One of downtown Saigon‘s most famous landmarks is the Rex Hotel. It sits on the main square, and if you look from a distance, you can see a sign that says: “Rex Hotel rooftop garden bar: five o’clock follies”.
It’s a phrase with a history dating back to the Vietnam war — which is referred to as the American War in this country. The rooftop bar of the Rex was a gathering place for the press during the war, and it was there, every day at five, that the U.S. Army would deliver a briefing to the assembled scribes. The briefings were, to put it tactfully, consistently self-serving, to the point that the reporters started calling them “the five o’clock follies” — a phrase the Vietnamese have gleefully preserved
Being an old reporter, this was a place I needed to see. So on my last night in Saigon, I took the elevator up to the rooftop bar, where a local rock band was playing for a scattering of tourists and businessmen, on a stage fronted by two elephant statues. The band wasn’t bad — there are a lot of good singers in Vietnam. But the real show was the scene itself, with the hotel’s illuminated crown perched in the background and the Saigon skyline pulsing with neon colours from the modern buildings nearby.
In a way, it was a fitting goodbye to Vietnam, sitting here in a place that was once the site of the five o’clock follies but is now more of a curiosity for visitors. Vietnam has for the most part moved on, even if the official buildings with their armed guards give a constant reminder that this is a controlled society. On the streets, and on the Rex Hotel roof garden, nowadays it’s more about having a beer and making a dollar. Which must be why they charged me five times the going price for my drink.
Hint: click on the photo to see it full-size.