peteg's blog - noise - books - 2011 06 27 NeilSheehan TwoCities HanoiAndSaigon

Neil Sheehan: Two Cities: Hanoi and Saigon

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I picked this up from the UNSW Library after Ellsberg made many references to him. I was hoping he would tell the story of the cities post-1975 but it is instead mostly an account of the return to Vietnam in 1989 of Neil Sheehan, war reporter for United Press International and later the New York Times. These are a dime-a-dozen as so many people with the ear of a publisher blew through Saigon in those days.

For the most part this is just another war memoir, with the requisite interview with the seemingly eternal Võ Nguyên Giáp that McNamara et al did a few years later. Far more valuable would have been an account of how the culture has changed, but Sheehan is not equipped to do so, for he never learnt that much about the Vietnamese in all the years he spent there. I was a bit surprised that this was his first visit to Hà Nội; I sort-of assumed all the hacks made a pilgrimage there as guests of the regime, but Sheehan explains that they were picky, only inviting those they thought would disseminate their propaganda.

Most interesting to me was his take on the street names of Sài Gòn. Here's the meat of pp70-71:

The "Vietnamizing" of the city had also gone forward in the renaming of the streets. Most of the renaming, like that of the thoroughfare from the airport for Nguyen Van Troi, had been done simply to honor Communist martyrs, but in other instances there had been a deliberate attempt to wipe away the shame of the colonial past. A main crosstown street in pre-1975 Saigon was called Phan Thanh Gian, for a nineteenth-century mandarin who poisoned himself to apologize to the nation after being pressed into ceding the first Vietnamese territory to the French — Saigon and the Mekong Delta. In the catechism of the Vietnamese Communist nationalists, suicide did not excuse handing over part of the motherland to a foreign conqueror; Phan Thanh Gian should have refused and died resisting. And so history had been brought full circle by expunging his name and renaming the street for the triumph that drove the French from Vietnam — Dien Bien Phu.

Louis Pasteur, the French chemist and father of bacteriology who remained an icon to older Vietnamese physicians, was still too great a reminder of the colonial period to be given a reprieve for his good works. Pasteur Street was now called Nguyen Thi Minh Khai for the fiery daughter of a mandarin family who became the most famous woman martyr of the Vietnamese Communist cause, executed by a French firing squad at Hoc Mon near Saigon in 1941. The original U.S. Military Assistance Command Vietnam headquarters had been located on Pasteur Street. [...] The Vietnamese Postal and Telecommunications Service had taken over the main building. [...]

Renaming the city's main street was a problem for the new rulers. Until 1954 it bore the name Catinat. Ngo Dinh Diem, Washington's first strongman, then gave it a perfectly good Vietnamese name, Tu Do, which means "freedom". The name could not be allowed to stand after 1975; it was too evocative of the American era, of Diem [...]. The victors therefore renamed the street Dong Khoi ("uprising"). When Diem changed Catinat's name to Tu Do, the Saigonese continued to call it Catinat. Not until the late 1960s, when Diem was long dead, did the younger people begin to call it Tu Do. Now only out-of-towners call the street Dong Khoi.

Cross-checking a Caravelle from the early 1960s (e.g. this one) and a current-day one or Google maps bears out the claims of the first paragraph, allowing that the "Vietnamizing" began a lot earlier (1954 at the latest), and that the Vietnamese idiom is fatherland, not motherland, as in the Fatherland Front that was active in the South when Sheehan was there the first time.

The second paragraph rings totally false, however; Pasteur then and now is the same street (see the above maps), and Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai was Hồng Thập Tự (red cross) on the old Caravelle map.

I'm more curious to know about the street with the embassies on it, now Lê Duẩn, previously Thong Nhut (maybe thống nhất, "united"), running from Independence Palace down to the zoo, past the Diamond Plaza and Notre Dame church. As Lê Duẩn died in 1987, I wonder when the name changed, and if it was given a (distinct) new name in 1975.

Here's some old postcards and things with these old street names.

Incidentally the Securency scandal marches on, and for once Julie Bishop is making sense. I wonder how squeaky (clean) their recent deal with Canada is.