In 1962, the French colonialists were still everywhere throughout Vietnam. In Saigon, French was almost as commonly spoken as Vietnamese. It was the language of the Vietnamese upper class who considered their own language, Vietnamese, primitive. Some of them were less adept at Vietnamese than I was, so I spoke French with them.
The city felt safe. I bought food from street vendors or ate at local restaurants, especially the little cafés near my apartment on Tu Do Street, in the heart of downtown. On my rare days off, I toured the city and nearby suburbs, and I regularly had dinner at the cheap but excellent Chinese restaurants in Chợ Lớn, the Chinese quarter. I visited temples and the tomb of Lê Văn Duyệt in a park set aside to commemorate the famous general. I learned to depend on xích lô máy, motorized cyclos (three-wheeled vehicles in which the rider sat in front and the driver behind) for movement about the city.
When I came back to Vietnam in 1963, the country had already started to change as it moved into war. Saigon was less leisurely as terrorist incidences on the streets became common. The French colonialists became markedly fewer. The presence of military, both U.S. and South Vietnamese, slowly transformed the country to a war zone.
The transformation became more pronounced as the years passed. I was in Vietnam at least four months every year between 1962 and 1975—I had two complete PCS (permanent change of station) tours there and many shorter trips, called TDYs (temporary duty, usually four to six months). By the end, in 1975, the gracious southern city of Saigon had become the last bastion free from North Vietnamese aggression. It was filthy, in disrepair, and overwhelmed with refugees who mobbed the streets to the point that cars couldn’t get through. The stink was overwhelming.
Despite the chaos and destruction of the end, I still remember the Vietnam of 1962, the amiable, unhurried center of southeast Asian hospitality. At its center was Saigon, the Paris of the Orient.
What a difference a war makes.