This is a continuation of the narration in the post “Good Morning Vietnam.”
As I pondered what I was supposed to do in Saigon I looked up and saw it, the Rex Hotel, and I knew. The Rex is where the US military had its daily press briefings during the Viet Nam War, the “Five O’clock Follies.” I noticed, later, that that “Five O’clock Follies” is now the name of the bar where the briefings took place.
I knew if the Rex was close so was the Caravelle. The Caravelle was where many journalists stayed and where bureaus had their offices. It’s rooftop bar was where they came at night to exchange stories. The views from the roof provided the backdrop for the network standups. Sometimes when there was an attack in the city or fighting across the Saigon River it was a platform for cameras to get video when the journalists could not get close to the story. We had to go to the Caravelle rooftop bar and raise a toast to journalists who were not imbedded but covered the war independently.
The Caravelle wasn’t on my map so I asked directions. I got the smiling answer “Oh that nest of journalists and spies.” He pointed me in the direction and my first glimpse was disappointing. It was a huge high rise. I knew the Caraville was 9 stories, 10 if you count the roof. But I want in anyway and asked if they still had a rooftop bar. The door lady smiled and said, “It’s in our heritage wing, to the left. Take the last set of elevators to the 9th floor.” The bar’s name — Saigon Saigon.
On the ninth floor we took the winding stairs to the roof, which had its wooden pavilion with ceiling fans covering part of the roof, giving shade. Much of the historic view was blocked by new buildings, including the new section of the Caraville itself. You could no longer see the Rex across the square.
Suzi and I were the only customers, although another couple came up later. There were photos of Peter Jennings and the Australian, Peter Arnett, the Pulitzer Prize winning AP reporter who elected to stay in Saigon after the fall to continue to cover the story. Placemats had pictures of several ABC journalists standing on roof. Saigon Saigon offered a house brew, on tap, that “replicated the local beer that the correspondents would have had here.” We ordered two and I did what I had to do.
I raised a toast to the journalists who on this roof, and in the rooms below wrote “the first draft of history.” They changed war coverage forever. Some of them I knew personally, like Peter Herford, CBS Saigon Bureau Chief or Neil Conan from Pacifica. Some I knew only by their bylines. Suzi and I touched glasses. “To a free press” and because, despite the McDonalds, Starbucks, and even Popeye’s Chicken, Viet Nam is still a state without press freedom, “May Viet Nam someday have one.”