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Saigon City Space on Its Street Life and Other Favourite Spots Copyright © 2012 by Saigon Citylife All Rights Reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means-electric, mechanical, photocopy, recording, scanning, or other-except for brief quotations in critical review or articles, without the prior written permission of the Publisher. Cover and Photographs used by permission of authors and Saigon Citylife. Published in by Phuong Nam Book Co., Ltd (PNB), a member of Phuong Nam Culture Corp. (PNC) 940 Ba thang Hai Street, Ward 15, Dist.11, Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam. city space A Familiar Boisterousness A message from V. came to me one morning, “You’re at Godfather?” There was a time she often hung out at a sidewalk café on Ho Huan Nghiep Street, just a few doors down from Godfather. As for myself, I have already made the Godfather part of my regular routine to the point where my friends would identify “coffee” with “Godfather”. The café is located on small narrow street opened up from old houses, and the alley, with its many rooms-for-rent connecting to Dong Khoi Street, was also unkempt, old, and narrow. Ho Huan Nghiep Street has the appearance of a street that appeals to those who enjoy strolls at dusk, when the breezes from the river gust forth chasing away the terrible heat of the afternoon Street Life & Other Favourite Spots • 5 sun. I am not sure when it had transformed itself into a “chic” street; although it may have been when the discotheque Forest Drizzle discotheque opened. Or perhaps it was when the Godfather itself opened its doors. I often associate Godfather with Tung Café in Dalat. On first impression the two cafes may appear to be vastly different. The Tung Café has an atmosphere of serenity, decked out with faded sofas and complete with the melodious music of Le Uyen Phuong. In stark contrast the Godfather is decorated with a medley of blue and red wooden tables and recycled plastic chairs, and alive with the rowdy with sounds of chatter and gossip in the place of music. What similarities do these two places share? Could it be the small street setting, or in the a-la-mode brownish composite wooden interior decoration that city folks of the past adored, or could it be the warmth exudes from familiar faces? Whatever the case, back then the coffee at the Tung Café was excellent but the Godfather’s brew had been gradually “waning” becoming even 6 • SAI GON CITY SPACE insipid. But time flies quickly and before I am aware of it, it has been over ten years since I first began coming to the Godfather to enjoy a cup of sugarless coffee, where a tiny teapot is brought out for the coffee downer to sip. Over time I have heard thousands of nonsensical palavers from other customers. Everyone regards Godfather as his/her own home: I myself have taken down almost all the books with worn covers from the shelves and skimmed through the classical literary styles, written in French, with their classical contents. So at home I have become here that I have become acquainted with hundreds of familiar customers, many of them I don’t even know by name. What is it I love about the Godfather? Well it is certainly not the coffee (the best coffee shops in Saigon are perhaps the Illy or Fanny) or the comfortable seats or even the friends I have there - I don’t have any close friends here. No for me it must be the boisterous atmosphere Whenever I returned from outside of the city I would Street Life & Other Favourite Spots • 7 stop by Godfather first and mingle with the various types of customers there. These varied based on the time of day: in the early morning groups of port and marine workers would show up, at other times those in the advertising business (I could guess from their conversations) would stop by. Before noon, scores of gay men and lesbians would congregate while in the early evening, many dance-crazy customers would come to sit here waiting for the Forest Drizzle discotheque to open its doors. This eclectic mix of patrons possess different kinds of boisterousness so that anyone’s business, regardless of what it is could become the topic of discussion like a strange, spontaneous coincidental concerto of their fates. Whenever I am too busy I miss the Godfather overwhelmingly, missing the times I helped out by hurriedly grabbing the tables and chairs then swiftly throwing them in the back of the place after hearing the warning cry of the “Cop’s Trucks!”, a routine whereby city-hall folks are on patrol keeping an eye on businesses encroaching onto sidewalks and 8 • SAI GON CITY SPACE streets. This seemed to be a dead tradition now kept alive at the Godfather. I especially like to sit at Godfather alone, skimming through the daily newspapers that vending boys from Quang, the central provinces, bring to offer you in person. Then deliberately gaze at every single face, listen to each meandering story from groups of customers, and from time to time jest a few lines with the soft spoken waiter, or sometimes ask for a pot of diluted tea. I like to sit here enjoying the particular boisterous beat of Saigon, of that coincidental concerto... Street Life & Other Favourite Spots • 9 Let Me Be a Poet • Huy Tuong Suddenly, a fluttering breeze blew from Saigon River along the short Catinat1 Avenue, then whirled towards the International Square and Notre Dame Cathedral, and the City Post Office, and you would encounter an elegant, attractive and precious fragrance. And this fragrance, so it seemed, would only drift in this area, the vicinity of Saigon Center, which was built with a very Western Gothic gentility. It was most particular with the Notre Dame Cathedral, Continental Hotel, Caravel Hotel, Tax Department Store and Eden Cinema, or like that of Majestic Hotel with a wooden stage (Théâtrê 1 Đồng Khởi Avenue today. 10 • SAI GON CITY SPACE de L’ hôtel en bois), etc. However, sometimes those magnificent and colossal images did not leave such an impression to other people as the Latin accented store fronts, the café terraces like the La Pagode, the Givral, and the Brodard, etc., which had always lingered a sense of relaxation but artistic coyness that belongs in an excerpt from Monmartre Neighborhood. In La Pagode, you could sit for hours amongst writers, artists, musicians, and sometimes even an infamous, notorious yet refined “Godmother”, sipping a cup of coffee or a small glass of wine, debating or discussing over a “prospective” art, while handing a short essay to a newspaper editor at the same time facing your yearning nose towards the veranda to breath in a trickle bit of the pristine scent of the season-modulating morning. In Givral, you could personally witness at the same time stay clear of the combative tear gases used to disperse a heated protest in front of The House of Representative Building, The Opera House, and you could participate in, listen to, argue and exchange Street Life & Other Favourite Spots • 11 updated news with national and international reporters who worked for media agencies such as UPI, Reuters, T.T.X, etc. It was always vigorously filled with the most recent news. As for the corner of Nguyễn Thiệp Avenue, humbly stood there was Brodard, a combination of La Pagode and Givral but more elegant, opulent and serene. It is really hard to forget the feeling of first time stepping into Brodard. It was a late August afternoon of one of the early years of the sixties in the last century. Guiding and treating me, a young man who’d just come from Central Vietnam, were two “true Saigonese” veterans, Mr. Vũ and Mr. Nguyễn. There were Vietnamese customers sitting among Westerners modestly exchanging conversations, while perfumed Caucasian ladies passing to and fro chattering lively. The café was not big but possessed such a strangely grand appearance. It brought to mind and sculpted for you the hazy thought that had been longing in your mind: the musical color of space and time as the huge jukebox next to the counter emanated current voices of those days such 12 • SAI GON CITY SPACE as Nat King Cole, Dalida, C. Richard, F. Sinatra, etc., and especially “the quivering sound of the bronze trumpet” in the melancholy but buoyant Blue melody of L. Armstrong, which shook the glass windowpanes to the beat. And that fateful late August afternoon really slung me completely immersed in a corner of some café in Paris like those in the “Cours De Langue” textbook of my high school years, especially when the tired yellow light cast down the from street lamp at the end of a street with the imagery of “a girl leaning against the lamppost, lighting a cigarette”. Back then Brodard was simple but nonchalant and elegant. You could sit in the café enjoying the French dishes at the same time secretly letting your eyes gaze upon the graceful, exquisite bodies outside, gliding to each relaxed, confident strolling step. You could sit there all afternoon, without worrying about being bothered, to relax or write something, a feuilleton for a newspaper for instance, after a passionate discussion about art with artists at La Pagode or the most current-event Street Life & Other Favourite Spots • 13 news about the war at Givral. And then you would greet folks with stacks foreign language books and newspapers in hands that they had just purchased at Xuân Thu Bookstore, and they would give you the latest news such as the Goncourt’s Literature Award, the newest book of F. Sagan, how the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was conducted, or the flawless dissertation that W. Faulkner had just read in Stockholm, etc. They would update information continuously and love to be the first who deliver you news about art and the world. Therefore, that was the reason they really disliked leaving Sàigòn, because it would only take one week of being away and you would already become “outdated”. In Brodard, just by chance, you could hear, in slight whispers, a verse or two from a poem written by A. Rimbaud, by Giả Đảo, by Appolinaire or a new poem by the then-renowned Saigonese poets. There were always witted debates about wars and injustice, about the different schools of art, about the new short-story novel style, about the structuralism 14 • SAI GON CITY SPACE thesis, about authors such as H. Miller, LuKács, W. Saroyan, about existence with J. Sutre, A. Camus, etc., and right next to you there would be others who were clamorously talking about Kiều Phong of Kim Dung, about Ali Mc Graw and Ryan O’neal in Love Story written by E. Segal with the catchy phrase of the day, “Love means never have to say ‘I regret!’ ”. Those mellow but delightful images were the subtle gathering of the artistic talents from all over, but the most note-worthy was the talents from the North. You could have sat there, next to or across from the accentuated but brilliant beauty of Kiều Chinh and relished in the essence of a Dạ Tâm Khúc or Giáo Đường Im Bóng just got beautifully performed by Thái Thanh or Lệ Thu poured over from the bar next door, Đêm Màu Hồng, or by the huskily-tarred lamented voice of Khánh Ly, walking barefooted as she sang a few melodies still freshly scented with the not-yet-dried ink of Trịnh Công Sơn in the courtyard in front of The Young Artists Association, the young artists such as Nguyên Khai, Trịnh Cung, Mai Chửng, Nguyễn Trung, etc. Street Life & Other Favourite Spots • 15 In Brodard, I got to become close friends with a number of writers, foreign reporters including the lovable and eloquent Max, the anti-war Doctor-reporter J. Champlin, Hero, the bearded intelligent Japanese, the lovely Tin, the tender and polite Margarette, etc. Oh, how could I name it all? And my friends, how are you all now? But then, in one very interesting and surprising day, I got a chance to meet and talk to the author of “Of Mice and Men”, the Nobel Laureate for Literature, John Steinbeck. He was on his trip to Vietnam to experience first hand the senses of war. In Brodard back then, it was quite easy for you to meet Phượng of The Quiet American by Graham Green. And you’d also have your own Phượng there. I had met Phượng of Nguyễn, Phượng of Trịnh Công Sơn, and Phượng of Bùi Giáng. And of course my Phượng, too. And Phượng. Where have you gone to? I am returning to the familiar place of the past, and right here at the corner of the T-intersection of Đồng Khởi Avenue 16 • SAI GON CITY SPACE and Nguyễn Thiệp Avenue, the legendary Café – Restaurant Brodard. But our Brodard has changed so much now. I cannot see your gracefully relaxed footsteps outside the glass windows anymore. Please allow me to raise a glass of red wine and re-sing a few verses of a poem that you had loved so in those times we had met, here, in Brodard: “Go! Go! I’d take you to a bar With a little of Paris So let me become a poet...” PS. To Joel Broustail, Professor at Sorbonne University, Paris. When jotting down these memories of mine, I especially wanted to dedicate it to you – also to apologize to the English, my friends of those times whose names I couldn’t completely said. What am I to do now Joel? Please let me express to you, through the words of Christian Bobin in La Part Manquant, that “One needn’t becoming a writer Street Life & Other Favourite Spots • 17 but he must write. To write is to quietly return, return to the love missing in all loves.” Please allow me to say farewell, and let me close the book by M. Proust – you had given me – that had become too worn due to the years passed: À LA RÉSERCHE DU TEMPS PERDU! 18 • SAI GON CITY SPACE Old Cafes • Le Van Sam Intro: Perhaps, the places that hold our memories best are cafes. 50 years have passed and the vestiges of old Saigon cafes have blurred, yet some of them linger vividly in memory, though closed long ago. I recount the lively times in old Saigon to refresh readers my age and pique the interest of younger readers to revere their city more. Deep in our memory is the wooden pillared and thatched rooftop cafe at the corner of Catina-D’Ornay, now Dong Khoi and Mac Thi Buoi, which bore a French name, L’imperial, after the Catinat was renovated, later changed to Hoang Gia, and Vietnam House today, which still hangs on to its banana-bunch and betel-cluster Street Life & Other Favourite Spots • 19 style, but the colors of the Hoang Gia cafe have vanished. True to its name, visiting customers were discriminating, as it was the very first place that served ‘air conditioned coffee’ where the glass panes separated the cool atmosphere from the tropical sidewalk outside. There were about ten polished wooden tables, perfect for a romantic couple to linger or a husband taking his wife out for a drink and appetizers. The appetizers consisted only of a dish of golden crisp egg rolls, small and elegant in the Hue royal court style. Receiving the guests was a regal lady, hair in a tight bun with a fluttering ao-dai who spoke fluent French. Hoang Gia’s coffees were mainly strong filtered black brews; the owner tried to please her customers by serving variations of hot condensed-milk coffees, but iced coffees were absolutely prohibited. As evening descended, if one preferred a light drink, ordering a cup of Chrysanthemum Ocha or Lipton tea, which, too, could only be drunk hot, was best. This type of iceless coffee recalled a sidewalk café ran by a Hue lady named Thai Chi, at the corner 20 • SAI GON CITY SPACE
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