When I first arrived in Saigon in 1962, it was still in many ways a French city. Thousands of native Frenchmen still lived there, and French was spoken at least as commonly as Vietnamese. I even met native Vietnamese who were more comfortable in French than in their native tongue. These were principally members of the aristocracy and the royal family who grew up speaking French rather than Vietnamese, which they considered uncivilized. The main street downtown was called Rue Catinat, named after a French warship. It was lined with elegant and expensive shops and eateries where only French was spoken.
Over the years, I watched Saigon shed its French trappings. Rue Catinat became đường Tự Do, that is Freedom Street. The trendy shops and bistros were replaced by honkytonk bars and greasy spoon restaurants catering to the thousands of American GIs thronging through the city. Saigon became livelier, more crowded, down-to-earth.
I haven’t been back to Saigon since the North Vietnamese conquered the south in 1975. They changed the name of the city from Saigon to Hồ Chí Minh. Tự Do Street became đường Đồng Khởi, which I’m told means “total rebellion” or “total uprising,” but none of my dictionaries and source books verify that definition.
I watched Saigon go into decay as the North Vietnamese closed in. I watched it go into chaos as the siege began. Guidebooks now describe it as a teeming metropolis. Maybe so. It’s hard for me to imagine.