Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Saigon 38 years later with some flashback stories

30th of April, 1975. 
Special day for all Vietnamese, especially for those who lived in Saigon at that historical moment. I was there, a young kid, without knowing about the war, I was packing, with joy, my favorite toys for "the escape". But it didn't happen, our family stayed and...tomorrow, 38 years later, we celebrate the date that many of us don't know how to call - either "Saigon liberation" or "Saigon fall".  
I don't want to go into the details what was good and what was bad for us, before and after that real turbulent date, it's too much political, I'm not into that. I was a very young kid before 1975, I hardly remember everything but there is always something that I never my city.

The 1st story
The classy Continental hotel, after 1975, has turned into a cheap "state cooperative eatery" (hợp tác xã ăn uống). The living conditions were very hard. One day my mom, as habit from the good old times, took us there to enjoy a Yang Chow fried rice (cơm chiên Dương Châu) with her tiny earnings after selling some dress from her wardrobe, my mother used to be a teacher so she got a big collection of áo dài, sometime she gave away her dress, sometime she just traded for an extra money. It happened only once, no second time. Now, it's good that the Continental regain the old look and I already know where is the better place for the fried rice.

              The Continental hotel - one of the luxury hotels managed by Saigon Tourist - a state company.  

PS: By the way, these days I saw they are selling the Yang Chow fried rice as a street food.

The 2nd story
Saigon was much more quiet, less people, less traffic before 1975. Our parents bought their first house long before I was born. It was very narrow, slightly more than 2 m wide but it was a shelter to many of our relatives who moved from Central to Saigon. The house has been renovated once and it was sold in 1970, after my parents got another one - much bigger.
I do remember the ice cream vendor, who always stopped in front of this house, he first played with kids and after that convinced them to buy his cheap sirup ice cream. One day I was sitting behind the balcony (as you see from the photo), I really loved to get some ice cream but no pocket money, so the young vendor tried to convince me to exchange something, I didn't know whose idea, but I finally exchanged it with a pack of french pretzels that I took from a very nice tin box. And that was a present from a friend to my mother.

           I grew up here, in my parents first house(center). It surprisingly remained the same as in the old days.   

The 3rd story 
I still remember another street vendor in our neighborhood, she always kept maybe a tray or a bamboo basket on her head, she was selling a kind of our traditional donuts - we call "bánh cam" ( literally means orange cake as it resembles an orange). I always shook the cake before eating to check the sound due to the green bean fillings inside. The louder sound, the bigger the fillings. I thought so!

                  This's not exactly a basket from the past but the donuts are almost the same...

                   and here you go Bánh cam, a childhood snack, I love to shake to hear the sound inside. 

By weekend my mother often took two of us, my older brother and me, either to the swimming pool with her friends, or to the center of Saigon. I hardly remember how my mom spent time with her friends there but what I never forget was a small ice cream stand at the corner of Tax, one of shopping malls before 1975. The ice cream was very good and all vendors - always in white. Now it's gone.

                 Deep fried bread with shrimp, my favorite snack after swimming hours in my childhood.

Center of Saigon seemed a hangout place mostly for middle or upper class before the liberation, no many street vendors as now, especially around "Tax" or "Passage Eden", but if we went to Bach Dang harbor, not far from there - a lot of street vendors. Now I wonder where I can get a bamboo stick with several pieces of sugar cane on it, like a flower, they used to sell at the harbor. These days I couldn't find it anymore anywhere.

            Tax is probably the oldest mall in Saigon, the ice cream stand used be to at the angle. 

The 4th story 
My mother loved to go to cinema very much, she could know by heart a lot of names of western actors, especially french, all details from movies stories. She had a best girlfriend, I called her "Dì Lộc" (i.e aunt Lộc), she used to work for VOA and moved to US long before 1975, my mother and Dì Lộc always went to cinema "Rex" (now it has gone and became Rex Hotel)  I never forget the image of a big black man in his red uniform standing near to the escalator with his big smile, white teeth or the exciting feeling to see how the beautiful curtain raising before the movie start or lowering after "The end".  

                 Rex was the most luxury cinema before 1975 but now turned into an ordinary hotel. 

Next to Rex in the same complex, there was two more cinemas, we called "Mini Rex A" and "Mini Rex B". They were very small but the interior was nicely decorated. Whenever I went there with my mom, I got an indescribable feeling as we were going to board the airship. Now it has gone and replaced by a chain of high fashion houses.  

In Passage Eden, there was a cinema "Eden". I've been there with my mom several times. I was too small to be attracted by what going on on the screen, so I loved to go secretly and slowly to follow the red light on the steps, along the movie hall in the dark, to hide behind the heavy velvet curtain at the entrance door and then to go back to my mother's seat with a little fear of getting lost. 

               Cinema "Eden" used to be here, now everything has gone - the cinema and the passage. 

The last story 
Caravelle Hotel was one of the biggest hotels in Saigon before 1975. One day my mom went to the wedding party in this hotel. She took me with her. It was her mistake. I felt so boring to be near to my mom, so I decided to explore the box that was always coming up and down, closing and opening. It was the hotel's lift.
I just took a ride, to go down, then to go up...several times, I felt so exciting but suddenly I realized that I didn't know which floor was mine. I got lost in the hotel lift. I didn't know how to ask and until now I still don't know how I found my mom at the end, my big upset was not to get lost but to go back home with the total empty stomach! And it happened few times later in my life.

            Caravelle hotel where I got lost in the lift. Now with a new higher building next to the old one. 

My love to Saigon is getting confused due to many problems we are facing these days, but I would say "I'm happy to be here finally, to look after my mom and from time to time to recall the old stories happening here after 38 years and undoubtedly to expect new and better changes in our city. The memories of that day, the 30th of April in 1975 are always vivid in our mind.

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