Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Travels past: The Continental Hotel, Saigon

In Ho Chi Min City, there remain plenty of references to Saigon, which is the same place but also its other self - the city as it existed before the Vietnam War and the city as I first encountered it quite a while before I visited, in Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American.

I wasn't sure how The Continental Hotel, which figures strongly in the novel, would wear its presence in this past. But there are pictures of Greene hanging in the hallways and in a courtyard restaurant with cast iron tables where you have breakfast. Outside the hotel, it's busy and noisy with moped traffic; the heat is tropical and still and flavoured by petrol and smoke. But the courtyard is a quieter moment in the 1950s, when Greene was here and perhaps the hotel was at its peak.

A room at Hotel Continental
That's not to say it's bad now. Actually, it's a dream hotel, or a bit like a dream. The rooms are very large with large cupboards and arches of dark timber. There are sections to the rooms: not quite different rooms within a suite but doorways and turns nonetheless. The space gives the hotel a feeling that there is more time in the world, and that every activity deserves its own pocket and lining. On the other side of the arch pictured here, is a writing table and four seats around a low-set coffee table. I can't really say that I feel Greene's presence, even though he lived in Saigon for years and produced an extraordinary book about it. But I feel the presence of Greene's world, and I like the commemoration of its aesthetics. I hope they don't renovate.

Hotel Continental
The balconies have high window doors and look across to the side walls of the Opera House, not its opulent French colonial facade, while the shops in this part of Ho Chi Min are mainly high-end European chains that make it hard to imagine Greene's narrator Fowler watching his lover Phuong walking across to the lower floor bar area, which has been retained and which serves evening drinks.

Ho Chi Min Museum of Fine Arts
I find I like Ho Chi Min as much as I like the novel. It's the wrong way around, I know: a city isn't beholden to a book! But that's how it is for me: I arrive hoping that the city will be as rich and startling as it is in Greene's portrayal and imagining of it. The city is perhaps more than that, frantic and difficult to cross by foot, rather impossible to gather, a city of a river and of a night and of haze and brilliant density, and in the quietest streets and buildings also a city of the past.

In Zadie Smith's introduction to The Quiet American for the Vintage edition (available in The Guardian newspaper) she considers, almost as a final aside, the relationship between Greene and conceptions of literary writing. She writes: English writers these days work in spasms, both in quantity and quality, and so keen are they to separate "entertainments" from "literature" that they end up writing neither. That was not Greene. He wrote a lot and he wrote for his readers. He also produced different kinds of writing, and, in the case of this book, all at once. It is a book of many voices and many techniques - archways and separate areas and tightness, and also sudden openness and space.

Ho Chi Min

(Travels past are past travels that I didn't manage to write about then.)