourists were a rare commodity, more like an extinct species really. So who then would fill the void and occupy the rooms in those once upon a time prestigious hotels?
Looking back, I think there were actually two types of guests passing through the doors of the Continental Palace: the first category were the “comers and goers”.
The first “goer” I met was a man in his fifties and his distressed “Vietnamese love of his life”. Only now he was on his way back to distant Cincinnati Ohio, and more than likely back to an equally distant wife who had never been any further than the local grocery store. I don’t even know if he really was in his fifties. Months of having been stationed in a shithole called Pleiku had maybe left his face prematurely aged by war. Then one day they were gone and I never saw them again.
My girlfriend and I were among the second category of guests: the sometimes colourful, and perhaps mysterious assortment of characters that seem to occupy those old colonial rooms on a more or less permanent basis, all artfully busy avoiding one another. A more able author could probably write a book about them.
Take the room next to ours for instance; it was permanently occupied by a Polish officer belonging to the newly and completely useless entity called the ICCS, or International Commission of Control and Supervision, better known to us as: “I Can’t Control Shit.” He was a typical sour Communist officer, never smiling, never saying a word, making sure he did not see us or even acknowledge our existence in spite of, my girlfriend’s concerted effort to annoy him by being as noisy as possible during intimate moments, a sure way to make enemies with the frustrated.
Then on the other side, the last room on the corridor was occupied by a Doctor belonging to the Norwegian Air Force, I think his name was Bjørg “Something”. Allegedly he worked for the International Red Cross. How that exactly worked is yet another mystery to me, because you see, the International Red Cross was neither recognised nor allowed to operate in South Vietnam on the basis that North Vietnam refused to recognise the Red Cross and considered them an instrument of the Imperialist West. More than likely it had a lot more to do with the Communists’ more than appalling track record for their treatment of prisoners of war.
Then on the other side of the building, if I recall well, there were a couple of rooms occupied by the news agency Newsweek. They even had a copper plate on the door advertising their trade. But like most of the tenants of this prestigious hotel, they could prove to be as elusive as any of us. At times I would come across a young English freelance photo journalist smoking a cigarette outside, a tall slender sort of a man rather like myself, and I’m quite sure some people probably confused us for one another. I think his name was also James. Then one day he did not reappear. I later read in a Newsweek magazine that he had been killed, another one gone.
Some rooms were intermittently occupied by people working for various NGOs, or so they said. They were possibly the most colourful of our distinguished residents. One of them allegedly had been an officer in the Swedish Army while serving for the U.N. in Africa. He had been involved in some vicious fire fights back in the days of the Congo crisis. Now however, he was an overweight middle-aged man involved in providing some sort of aid down in the Delta, or so it seemed. But with people like this, things are not always what they seem. Other patrons had also served in African countries, Bangladesh or some banana republic in South America, either as soldiers, mercenaries or in relief agencies, but they were always the same people. Consequently they had a saying among themselves: “First we patch them up, then we shoot them, and then we patch them up again," and in a cynical way, there was probably some truth in that, shifting back and forth between someone’s army and then on to a relief agency, albeit not necessarily in the same order, or country, for that matter.
On the higher floors of the hotel we called home, the Indonesian contingent of the very same ICCS seemed to have taken up residence more or less permanently on someone’s tax payers costs. But like most members of the Continental family, they too made sure our paths would only cross by pure accident.
Without any doubt a number of our esteemed guests were spooks, military contractors and operatives who, like ourselves, would disappear for weeks and then just as suddenly reappear calmly sipping a beer on the open terrace watching the animated activity in the streets five steps below.
My girlfriend too, I suppose, should be counted as one of those colourful characters. She had come to Vietnam with the Canadian contingent as a nurse, although she was not a member of the ICCS. It did not take long for the Canadians to realise that with 18,000 cease fire violations within five months and an estimated 76,000 dead, wounded or missing, there was no peace to keep and so they told the ICCS to stuff it and promptly left Vietnam to its own design. Marlyne, however, did not; and after a disturbing first experience in the field she promptly moved in with me and stayed.
Occasionally, coming back from a trip in the countryside, I had to park our big Land Rover, one of our three vehicles, in front of the entrance in an effort to enter the hotel as discreetly as possible… and failed miserably. She may have been wearing a simple little cotton dress hugging and accentuating her feminine curves and I may have worn jeans and a T shirt, but nothing could hide the two identical military rucksacks on our backs, my M-16 rifle and the little M-1 carbine hanging off her shoulder. “Round Eyes”, as Western men called Western women, could at times provoke envious, if not downright lewd looks from men sipping their cold beers on the terrace, but her sporadic appearance may well have shattered more than one dream when they realised that she was in fact “armed and dangerous”, and just like the National Assembly in front of them… off limits.
The best chance to meet someone, or at least suspiciously scrutinise each other, was on the terrace while enjoying a cool drink during the late afternoon heat.
There was Jean-Luc for instance, a French journalist, always dressed in a slightly sloppy tropical khaki coloured suit. At times we would discuss the rapidly degrading situation in the country, the corruption of the officialdom or to the contrary, the courage of the Vietnamese soldiers who fought on in spite of all the odds stacked against them. There were also more philosophical questions lingering in our heads and sometimes openly discussed, such as – were we maybe psyching each other up and slowly turning into adrenalin junkies as reluctant participants in a horror show where trouble can appear like a bolt of lightning out of the blue? If so, then clearly we were becoming addicted to “The Lethal Beauty of War”, not really wanting to miss the show, no matter how obscene.
One late afternoon an object fell onto the terrace with a metallic clang; most patrons followed Jean-Luc’s example and threw themselves on the floor assuming that it may be a hand-grenade. My still innocent girlfriend wasn’t battle hardened yet, but that would change; she looked around puzzled why people had scattered and ducked. It turned out to be no more than a street kid throwing a discarded Coke can onto the terrace, maybe just to annoy us and see what would happen. Not long before, a member of the Viet Cong had thrown a hand-grenade into the cinema across the road, injuring several people; he was the only one who died though, shot by a guard. Such was the psychosis of a city surrounded by war.
Saigon was a fragile oasis where people went about their daily business living in the self-deluding illusion of peace. But one only had to walk down to the river at night to hear the sounds of war and watch the green and red tracers hug the horizon.
Just around the corner of the hotel however, the famous pale yellow and blue Renault CV4 taxis would be waiting to take their clientele to their respective embassies or agencies, The Cercle Sportif, restaurants, nightclubs or anywhere else in the city as long as it wasn’t over the New Port Bridge; from there on things could become a little less secure.
Sometime in the summer of ’74 my girlfriend, under some degree of parental pressure, finally boarded an airplane to take her home. Her family however, would be in for a shock, for their daughter was no longer the young girl her protective parents had said their goodbyes to at the Toronto Pearson International Airport so many months before in the spring of 1973. She returned as a scarred young woman just like every other normal person who had experienced and seen too many things in a country on the other side of the planet, far away from home. Friends and family undoubtedly would have wanted and expected her to be the same sweet girl with the long bright blonde hair they had known all their lives… but that girl was gone, she didn’t exist anymore. Like many of us, she had become unbalanced and restless, stigmatized with Vietnam written all over her face; for her too, “coming home” and re-integration into normality would become a troubling experience – there was always this lingering feeling: “When we are in the jungle we want to go home and when we are home we want to be back in the jungle and living on the edge.” Normality meant the rumble of distant artillery or the not so distant rattle of an automatic weapon; silence was alien and disconcerting.
My time hadn’t come yet, but the room on the first floor had now become a lonely and sad place best to be avoided. When I wasn’t in the field I would buy pocket books from the little street girl sitting on the sidewalk in front of the hotel and when I was done with them I’d give them back to her so she could sell them again. It was an excellent business deal; at least someone was happy.
In the autumn of ’74, “The Company”, whoever they really were, sent us into the hills of Phuoc Long Province to discreetly investigate reports of North Vietnamese troop movements. But it was already too late, we never quite reached our destination in the densely forested hills; instead we collided head-on with a North Vietnamese regiment and became trapped in a small town of no significance. We grouped together as a miss-matched “War Band” consisting of Vietnamese Rangers, Strikers and National Policemen holding the line for hours… not many went home; well over half would perish during the horrendous artillery bombardment and fire fight along with many townspeople fleeing the onslaught. The road of escape was littered with the bodies of men and women, especially the elderly who could not run fast enough… and children.
Days later, in the morning, there was a knock on my door. It was a Vietnamese man and I realised I had seen him before but I wasn’t sure where. It could have been in The Cercle Sportif, a tennis and social club for those who wanted to be seen, or maybe I had seen him at an Embassy or a private cocktail party. Whoever he was, I was quite sure he had to be a high ranking official.
‘Vous partez? – You are leaving?’ it was more a confirmation than a question really. For a moment it must have flashed through my head, was he there to prevent me from leaving?
‘There is nothing here for me anymore.’ I may have added, ‘The group has ceased to exist.’ But I can’t be sure I had really managed to pronounce those words of gloom.
‘I know.’ He smiled politely but over the months I had scrutinized oriental faces long enough for even me to see that it was a sad smile.
‘I have brought you something so that when you are back in your far away country you may remember us and think about us from time to time.’
I don’t really know who he was, but I do remember him and all those now long since gone.
Today the hand-painted lacquered box and the small vase he gave me as a farewell present are still sitting on my desk in front of me where I am writing these simple words that really don’t do enough justice to the extraordinary era we lived in.
The Continental gave us a flavour of old colonial era comfort, but for us it was also associated with laughter, love, sadness and death. Maybe just like the song about “The Hotel California”… you can check out but you can never leave. Perhaps some of the ghosts of the colourful list of guests who once occupied the rooms in this unforgettable and unusual hotel are still wandering along the lengthy corridors in search of the past.
Some stayed only for a few weeks, others for months on end, and then there were those who seem to have lived there more or less permanently. Whoever we all were, we too were among those who called the Continental Palace, since then renamed the Continental Saigon… “home”.