Saigon: The Original
“My father insists that I call it Saigon—you see, he was in the Southern Army,” was the simple, direct way our guide informed us why he used the city’s old name. The comment was made in near perfect English. “Sometimes we say Ho Chi Minh City,” he conceded, “but I prefer Saigon.”
This was our introduction to a place so much in American minds for the last forty years, just recently a significant factor in San Jose politics. It is a city of eight million; there must be eight million motor scooters on its city streets too; they are the preferred mode of transit and the only way to navigate the no-traffic-lights world of old French boulevards and the narrow confines of Cholon and other tiny streets.
The city pulses with energy, and despite the tragedies of the “American War” and the subsequent persecutions of our faithful allies, left behind, it seems now an enclave of newly found capitalist energy. There is evidence of this everywhere in this place trying hard, perhaps too hard, to become a modern city.
Oh, yes, on the streets of this city, there is no shortage of entrepreneurs and traders. I am not qualified to comment on how the government controls this or in what ways it still imposed a heavy hand. I would imagine the image put forward is far different that the current benign look of a regime that took control following the savage civil war that ended in 1975.
We all know that war caused great pain and suffering to many of our citizens in San Jose and to their families, and, therefore, it should never be forgotten, nor its lessons for America. But something is afoot here, something new. I met many people in the shops who, when I said “San Jose,” commented that they had a cousin, uncle, or a friend there. Interesting. They all said they hoped to travel to America one day.
So close and so far.
As I sipped the strong, multi-layered coffee on the veranda of the Continental Hotel, a relic of the French era (and the spot where the cynical journalist in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American sat and waited for his visit from the idealistic, foolish American), around me was a flurry of activity: motorbikes, pedicabs, trishaws, buses and bikes. And in the claustrophobic streets, everyone seems to be selling, buying or drinking and eating on thousands of small stools outside the many businesses.
I saw weapons nowhere, although every fourth person seems to have on a uniform of some kind. Only when we passed outside the US Consulate (the Embassy is in Hanoi) did I see a guard with a weapon.
I later walked up to the famous gates of the Presidential Palace where the North Vietnamese tank crashed through in the final act of that distant war. It is now called Reunification Hall. Around the city a few statues and images of Ho Chi Minh are seen alongside billboards and store windows advertising Calvin Klein and Prada, and pictures of Tiger Woods and Brad Pitt. The contrasts are startling and jarring. Yet there is much here that is not obvious.
Tomorrow a visit to the former Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes.