In 1998 one could walk down Le Duan Boulevard and gaze upon the shell of the former U.S. Embassy. The forbidding concrete grillwork and infamous rooftop helipad were still intact. I used to pass it twice a week—my favorite noodle joint was around the corner—and met many an American tourist gawking at the embassy gates. Later that year the building was torn down (surprise!) and replaced by the far less imposing U.S. consulate next door.
In those days history was still close enough to touch. A French expat I knew attended a reception honoring Vo Nguyen Giap, the legendary commander of the Viet Minh and architect of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. “And I had dinner with him!” my friend told me, incredulous. “If my grandfather had known I was having dinner with General Giap, he’d have killed me!”
That proximity to the past, notes Luc Lejeune, was exactly what people came for. “They came because of the references, the remnants of history. Whereas you didn’t need references to travel in, say, Thailand.” Why, then, do they come now?Saigon is no longer so cheap, which was part of its appeal before. Nor is it the quaint “land out of time” it was even a decade ago. These days few women wear the traditional ao dai tunic-and-trousers combo other than hotel clerks and restaurant hostesses, who only do so for tourists. Then again, today’s visitors—at least those under 35—seem more interested in Saigon’s present. They’re here for edgy fashion, for stylish restaurants and sultry nightclubs, for the Norman Foster skyscraper set to rise downtown.
I suppose I was lucky to get to Saigon when I did. Looking back, however, I was clearly mistaken—I and all my fellow travelers who came believing that whatever could happen here already had.