It’s a free day in Sàigòn, and some of us are walking up Tự Do Street to the cathedral, Nhà Thờ Đức Bà Sàigòn. I pushed for this; I’ve been here before. Pictures from an earlier visit to Sàigòn are at embassy.html, but there are no pictures from the interior.
I need shots of the inside not just because I'm curious, but also because Tim Clancy, a friend of mine and my wife’s, is a Jesuit. On a recent visit to Salt Lake City, Tim made a special point of visiting the Cathedral of the Madeleine.
The Madeleine is notable in that the Stations of the Cross, inside, feature more people of color than whites.
And the interior is reminiscent of early 20th C Egyptian revival architecture.
On our walk up Tự Do, this man in a white shirt and white baseball hat matches speed with me. “I think you’ve been here before,” he says. “Yes, in 1970,” I say. “You’ve been here before” is a polite way of saying, “I think you were a soldier.” Several people have already said that to me, and I wonder how they know. I look much less like a former GI than even Bill, I think, although it’s possible that what I think ex-GIs look like is just another stereotype; but I’m a remf and Bill’s a combat veteran. Anyone can tell that, I think, although later, Steven tells me that it’s an age thing; he’s been asked that several times each trip, and he was never in the service.
The gentleman turns out to have been a Colonel with the ARVNs; he asks where I was stationed. I list them, and add in the places I visited for short times, trying to pronounce them correctly. When I mention Củ Chi, he breaks out into a grin. “I was there too,” he says. I ask if he means he was at the base the Vietnamese called Đồng Dù, and he says yes. I try to ask when he was there, and he shows me a laminated page with the dates of his service on it; his whole story seems to be there, but I don’t absorb it. He asks for money. I know that life for former ARVN officers can be pretty rough; some have gotten lucky, but others haven’t. This guy is one of the latter. I assume he’s a street person. Like all the street vendors and street kids and beggars, he’s spotlessly clean. In the US, a street person would almost certainly smell from lack of showers. Here, it seems, everyone finds a way.
I give the former ARVN Colonel 50,000 đồng, and he starts talking to Bill; that’s when I take the picture above. The conversation looks acrimonious, but it’s not; Bill is telling his story and, like most of us, he talks with his hands. Off to the right, in shadow, you can make out Christina and Allison, waiting for us. The Colonel could have talked to Christina, since she’s the daughter of a vet, but he has only talked to me and to Bill. Is there a sign that we’re wearing? An invisible aura? We don’t have the detector for whatever it is; I know I sure can’t tell if a Vietnamese was in the Army unless he or she is wearing a uniform. The only way I would have guessed in the Colonel’s case would have been by his erect posture and military bearing. I’m not like that.
Thirty-two years ago, there was no Diamond Plaza. The grass wasn’t as green, nor was it as well cared for; the trees are much healthier looking now. But this time, I can go inside, since I’m not in a Jeep with a driver who’s trying to navigate the traffic when he doesn’t know how it works, and I’m no longer carrying an M79 grenade launcher.
The cathedral is full of visitors, but I wait till most of them clear out of the front pews before taking a picture.
Just behind me, and to my left, there are a couple of dozen Vietnamese sitting in pews fanning themselves. I notice the electric fans aren’t running, although there are plenty of them. It may be hot, but it is still sacred space. The architects are right; it’s not about the forms of the columns and the colors and curves of the walls; it’s the shape of the space made by the nave, the chancels and the transept.
I take this picture from the crossing. The blue banner hanging on the right says “Hãy bứơc đi trong ánh sáng. Isaiah 2.5.” “Come, let us walk in the light.” My little electronic dictionary isn’t a lot of help with this phrase; I have to wait until I get back to America and can consult both the Bible and a better dictionary. The e-dictionary’s been a wonderful thing to have, but it’s more suited to translating shop signs and maps than passages from the Bible or sayings of Uncle Hồ.
The Stations of the Cross here feature neon lighting.
And other accomodations to the local traditions and culture.
I’ve walked all around the cathedral, inspected all the stations of the Cross. I take a break, sitting, like the Vietnamese, in a pew as far away from the altar as possible. I sit and fan myself and think about my mother. It’s because I’m in a cathedral; on April 4, 1983, our Jesuit friend Tim’s brother, Kevin, died at 24, of leukemia.
Audrey and I went to Kevin’s funeral and it was, naturally, in a Catholic church; during the service, a woman with a soaring voice, powerful enough to fill cathedrals, sang a hymn which stuck in my mind.
When my mother died in early 1989, my brother asked what music we should have at the funeral. I told him I knew just the piece, and I called up the Clancys. To my distress, none of them knew the song and the woman who’d sung at Kevin’s funeral had moved away, leaving no forwarding address. I ended up settling for “Amazing Grace” and hating the preacher Dad asked to speak at the funeral home. We lucked out at the graveside service, in Evansville, Indiana, with a Reverend Crow from the Garvinwood Baptist Church. He spoke softly, and when he was done it didn’t seem quite so cold in the tent anymore. Sacred space is created not only by columns and arches.
I look around, and it seems that I’m almost the last one in here. At the main entrance, where it looks straight down Tự Do Street, I take a picture of the Virgin from the back.
The buildings in the distance are hotels halfway down Tự Do Street. The building on the left, the one with the curved arch, is the Caravelle Hotel, which is next to the Opera House. The Sông Sàigòn, the Sàigòn river, is only a mile away.
The name of the cathedral, Đức Bà, is usually translated as “Notre Dame,” and that seems as good a translation as any. “Bà,” the word that stands in for “Dame,” has a wider range of meanings in Vietnamese than does Dame in English. It can mean a married woman, a wise woman, an older woman, a lady, any woman (it’s what’s on the doors of women’s restrooms), even sisters, or just “she.”
We’re through here, so the group mills around. We know where we’re going—that’s already been decided—but milling seems to be something we do very well. Eventually, we set off walking, but I’m not sure how we go; I don’t remember seeing the Reunification Palace park on the way, and that would have been the most logical way to go. However we get there, we arrive at what looks like just another intersection in a busy city.
On June 11, 1963, at the intersection of Nguyễn Đình Chiểu and Cách Mạng Tháng Tám streets in Sàigòn, Thích Quảng Đức set himself on fire here to protest the anti-Buddhist policies of President Diệm. Like Quách Thị Trang, he is a martyr.
It’s a busy intersection. Across the street is the shrine, and this plaque shows that it was dedicated in April of 1967:
Hòa Thương — Buddhist Monk
Thích Quảng Đức
Vị Pháp Thiêu Thân hồi 10 giờ — The Most Venerable Monk cremated himself at ten in the morning
Ngày 11 ∙ 6 ∙ 1963 _ Phật lịch 2507 — on June 11, 1963, the Buddhist Year 2507
Tại giữa Ngã Tư — In the middle of the intersection
Phan Đình Phùng _ Lê Văn Duyệt — of Phan Đình Phùng (Nguyễn Đình Chiểu) and Lê Văn Duyệt (Cách Mạng Tháng Tám) Streets
Sàigòn 20 ∙ 4 ∙ 1967 — Sàigòn, April 20, 1967
V.T.V.H.Đ. — Viện Trưởng Viện Hóa Đo (Chairman/Dean of the Institute for the Dissemination of the Faith)
The street names have changed; after 1975, many streets in Sàigòn were renamed. In 1970, and throughout the Vietnam War, some street names were famous; the most famous of all was the one that the Americans at home and the GIs called “Two Dough” Street. Tự Do would properly have been pronounced “Two Yo” (in the South) or “Two Zo” (in the Central and North); it means “Freedom” or “Liberty” Street. Under the French, it was called the Rue Catinat.
I assumed “catinat” had something to do with hookers, since “catin” in French means trollop. Later, I researched the name. The first link I found claimed that it was the name of a warship that saw action in 1856 and 1859, under the command of William Lelieur de Ville-sur-Arc, near Đà Nẵng. Then I found references to a Nicolas de Catinat, a Grand Marshal of France who lived from 1637 to 1712, and next I found an actual street in Paris with the same name, which appears to be named after the Grand Marshal. Although there’s a missing link here, my guess would be that the warship would have been named after either the Grand Marshal or his street. Naming a street after a warship that helped in the subjugation of Việt Nam would not have endeared the French name to Uncle Hồ and the other revolutionaries; it seems particularly apropos to rename such a street Tự Do, Liberty Street. The hookers might have taken the freedom part a little too literally, because the most famous red light district ever was right there in downtown Sàigòn from 1949 to 1975. I suspect that for a few days, even after April 30, 1975, business went on as usual on the street that leads from the biggest cathedral in Việt Nam to the Sông Sàigòn. The communists changed the street’s name to Đồng Khởi, meaning uprising or rebellion. Check out this link for some comments on Việt Nam and a poem on street name changes.
I’m not comfortable with those name changes; I find it difficult to think of Đồng Khởi Street and Hồ Chí Minh City. I’ll stick with Tự Do and Sàigòn.
Andrew, below, is stepping off the curb into traffic; the rest of us followed him, trying to practice everything we’d been taught about moving organically through the thick Sàigòn traffic.
The corner we’re on is opposite from Thích Quảng Đức’s shrine. In 1963, the monk’s friends drove him to this intersection, where he sat in the street just about where that white car is in the picture above. Later, in Huế, we see the Austin in which he arrived from the Ấn Quang pagoda on Sư Vạn Hạnh Street in Sàigòn.
We’re looking up at the shrine; no one knows why there is a grey swatch on the Most Venerable’s robe. Ed and Kate squeeze inside the gate and make an incense offering. Others of us talk to some kids.
I look around; I take a picture of the building right next to the shrine.
It’s the District 3 Meeting Hall for the People’s Committee of Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh. Meeting halls like this are everywhere, as are the green-uniformed soldiers—the bộ đội—of whom we’re not supposed to take pictures. In the countryside, also everywhere, are cemeteries for the VC and NVA who died during the long struggle for independence.
We never see cemeteries for the ARVN soldiers who died. Their side lost, after all.
We are told that the words mean “The nation recognizes your sacrifice.” There are hundreds of these places all over the South. There may have been just as many up North, but I don’t recall seeing them in the same numbers. Regardless, it’s a lot of graves. This one seems smaller than most of the others I’ve seen. There are workers here, renovating and repairing. Everyone in these graves was born in the area; most are men. There are a few unknown soldiers in tombs around the country, but when identities are determined the government takes great pains to send the remains home. They have the right to die where they were born, or at least to be buried nearby. I wonder about the ARVNs. I have to assume they are for the most part buried on their families’ lands, but no one’s ever said.
“To a French government minister, Ho outlined the scenario if they could not avert war: ‘You would kill ten of my men for every one I killed of yours. But even at that rate, you would be unable to hold out, and victory would go to me. ...’ ”
—Quoted by A.J. Langguth in Our Vietnam.
As Americans, we do not understand statements like this. We do not understand what makes martyrs burn themselves to death. We think we understand sacrifice, such as Quách Thị Trang’s, but it’s at one remove; she was in the wrong place at the wrong time, standing up for something she believed in, we think. What we don’t get, though, is what Thích Quảng Đức did, which is what I now believe not to be that distant from what the VC and the NVA did.
I remember Thích Quảng Đức’s death. I was a sophomore in high school at the time, mystified by the concern my parents, especially my mother, were showing about someplace I’d never heard of. Most people hadn’t heard about Việt Nam in 1963, but Mom was a conspiracy theorist, always on the lookout for yet another way the government was trying to put one over on us. I never put much stock in what Mom learned about Việt Nam, even when I ended up there in 1970. “I don’t want to know, Mom,” I’d write to her. I didn’t know then why I was there, but I could have known if I’d listened to her.
In 1970, hardly anyone knew. Every GI you saw incountry knew that there was no winning, no compromise with an enemy who slept with you, did your laundry and cut your hair, who stole your clothes to fool your own tracking dogs, who gave awards like “American Killer” and “Tank Killer” to young girls with AK-47s, an enemy who still, thirty years later, puts pictures of those young girls on the tourist brochures and makes those tourists watch propaganda films about those near-children. I think that during the war, only some of those who were distant from the country and the land and the people, who were gung-ho John Waynes and generals and high-ranking brass who weren’t concerned about anything except upping the body count, only they—and my Mom—knew why America was involved in the war. It wasn’t a good reason, which is why it didn’t play in Peoria. Sometimes the conspiracy theorists are right, even if you’re related to them.
That's my Mom and me on the right; on the left is my Aunt
Bernice and cousin Nancy
Not long after Dad died in January of 2000, I started wondering about the hymn that had been sung at Kevin’s funeral, and should have been sung at Mom’s. I remembered what I thought was the first line, and I now belonged to the Classics list, which had been a fount of unexpected and unlikely information in the past, so I posted a query.
Within 24 hours I had a definitive answer and a correction; what I thought had been the first line was actually a portion of the refrain. A few days later, John McChesney-Young sent me the sheet music for “When from Our Exile,” adapted from Psalm 126 by Hoob Oosterhuis, translated by Redmond McGoldrick, set to a tune by Bernard Huijhers (© 1974 TEAM Publications). The beginning is, “When from our exile, God leads us home again, we’ll think we’re dreaming. ...”
I’m a Buddhist, not a deist, but there are times now, in Việt Nam, when I think I’m dreaming.
We are through at Thích Quảng Đức’s shrine; It’s time to go on to a museum. Ed wants to take cyclos; I’m a little trepidatious, because I’ve never ridden in one, but I guess I’d better learn. We end up with nine drivers for nine people; I take a picture of Bill,
who seems perfectly comfortable. I wish I could be as relaxed; I’m not a very good Buddhist.
I forget to have a picture taken of me in the cyclo, so there’s only this one, taken by Mark Lawrence in Huế:
ARVN: Army of the Republic of Việt Nam
VC: Việt Cong, fighters for the communists who are South of the DMZ
NVA: North Vietnamese Army; supposedly only North of the DMZ
Shirt: Those are geckos on my shirt, not Escher self-replicating lizards
Most Venerable: For more on the Most Venerable, see http://www.quangduc.com/BoTatQuangDuc/index-englishpage.html, a page from Quang Duc Monastery (Trang nhà Quảng Đức) in Victoria, Australia.
Main web site: http://www.pauahtun.org