caravelleWhen I took this picture I was conscious that I was telling a story. I composed the elements, moving a napkin away and pulling the glass closer. I wanted the drink, the elegant box of nibbles, and the computer. The flower vase was a nice touch, I thought, and there’s my story:

It was a free afternoon in Saigon. (I know the official name is Ho Chi Minh City but I like the sound of “Saigon.”) I ran through all the possibilities of places I might want to go and decided to have a drink at the Caravelle Hotel, where the journalists had hung out during the war. As the location of the Saigon bureaus of ABC, NBC, and CBS it had been the hub of communications. I pushed aside all the discordant elements in that fantasy (there are many) and focused only on the journalists as writers. I would be paying homage in much the same way as if I had decided to have a coffee at Les Deux Magots in Paris. Sure, there was irony in it. It was also fun. Mark decided to come with me.

We walked a few long blocks, negotiating vendors and laughing at the restaurants that advertised English language or the one that was having a sale on the steak special. After only two days in Vietnam, we did quite well crossing the streets. The Caravelle is a high-end hotel now, with a curved driveway to enormous glass doors, uniformed doorkeepers, and hostesses wearing ao dais. We walked through smoothly intersecting spaces that flowed from lobby to conversation groupings to bars with grace and ease. It wasn’t exactly the atmosphere I had imagined but I was into it.


Photo by Mark Smith.

At the hostess station of a lounge area we were led to a round marble table with two upholstered chairs. Mark was seated facing the square with a view out toward the Opera House and the Hotel Continental. I remember wishing I had that view. I faced the elevators.

We ordered drinks – wincing over the cocktails with names like “B-52” – and nibbled from the box of crackers and dried fruit. I tried to “file a brief” (meaning to post to my blog) only to encounter contemporary security measures – the Wifi was password-protected. We talked about war in general and the Vietnam War in particular and meanwhile, beyond our table, a constant flow of young Vietnamese women dressed in short, tight clothes went into the elevators or emerged from them. A few girls went up alone. Most were in the company of older – and much larger – Western men.

I have nothing useful to say about this except that in that moment I knew there was another side to my journey that, like the corner of the elevator I did not arrange in my composition, was going to intrude on any story I might want to create for myself.