Where letters were sent in hope
THIS WEEK, I spent a day and a bit thinking about a grand old building we can easily take for granted here in Saigon. The Central Post Office, constructed between 1886 and 1891, is one of the city’s most famous landmarks from the French colonial period. For many of us that means it’s routinely dismissed as a place for tourists in conical hats and photo shoots.
But a short assignment forced me to visit and give the building a little more thought. First, in search of a quote, I contacted the Saigonese journalist and memoir writer Phạm Công Luận, who spoke about the Central Post Office's pyscho-geographic meaning to his generation: "It was a place to write and send letters in hope.” These letters he speaks of were sent to dear friends who had taken their chances to move overseas. Back in the '80s, before the US lifted its embargo, when an impoverished Vietnam was isolated from much of the world, Luận and his friends wouldn't have known when they would cross paths again.
After chatting with Luận, I visited the Post Office. It was a Tuesday afternoon. A skin-scorching sunny spell had finally relented and a late rainy season shower loomed. Stepping into the building’s cooler air space, I took the opportunity to write a quick postcard to one of my late mother's best friends in Dublin. She's getting on, as they say, and Luận's words of ‘sending a letter in hope’ echoed in my mind as I dropped the card on top of a basket filled with envelopes and postcards. In Saigon, rather sweetly in this Digital Age, sending ‘snail mail’ is a throwback-thing-to-do for tourists. But many Vietnamese still come here to avail of postal services, too. There's another VNPT location around the corner on Nguyen Du Street – the "actual Post Office" as a friend once called it. But given the choice, a fair few locals clearly still choose the showpiece venue. Perhaps it adds an extra lick of luck to a college application (also sent in hope).
As I did a lap of the interior under the high arched ceiling, a small number of Vietnamese were sitting on benches by wooden tables, busily filling out applications, or taking care of bills, seemingly oblivious to the throng of tourists (local and foreign) taking pictures and queuing for stamps. It’s on those benches where Luận would have sat, all those years ago when Saigon was, in so many places, a beat-up and downtrodden town. Let’s picture him there: a handsome, bespectacled fellow in his early 20s, wearing a short-sleeved shirt over a vest that’s tucked into his trousers. Like all scribes, he is armed with his tools – one pen is in a shirt pocket. Another in his hand. He writes multiple letters, releasing so many emotions that he begins to feel lightheaded. As he writes out a foreign address on an envelope, he cannot picture the city where a friend lives. He can only imagine it hazily and wonder what life must be like there for his friends. He then buys some stamps from a chi or an anh behind the counter and, with a quiet act of ceremony, he places his missives on a heaped pile of envelopes, hoping that his letters each find their way into the hands of the intended recipients. And with his business concluded, he then steps out into the late afternoon sun, which in Saigon always feels softer, kinder. More forgiving. While lost in the act of correspondence, a downpour has been and gone. He hadn’t even noticed the deluge from inside the Post Office. A whiff of petrichor hangs in the air. The streets glisten. The trees look more lush. Notre Dame Cathedral more pink. Everything is so vivid. He takes a few steps then looks back at the building he has just exited. In the golden sunlight, he sees the intricate details of the century-old façade more clearly than ever. A line of verse springs to mind: "Thành phố đẹp như trang hoàng trở lại" (The city is as beautiful as the decorations again). Then he walks away, filled with hope, believing one day he and his friends will meet again, maybe even here in this city, the one he knows they still love. The one they carry in their hearts. The one they will forever call home.
That made me nostalgic for somewhere I have never been. Another good one..
I'm a fan of the maps (and the fans). Did you happen to wander by the Bangkok GPO in your travels? Not as grand, and it is confusingly not central to anything in particular. It makes me appreciate how central and well-framed the Saigon GPO is with the church.