My post of yesterday about the city of Huế got me to remembering a Vietnamese city I was much more familiar with, Saigon. That was where I and my family lived on two different multi-year tours, and it was from Saigon’s northern edge that I escaped under fire when the city fell to the North Vietnamese on 29 April 1975.
As I have noted here before, my children disliked living in Vietnam because of the poverty that reduced the populace to scraping by to stay alive. But my wife loved being there. She had servants to cook, do housework, and take care of the children. She was free to shop, play tennis, and attend coffees and teas and, on my second tour, play the role of Mrs. Chief—I was head of the covert National Security Agency (NSA) operation in Vietnam. During both tours, I was so busy with work (intercepting and exploiting the radio communications of the North Vietnamese invaders) that I barely had time to see my family.
When I first arrived in Saigon in 1962 (my family didn’t come until the next year), it was still a sleepy southern town in the tropics in which French was spoken as commonly as Vietnamese. French settlers, left over from the French domination that ended in 1954, still inhabited many of the more exclusive parts of the city. It was a residential town, filled with French-style villas complete with palm-shaded yards and servants’ quarters.
The southwestern quadrant of the city was called Chợ Lớn, that is, “Large Market” (rendered as Cholon by Americans). It was at the time—and maybe still is today—the largest Chinatown in the world. My knowledge of Chinese did me little good there, because the people, unlike the residents of Hong Kong, spoke only their own dialect of Chinese, which I believe was Cantonese, and neither spoke nor understood the Beijing dialect (also known as Mandarin or the “national language,” that is gwo yu, 國語, which I had studied). But they were particularly friendly to Americans whom they considered, correctly, as culturally more like them than the Vietnamese.
7 thoughts on “Memories of Saigon”
I too arrived in 1962, made many trips to Cholon. Really enjoyed that spot and that probably pushed me toward my Asian studies program. My thesis topics, Nanyang communities.
Fascinating. Nanyang, as I remember, means southern ocean. But it’s also the name of an area, right? Refresh my memory. So good to hear from you. Hope the worlds is treating you well.
To the Chinese I think it means more the southern region, those areas bordering (mostly) the South China Sea. In the sense it was being used in the texts I used as references, it referred to those large Chinese communities in that region. Cholon was not in my study as reference materials in English were rare. A lot had been written on Singapore and a fair amount on Bangkok although the Thais were much more controlling of Chinese language education etc. I also research and wrote a paper on the Mekong River Project over the decades. Having lived near the mouth in 1962, flown over it many times then it always fascinated me. We were last on it a few years ago on a river boat tour from Siem Reap to Camau. They have tours on the upper Mekong but I think I’ll ever make that one. Dallas
As you may have guessed I was using the term in the Ethnographic sense, you are correct, literally it means 南 洋，south or southern ocean.
I had many Chinese friends in Cholon. They seemed to speak several dialects, mainly southern Chinese, including Hakka and Suzhou. Do you remember the movie a bunch of us saw called “Sun, Moon & Star”? It was shown in two installments and was in Mandarin with Chinese subtitles and sidetitles and maybe Vietnamese and French.
Don’t remember the movie. My Taiwanese employees in Taipei would switch to one of the local dialects if they were saying something they didnt want me to understand . Very good encryption. Most them spoke two or three dialects besides Mandarin.
Fascinating commentary from both you. Thanks you.