THE WEDDING began at Notre Dame Cathedral and ended at the Majestic Hotel. Although hardly the most beautiful church in Saigon, Notre Dame is its most famous. Built in 1877 in a neo-Romanesque style, the cathedral’s twin towers lord over one end of Dong Khoi Street (previously known as Tu Do Street and Rue Catinat). At the other end of the mile-long street, sloping gently towards the stinking waters of the Saigon River, is the Majestic Hotel.
The Majestic Hotel was built in 1925 by a Vietnamese-Chinese known as Uncle Hoa. A real estate magnate, he inspired one half of the popular jingle: “Ride Uncle Hy’s train, live on Uncle Hoa’s street.” The hotel has changed names several times. At one point, it was called The Rising Dragon Hotel.
Halfway between the Majestic Hotel and Notre Dame Cathedral is the world-famous Continental. Built in 1880, it has a prominent role in at least two decent novels. Pressing your nose against one of its plate glass windows, you will see a carved elephant the size of a bear and dark wooden chairs on a marble floor beneath a crystal chandelier.
The Continental’s receptionist is thirty-five. He speaks a casual English, a coy French, and a flippant Chinese.
Under the neon-haloed Jesus, they held each other’s hands. As friends and family looked on, they pledged to remain together until death. He was wearing a black suit rented for 30 bucks from a shop in Cho Lon. Though experienced, the bride was resplendent in a white dress. To escape the heat, some of the guests were standing in the street.
The priest was exhausted after presiding over his third wedding in two days. Holding a microphone in his right hand, he declared: “The true art of married life, mumble, mumble, mumble, a mutual enrichment, mumble, mumble, mumble, a mingling of two, mumble, mumble, mumble, which diminishes, mumble, mumble, mumble, not a destination, mumble, mumble, mumble, but a journey.”
The park outside the church is a gathering place for dating couples. They sit at little folding tables to drink root beer and to munch on dried squid. In the middle of the park is a white statue of the Virgin Mary. In her cupped hands is a globe with a cross sticking out of it.
Our newlyweds emerged into the sunlight of their married life and entered a flower-bedecked white limousine. The car circled the park once then rolled down Dong Khoi Street.
It sped past Spago, Givral, Brodard, and The Paloma Cafe. Clutching the groom’s hand, the bride evoked, once again, the time they went to Brodard to listen to music. They had just met then. The pianist and guitarist were virtuosos. Unmentioned was a brief spat over the groom’s gushing praise of a female torch singer.
Dong Khoi Street is shaded mostly by tamarinds and bougainvillea. The often-misspelled bougainvillea is a woody tropical vine of the four-o’clock family. The tamarind is a leguminous tree. Its sour fruit can be eaten raw or candied.
A sign of the decline of Dong Khoi Street are the many galleries selling kitsch. Wildly popular among tourists are reproductions of van Gogh, Botero and Renoir. These are cranked out effortlessly in backrooms by whiskered, bereted, and protein-deficient artisans, each with a framed certificate from the National Academy of fine Arts.
Only ten tables were reserved at the Majestic reception. Extortionate costs had forced our newlyweds to trim their guest list. They were prohibited from inviting, in the groom’s words: “all the riffraff of our extended families.”
Guests were treated to white seaweed with crabmeat soup, jellyfish with shredded chicken salad, beef kebab with rice vermicelli, roasted duck in tamarind sauce, and, finally, fried rice with asparagus and ham.
The wedding cake had five tiers, with green garlands and purple flowers spiraling towards a gazebo at the top enclosing a dancing couple.
Food at a wedding often disappoints, while at a funeral, better than expected. Perhaps eating in the proximity of a coffin makes one better appreciate the simple acts of opening one’s mouth, biting, chewing, and swallowing. At a wedding, the obligation to share in someone else’s supposed happiness makes all private indulgence impossible.
The soft drinks were free but alcohol cost extra. To save a few bucks, our newlyweds shunned the traditional champagne for bottles of snake wine and Hanoi Vodka.
Snake wine is basically rice wine with a snake, pickled white, coiled up in it. It is believed by the simple-minded, the vain, and the feeble, to be an aphrodisiac. “For your wedding night!” the groom’s best friend roared as all the men and half the women raised their champagne glasses containing snake wine. When the snake wine ran out everyone switched to Hanoi Vodka.
Hanoi Vodka is the drink of choice for indigent hicks on special occasions. “Clear hell in a bottle,” they call it. Although neither the groom nor the bride was an indigent hick, they both liked to weave rustic touches into their lives.
Some blamed what happened later on the snake wine. Others on the Hanoi Vodka. Perhaps it was a combination of both.
A childhood friend of the bride, who gave her her first kiss at 14, stood up and dedicated this poem to the newlyweds:
The robin eats longans.
The fighting fish knows its tub.
Husband and wife are familiar
With each other’s smell.
Two or three people clapped. The bride smiled. The groom smirked. The rest weren’t paying attention.
The wedding is the culmination of youth, a fulfillment of its aim. It is a public disavowal of selfishness. The true consummation of the wedding is the birth of the first child.
There are two banquet rooms available in the five-story Majestic. (With its tall ceilings, each story really equals two). One is called Prima; the other, Serenade. Serenade is located on the roof, adjacent to the Breeze Sky Bar. Our wedding reception took place in Serenade.
The Majestic’s rooftop veranda is its top attraction as a banquet facility. Guests have ample room to stroll around with a drink in hand to gaze at the nearby skyscrapers, the river, and the clear night sky. The noise, the stench, and the congestion of the city seem very far away.
A hydrofoil on the Saigon River has once taken our newlyweds to the coastal resort of Vung Tau. On the way, the trees on the riverbanks appeared so untropical, so alpine, that the bride was heard to exclaim, “Why, this is just like Switzerland!” For their honeymoon, our newlyweds were planning on another trip to Vung Tau, “by way of Switzerland!”
The bride’s knowledge of Switzerland was limited to watching one episode of an award-winning Canadian-produced travel television show that comes on every Wednesday.
The yellow walls of Serenade are adorned with ornately framed paintings copied from postcards bought at the Louvre. There is a Watteau, a Boucher, and several Renoir nudes. Their feathery flesh is rendered even tremblier through the hazards of painting from bad reproductions.
Several witnesses swore our newlyweds had a sustained and shrieking argument just before the unspeakable happened. One or two reported they were tussling and yanking each other’s hair. Still others claimed they were merely kissing and groping in a drunken display of public sex.
They shared a sagging bed in a mini-hotel room without air conditioning two years before their church wedding. It was her first time and she had her right forearm lying across her face, concealing her tightly shut eyes.
A shoeshine boy was squatting on the opposite sidewalk when he saw, he claimed, the groom fell first, “like a large crow,” followed by the bride, “fluttering like a butterfly.” A one-legged beggar claimed they fell together, “intertwined like a soccer ball or a ball of thread.”
They nearly landed on an aging American couple making their first visit to the Far East. A spring roll the husband had eaten that morning was rearranging most of his internal organs. His wife was having the time of her life. “I’ve seen a million things I never would have seen!” she kept chirping.
Considering the weight (him, 148 pounds; her, 120 pounds), shape and mass of the falling bodies, resistance and quality of the air (dusty, humid), it is estimated that, falling separately, the groom hit the ground in 1.2 seconds, and the bride, with her dress serving as sort of a parachute, in 1.5 seconds.
If they were holding hands or falling on the moon, they would hit the ground at the same time.
He was 32 and she was 27. “I don’t want to have any children,” she had said. “Wait until you’re thirty,” he replied knowingly. “Never,” she said.
Pain is always private. Even when two people are experiencing pain at the same time, they cannot empathize with each other.
“Why were you looking up at that moment?” a reporter asked the one-legged beggar.
“I was lying on my back on the sidewalk.”
“Why were you looking up?” the reporter asked the shoeshine boy.
“I heard a scream.”
Scribe to beggar: “Did you hear a scream?”
It is said that most people who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge did so looking towards San Francisco instead of the Pacific. Rushing towards death, one must insist on a fine view. We must assume, likewise, that as our newlyweds leapt off the roof of the Majestic Hotel, they were not looking towards the Saigon River but down the length of the most elegant street of their home city. Once more, they could glimpse, if only briefly, The Paloma Cafe, Givral, Brodard, the old opera house, and far off in the distance, the twin towers of Notre Dame Cathedral, where only two hours earlier they had sworn to give each other all the remaining hours of their lives.