In Saigon there were several war hotels: The Caravelle and the Majestic were popular. But it was the Continental Palace, a relic of French colonial days, that caught the imagination. It had a quiet garden in an internal, Frangipani-filled courtyard where you could have a good, freshly baked French bread and coffee every morning. There was a peacock in the garden that would take your bread off the table, if you weren't looking. The peacock disappeared at a time when there were shortages in the city during the Tet offensive — I suspect into a cooking pot.
The Continental was best known for its open-sided terrace — "the Continental Shelf," some called it — where you could drink and watch le tout Saigon pass by. It was there that Graham Greene's journalist character, Fowler, meets his "Quiet American," quite unlike "those noisy bastards at the Continental." Greene describes the terrace as it was during the French war: "It was an early evening, in the momentary cool which came when the sun had just gone down, the candles were lit on the stalls in the side streets. The dice rattled on the tables when the French were playing Quatre Cent Vingt-et-un and the girls in the white silk trousers bicycled home down the Rue Catinat." The plot is driven by a bomb that goes off in the square outside the hotel.
By the time the American war came, the noisy bastards had increased their hold on the Continental Shelf, with beefy American contract construction workers and sweat-soaked journalists. Towards the end of the Vietnam War the hordes of diseased and limbless beggars — some carrying sick babies they had rented — pressed closer and closer out of the shadows towards the terrace's light in a last desperate effort before the foreigners fled.
In April of 1937 Hemingway wrote a story for NANA that began: "The window of the hotel is always open and, as you lie in bed, you hear the firing in the front line seventeen blocks away ... You listen to it and it is a great thing to be in bed with your feet stretched out gradually warming the cold foot of the bed and not out there..."
It was much the same in Saigon 38 years later. "The sound of artillery shells bursting in the city came through the open window of the Continental Hotel in the early hours before dawn. Up from a shallow sleep came the realization that this sound was different from the occasional incoming rocket that had awakened the capital on other nights ... The fall of Saigon was upon us," I wrote of that last day for The Washington Post.
The last weeks of that conflict were marked by a rising hysteria as Vietnamese begged and pleaded to be taken away before the capital fell to the communists. American males were offered marriages of convenience if only the girls could get out of Saigon and into America.
Towards the end there were no Americans in the provinces any more, and the South Vietnamese military command was reluctant to admit that it had abandoned cities and towns before the North Vietnamese could actually get there. Reporters went to the markets for information. If there were shrimp, it meant that the trucks were still running to Nha Trang on the coast, and that the city had not fallen. When the shrimp stopped coming, you knew that Nha Trang had gone. The same was true of vegetables from Dalat, and so on.
Later in the morning of Saigon’s last day, the staff politely and efficiently added up the foreigners' bills, the discs of their abacuses clicking, as guests scrambled to check out in time to make the evacuation. When the American helicopters swept in from the sea to the American embassy, a huge crowd of crying and moaning Vietnamese surrounded the embassy. Marines fought off those who tried to climb the fence. When the last helicopter lifted off, the North Vietnamese were about to enter the city.
It was dusk when I left. A squall had just passed, and as my helicopter was racing away and out to sea, below I could see the rain-swept streets and the red roof of the Continental where I had lived, off and on, for eight years. The friends I made there would remain friends for life, while those who died are never far from my mind.
Editor's note: From the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s to today's conflict in Iraq, it seems that in most wars a hotel provides a stage set for a cast of characters trying to cope with the tragedy outside. You can read about some of them in this series: