History Still There on the Rooftop of the Rex

(first Vietnam poem)

Champagne and a flamenco band on the rooftop of the Rex Hotel
in the now renamed Ho Chi Minh city
Over three decades after the helicopter take-off in `75
from exactly this place
Walter Cronkite used to broadcast from here
Before that it was headquarters for the USIS
And prior to that – hard to believe –
a French garage.

Now there are few echoes of all that
(such incredible history!)
But there are some
Little flickers in the atmosphere
Layers of the past in the humidity
The MC gives a précis of his own history
Born in Athens, now
`privileged to work in the great city of Saigon’.

Saigon still has some magic
It’s audible in `the magic fingers’ of Mr Choi
In the dignity of Luc who sold us his paintings
and didn’t check the money we paid him
It was there in the graciousness of the Mekong Delta people
And tangible in Khoi, our guide,
who reminds us of the preciousness of memory
just by being who he is.
But greatness?
So much has been taken from Saigon
It’s a sad as well as surprising city
And it seems to run on energy alone.

We sit on the rooftop of the Rex
Where the sound of mopeds is more muted
And where the past hovers
Like Banquo’s ghost

9 January 2011

Say Goodbye to Saigon

(second Vietnam poem)

Say goodbye to Saigon
As it rushes past you
On this final drive through the streets
On the way to the airport
And to the very different city of Hoi An
The crazy Saigon streets!
With the endless motorcycles which swarm like locusts
Which support the faded grandeur of old colonial buildings
And the vibrant street trade which doesn’t cease
From dawn to dusk

Say goodbye to Saigon
As it shimmers past you
To the vendors and beggars
The markets and monuments
Transmit it to memory
Where it will lodge forever
Like a slumbering jewel
Like a piece of shrapnel

Say goodbye to Saigon
As you leave its humidity
Its gaudy stalls and shabby arcades
The splendour of the Duxton
And the dirt of the alleyways
The door that opened for you in the former
And the moped that nearly hit you in the latter

You are welcome
And you are insignificant
You are shown the sights
To which you are necessarily the outsider
No grudges from the locals
But the hint of reproach is there in the city itself
If you are up to reflecting on it
If you care to ponder it
City of contrasts
With the past and the future alongside one another
Jostling for supremacy

Say goodbye to Saigon
As it rushes past you
Soon you will leave it
Though it will not leave you

18 January 2011

Memory of My Son

(third Vietnam poem)

To wander in the forest of My Son
is to be transported in time
Marvel at the still majestic temples
The prolific plant life
And the crumbling ruins

Feel the spirit of these ancient peoples
Who shaped the rock to honour their civilisation
Buildings which date to the fourth century
And the lost – though not forgotten – kingdom of Champa

Dark doorways beckon to quiet interiors
Exquisite carvings of the human form
Entombed and embedded within the brick edifice
Brilliant green leaves grow in the wall crevices
The overgrown grass does not detract from the grandeur
But only accentuates it

Discovered by the French in the nineteenth century
Bombed by the Americans in the twentieth
A crater sits alongside a temple
It forces reflection and wordless melancholy

Locate the sadness that wells within you
As you wander the forest of My Son
As you are enveloped by the past
As you bear witness
But also to the glamour, the mystery, and the enterprise
The dignified heroism
And the extraordinary longevity
This work is not extinguished

My Son
The very name resonates
It lingers and casts ripples
It defies description
And it is indelible

6 February 2011