The Saigon of Marguerite Duras 

Cet article est paru dans le New York Times le 30 avril 2006. Il est écrit par Matt Gross, journaliste, parti à Saigon à la recherche des traces de Marguerite Donnadieu.



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Ho Chi Minh City: I was never able to find the Lyautey pension, from which Duras would sneak out at night, but there was a similar one, the École Ste.-Enfance, a pensionnat run by the sisters of St. Paul of Chartres, at 4 Ton Duc Thang Street. It's now a women's teachers' college, but its French colonial architecture — pale blue shutters, ocher paint job, black-and-white checkerboard flooring, blue-and-white-uniformed students doing calisthenics in the courtyard — remains intact, although a green Mazda 1200, roofless and transformed into a planter, provides an interesting contrast.

From there, hail a motorbike taxi, or xe om (literally hug bike), and ride into Cholon along Tran Hung Dao Boulevard, lined with French-Chinese shop houses. When your driver asks, "Where to now?," tell him the Binh Tay Market, in District 6 (the ride should cost no more than 20,000 dong), and browse the nearly endless aisles of sandals, candles, sealing wax, bolts of fabric, cosmetics, cookware and more. Finally, there are Chinese temples scattered all over Cholon; the most popular are the Thien Hau and Quan Am pagodas, and my favorite is Chua Ong Bon (264 Hai Thuong Boulevard, District 5), but virtually all are open to the public — just walk in and have a look around.

Sa Dec: With so many conflicting legends, the sites from Duras's life can be tricky to find if you don't have the addresses. Here they are: Huynh Thuy Le's house is at 255 Nguyen Hue Street. His tomb is on Le Duan Street, on the right just past the tennis courts. Phuoc Hung Tu, the pagoda where his photo is on display, is at 462 Hung Vuong Street. The school where Madame Donnadieu probably taught is on Ho Xuan Huong Street, at the corner of Hung Vuong. And the building that served as the Donnadieu house in the film version of "The Lover" is 196A Tran Van Voi Street."

The Saigon of Marguerite Duras

"THERE is no better place to have an affair than Ho Chi Minh City. Virtually every block in the city has a hotel or guesthouse whose front-desk clerk won't bat an eye as you check in with your paramour. What happens in Saigon, as it's still known, stays in Saigon."


"The Truong Vuong Primary School, in Sa Dec, perhaps once run by Marguerite Duras's mother. 

No one understood this better than Marguerite Duras, the French writer who was born in colonial Indochina in 1914 and spent her childhood there. At the age of 15, Duras, then living with her mother and two brothers in Sa Dec, a town on the Mekong River, began an affair with the 27-year-old son of a rich Chinese landowner. They met on a ferryboat, and soon she was sneaking away from her boarding school in Saigon to spend hot-and-heavy evenings in his "bachelor's quarters" in Cholon, the city's enormous ethnic Chinatown.

Their scandalous affair served as the raw material for Duras's best-selling 1984 novel, "The Lover," for a film version shot in Vietnam and for Duras's revisitation of her past, the memoir-like 1992 novel-in-film-notes "The North China Lover."

But as popular as the various forms of "The Lover" are, Duras's life remains unmarked in present-day Vietnam. Still, as I discovered over the course of a few days last fall, trying to retrace some of her narrative, her world has largely survived 75 years of near-constant upheaval.

My hunt began on Dong Khoi Street, in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City's downtown District 1. Dong Khoi used to be known as Rue Catinat, Saigon's premier shopping and entertainment strip; it's still hopping, with boutiques and cafes leading from the Notre Dame Cathedral at one end to the Saigon River at the other. Right in the middle is a little alley lined with shelves — this is the Lan Anh Bookshop, run by a friendly 69-year-old Saigonese man who introduced himself as Mr. Thach and who tends a small collection of Vietnamiana.

In an unwieldy mixture of English, French and Vietnamese, I described my project, and for 200,000 dong, or about $12, Mr. Thach sold me the 1953 "Annuaire des États-Associés: Cambodge, Laos, Vietnam," an annotated directory of the colonies, complete with maps, ads for Mic Extra cigarettes and a pamphlet that matched old French street names, the ones Duras would have known, to their contemporary equivalents. Jackpot.

While motorbikes raced down Dong Khoi and vendors offered me the previous day's newspapers, I flipped through the yellow-pages-style listings until one heading caught my eye: "Cinéma (Salles de)." Below it was the Eden Cinéma, where Duras's mother had worked as a piano player. The address: 183, rue Catinat. I was standing at 201.

For Duras, the Eden represented an escape from her miserable family. Today, it has been renamed the Video Mini Dong Khoi, and sits forlornly at the rear of an arcade whose shops sell reproductions of famous Vietnamese and European paintings. Its wide, red-leather chairs have been uprooted and left in the lobby, while the theater itself is filled with rubble. The only reminders of the past are a few hand-painted movie posters ("Cleopatra") and signs suggesting that the building is managed by an entity called the Eden Company.

Equally elated and disappointed at my discovery — and unable to find Duras's dormitory, the Lyautey Boarding School, on any map — I decided to follow Duras's lead and leave Saigon.

Cholon occupies the same space in the Saigonese imagination that Los Angeles's Chinese quarter does in the movie "Chinatown." It's right there — Districts 5 and 6— but unknown, foreign. My Vietnamese friends had no acquaintances among its million or so inhabitants and barely knew the streets, which look just like Saigon's, only different: Chinese characters supplement the Roman Vietnamese script on signs; roast pigs and ducks hang in restaurant display cases; and the roads are lined with the low, balconied colonial-era shop houses on which the Lover's father made his fortune.

Slide Show: Marguerite Dura's Saigon

Finding a hotel to match their ground-floor love nest — "hastily furnished from the look of it, with furniture supposed to be ultra-modern" — proved impossible. I settled for the next best thing: the Phoenix Hotel, with a faux-Bauhaus facade and a stairway that would let me bypass the front desk — an essential feature for any adulterer interested in maintaining anonymity. (Not that I was interested — and anyway, my fiancée, Jean, would not have approved.)

As the sun began to set, the night market at the intersection of Nguyen Trai and Phung Hung streets was getting going, and although those roast ducks were enticing, I wanted a Durassian meal. The famous dinner scenes in "The Lover" take place at expensive Chinese restaurants — "they occupy whole buildings, they're as big as department stores, or barracks, they look out over the city from balconies and terraces" — where Duras's siblings get drunk on Martell and Perrier and then ignore and insult the Lover, who picks up the tab anyway.

Since Duras never names the restaurants, I turned again to the Annuaire, which had an ad for the Arc-en-Ciel, boasting "une ambiance inégalable et unique" and "taxi-girls de Hongkong." Amazingly, 50 years later, the Deco-ish Arc-en-Ciel remains open for business, minus the taxi-girls. It is now primarily a hotel, but with three floors of restaurants.

A wedding had taken over the rooftop garden terrace, so my friends Christine and Sita joined me on the ground floor — a neat dining room that could have been in any hotel, anywhere in the world — for sizzling scallops with crispy rice cakes. Then I gathered my courage to make Sita, a married artist from Rhode Island, a proposal. Would you like, I asked, to have a make-believe affair in Sa Dec?

Sure, she said.

The next morning, I descended from Room 205 in an Italian linen suit, the closest thing I had to the lover's raw-silk outfit. Outside was a topless, white 1930's Citroën Traction, a substitute for the lover's black Morris Léon Bollée, which I'd hired to take Sita and me to Sa Dec and back. The driver was Mr. Chien, a fit, dashing Vietnamese in his late 30's, who gently steered the Citroën's luxurious bulk through the crammed streets to Sita's house across the river.

She emerged looking like Marguerite Duras reincarnated. Thin as a teenager, she had on a light sundress, and her hair hung down in braids from under the fedora she wears even when she's not pretending to be someone's fictional mistress.

For 15 minutes, we reveled in the image we presented — two stylish travelers off for a weekend in the country. Then we began to feel guilty; this was a little too neocolonial. Meanwhile, we realized we had no air-conditioning and nothing to block the dirt that gets kicked up along Vietnam's highways. The road to the Mekong Delta is not, as it's pictured in the film "The Lover," a rust-colored path through verdant, unpopulated rice paddies. Vietnam's surging economy has brought with it urban sprawl, and factories, offices and industrial parks were all there was to see for many, many miles.

But the eyesores did eventually come to an end, just before we crossed the My Thuan Bridge, a sparkling mile-long span over the Mekong that was built by Australia in 2000 and made obsolete the ferry on which Duras — then Marguerite Donnadieu — and her lover first met. From there, a bumpy road dotted with hivelike brick factories led to Sa Dec.

Sa Dec, population 96,000, may be the quintessential river town. Sandwiched between two branches of the Mekong, it is threaded through with streams and canals over which arc bridges of all sizes. All along the water, there are shops and warehouses sending rice flour and pigs along a trade route that has served the town for centuries.

    The Lover's old house, now occupied by antidrug police. 

Signs of Sa Dec's most famous residents were not, however, immediately apparent. At the Bong Hong Hotel, Sita and I checked into separate rooms (some affair!), changed out of our fancy duds and, while Mr. Chien bathed his dusty Citroën, began our inquiries: Where could we find the riverfront house of a rich Chinese man? No one we asked gave coherent directions, but they all knew who we were talking about: Huynh Thuy Le, a k a the Lover.

Still, somehow, we made it to the colonial villa that served as the Donnadieu residence in the movie (it's now a Department of Education office), and then to a low house with a Chinese-style ridged roof. Was this really the "big villa" with "blue balustrades" and "tiers of terraces overlooking the Mekong" where the Lover had lived? Its current occupants, the antidrug police, did not look interested in talking to us.

Finally, our motorbike taxis took us to the Truong Vuong Primary School, which we had been told was built by the French. It did indeed look colonial, and as Sita and I stood in the quiet courtyard, a man in white pants and black slacks waved at us from the doorway of his office and called out, "Bonjour!"

Mr. Sang was a shy, gentle French teacher in his 60's who had spent his entire life in Sa Dec. This school, he explained carefully, had most likely been that run by Duras's mother, but one could not be sure.

"There are no documents," he said. "Others have said that Madame Donnadieu lived here, since the director had a house next door in order to observe the school. But everything has changed. One cannot find the exact site."

We asked about the drug-squad headquarters, and he confirmed that it had indeed been the Lover's villa. Then he offered to be our tour guide: "You and your friend are foreigners in my country," he said, "so it is my duty as a Vietnamese to show you around." How could we refuse?

Our first stop was the tomb of the Lover and his Chinese wife, on a concrete island in an algae-covered pond near our hotel. A white gate marked with Chinese characters hung above the tombs; a neighboring isle had two more, those of the Lover's parents, who refused to let him marry Duras.

Mr. Sang next brought us to the Chua Huong pagoda, built in 1838, to which the Lover had donated heavily. Inside, past a turtle-filled pool, we discovered an ornate shrine displaying two photographs. They were, Mr. Sang said, Huynh Thuy Le and his wife.

The Lover looked to be in his early 70's, thin and mostly bald, but with "the white skin of the North Chinese" that once caught Duras's attention. Was there regret in his eyes? Years after their affair, he phoned Duras in Paris to tell her "he would never stop loving her for the rest of his life." Perhaps that is why his wife, in her photo, looks so uncomfortable, so unloved.

Outside, a light rain began to fall, and we hurried to the car. Mr. Chien drove us all through the wet streets, then we treated Mr. Sang to a dinner of stewed pork and sour fish soup with bong dien dien, a kind of Vietnamese zucchini blossom. Afterward, Sita and I retreated to our respective rooms, and I put a bootleg DVD of "The Lover" in my iBook. It wouldn't play. Instead I watched "Sin City," and fell asleep alone."