Tuesday, October 23, 2012

W. Somerset Maugham and Saigon..1930's

Morning coffee on the Saigon River...where I go when I am in search of a quiet spot.
image- jeanne henriques

I have a passion for travel writing. Actually, it is more of a passion for books about travel, 
fiction and non-fiction. I was in a bookshop a few months back asking for recommendations 
on travel writing around Asia. There was no doubt in the bookshop owners mind, 
she gave me The Skeptical Romancer- W. Somerset Maugham by Pico Iyer.

Mr. Iyer compiled a collection of selected travel writings, written by W. Somerset Maugham. 
I am embarrassed to say, this was my first dip into Maugham's writing but I could not think 
of a better place to start. It was also my first introduction to Pico Iyer. I have a road yet to 
travel with his books...just reading this interview, tells me it will be a fascinating one.


                                     I  enjoyed The Skeptical Romancer, it travelled well...
in and out of my bicycle basket and countless travel bags.
It went with me wherever I went...
when I sought out a quiet spot..
just to read.

I write, fold, scribble and doodle in books.
It is a mark that it is a well read book and that I enjoyed it.
Every now and again, I pick one up...to travel in time.

My latest fold and underline..an entire passage.
One of the reasons why travel writing can be so enjoyable...
the anticipation and the joy when you understand...even if only in spirit.

Saigon and Tourane.. W. Somerset Maugham

'At the mouth of the little river I got once more into the flat-bottomed steamer 
and crossed the wide, shallow lake, changed into another boat, and went down another river. 
Finally I reached Saigon.

Notwithstanding the Chinese city that has grown up since the French occupied the country, 
and notwithstanding the natives who saunter along the pavements or, 
in wide straw hats like extinguishers, pull rickshaws, 
Saigon has all the air of a little provincial town in the South of France. 
It is laid out with broad streets, shaded with handsome trees, and there is a bustle 
in them that is quite unlike the bustle of an Eastern town in an English colony. 
It is a blithe and smiling little place. 
It has an opera house, white and shining, built in a flamboyant style 
of the Third Republic, which faces a broad avenue; 
and it has a Hotel de Ville which is very grand, new and ornate. 
Outside the hotels are terraces, and at the hour of the 'aperitif' they are 
crowded with bearded, gesticulating Frenchmen, drinking the sweet beverages, 
Vermouth Casis, Byrrh, and Quinquina Dubonnet, which they drink in France, 
and they talk nineteen to the dozen in the rolling accent 
of the Midi. Gay little ladies who have something to do with local theatre 
are dressed in smart clothes and with their penciled eyebrows and rouged cheeks 
bring a cheerful air of sophistication to this far distant spot. In the shops you will 
find Paris dresses from Marseilles and London hats from Lille. Victorias drawn 
by two little ponies gallop past, and motor cars toot their horns. 
The sun beats down from a cloudless sky, 
and the shade is heavy with the heat and solid.'

'Saigon is a pleasant enough place to idle in for a few days; 
life is made easy by the casual traveller; and it is very agreeable to sit under the awning 
of the terrace of the Hotel Continental, an electric fan just above your head, 
and with an innocent drink before you to read in the local paper heated controversies 
upon the affairs of the Colony and the 'faits divers' of the neighborhood. It is charming 
to be able to read steadily through the advertisements without an uneasy feeling 
that you are wasting your time and it must be a dull mind that in such a perusal 
does not find here and there occasion for a pleasant gallop on a hobby horse 
through the realms of time and space.'

From the Gentleman in the Parlour
W. Somerset Maugham
Published 1935

image viaa

If you live in or have travelled to what is officially known as Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon
as many locals still call it, you will know that much has changed since the passage
above was written in the early 1930's. Too much change to recount in this post,
but I can say that you can still find the opera house,
and the Hotel de Ville which is now City Hall.

Glimpses of Ho Chi Minh City..today.

The Hotel Continental still stands and tourists flock to it in search of days gone by. 
There are plenty of cafes in Saigon, under the awning of a terrace, 
with wide electric fans overhead, where you can read the affairs of the day 
or as I have done, read passages from the books mentioned here. 

You will still find glimpses of the French Colonial era...
but not as much as you might like. A keen eye is needed. 
You have to travel to Saigon with an open mind..
it has so much to offer...but you must take it in quietly and slowly.
If you do, you just might be able to travel through time and space, 
back to the awning of the terrace of the Hotel Continental 
where a certain W. Somerset Maugham sat with the sun 
beating down from a cloudless sky, 
where the shade was heavy with heat and solid. 
Look closely..and you might find what you are looking for.

A terrace on the Saigon River...
where a ceiling fan gently tosses the breeze back and forth.
image~jeanne henriques


  1. Gorgeous. All.
    And I've always thought you would be an excellent travel writer! But what am I saying? You ARE an excellent travel writer!!

  2. Have you been to the roof gardens at the Rex, Jeanne? Do they still exist... I remember thinking that time had stopped there... but that was 15 years ago!! xv

  3. You are indeed an excellent travel writer! Some of us will only experience it through your eyes and I for one am very grateful that I found your beautiful blogs in the first place!

  4. Thanks for mentioning this - I love travel writing, especially the historical kind! Always enjoy your lovely images and peaceful writing style.

  5. Thank you for bringing some of Somerset Maugham's writing to us. In the early 1970's, I spent a winter in the Soviet Union. Much of the reading material I had brought with me had been confiscated when I entered the country; it was next to impossible to find much of any printed material in English; and what I could find in Russian had to fit the standards of "Soviet realism." Once I exhausted the material that had not been taken from me, I was bereft until one day, I was allowed to purchase a copy of Maugham's "The Moon and Sixpence." Never have I enjoyed a book as much! I will never forget how I savored every word of it, rationing out reading it so it would last until I was due to leave. I can't wait to read "The Skeptical Romancer!" Leslie in Portland, Oregon

  6. I just love reading your blog! I am so delighted to see your blog name in my email inbox. I appreciate your writing style, your interesting life experiences, and your helpful book reviews. I fully intend to read some of the ones you described.
    Thanks from a Florida girl! I can appreciate that heavy, solid air you live in - am so thankful for these beautiful fall days!

  7. You write very well which is amazing.
    Nice and very interesting. Thank you for sharing …………