I had just arrived in Saigon â€” this was September 2004 â€” and, 15 hours out of sync after the long flight from California, I was wide-awake, adrenaline-quickened and eager to see everything as I hit the late-night streets. I dropped off my case at the Hotel Majestic and then began walking down Tu Do, or Freedom Street (the Rue Catinat, as it had been in French times, and now officially Dong Khoi, or Simultaneous Uprising Street).
The city had not changed much in the 13 years since Iâ€™d last been here, except that the sense of illicit energy, of movement, of underground whispering was more intense. â€œLaylaâ€ drifted up from an underground bar, and men along the sidewalks murmured promises of various exotic pleasures. A young woman sped up on a motorbike, took off her helmet and, shaking free her long hair, said, â€œWe go my room?â€ Cyclo-drivers peddled slowly past, sometimes with a single woman in their seats, sometimes stopping to ask if I needed a friend.
I went into an internet cafÃ© â€” they were everywhere, and everything was open, even after midnight â€” needing to transcribe this for someone. â€œI might almost be walking through Graham Greeneâ€™sÂ Quiet American,â€ I wrote to a childhood friend who had become a novelist in a somewhat Greenian vein. â€œItâ€™s uncanny. The Englishman Fowler and his Vietnamese girlfriend Phuong might still be walking down the Rue Catinat.â€
At that very moment a young woman came in, from the N.Y.-Saigon Bar next door, and took the stool next to mine. Business must be slow, I guessed, so sheâ€™d check her email for a while. She was long-legged, very young, and barely dressed. She logged onto her Hotmail account and I, shameless journalist, looked over to see what she was typing.
It was, of course, a love letter, from an admirer in Europe. â€œDear Phuong,â€ it began, and then the changeless cadences of half-requited love came tumbling out.