Taboo Travel: Saigon in a More Dangerous Era11/05/2013
Think of all the great places that are verboten when it comes to travel these days. Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, all lands of great, exotic appeal, and all off-limits to people who put a premium on safety.
I was thinking of this last week when I happened upon a tourist brochure from 1961 touting the allure of Saigon, Nha Trang, Dalat and the “ultimate in Saigon Viet – Nam,” the Hotel Caravelle. There we were on the back page of the Visit Fascinating Vietnam brochure, “fully air conditioned” and “centrally located on fashionable Lam-Son Square.”
Back then, you could rent a room in the country’s top luxury hotel for USD 12.20 per night, or USD 15.40 for double occupancy. I’m sure we didn’t accept credit cards back then. In fact, credit cards didn’t come into widespread use until much later, so our front desk must have stocked lots of American nickels and dimes to make change for those price points.
My predecessor general manager was, presumably, a French man by the name of J. Ch. Mornand. Where are you today M. Mornand, and what stories I bet you had to tell?
What stories this glimpse of Vietnam in 1961 suggests. So many aspects of travel back then caught my eye, not the least of which was the big game hunting. “Vietnam is a hunter’s paradise,” the brochure says over a picture of a young elephant. If not elephants, you could bag yourself a tiger, leopard, gaur, wild ox, wild buffalo, bear, deer or pheasant.
This hunting was not all that far from Saigon. The best grounds were but 50 – 250 “miles” away near Dalat and Buon Me Thuot and Di Linh. If you took an elephant, you’d have to pay about USD 140. A gaur cost almost half as much, and a buffalo or ox only one third as much. You could, with “license A,” kill one male elephant, two male gaurs, two male oxen, two male buffalos, four bears, six deers and as many tigers and leopards as you like and for no fee. “The number of wild and harmful beasts killed is not limited,” reads the brochure.
What a place.
Back then , you could go dancing at the Arc-En-Ciel at 52-66 Tan Da Street in Cho Lon, where Graham Greene had his characters dancing in The Quiet American.
You could get 73 Vietnamese piastres for one USD.
Americans didn’t need a visa if they stayed in the country less than seven days.
Air Vietnam, not Vietnam Air, was your in-country carrier.
Two million people lived in Saigon.
Tourists routinely drove their own vehicles
And “a visit to the Caravelle Skyroom Restaurant and Roof Garden is a ‘must’ for all tourists.” Well then, some things haven’t changed about Saigon!
Beyond Saigon, the brochure was steering travellers toward the usual suspects — Bien Hoa, Tay Ninh and Thu Dau Mot, then renowned for its lacquer craftsmen, now a part of Ho Chi MInh City. Further afield, they wanted us in Dalat (55 minutes by DC3 from Saigon), Nha Trang (where you could even then take a glass-bottomed boat out onto the bay) and Hue (where Ngu Binh Mountain was then called the King’s Screen).
After whiling some time away from this brochure, I looked up from my armchair here on Lam Son Square, wondering how much promise this country had in 1961, how alluring it all was, and just how much suffering the Vietnamese would have to go through before the days would be as bright again.