More than a year ago, I wrote a brief post in this blog about the tomb of Lê Văn Duyệt, located in that part of Saigon that was, in my days there, called Chợ Lớn, which means “large market.” It was in the southern quadrant of Saigon, and its population was predominantly Chinese.
The tomb itself is in a stately park surrounded by high walls. Its entrance gate is two stories tall, and inside the walls are several temples ornately decorated with ceramics. I first visited the tomb in 1962. It was an imposing shrine, stately and moving. I visited it periodically during my time in Saigon. I saw it for the last time in 1975, not long before Saigon fell, and found it in shambles as the chaos of the war led to general disarray. From pictures now on the internet, it appears that the communist government of Vietnam has restored it to something like its former glory.
Lê Văn Duyệt (1763 or 1764 – 3 July 1832) was a Vietnamese general who helped Nguyễn Ánh—the future Emperor Gia Long—put down the Tây Sơn rebellion, unify Vietnam and establish the Nguyễn Dynasty. After the Nguyễn came to power in 1802, Duyệt became a high-ranking mandarin, serving under the first two Nguyễn emperors Gia Long and Minh Mạng. The Nguyễn dynasty continued to rule Vietnam, at least nominally, until 1954, when Vietnam was divided into the communist north and the republican south. The last of Nguyễn, Bảo Đại, lived in exile in France until 1997.
The character of Tuyet in Last of the Annamese is a member of the Nguyễn clan. She is a princess forced to marry a peasant for the good of her family.
The tomb of Lê Văn Duyệt appears in my novel, Last of the Annamese. In the spring of 1975, Colonel Thanh takes his family—his wife Tuyet, his niece Lan, and his six-year-old son Thu—to the tomb on a family outing. The trip is not a success. The tomb, which Thanh remembers from his youth, has been neglected and is overrun with beggars. Worse, a VC assassin shoots Thanh in the shoulder as the family searches for a taxi to take them home.
When I think back about my days in Saigon, Lê Văn Duyệt’s tomb is among my favorite memories. It was a serene place surrounded by a city that became more chaotic as defeat came closer.