Joakim Lloyd Raboff walking along Nordergravar in Visby, Gotland, Sweden sometime 1990.

Saigon & The Forgotten Key

Sunday evening. Da Nang. Humid.

Despite having forgotten which door it locked and unlocked, I kept an old key on my keyring for a long time. My hope was probably that I would someday remember why I kept it, but like so much else we carry around throughout our lives, it just hung around.

After about five years of key amnesia, I took it off the ring and placed it among the other homeless, abandoned keys in a crumpled plastic bag deep in a kitchen drawer we rarely open.

It was when my friends Annika and Smilla and I were on our merry way to the beach the other day that I remembered which door that old key likely opened.

After nearly a month here on the coast, we’ll soon be leaving Da Nang. It’s not often that we can say this about places we’ve visited before, but most things here in My Khe Beach have improved significantly since the fall of 2019. There are now several really good restaurants and at least a dozen well-stocked convenience stores, all with a decent range of foodstuff.

The most important change is that the neighborhood now has plenty of cafes with tasty food on their menus as well as comfortable seating and a stable internet connection. It’s in those places that we digital nomads work during our travels.

It’s going to be fun getting to know Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s largest city. As usual, it will almost certainly take one or two days before we find our way around. But Charlotte and I know already that we´ll quickly establish a reasonably structured daily routine in the nine-million-strong city of Ho Chi Minh

Speaking of Ho Chi Minh.

It seems that most Vietnamese still call the city Saigon, the name that lingers in common parlance from the time when a large part of the countries in Southeast Asia were lumped together, given the collective name “Indochina,” and ruled until 1954 with an iron fist by the French colonial power

Even though probably somewhat politically incorrect, I prefer the name Saigon. Perhaps because it reminds me of the classic film “The Quiet American” with Michael Caine and Do Thi Hai Yen that plays out in Saigon. But the name also makes me think of a very special period in my life.

During the years 1991-1995, I lived in the Medieval city of Visby on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. In the early days, I attended an art school and worked weekends tending bars and playing music at several restaurants and nightclubs in Visby.

For two years, I rented a charming little stone house (a former brewery) near Nordergravar from an old UN pilot named Lars Gibson, and his lovely wife, the artist Ann-Marie Gibson. During my years in Visby, I lived at several other addresses, mostly within the ancient wall.

I think it was the summer of 1994, the year a Swedish trio with the imaginative acronym GES had a national hit with the World Cup song “When we dig for gold in the USA”.

That summer brought a remarkable heatwave that lasted at least during a part of the soccer tournament in America.

Our sweat poured as chef Lillis and I served guests at Donners Brunn’s packed outdoor terrace with spicy, woked food and cold drinks. Together we cheered on the Swedish national team, which eventually brought well-deserved bronze medals back to Sweden.

If my memory serves me correctly, which it can very well fail to do now at the beginning of my seventh decade, it was a little later that summer that rumors circulated about a speakeasy that had opened on Strandgatan, next to the nightclub “Bur” where I sometimes stood in the DJ booth and played hits and house beats from scratched CDs until the early hours of the summer night.

When Smilla, Annika, and I were sitting on the beach the other afternoon, we talked about their trip and the fact that we would also be spending some time in Ho Chi Minh. Which was about when Annika remembered that the speakeasy on Strandgatan in Visby was actually called “Saigon.”

Stepping through the door at Saigon was like literally leaving the Middle Ages behind and being transported about 40 years back in time, right into a rowdy and smoky scene from Coppola’s epic film “Apocalypse Now.

I seem to recall an old Willys Jeep (covered in camouflage net) just inside Saigon and vinyl singles spinning from a period-appropriate playlist, including “Purple Haze,” “Fortunate Son,” and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” playing deafeningly loud.

What I remember best from Saigon was how the launch was so brilliantly minimalist. Word of its existence spread quickly through the grapevine, not least because the only way to get into Saigon was if you were among the chosen few who had been provided with a door key, or if you were part of a group of guest where someone had one.

What I remember least is who gave me the key to Saigon. Regardless, I think it may still be among the pile of old keys in the aforementioned kitchen drawer.

A few weeks ago, we visited the Ho Chi Minh Museum here in Da Nang. It was in this city that the United States officially entered the Vietnam War when 3,500 Marines landed along the beach to defend an American airbase inland.

While a large part of the museum’s space illuminated the significance of Ho Chi Minh (“Uncle Ho”) and periods of his life, there was also a sizable collection of American war machines on display that had been confiscated during the conflict.

There is a similar but even larger war museum in Saigon, but I don’t know if I can be bothered to visit it. It feels like I fill my quota of war and misery these days just by opening and scrolling through online newspapers…

Photo: Matts René.