Taboo Travel: Saigon in a More Dangerous Era

John Gardner, GM of the Caravelle Hotel, reflects on the allure of Saigon in the 1960s and the price of a luxury escape…

Think of the great places that are verboten when it comes to travel these days: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, all lands of great, exotic appeal, and all off-limits to people who put a premium on safety.

I was thinking of this when I happened upon a tourist brochure from 1961 touting the allure of Saigon, Nha Trang, Dalat and the “ultimate in Saigon Viet – Nam,” the Hotel Caravelle. There we were on the back page of the Visit Fascinating Vietnam brochure, “fully air conditioned” and “centrally located on fashionable Lam-Son Square”.

TexasTech8Back then, you could rent a room in the city’s top luxury hotel for US$12.20 per night, or $15.40 for double occupancy. Credit cards didn’t come into widespread use until much later, so our front desk must have stocked lots of American nickels and dimes to make change for those price points.

My predecessor back then was, presumably, a Frenchman by the name of J. Ch. Mornand. Where are you today M. Mornand, and what stories I bet you have to tell?

This glimpse of Vietnam in 1961 featured so many aspects of travel back then, not the least of which was big game hunting. “Vietnam is a hunter’s paradise,” the brochure says over a picture of a young elephant. If not elephants, you could bag yourself a tiger, leopard, gaur, wild ox, wild buffalo, bear, deer or pheasant.

This hunting was not all that far form Saigon. The best grounds were but 50 – 250 “miles” away near Dalat and Buon Me Thuot and Di Linh. If you took an elephant, you’d have to pay about $140. A gaur cost almost half as much, and a buffalo or ox only one third as much. You could, with “license A,” kill one male elephant, two male gaurs, two male oxen, two male buffalos, four bears, six deers and as many tigers and leopards as you like and for no fee. “The number of wild and harmful beasts killed is not limited,” reads the brochure.

What a place.

Back then, you could go dancing at the Arc-En-Ciel at 52-66 Tan Da St in Cho Lon, where Graham Greene had his characters dancing in The Quiet American.
* You could get 73 Vietnamese piastres for $1.
* Americans didn’t need a visa if they stayed in the country less than seven days.
* Air Vietnam, not Vietnam Air, was your in-country carrier.
* Two million people lived in Saigon.
* Tourists routinely drove their own vehicles
* And “a visit to the Caravelle Skyroom Restaurant and Roof Garden is a ‘must’ for all tourists.” Well then, some things haven’t changed about Saigon!

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Beyond Saigon, the brochure was steering travellers toward the usual suspects — Bien Hoa, Tay Ninh and Thu Dau Mot, then renowned for its lacquer craftsmen, now a part of Ho Chi MInh City. Further afield, they wanted us in Dalat (55 minutes by DC3 from Saigon), Nha Trang (where you could even then take a glass-bottomed boat out onto the bay) and Hue (where Ngu Binh Mountain was then called the King’s Screen).

After whiling some time away from this brochure, I looked up from my armchair here on Lam Son Square, wondering how much promise this country had in 1961, how alluring it all was, and just how much suffering the Vietnamese would have to go through before the days would be as bright again.

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1 thought on “Taboo Travel: Saigon in a More Dangerous Era”

  1. One of my favorite places in 66 – 67 Saigon was Continental Plaza hotel’s ground floor open air cafe, aka The Continental Shelf. Went there every time I got into Saigon. If you sat in the cafe for any amount of time, your path would cross with everyone, every role.

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