Ho Chi Minh City
The names ‘Saigon’ and ‘Ho Chi Minh City’ are used pretty interchangeably here, aptly when referring to the history of the old city or the state of the current one. It was odd to be looking at the garden where our troops walked, where the iconic photos of the fall of Saigon were taken, where so much history was made. We visited the Reunification Palace, former seat of the South Vietnamese government, now the place where Uncle Ho’s bust is revered and where foreign dignitaries are received. It is an unattractive place filled with throngs who visit every room and even the basement, filled with old Telex machines and grey metal desks. The people revere Ho Chi Minh because he stopped the war that ravaged the land and reunified the country which now lives with hope - not wealth but hope. The city is poor and third world, yet ... the airport is modern and attractive and chic (and has a sign directing “well-wishers” one way and “greeters” the other - likely distinguishing between departures and arrivals), and only blocks from Saigon’s hovels are shops for Cartier and Chanel and Ralph Lauren.
We went to Henry Cabot Lodge’s former house for a lunch given by the current owner, Mister Dong. The event began with champagne and canapés and a performance of dances of various regions (some were elegant, others, like the Hmong, country stomps). A calligrapher wrote our name on a bamboo scroll and we had a chance to walk through this dwelling. We sat at the dining room table where Lodge sat; we used the master bathroom and the powder room; we saw the kitchen and garage ... and thought what history must have been made in this place when Lodge was U.S. Ambassador.
Finally a look at Notre Dame, the central Roman Catholic Cathedral. It was ugly and unwelcoming. The nave was closed by barriers; the font was shoved in a corner and filled with litter; a chapel featured a statue with a blinking neon halo. Yet we are told that the place is filled to bursting every Sunday by people free to worship and glad of it.