Asia

 

Pearl 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 dawn.

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 city.

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)

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