A classic French villa, sealed off from a busy street in
Vietnam’s imperial city of Hue, has been rediscovered, replete with a
legacy of haunting memories, two narrow escapes and seductive entertainment.
The address is No. 3 Dong Da Street,
and until recently Vietnamese could relax under umbrellas at the Café New York and
enjoy the local favorite, ca phe sua da (iced milk coffee). The proprietor had
dissed the charismatic ambiance of the colonial days, in favor of urban glitter
reminiscent of the Big Apple, with bright lights, the Statue of Liberty and
New York City skyline.
Photos posted online show vibrant furniture, covered patios and patrons with
smart phones and children.
|No. 3 Dong Da Street in a 2016 photo from the Vietnamese website Foody.vn|
|No. 3 Dong Da Street more than 50 years earlier. It was a former U.S. Consulate property and later a TV station. (Photo circa 1960s courtesy afvnvets.net)|
It’s unlikely that any of the customers would be cognizant of the home’s spellbinding past – most of them were not even born when the French villa was a flashpoint for historic events, both joyful and sorrowful.
More than a half century ago, a team of military broadcasters arrived at the address to set up a television affiliate for the American Forces Vietnam Network (AFVN). They arrived to find an elderly caretaker living on the grounds and still on the payroll of the American government. The two-story building had earlier served as auxiliary housing for the U.S. Consulate, directly across the street.
In the years before the TV crew settled in, guests at No. 3 Dong Da included consulate visitors and American officials on assignment to
Hue, although the U.S. Consul himself, the top government
official in Hue,
lived in a separate residence nearby, on Ly Thuong Kiet Street. “Our first son was
born in the bathroom of the consul’s residence in December 1964,” remembers Sam
Thomsen, who was the U.S. Consul starting in 1964.
|The U.S. Consuls lived in this villa, sometimes confused with No. 3 Dong Da. (2011 photo from James Bullington)|
The villa at No. 3 Dong Da had a lower profile than the U.S. Consul’s home, but Thomsen recalls public affairs officer Bill Stubbs, who lived there with his family. A typical government accommodation would include a cook and a housekeeper who would also babysit.
Guests could walk over to the U.S. Consulate offices on the other side of Dong Da, where one might see a young Henry Kissinger, who was a
consultant for the Johnson Administration, legendary counterinsurgency warrior
Ed Lansdale, or, up-and-coming diplomat John Negroponte.
Since Stubbs was a government spokesman, Thomsen attended receptions and social events at the residence. It’s logical that visiting journalists, like newspaper columnist Joseph Alsop and George Esper of the Associated Press, might have been welcomed during their visits to
was a frequent destination for famous war reporters who made the trek down Dong Da Street: Johnny
Apple of the New York Times; Keyes
Beech for the Chicago Daily News; Robert
Shaplen of The New Yorker; and author
Frances Fitzgerald, who won a 1973 Pulitzer Prize for Fire in the Lake.
By 1966, local politics altered
Hue’s persona from a sleepy town to a hotbed
for public activism. Just beyond the villa’s front gate, demonstrators would march
to the U.S. Consulate along Dong Da. “Then, it was just a little wider than a
one-laner,” Thomsen reminisced, during a phone call from his home in Virginia.
|A 1966 Buddhist protest in front of the U.S. Consulate, across from No. 3 Dong Da. (Photo courtesy James Bullington)|
When James R. Bullington had become Acting Consul, the city was descending into political chaos. A strong Buddhist movement against the
Saigon government had lurched into massive street rallies
and Bullington would meet with the protestors and listen to their demands.
According to Bullington, who wrote his memoir in Global Adventures on Less-Traveled Roads, “There was evidence that the Viet Cong had infiltrated the [Buddhist] Struggle, and its message became increasingly anti-American, with demands that the U.S. Government remove President Thieu and
|Acting Consul James Bullington meets with student activists. (Photo courtesy James Bullington)|
Bullington had access to the consulate’s official vehicle, and at one point the car was caught in a mob of several hundred students. They pounded on the vehicle and tried to open the locked doors, shouting anti-American slogans.
|The U.S. library and cultural center was ransacked and in flames. (Photo courtesy James Bullington)|
In May 1966 the daily demonstrations escalated, and the
and cultural center was attacked and burned and the remaining American non-military
properties were evacuated. Bullington, along with newly appointed Consul Tom
Corcoran, remaining consular staff and several CIA officers, continued
their work from the secure MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) compound in Hue.
A few days later, the U.S. Consulate itself was set ablaze and destroyed. The appalling scene unfolded in view of No. 3 Dong Da, across the street. The Associated Press described the incident: “A mob of about 1,000 screaming students attacked the two-story Consulate building just before noon, ripped down portraits of President Johnson and carried off two U.S. flags as the building burned . . . a company of Vietnamese Army troops fled when the students marched on the Consulate.”
|The U.S. Consulate in Hue was set ablaze in 1966. (Photo courtesy James Bullington)|
Although No. 3 Dong Da was perilously close to the enraged crowd, the villa was spared; perhaps the students were unaware of an American connection. The consul’s residence also escaped their fury and was left untouched, but the State Department had had enough, and sent Corcoran to
Da Nang, where he became Consul General.
Bullington was re-assigned to Saigon.
The Dong Da dwelling would not be vacant for long, and would soon become associated with family entertainment:
military broadcasters introduced television to Hue in 1967. Known as “Detachment 5,” it was
an affiliate of the American Forces Vietnam Network, and the TV station
farthest from AFVN’s headquarters in Saigon.
|The AFVN-TV van on Dong Da Street was jammed with electronics for broadcasting. Chief engineer Don Gouin would become a POW. (Photo from afvnvets.net)|
A custom-designed truck trailer, parked outside the villa, contained the electronic television equipment. Popular shows like Combat, Bonanza, and Gunsmoke were all broadcast from the compound, and the engineers, announcers, program director and other staff lived in the old consulate residence at No. 3 Dong Da.
Army TV engineer Harry Ettmueller is the last American still alive who was billeted in the villa, and was present when the house was re-purposed. “The State Department decided to take it back and convert it to THVN (Vietnamese television),” said Ettmueller. That’s when he, and the other Americans, moved into another house nearby. “The Dong Da building was completely made over into a TV station,” Harry remembered. “We installed all the TV gear and the Seabees (Mobile Construction Battalion) added on a soundproof stage.”
AFVN continued to share the
Dong Da Street compound with Vietnamese
television, and the address became a symbol of the pioneering days of
television. Americans and the local population enjoyed the lineup of drama,
comedy, news and cultural programs. Local kids used to visit, and Harry would borrow
one of the 16 mm film projectors from the TV van to project shows on a wall. Batman was a favorite.
|AFVN broadcasters at No. 3 Dong Da in 1967. Harry Ettmueler (middle) is wearing sun glasses. Photo from Army Public Affairs Hall of Fame.|
It was during the Tet Lunar New Year celebration in early 1968 when the television stations came under attack. Thousands of communist troops took control of
Hue in what became the iconic Tet Offensive. No. 3 Dong Da was mortared and the AFVN-TV van was shot up and a couple tires were blown out by shrapnel. The property was ransacked and looters helped themselves.
From their living quarters nearby, nine broadcasters held off the enemy for five days, but had to flee when their billet caught fire. Three Americans were killed. Five were taken prisoner, including Ettmueller, and they spent the next five years in North Vietnamese prisons. The only man to escape was John Bagwell, an AFVN disc jockey. But once again, the old Dong Da building survived with only minor damage.
Exactly 50 years after the Tet Offensive, I visited
Hue in February 2018.
With the assistance of my Vietnamese friend Mai Phuong, we set off to locate the
old TV station. Our first thought was to seek guidance from an old-timer at the
city’s current TV station, but we were denied entry. We proceeded to Dong Da Street,
which was now a bustling four-lane road, hoping to find No. 3.
|No. 3 Dong Da in 2018. (rf)|
Helpful residents at an adjacent address pointed to a nearby property that was hidden with an opaque tarp concealing the lot from passing traffic. I glanced inside and there it was: the two-story villa, set back from Dong Da, and undergoing some type of renovation. It was the Tet holiday and since no one was around, we sneaked inside for a peek.
The villa had been rehabilitated back into a practical building, but we were startled by what we found: a shuttered coffee shop. The latest chapter of the property’s history is titled “Café
New York.” [Ironically, two of the wounded
broadcasters taken prisoners were New
|By 2018, Cafe New York was closed for business, furniture left in disarray. (rf)|
Unmistakable possessions of the business were left behind; sofas, chairs and tables that had furnished a sitting room. A circular stairway led to more seating upstairs. There was a granite-style counter-top near the entryway, along with several menus. They showed the best confirmation that we had found the right address: “Café
New York. Number 3 Dong Da.”
|A forgotten drink menu shows an important clue: the address matched the former residence and TV station. (rf)|
I pulled out my iPhone and took snapshots as we covertly scanned both floors. Although our motives were harmless, we did not have official permission and probably stayed for only 10 minutes. The Vietnamese government is obsessed with security concerns, and is especially paranoid about photographs. Fresh in my mind was the tragedy of poor Otto Warmbier in
We slipped back out through the tarp, excited about our lost-and-found discovery, and immediately started to compare the new photos with an undated picture of the residence, circa the 1960s. The windows seemed an exact match, as well as the decorative studs extending out from under the roof. But the most compelling evidence was the same address, as evoked on the menu.
|The staircase, which leads to second floor seating, appears to be a more recent upgrade. (rf)|
A side-by-side evaluation for the internal layout was impossible; we have no “before” photos, and anyway, the interior was drastically overhauled in the transformation from a house, to a TV studio, and then back again to a multipurpose building. At first, Ettmueller doubted it was the same building, and I cannot discount that possibility 100 percent. One of my photos showed a fireplace and Harry said there was none when he stayed there, but it could have been installed during the re-conversion.
|This room sports a fireplace, which would have been installed post-1975. (rf)|
According to Vietnamese media,
old French buildings. Eventually, the former TV station became office space for
the Bureau of Education and Training. In 2013, a large government administration
building was opened and small offices, like the one at No. 3 Dong Da, were
consolidated into the new location. When officials offered some of the villas for
sale or rent, Café New York came to life as a public business for the first time.
|Two screen shots from Foody.vn.|
As recently as three years ago, the storefront was photographed with numerous vehicles parked in front. In addition to drinks and food, a poster inside promoted another attraction that lured regular customers: a passion for the red-whiskered bulbul. The small Asian bird is admired for its vocal finesse, and owners would bring their caged performers to the cafe, sip morning coffee and ponder which bird had the most alluring song.
|A poster, advertising bird singing gatherings, also shows the matching address. (rf)|
By early 2018 Café
York was closed and some sort of construction project
was underway. Covered shelters that provided open-air seating had been
dismantled. There were piles of bricks and gravel, some scaffolding and a small
cement mixer – hopeful signs of new life for the old residence.
re-opens, or some other coffee shop, restaurant or bar, just imagine the wistful
conversation at a table shared by Sam Thomsen, James Bullington and Harry
Ettmueller – musical entertainment provided by the red-whiskered bulbuls. I’ll buy
the first round.
|The New York Coffee storefront, as seen in a newspaper photo in 2014.|
|Today, Dong Da Street is a busy thoroughfare running through southern Hue, the present TV tower is seen in background.|