The Saigon River is neither beautiful nor spectacular. But it is the heart of the old French Saigon, and is still a significant element of the, now-called, Ho Chi Minh City. The rivefront was the focus of much activity when Nancy and I first arrived in Saigon in July, 1962. The Quay, "Ben Bach Dang," was obviously influenced by classic French Urban Coastal Culture, as evidenced today in Nice and other cities of the French Riviera, with wide sidewalks for promenades under flowering trees, benches, and many flowering plants. One could still sense the elegance of a bygone era, as families made their late-afternoon promenades under the tamarind trees, with children five or six deep on their motorbikes. The slim young girls were lovely in their flowing "ao-dais," as they strolled hand in hand with their boyfriends. In the early sixties, it was a tranquil site in a definitely non-tranquil city and country.
|Bob and Nancy Ryan aboard "Le Vietnam" of MM Lines, about to embark for Japan. March, 1964. The ship is tied up in the Saigon River at the MM Piers. It is low tide.
As may be noted in this photo in 1964, the area across the river was a nondescript collection of shacks, and ferry "terminals,"faced by mudflats and usable only at high-tide.
Just downriver from the promenades of Ben Bach Dang were the Saigon Offices of Messageries Maritimes, a classic, but, in my opinion inelegant, colonial structure.
|Saigon Offices of Messageries Maritimes
It seemed to be an unsuccessful cross of a Thai Temple and a turn-of-the-century French Railway Station! This historic photograph is from the website of Philippe Ramona of France. He has compiled a significant history of the company with a masterful collection of photographs displayed on his website.
The ships at the quay indicate that undated photograph, was obviously taken before WWII. Not much had changed by 1962 except the designs of the ships. The appearance of the MM Building also had not changed from the time that MM was evicted in late 1964, to after the war, when it was converted into the Ho Chi Minh museum.
|This is how it appears today, portrayed on the local currency.
The beautiful white passenger/cargo steamships "Laos,"" Cambodge," and "Vietnam" of the MM, made scheduled calls here, and were doing so throughout 1963 and 1964. During their one-to two day port calls, luxury foodstuffs and expatriate necessities from France and Europe were offloaded while bales of cured rubber from the Michelin plantations "upcountry," were swung into their six cargo hatches. MM's freighters also visited here, or tied up at adjacent piers downstream, as did ships from their competing line, "Chargeur Reunis."
Once or twice a year American President Lines' (APL) around-the-world passenger/cargo vessels would pay a visit, I remember the "President Monroe" dropping by in 1964. APL's freighters were more frequent visitors, as the war buildup intensified. Many more American Flag ships became common along the quay throughout the 1960s. I remember the attractive white freighters of the "States" line with a "Sea Horse" logo forming the letter "S" on their funnels. Then there was one line, I believe American, which had a funnel insignia with a red star, remarkably similar to the flag of North Korea! I believe they had the design first, but it gave me pause when I first saw it.
In, I believe, 1965, the MM Headquarters was commandeered by the US Military Port Authorities, and was later taken over by the Republic of Vietnam ("South Vietnam").
The turning basin was immediately upstream from the Port, where the fetid "Ben Nge" (called "Arroyo Chinoise" by the French ) entered the river, having drained Cholon (the adjacent "Chinese quarter" of Saigon) of God-knows-what kinds of evil substances! When I took this 1964 photo, the "Vietnam" had just arrived and was being swung before docking at the MM piers. An LCM with a padded ramp was the tugboat. Slack current was required. Interestingly enough, the "current" picture of the MM Headquarters on the currency, presumably taken from a photo, shows the ships tied up, bow upstream. As I remember it, most ships came to the turning basin, and were swung before docking. They were unloaded from the starboard side. I assume both tides and schedules played a part.
There was much of the old Colonial Saigon along Ben Bach Dang. The "Majestic Hotel" a doyenne of the pre-war era, overlooking Ben Bach Dang, was then the centerpiece of the waterfront. Nancy and I stayed there for a month while seeking out suitable rental quarters.......and that's another story. But our room on the third floor, three windows to the left of the centerline, offered us a superb view of the comings and goings on the Saigon River. And it indeed was fascinating to watch, as we did from Room 302 and later 309.
We could see the radio towers of Vung Tau, on the seacoast, approximately 60 miles away. The river below us teemed with activities, sampans loaded with food and goods, and a very busy small pedestrian ferry. Ships approaching Saigon would wind a tortuous course of many miles before arriving at Ben Bach Dang, our "front door." They had to navigate the watery maze of mangrove swamps that was the "Rung Sat." We would first see the upper works of the ship, the funnel and masts, and sometimes the bridge when the ship was literally miles downstream. Sometimes it was "way over there" on the right, sometimes far to the left. We would watch it advance, slowly and deliberately through the bends and meanders of the Rung Sat which started almost behind the row of shacks shown in the first photo.
Yet, despite the title of this article, to be geographically correct, one does not sail "down the Saigon River" to the South China Sea, nor does one come up it. Let's go to the map, while I cite an analogue, to which Americans at least, could relate.
|Map of Saigon Vung Tau Port System
One does not describe an upstream voyage from New Orleans to a point east of Pittsburgh as "going up the Allegheny." No, one sails "up the Mississippi", then "up the Ohio" to Pittsburgh, and only then, "up the Allegheny." In like manner, in departing Vung Tau, one sails up the "Long Tau Channel," then up the "Nha Be River." and finally, only for a very short for a short distance, "up the Saigon River." The Saigon River is actually a small tributary of the less romantically named "Song Nha Be." And the tidal "Long Tau channel," which wends its sinuous way through the ominous mangrove swamps of the Rung Sat, is the actual primary shipping channel between Saigon and Vung Tau.
But mariners, tourists, and historians alike refer to the "Saigon River" as being the waterway between the city and Vung Tau. Most historical sources use the term "the Saigon River Delta," in parallel usage with the "Mekong River Delta." But even as the usage is not geographically accurate, I am not going to fight it. "Up the Saigon River" sounds better. MM used the term in the 1960s and merchant ships did in the 1970s. And so shall I.
The Rung Sat (blue-green area on map) was a storied place, mostly evil. For decades it was the hangout of the "Binh Xuyen", a criminal underworld, based in and around the marshy lowlands of the Rung Sat southeast of Cholon. This area was traditionally infested with river pirates, bandits and assassins. Their refuge was the Rung Sat or "Jungle of Killers," from which they launched their sorties. Here gangs and criminal families held absolute sway, forging links through intermarriage, criminal association and anti-French activities with Chinese "Triads" and Vietnamese secret societies.
If gentle reader will bear with me, I shall summarize here the exceedingly complex history of the Rung Sat, which may be of interest not only to historians, but to those who now cruise the region. To quote from this site I recently googled.
"Armed with old rifles, clubs, and knives, and schooled in Sino-Vietnamese boxing, they extorted protection money from the sampans and junks that traveled the canals on their way to the Cholon docks. Occasionally they sortied into Cholon to kidnap, rob, or shake down a wealthy Chinese merchant. If too sorely pressed by the police or the colonial militia, they could retreat through the streams and canals south of Saigon deep into the impenetrable Rung Sat Swamp at the mouth of the Saigon River, where their reputations as popular heroes among the inhabitants, as well as the maze of mangrove swamps, rendered them invulnerable to capture."
The Rung Sat, by the way, also was said to be the site of "Terry and the Pirates," the comic strip familiar to many American kids of my generation. It was a rough neighborhood. Ships traversing the Saigon River, from freighters to sampans were subject either to outright attacks, or were held up for bribes, charges, and tolls. They still are, as I understand it, but in a more genteel, bureaucratic manner, by cufflink-wearing officialdom.
From bases in the Rung Sat and Cholon, the Binh Xuyen grew from a force of 10,000 to that of 25,000 and ruled the city. Initially opposed to the French, the Binh Xuyen made common cause with the Viet Minh, predecessors of the Viet Cong. Later, as the Viet Minh withdrew from Saigon, the Binh Xuyen ruled Saigon-Cholon with only a small force. The French did their best to stamp them out, but, aided by a number of Japanese WWII deserters, the Binh Xuyen engaged the French in significant conflict. They were initially pushed back into the Rung Sat, but soon re-emerged to engage in a ruthless campaign of terror and extortion, and became established in Saigon as a well-armed, disciplined force.
Later the Viet Minh and the Binh Xuyen had a significant falling out, and, by secret negotiations with the French, the Binh Xuyen obtained exclusive rights to territory in Saigon in 1948. The French government announced that it "...had decided to confide........maintenance of order to the Binh Xuyen troops in a zone where they are used to operating." This resulted in Binh Xuyen control not only of the Saigon-Cholon capital region, including the port, but the 60-mile area between Saigon and Vung Tau as well, thus exercising full political and economic control over the entire Rung Sat and the Saigon River. Their long-standing piracy was now legalized.
United States observers of the process referred to the Binh Xuyen in this era as a: "...political and racketeering organization which had agreed to carry out police functions in return for a monopoly on gambling, opium traffic and prostitution in the metropolitan areas." The Binh Xuyen ruled Saigon to the extent that even the Viet Minh terrorists were unable to operate there, and were unable to conduct a single terror bombing in Saigon between 1952 and 1954. The Binh Xuyen controlled Saigon until purged by the U.S.-supported Ngo Binh Diem government in 1955, when their leader and much of the Binh Xuyen leadership fled to France with much of the Saigon police files! The Viet Cong then took over the Rung Sat, with a demonstrated capability to harass and interdict maritime commerce to Saigon.
I have sailed through part of it in a South Vietnamese landing craft, only once, thank you, and have flown over it in bone-rattling H-21s "flying bananas" twice. Traveling in an H-21 was like living inside a bass-reflex stereo cabinet! On one H-21 flight to Vung Tau, we hapless passengers debated whether the threat of the ancient aircraft disintegrating from the incredible vibration was greater than that from the rifles and machine guns of the Viet Cong "down there." We agreed, at the top of our lungs (essential for normal conversation in an H-21), that it was.
A few years later, with the war in full operation, APL's ships were delivering cargo to Saigon, passing through the Rung Sat, risking mines, and rockets in the process. And I flew in more luxurious "Hueys." But not over the Rung Sat, thank you. We all had our stories.
Yet Nancy and I sailed upriver on the "Laos" in 1963, through the midst of the Rung Sat, viewing it from the vantage point of the bridge. Less than a year later, we sailed down river and upriver again on "Vietnam," sipping our gins and tonics on the balconies of our cabins as we twisted and turned through the mangroves! But we knew who and what was out there!
Now to our "Laos" voyage in March 1963. We were on the final leg of our first MM voyage and "Laos" was our first MM ship. We had boarded in Bombay, and came via Colombo and Singapore. The food was French-excellent; the (free) wines were great; the "wine list" was superb; and the weather permitted memorable tangos (to phonograph records), on the cover of the Number Four hatch in the moonlight. The first officer was French-Vietnamese, and he invited us to the bridge to observe the passage "up the Saigon River." (yes he used the term too)
"Laos" arrived at Vung Tau about noon, and the Vietnamese river pilot (white suit, cigarette dangling, sunglasses, battered straw hat, and an even more battered binocular case), boarded in about an hour. He chatted in French with the Bridge officers; lit another of the dozens of cigarettes he would consume during the passage; had a few perfunctory words with the helmsman; ordered anchors weighed; and said "all ahead slow" (yes, in English!). Our friend, the French-Vietnamese First Officer, who had the con, nodded, and we were off.
Once we were underway, the pilot was all business, and the small-talk ceased. He scanned the verges of the channel repeatedly, and relayed soft voice commands to the helm, in French this time, speaking repeatedly. Sometimes he signaled "Stop", the engine-room telegraph operator responded with alacrity, and we ghosted upstream, barely maintaining steerage way. Come to think of it the wording on the engine-room telegraph was in English, thus the commands.
I noted that his course instructions to the helm were both in French and in English. He would say "cours cent vingt trois" followed by "one two three." I was told that most of the Saigon River pilots gave course headings in both French and English so that a helmsman would completely understand in the most commonly understood languages.
Sometimes it was "port ahead slow, starboard stop" as he occasionally used the engines to control ship's direction. We heeled significantly as we slid through the turns and bends, and had, (what I thought was) a "close one" as we passed a downriver-bound freighter, but pre-passing bridge-radio communications, and friendly blasts on the whistles indicating direction changes, were followed by mutual waves of greetings from the two bridges, indicating that all was routine. The current was swift, and we noted that his binoculars were often directed to the riffles in the mangroves and reeds bending in the current. By this, he could judge the strength and velocity of the current and its potential effects on the ship.
We were concerned at the speed we were making, but it was obvious that it was required to maintain steerage-way in the current. Thus, the significant heeling as we rounded the many bends. We could see the upper works of other ships, but, because of the numerous bends in the river, it was difficult to tell their course, direction, or speed. Numerous sampans were not as visible, but, we assumed they could see us. We made no attempts to maneuver around them, we just let them scuttle aside, so to speak.
This was just "another day at the office," for the pilot and bridge crew alike. But they really earned their pay, just as one must have faith in a pilot who lands an aircraft in bad weather. A "hard-a-starboard,"call in English followed the pilot's directions to the helm for a significant course change, and we heeled our way around one bend. Nancy and I gripped non-essential components of equipment on the Bridge to stabilize ourselves, as did most others. "Port one-zero" and we heeled the other way."Cours trois cents deux" and another heel. Engine room commands were constantly being relayed and changed. I commented to one of the Officers on the bridge that all this heeling must be hard on the dining china and bar. He replied that the MM Ships were used to it, and prior to the (yes) "Saigon River Passage," breakables were appropriately stowed and secured. Good thinking! And so it went, for about sixty river miles. How he was able to do it while constantly relighting his endless stockpile of Gaulois beat me. The bridge had another carton ready for him, in case he ran out. There was no doubt about it, that this pilot was a master at his trade, and we recognized the skills being applied . Just look at the configuration of the Long Tau Channel on the map, and you can see what I mean.
The French-Vietnamese "number one" was particularly attentive, and, as we later learned, he not only qualified as a "Saigon River Pilot" shortly thereafter, but become Master of one of MMs Cargo ships. About a year later, we reunited with him when he was a passenger on "Cambodge," en route to Durban, to pick up his ship. I hope he retired well and happily to France on a good pension.
Much later, Nancy commented to me, that she could never cease to associate the essence of Gaulois cigarettes, common in restaurants in France, without thinking of the Bridge of "Laos" in 1963.
In March, 1964 we took a round-trip on "Vietnam" to Japan. Below is a photo of what MM called "balcon" cabins. Today they would be called "hull balcony cabins" and can be seen in the earlier photo of "Vietnam" in the turning basin. The "balcons" themselves were modest, and one had to stand up to see over the rail. They were fitted with two small wicker chairs and a small wicker table. In this photo of a typical MM "balcon" cabin, from the "Philippe Ramona" collection, note the 18-inch or so threshold on the door on the right. It is designed to keep the outside out and the inside in, seawaterwise, and must be stepped over to go out to the "balcon."
Air-conditioning roared from a large, efficient ceiling vent, and was directed by a device that looked vaguely like a toilet plunger. But it worked, and, in tropical waters, it worked very well. The "balcons" were great for a room service continental breakfast (great fresh-baked croissants!), and for gin and tonics at later hours as appropriate. It was THE way to go to Japan from Saigon.
Our cabin was portside. Given the twists and turns of the down river course, cabins on both sides not only had good views, but upon occasion, the same view! Nancy and I first went topside to view the departure, piers were on starboard, and then went below and took station on our "balcon" to view the trip down river. We cast off, and were soon on the Nga Be at ten knots or so.
At this point we noted a great hullabaloo and shouting in what obviously was English. We assumed that the Viet Cong, did not initiate piracy by challenges in English, but we could not determine the nature of the racket, as it was obviously very close to the hull. It sounded like a great party! We chose not to lean out too far, but we soon we identified the cause. A handsome cabin cruiser, perhaps a 35-footer, was roaring along the portside, close to the ship, containing a merry party of occidentals, glasses in hand, and bellowing up greetings to the ship. A large, and for obvious reasons, very prominent, RAF "roundel" was displayed on the side of the boat. The UK was not involved in VN hostilities, which explained the presence of this, "hey, I'm not American, don't shoot" decoration.
The shouted conversations appeared to be directed to a cabin a few tens of feet aft of us. It was quite a party! Inspired by this, I started to re-enter the cabin to get more ice...we Yanks were like that, y'know..., when the goodship "Vietnam" heeled in another one of those "hard-a-starboard" turns, just as I was stepping over the high threshold. The door separating the "balcon" from the cabin immediately slammed smartly on my shin! It was a heavy, storm-resistant door, and hurt like hell. The ice, instead of being applied to our drinks, was immediately applied to a substantial bruise on my leg. I should have known better, as I knew how the ship heeled on this course. But, with ice applied outside, and gin applied inside, the pain eased, thus permitting me to hobble back to watch the rest of the transit of the Rung Sat. For days I had a very personal aching reminder of that passage!
As for the party. It was the British Air Attache to Vietnam, in his personal boat, giving the ship an informal escort down river, and bidding bon voyage to his colleague, the Australian Air Attache to Vietnam, who, with his charming wife, were also making the round-trip to Japan. We met them in a few hours, and spent many pleasant hours together, aboard ship and ashore.
I must wrap up this narrative by observing that rest of the trip down river through the Rung Sat again was fascinating, even with my aching leg. From our "balcon" we had a closer view of the vegetation, the sampans and fishing boats (or were they?), and the few minimal settlements in the area. Defoliation of the area had not yet commenced. Agent Orange was in the future.
On our return voyage, some 29 days later, we made what was to be our final trip "up the Saigon River." While we continued to make voyages on MM, and "Cambodge" was in our future, with MM evicted from their signature building on the Saigon River, our further sailings were to be from Bangkok.
Nancy and I often nostalgically viewed promotional brochures and talked of a cruise that would take us back to Saigon. It is not to be.