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Art Travel Vietnam

Salon Saigon

Interior Salon Saigon. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Salon Saigon is an art museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. It was one of my favorite destinations in Saigon for the beauty and grace of its 1960s design. The Salon Saigon collection shows cultural artifacts of the time as well as today’s Vietnamese artists.

What strikes me now about Salon Saigon is its location: the former residence of Henry Cabot Lodge. He was the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam from 1963-1967. For Americans, these were the early years of the Vietnam War. I have to wonder why the Vietnamese would choose Lodge’s old home for Saigon’s first contemporary art museum.

A cold war warrior

Henry Cabot Lodge was an ardent cold warrior. When President Kennedy appointed Lodge as ambassador to South Vietnam in 1963, the civil war between the communist-backed North and the Western-supported South was already 4 years old. Lodge went to South Vietnam prepared to use American clout to hold the line against communism.

Salon Saigon telephone
Telephone Salon Saigon. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Lodge quickly lost patience with South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. Some historians believe that Lodge is responsible for the military coup that toppled Diem. All agree that Lodge was a hawk who fervently supported the decision by US President Johnson to escalate US military presence in Indochina.

In an article written for the Saturday Evening Post in July 1967, Lodge described the American military performance as “magnificent”. He said the Viet Cong “cannot win and we cannot be pushed out.” He was wrong, of course. The worst was yet to come: the Tet Offensive, the secret bombings of Cambodia, a massive ground war.

On 29 April 1975, Operation Frequent Wind commenced. It started with “White Christmas” broadcast over the American Radio Services, the signal for American civilians and “at-risk” South Vietnamese to evacuate Saigon. Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong captures the havoc of that day in his morning love song to Saigon on fire.

In the square below: a nun, on fire,
runs silently toward her god —

Ocean Vuong, from “Aubade with Burning City” in Night Sky with Exit Wounds, p11 (Cape Poetry 2017)

Bad vibes

Today, we call Saigon Ho Chi Minh City. In tourist-speak, HCMC is

Vietnam at its most dizzying: a high-octane city of commerce and culture that has driven the country forward with its pulsating energy.

Lonely Planet Vietnam, 14th edition (Aug 2018)

This is not what I saw. Yes, there are skyscrapers in District 1 and beautiful colonial era mansions in District 3, where Salon Saigon is located. But there are many more crumbling sidewalks and sewers that back up whenever it rains, which is often in Saigon. Our hotel staff sleeps at work when their homes flood.

Is this what happens to the losers? After all, Hanoi triumphed over Saigon. One expat shop owner suggested to me that Hanoi continues to punish its former enemy by withholding resources.

US helicopter in Danang. Photo credit: Karen Kao
US helicopter in Danang, Vietnam. Photo credit: Karen Kao

During the long years between the official end of the American War (as the Vietnamese call it) and normalization of diplomatic relations, the United States embassy in Saigon crumbled. When Vietnam returned the site to the US in 1995, the US decided to demolish it. Too many bad memories of B-52 raids planned from the embassy war room, civilians climbing the fence to escape the approaching Viet Cong, the American ambassador airlifted from the embassy roof.

Let me through, I’m an American, goddammit. I finally got myself to that wall, and when those marines reached down and grabbed my hand and pulled me up, I damn near cried again.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer, p85 (Grove Press 2015)

Not only a war

So, why not also raze the residence of a US ambassador who caused so much damage? Maybe it’s more humiliating for Lodge to know that his old home has been a conference center and the venue for high-end cooking classes. Salon Saigon is quite the step up.

My desire to impose wartime resentments on an art museum comes from my own ideas about Vietnam. I grew up during the Vietnam War. When the Vietnam Memorial opened in 1982, I was studying at Georgetown Law alongside Vietnam vets. My husband, who knows far too much about the war, hears birdsong from the Saigon River and thinks of the film Apocalypse Now.

The Vietnamese, meanwhile, have moved on. They’re busy making money and having families and living their lives like any other sensible human being would. If anyone is still trapped inside a war movie, it’s us Westerners.

A former Deputy Foreign Minister of Vietnam, Le Mai, was fond of reminding Americans that ”Vietnam is a country, not only a war.”

Jane Perlez, “A U.S. Office Opens, Stirring Saigon Memories” in The New York Times, 8 Sept 1999

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