In those days, at every corner of the city
you could find a coffee shop.
There was never a high-rise building,
everything stood together in an unorganized manner,
for they never mastered the art of urban landscaping.
Street vendors had their own way of singing
their promotion songs. You remembered the tune, the words,
which reminded you of those streets.
The sounds of vehicles and their horns and the winds
never stopped. But in those days, they used to be
purer. Clearer. More innocent, perhaps. Less troubled.
Life never stops being tough,
but it was quite beautiful,
When I grew up
the city was still left with fragments of history.
I had no memory of what had happened before I was born,
yet you felt in the air the gentle sadness, and the subtle beauty
from those French buildings. The architecture
slowly faded away as icons from the war,
becoming part of our modern life.
We had to move on,
and so did everyone who had left.
Those buildings, instead, became icons of my childhood,
of what I remembered about the city.
From my elementary school,
you could see the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica to your left,
the Central Post Office right in front of you.
I was always taken home via the street former known as
the Rue Catinat.
I would never forget the way it felt every afternoon.
I’m going home.
Those places have changed, and so have people,
and so have I.
The day they demolished Givral Cafe,
Xuan Thu Bookstore, Passage Eden,
the whole street block of memories,
was the day many of us lost something so deep in our heart.
History was gone once again.
And soon enough,
we would allow ourselves to forget once again.
I keep reminding myself,
Hey, it’s ok to change.
My city does not repond to me.
It just becomes so foreign,
as if it has always belonged to somebody else
but me. And I keep digging
into the dust, the traces, the pictures
to find solace in what I could remember
about my changed lover.
They say, in the end it does not matter,
modern society needs revolutions.
Evolutions. Higher skyscrapers. Highways.
A North-South express railway even (Idea rejected.)
We need to catch up with the rest of the world.
Oh, dear men, I am fine with that. I am an easy fellow
who seldom feels too strongly about anything in particular.
But my heart keeps aching from some changes you guys make.
It outraged the day you took down my corner of memories.
I was in Boston reading the news my friends sent me,
picturing myself sitting at those steps in front of the Opera House
looking at the mass of broken bricks and dust
that was once a nice, little, iconic coffee shop-
When my friend talked to me about changes around that block,
she talked in a tone that almost seemed guilty.
She did not know how to break the news to me
without also breaking me apart.
For just a few months before that,
we were walking down Dong Khoi Street (the Rue Catinat, if you may),
taking pictures of the Opera House,
Givral Café, the Continental Hotel,
joking of how we acted like tourists.
Try being a tourist in your own city.
It means seeing everything with a fresh set of eyes,
trying to record everything,
trying to grasp the essence of everything
within a short amount of time.
I guarantee you it is fun.
And it will reinvigorate your love,
your understanding, your hope.
I was disappointed with some decisions others made.
Yet, being a city girl,
I was raised to adapt to them.
To learn that there will be thousands of other coffee shops
so many choices to overwhelm me
to drive me away from the time
when I had so few.
Will it eventually work? I do not know.
But that corner of the street (now demolished),
that corner of memory (now fading),
I was there.
Yes, I was there.
I haven’t been away from my city for long, but the changes have been quite drastic recently. The coffee shop mentioned, Givral Café, was built in 1950 during our French colonization period. Ever since it has been a legendary place where many international journalists and writers and others meet. It was taken down on April 2010.
I was born years after the Vietnam War was over, so my memories are not really associated with anything war-related. My childhood was spent around the city center with French architecture around (the Cathedral and the Post Office are still there; the Opera House was renovated, but the whole street block of Givral and Passage Eden I mentioned is now gone.)
There is not much and there is too much to say about that city. I often find it either too difficult or too easy to write about it. You probably feel the same way about something or someone you’re in love with. All the words could be dedicated, yet none would be satisfying enough.