We had been looking forward to Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon for a while and for several reasons. We’d been told it was going to be manic and an onslaught on our senses, 9 million people and 3 ½ million motorbikes, 29oC and then the humidity. The food, the history, Christmas in a foreign city and then something much more personal: a reunion with a cousin who we’d not seen in close to 25 years. He had left the UK on a working holiday to Australia, married an Australian- Vietnamese girl and was doing really well. Both of them would be over for Christmas along with her family who were one of the last families to leave the country in the mid 70’s following the fall of Saigon. We’d arranged everything by email but hadn’t seen or actually talked to each other in all those years.
We took a taxi to the restaurant where we were going to meet everybody and went in. Nobody fitted the vague description I thought I remembered, so we walked around some more and then went back out to the reception area and stood, flummoxed. A few minutes later I spotted a silhouette of a head across the street and a group of people getting out of a couple of taxis: it was them and we both clocked each other. It was a good reunion! The next day we arranged to meet them at a Christmas day sea food banquet at an upmarket hotel for more celebrating.
The next night after several hours of pure seafood gluttony we carried on celebrating by going up to the cocktail bar at the Rex bar (an open air cocktail bar on the roof of the Rex Hotel, notorious for holding military and CIA briefings during the war). Needless to say much drinking occurred and I feel particularly proud that after only one day of reuniting we were the last group to leave at some ungodly time in the morning. During the conversations we’d talked about reasons for coming to Vietnam and I’d mentioned my infatuation with photojournalism from the 60’s and 70’s, and the work of Larry Burrows, the English photographer who died in a helicopter crash over Laos. Room 103-he always stayed in room 103 of the Caravelle Hotel, on the corner of the Rue Catinat, overlooking Lam Son square, so he could see all the action developing.
We had to see it: at least take a photo of the door, breathe in and try and experience some kind of 40 year old juju. Off we went, fuelled by half our bodyweight in seafood, the other in cocktails and beer, straight across the square, into the Caravelle, past the porters, the reception staff, the cleaners, directed one way and then the next by confused, slightly panicked (my cousin and I are not insignificant when sober) hotel staff wondering WTF these four tourists are raving about and wildly waving a camera around. We failed, but valiantly.
A few days later my cousins brother- in- law, managed to get us into R103, but in the last 40 years the hotel had been expanded and so the room that we saw was a new 103 in a new wing (it was very much appreciated though). It seems the original was now used for offices and as you can see in the picture any view from the room onto the square was obscured by a giant Christmas tree. Progress of sorts.