Nguyễn Quang Huy
The letterboxes on the entrance wall haven’t received any post for a long time. Beneath a waning neon light and facing the fan, the concierge vaguely watches the comings and goings of the scooters in and out of the basement. The lift has vanished. The staircase is closed as it was threatening to collapse. But the building itself is still solid. Abandoned by the last inhabitants, the enormous building is slated for demolition.
Built in the mid-1960s in the centre of the old Saigon, the President Hotel was the tallest and grandest building in the city at the time. With thirteen storeys linked by long airy corridors and its rooftop pool, it stood out, solid and reassuring, during the Vietnam War. During the last years of the conflict, the US Army rented the building to house the soldiers of the YRBM-20 navy support force. The GIs enjoyed the comfort of a building that included a bar, restaurant and pool room.
After the liberation of Saigon on 30 April 1975, the President Hotel was turned into housing, offices and a school. In 1980, the People’s Committee allocated two floors to the Radio and Television School. Many artists from the Vietnamese opera then came to the building to benefit from the technical equipment.
During the 1980s and 90s, when occupation of the building’s apartments was at its height, there were over 600 families, numbering 2500 residents. The corridors – a blend of public and private space, as occurs everywhere in Vietnam – were a hum of communal life: stalls selling bun, miniature grocer’s shops, cafés, pharmacies, telephones for use by the public, and so on. The building is a city within the city.
Since 2000, the building has not been maintained and the site, close to the city centre, is to be coveted. The President Hotel will be demolished. It emptied slowly but surely. Today no one lives in it anymore. Everywhere in the abandoned apartments, a hotchpotch of planks and stripped-down pieces of furniture do battle with dirty, ripped mattresses. In this room with broken windows, the altar devoted to the ancestors has been removed along with photographs and offering bowls, leaving the pot filled with sand and half-used joss sticks on the shelf. An empty, open suitcase was left on the floor by the occupants who left in a hurry.
This witness to the last half century of Vietnamese history, this decaying architectural carcass, will soon be destroyed to make room for new projects, thus turning and erasing a page of History. Time runs layer after layer in this building.
These dilapidated walls hold signs of past lives, visually inspiring memories, moods and emotions. The fragments of the last inhabitants’ lives seem frozen in time and yet, in the hallways, shadows play games, re-animating the past. (Text by Sabrina Rouille)