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.