Ho Chi Minh City: Saigon by any other name.
- Above Photo: two ladies pose in traditional dress outside Ben Thanh Market in Saigon.
By Duncan Stearn
There are some cities that burn into our consciousness the moment we arrive. Saigon in 1970 was such a place.’ So wrote British journalist Jon Swain in his book River of Time. Paris, for me and I think many others, is much the same, so perhaps it’s not surprising Saigon was once known by the epithet ‘Paris of the Orient’. By the time Swain arrived in 1970 the ‘Paris of the Orient’ was just that, an epithet.
The American phase of the Vietnam War, which had begun in earnest in 1965, would be almost over less than three years after Swain’s arrival, but it is the ghosts of that historical presence now driving the tourist economy of this vibrant metropolis, officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) in July 1976 by the victorious North.
Since rapprochement with the United States in the mid-1990s the economy, at least in the south, is now fuelled by market forces. The bones of Marx, Engels, and Ho Chi Minh are probably whirling in their respective graves and mausoleums; but now the dong (the unfortunately-named local currency) dominates the thoughts of the masses instead of interminable speeches denouncing Western imperialism and capitalism.
During the Vietnam War, Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat airport became the busiest in the world. In August 1964, Australian cameraman Neil Davis noted in a letter to his aunt, ‘Tan Son Nhat…is the busiest I’ve ever seen- hundreds of fighters, bombers, supply and transport planes- plus of course seven or eight major commercial airlines. Usually one can count ten or twelve aircraft in the air at any time, either just taken off or waiting to land.’
A new, modern airport and attendant facilities opened in early 2008, the old terminal is now just for domestic use. The men and women charged with inspecting passports of incoming travellers are friendly, smiling, and chatty as they stamp and initial the relevant pages.
The taxi I hired from the airport was a yellow-coloured number that looked as though it could have been in service since before the fall of Saigon in 1975. It was comfortable enough, but I noticed the driver used his horn on average once every 20 seconds or so from the time we left the airport until my destination, a guesthouse in District 1, off Pham Ngu Lao Street. It wasn’t aggressive usage, just persistent.
The narrow strip between Pham Ngu Lao and Bui Vien Street is the backpacker/guesthouse area, full of cheap accommodation, inexpensive restaurants, and trendy-looking bars. All around the area young backpackers can be seen day and night clutching Lonely Planet’s to their chests.
As in Thailand, businesses encroach onto the pavement so pedestrians are compelled to walk on the street in some areas. The underground entrepreneurial spirit is vibrant enough with touts whispering ‘massage’ and ‘marijuana’ and bars and massage parlours evident.
Some of the bars in the popular tourist areas employ young ladies who appear more approachable than the average Vietnamese female. You can be pretty certain they have it in mind to help in the redistribution of wealth by offering services involving darkened rooms and well-used sleeping facilities.
In 2005, Ho Chi Minh City was a low-rise but sprawling city with no 7-11’s, Family Marts or McDonald’s, although it had Ga Ran Kentucky (known to the rest of the fast food planet as KFC), and Lotteria, a 10-store McDonald’s by any other name, complete with red and gold livery.
The vast majority of buildings did not exceed eight storeys, even around the Saigon River and the central areas of the city. There were some scattered high-rises in the west, but by my next visit just three years later HCMC was starting to work on copying the Bangkok skyline. The city remains a patchwork quilt of colours and architectural styles of all shapes and sizes reflecting its multitude of racial and religious influences: Chinese, Cambodian, French, American, Taoist, Buddhist, Christian.
The Vietnamese language was once described by Donald Wise -an English journalist who frequented the country for the Daily Mirror in the Vietnam War period- as “like listening to ducks fucking.” Can’t say as I disagree. The language was adapted to the Roman alphabet in 1627 by Alexandre de Rhodes, a French Catholic missionary.
Traffic in Asia is a favourite topic of most writers, simply because it exemplifies Darwinian theory: the domination of the biggest, and the survival of the fittest. No one argues with trucks and buses or large passenger vehicles in most Asian cities, whether they’re in the right or wrong according to what may pass for the Traffic Code.
HCMC’s traffic is organised insanity. The place is home to literally thousands of motorbikes and these, along with four-wheeled vehicles, as well as pushbikes and cyclos, drive as though each and every one is protected by the patron saint of fools and optimists. In the side streets and laneways no one seems to come to a stop at a corner; they keep going and the number of near misses I witnessed ran into the dozens.
For a pedestrian, the task of crossing a road appears, at worst, impossible, and at best, fraught with vehicular danger. Running with the bulls at Pamplona must be child’s play compared with crossing a HCMC boulevard. Yet locals seem to simply step off the kerb and walk through the on-coming maelstrom, emerging unscathed on the other side. I tried crossing busy intersections in the Vietnamese manner: clearly I survived otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this; the nightmares only come back when I stop smoking the happy weed.
On the main roads, the principle is pretty much the same, with the roundabouts really testing the nerves of unseasoned drivers and riders. In a four-wheeled or greater vehicle use of the horn appears compulsory, not in an aggressive ‘get-out-of-my-way-I’m-coming-through’ manner, but more in the manner of ‘watch-out-I’m-behind-you-and-I’m-not-brilliant-with-combustion-engines’ fashion.
See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:
Peter Alan Lloyd
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