of the Orient is still Vietnam's heart
While Ho Chi Minh stares down on the city that now bears his name,
rampant commercialism is everywhere, from kids hawking newspapers
to old men selling noodles on the street.
By Toby Saltzman
Ho Chi Minh
holds court over his city's
bustling streets from in front of the Hotel de Ville.
Our flight to Saigon landed in pitch darkness but for the moon
and runway lights. There was no point smiling at the grim-faced
officers who scrutinized our visas and "security" papers. In our
van as we sped through this once unapproachable city, fleeting images
cast lasting impressions: families clustered around candle-lit tables
at the side of the road; bedraggled cyclo (rickshaw) peddlers curled
asleep in their carriages; corrugated tin roofs glimmering in moonlight
above makeshift shacks. At this dark hour, Saigon, officially known
as Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam but called Saigon (Pearl of the Orient)
by most everyone - bore a humble luster that heralded a vibrant
And oh what a dawn that is. Shiny motorcycles, briefcases crammed
inter their baskets and manned by elegant business people, whizzed
alongside those of farmers, some bearing piles of fruit or clutches
of cackling chickens tied by their feet to protruding bars. Schoolgirls
in ao dai dress pedaled their bicycles, deftly evading trucks and
heavily laden wagons. And squeezing into the maelstrom with indomitable
stamina, were cyclos with young families tucked tightly aboard.
Hanoi may be the capital of Vietnam, but Saigon is the favored
business and cultural core. While Ho Chi Minh's autocratic statue
holds court over the boulevard in front of the Hotel de Ville, the
peoples' spirit resounds at his feet. Overt commercialism thrives
everywhere. Street kids hawk Graham Greene's "Quiet American" in
one hand, and the Saigon Times in the other. Storefront vendors
hustle Honda motorcycles, color televisions, and electric fans.
Indoor booths abound with personal treats: brand name cosmetics,
curling irons, lace push-up bras, "genuine simulated leather" purses.
Billboards, most prominently bordering the busy Saigon River, tout
impressive names: Goldstar, Compaq, Minolta, Fugi. And behind closed
doors, international entrepreneurs orchestrate huge joint-ventures
for hotels, auto corporations and mining explorations. Good timing,
money and legal acumen are the essential currencies.
Accountants and lawyers adept at unraveling Vietnamese bureaucracy
are the latest heros. Typical joint-ventures, like the U.S. $62.5
million New World Hotel, are 25% Vietnamese- and 75% foreign-owned.
Vietnam's investment? The land.
On our first day we figured we could sightsee independently - if
we dared cross the road. JoJo, our Vietnamese guide, appeared. "It's
easy," he said. "Step right into traffic. Never step back. No one
will hit you. Accidents are crimes. Criminals never get business
licenses." Still, we were grateful to pile into his van. Jojo's
English, learned since the end of the U.S. embargo in February1994,
often had us guessing. But he was cheerful and very proud of his
His route along the city's broad boulevards conjured flashbacks
of war-torn Saigon. No explanations were needed for still-ravaged
structures huddling precariously close to smart French colonial
buildings or the former American embassy where G.I.s once caught
helicopters to safety.
The legacy of the war is still there in curious souvenirs being
sold outside the War Crimes Museum: American "dog tags", used Rolex
watches, defused hand grenades. Only the warplanes fashioned out
of aluminum pop and beer cans were amusing. Inside, there are guilt-inducing
photographs of My Lai and Danang, and jars of deformed fetuses.
At the History Museum, Jojo explained Vietnam's centuries of fighting
invaders. I was more intrigued to encounter an anthropologist working
amid a collection of skulls, some 2300 years old, unearthed in nearby
Can Gio. No language united us, but his gentle manner and genuine
interest to produce English copies of his published articles will
stay with me forever. I wondered: as Saigon booms, who will earn
more, the cyclo peddler or him?
Saigon's food markets are worlds unto themselves. The most fascinating
is the indoor Cholon market, a mind-boggling crush of booths overflowing
with exotic fruits, dried shrimp and fish, and mounds of grains
and rice. In tight spaces, some women swung in hammocks above their
goods. Absurdly, others, with no customers at the moment, lacquered
each other's nails and toes. In the "restaurant" stalls, an old
man hunched under a bamboo yoke bearing baskets of rice cakes, set
up his stand and whistled. His customers flocked quickly. At nearby
steamy cauldrons, the soupmakers clacked wooden sticks, announcing
their noodles were ready. Adventuresome soles could dine heartily,
including a crusty "French" baguette, for under a dollar.
That evening, we took cyclos to meet a friend for dinner. The ride
was a hellish thrill. I sucked my breath as we faced off in darkness
toward zillion oncoming lights. Our friend is a veteran ex-pat entrenched
in Asian business and culture, and savvy on cuisine. While we assembled
spring rolls on parchment rounds of dough, cooked tender strips
of beef and nibbled delicious goby fish, he drew apt comparisons.
"Saigon is like Taiwan was in the early 80s," he said. "Vietnamese
crave brand names - perfumes, perfumes, watches, fancy goods - to
give them status, identities forbidden in the old political culture.
And they willingly pay.
"People laughed when Lego first set up here. Too expensive. Yet
in one weekend, Lego sold a year's supply."
No wonder Vietnam boasts the next booming economy: 70 million people
here need everything.
Later that night when I returned to my room, my mini-sized, French
cosmetics had disappeared.
Extra Time? Take these full-day excursions:
The Chu Chi tunnels (2 hours from Saigon) were originally
excavated during Vietnam's war with France and enlarged to a 200
kilometer subterranean world to accommodate the Viet Cong during
war with the US. Visitors may explore the claustrophobic living
quarters, kitchens and surgeries.
Cruise the Mekong Delta (1 1/2 hours from Saigon) for a spectacular
trip to rural Vietnam. (Visit Asia page and Click: The Nine Dragons
of the Delta)