The Rise of Saigon

I came to Vietnam with sky-high expectations, which can be a dangerous way to approach anything by building it up too much. Vietnam has not disappointed. I took exactly one history class in college about the Vietnam War, so naturally I fancied myself an expert, and this is a country that of course occupies an important position in our own history.

In South Vietnam, the war is unavoidable and I’ll get to that in detail, but it’s still only one part of a country that is dynamic and modernized far beyond my expectations. It’s hard to get an accurate read on the Vietnamese government today, and censorship is absolutely an issue, but the astonishing development shows evidence of a highly entrepreneurial people who have in no way let a devastating war get in the way of moving forward, even if it is a part of their history they’re in no hurry to hide.

Only after getting to North Vietnam did I realize how distinct the two halves of the country are, so I’ll focus only on South Vietnam in this post, and on Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, and Sapa in the north later on.

Saigon

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City Hall

I don’t know exactly what kind of city I expected to find, but this wasn’t it. The erstwhile capital of South Vietnam is, ironically, exactly the kind of place the Americans thought would never exist if the North Vietnamese won the war. Saigon is the paradigm of capitalism; inevitably every kind of American fast food detritus has wormed its way into the city center, but chic cafes, local businesses that look like they’ve been there for a century, upscale Vietnamese boutiques, and the omnipresent coffee shop overwhelm foreign business presence. Saigon is a city that is entirely modern and for the most part, entirely Vietnamese.

As for the name, though Ho Chi Minh City is its formal and official designation, most people refer to the city in conversation as Saigon.

District 1 in Saigon holds the distinction of being one of the city’s historic centers, and also one of its newest areas. There are no laws in Saigon regulating the preservation of historic buildings, so the utterly French facades that face narrow tree-lined streets are entirely imitative of the former colonial buildings, and the effect is a little bizarre. The majority of the city certainly doesn’t look like this, but in parts, the streetscape is overpoweringly Parisian.

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Still fully operational Saigon Opera House
Still fully operational Saigon Opera House
The post office
The post office
Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica
Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica

The Vietnamese have kept some of the original French architecture, including the insanely French opera house and City Hall, now overlooking an enormous pedestrian-only promenade and a statue of Ho Chi Minh. Still, while a large chunk of this part of the city is highly imitative and faux-European, something about it still feels entirely Vietnamese. One of the huge shopping centers in District 1 is called Union Square and while the building looks like the kitschy version of Galeries Lafayette, you won’t confuse it with its Parisian counterpart thanks to the boisterous group of women squatting out front selling fried bananas, the man with a banh mi cart down the street, and the peal of motorbikes and scooters zooming past, often on the sidewalk.

Statue of Ho Chi Minh facing the pedestrian promenade in front of City Hall
Statue of Ho Chi Minh facing the pedestrian promenade in front of City Hall

For all its new development, District 1 is where foreigners were largely concentrated before and during the Vietnam War, so the grand dame hotels near the opera house have a bit of history to them. The exterior of the Caravelle Hotel reveals its age; the stark design hasn’t changed much since it opened in 1959, despite a luxe interior renovation, but the rooftop bar is what you come to see. The redundantly named Saigon Saigon Bar was famous for its journalist presence during the war, where reporters would convene after the daily 5 o’clock folly (an evening press briefing that took place at the nearby Saigon Rex Hotel) for an evening of drinking and not reporting.

Though its hard to imagine now, the hotel was one of the tallest buildings in the city during the war and the story goes that journalists could sit on the roof and watch the fighting in the jungle in the distance. Tons of credible sources claim this, but I still can’t quite wrap my head around it.

The view enjoyed by many journalists who didn’t bother with the inconvenience of field reporting.
The view enjoyed by many journalists who didn’t bother with the inconvenience of field reporting.

Standing as a vacated sentry at the center of the city, the Reunification Palace is one of the most visible remainders of the war in Saigon. The seat of the South Vietnamese government during the war suffered significant bombing damage in 1962, when two South Vietnamese pilots went rogue and bombed their own government in protest, rather than heading out on a mission. By the time the new palace was built, then-president Ngo Dinh Diem had been assassinated in a U.S.-backed coup d’etat in 1963 and the floundering South Vietnamese government only occupied its new governmental office for another decade. North Vietnamese troops mowed down the front gate on the morning of April 30, 1975 and raised the Vietnamese flag over the palace, officially and symbolically ending the war. When North and South Vietnam reunified later that year, it was given its present name.

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Not much has happened here since then and as such, no one has taken any time to do much of anything beyond dust the now hilariously dated uber-mod furniture. The president’s enormous wooden desk is still there, along with the Oriental rugs and Chinese-meets-Vietnamese-meets-60s-Americana décor. In the basement are a few cars from that era unceremoniously propped up on plinths and a maze of former war rooms.

You’ve probably seen this photo of people escaping on a helicopter on the roof of the CIA building during the decisive assault on Saigon in 1975.

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And here is the building today. Prepare to be underwhelmed.

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I don’t really have anything to say about this except that the bamboo ladder in the photo, sagging under the weight of the evacuees, just “happens” to still be there. You can’t see it in this photo, but it’s still propped against the ventilation grate on the roof, which is a detail I love. The building is actually set to be demolished soon, but you know the super or whoever owns the building still sneaks up there every morning to strategically adjust the ladder and make sure it’s perfectly in place.

The next stop for any history buff is the Cu Chi Tunnels, an underground network used by the National Liberation Front during the war. The subterranean labyrinth sits to the north of the city along the Saigon River and dates back to the war with the French in the 1940’s. Because Vietnamese soldiers tended to be much smaller than burly American military men, the tunnels are incredibly small to help prevent infiltration. Most passageways are probably 2 ½ feet tall, with other sections requiring entrants to crawl on their stomachs to get through.

Not surprisingly, conditions in the tunnels were absolutely brutal and they have a small section of a tunnel (probably 45 feet) open to tourists. After all of 30 seconds only a few feet underground (the whole network extends several meters below the surface), I was already going crazy and yeah, living and fighting a war in a tunnel is definitely every bit as horrific as it sounds.

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Thanks to a nearby shooting range for tourists, the sound of gunfire provides a bit too much verisimilitude to the area and there is certainly a lack of objectivity to parts of the museum; a video at the entrance that looks like it was made in the 70’s describes the Americans as acting “like a bunch of crazy devils” and while I wasn’t expecting complete objectivity, this was a bit more spin than I had anticipated. There’s no hiding the Vietnamese brutality either, as the potpourri of sample booby traps used against Americans on display can attest. Nothing about a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels is particularly pleasant, from the B-52 bomb craters that still pockmark the forest, to the undeniable horrors of the tunnels, but it’s something that both the Americans and Vietnamese are obligated to confront.

Saigon is not entirely modernized, but Vietnam as it was half a century ago can only be found if you head south to the Mekong Delta, an area unfortunately popularized in Apocalypse Now. The tangle of tributaries feeding into the South China Sea makes the area particularly fertile, and fishing and agriculture still make up the bulk of people’s livelihoods.

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Many people in the Mekong Delta still live and work exclusively on the water
Many people in the Mekong Delta still live and work exclusively on the water

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Due to the attractive scenery and the area’s economic viability, the French occupied the Mekong Delta, previously controlled by the Khmer Kingdom out of Cambodia, during the 19th and 20th centuries, and it was the site of particularly gruesome fighting during the war with the Americans.

Evidence of the war is not very visible, but the stunted development in the region is undoubtedly in no small part due to the devastation that took place here. Even so, life in the region has continued and the only evidence of former colonizers can be found in the French-style colonial homes and the horribly out-of-place cathedral in Cai Be, one of the area’s many small towns.

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I know I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the war in Saigon, and there is, of course, so much more to Vietnam than that, but I’ve found this area is particularly haunted by it (in comparison to the other cities I’ve visited in South Vietnam). The area around Saigon sustained a lot of damage and though much of it has recovered in remarkable fashion, the wound isn’t quite healed. All of this is to say, my trip since then has been much less concerned with the war so if you’ve fallen asleep during the history lesson, feel free to tune back in now.

After spending a few weeks in traffic in India and negotiating the streets in China, I didn’t think I could be shocked by any amount of traffic insanity, but Saigon rose to the occasion. Cars are hugely in the minority here, so the swarming masses of scooters dictate traffic in a haphazardly organized flow that vaguely resembles the movement of a school of fish, but at ten times the speed. For all the crazy, this is the essence of Saigon, so you’re obligated to partake.

Realizing tourists love to eat and can’t drive, Vietnam Vespa Adventures has crafted the perfect evening, a sightseeing food tour on the back of a Vespa. Anyone who has had the unique and distinct pleasure of driving with me knows that I am an “offensive” driver, but I will be the first to say that this is out of control. If you want to make a turn across traffic, you just go. Pull about halfway into oncoming traffic whenever there is the briefest of breaks and just weave around whatever is heading toward you from all directions and hope for the best.

This system is truly nuts, but once you’re in the thick of it on the back of a scooter, you can see that there is a modicum of order in the whole thing. From the sidewalk, it looks like everyone could be blindfolded and traffic would be no less disorderly, but there is a method to the madness.

Even when you’re not on a scooter, you’ll basically be spending the whole evening in the street anyway as sidewalk dining often bleeds into the street with tables and chairs set up in the gutter, while many scooter drivers use the sidewalk as another lane.

The food is standard street fare and the guides are excellent, but the final two stops of the evening make the tour. The penultimate place is billed as a “secret coffee shop,” which made me nervous because nothing on a tour can be that secret, but I was happy to be proven wrong. Every “speakeasy” bar in Chicago is going for this vibe: lit only by flickering candlelight and hidden down an alleyway, through the open-air kitchen in the back of a restaurant, and up a flight of unmarked stairs, this place knows the meaning of secrecy. Vietnamese lounge singers channeling Edith Piaf and a collection of sinking couches jammed into a space entirely too small to hold them is the quintessence of atmospheric. If you can find the entrance, which best as I can tell is at 169A De Tham St, it makes for the perfect evening. Weather the storm of the Vespa groups around 9 p.m. and I’m sure it only gets better from there.

You’ll wrap things up at Acoustic, the kind of back-alley bar where live musicians perform highly innovative work from the likes of Lana Del Rey and Maroon 5, but even on a subdued Tuesday night, the musicians had plenty of personality to make it a fun evening and sell you on the idea of yet another Ed Sheeran cover. Both of these places, I should add, would I think be even better if you went without the tour group, though full marks to Vespa Adventures for finding genuinely cool spots.

Saigon was, for me, one of the most unexpected and surprising places I’ve seen in all of Asia. I arrived in the city on Halloween night and it was every bit as lively as any big American city, with open-air bars and clubs packed and blasting  “Thriller,” as you do on Halloween. Absolutely nothing about Saigon would lead you to believe you were in the heart of a communist country and their ability to make this bizarre combination of communism and ultra-capitalism work is pretty amazing.

Hoi An
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Hoi An is the ultimate what could have been. Once a flourishing seaport several hundred years ago, the small coastal town lost its economic foothold with the collapse of local rule in the 1700’s. Nearby Da Nang became the new economic power in Central Vietnam and later an important American military base during the war, while Hoi An spent the next few hundred years trying to regain relevancy. Eventually it did with the influx of foreign tourism in Vietnam, but its rebirth was also its death sentence.

The entirety of ancient Hoi An gained UNESCO recognition in 1999 thanks to its remarkably well preserved streetscape, which blends Vietnamese, French, and Chinese architectural influences, in addition to other foreign design elements that found their way into Hoi An during its heyday.

To its credit, Hoi An’s architecture certainly maintains its heritage, and the shabby, but generally well-maintained houses are an interesting throwback. You just can’t look too closely at the ground floor. T-shirts and tchotchkes are the order of the day in Hoi An. If you’re looking for something beyond a Vietnam flag t-shirt or a great deal on Tiger beer, you’re going to be disappointed. Hoi An is known for its tailoring and while there are one or two shops in town that look decent, the majority fall into the crap category with the rest of its offerings.

The silver lining is that the historic part of the Hoi An is in fact preserved, but it can be almost impossible to enjoy the faded beauty of the town when every storefront is crammed with nothing but souvenirs. I walked around town for more than an hour and struggled to come up with even a few photos of the buildings that didn’t have a souvenir shop on the ground floor.

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That’s the extent of it

It’s perhaps a sign of how long I’ve been a tourist in Asia that I’m almost resigned to this sort of thing. This is not the first time I’ve had this kind of experience in Asia and it’s unfortunate how inevitable it seems. Setting aside the fact that the town is tragic, the beaches in Hoi An are amazing. Unfortunately, this is how Hoi An looked the whole time I was there.

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Nearby is the infamous China Beach where the marines landed in 1965 in a key moment of escalation in the war, and as far as optics are concerned, they picked a nice spot. As with every other part of South Vietnam that I’ve seen, this hardly looks like a place left in ruins less than 50 years ago and today the area is mostly patrolled by boozy groups of Americans and Russians who are spoiled for choice when it comes to picking the perfect beach-front beer garden to pass out in.

Of course, there is a line-up of very nice beach resorts in the area and a strange proliferation of golf courses, which help balance out the grungy backpacker crowd and take full advantage of the beautiful setting. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fix the problem that is the tourist trap in ancient Hoi An.

Hue

Rickshaw driver parked outside Dong Ba Market, Hue
Rickshaw driver parked outside Dong Ba Market, Hue

Though Hue was in the thick of it during the war, located only 50 miles from the former DMZ at the 17th parallel, this part of Vietnam was a welcome window into the country’s history that went back more than 75 years and didn’t involve the French or the Americans.

The drive along the coast from Hoi An to Hue is one of the highlights in all of Vietnam and if you want to do this right, you should make the trip on a motorcycle. The highway meanders over low-lying mountains giving way to views of Da Nang harbor and the downtown area in the background, with beaches and fishing villages still only accessible by boat on an outer peninsula facing the modern skyline.

Don’t swoon too much about the untouched beach in the middle of the picture. It is/was a (former) leper colony.
Don’t swoon too much about the untouched beach in the middle of the picture. It is/was a (former) leper colony.

Over Hai Van pass are several traditional villages that see their fair share of tourists, but don’t cater to this crowd beyond the odd rest stop. Like in the Mekong Delta, this is not an area cut off from the outside world by any means, but the people living here have found a way to maintain a traditional form of life without stubbornly refusing to adopt any kind of modern technology. A fisherman almost certainly has a cellphone, but he still fishes the way his family has been doing for generations.

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View of Lang Co fishing village across the bay

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Hue doesn’t have the architectural charm of Hoi An, but it’s not a mess either. One of the larger cities in the country, Hue is a business center that feels very lively, though the relatively mundane buildings aren’t about to astound you with overwhelming personality.

Woman shopping at Dong Ba Market
Woman shopping at Dong Ba Market

The upside is that the good parts of Hue are still hidden. The Vinh Tu garden house is one such example. The lovely wooden house was original built more than 100 years ago and later abandoned by the family during the fighting in Hue in the 1960’s. When the war ended, the family returned to Hue to find most of their property confiscated by the army, but rebuilt what was left. The elderly couple (descendants of the original owner) that now live and work here have done an excellent job preserving the house and serve private dinners inside one of the candlelight pavilions in their intimate garden compound.

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The highlight of Hue is the Imperial City, essentially an imitation of the Forbidden City in Beijing built in 1804 by the first emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty, the last imperial family to control Vietnam. The site is no longer in the tip-top shape due to damage sustained during the Tet Offensive in 1968, but extensive restoration efforts are underway and the Imperial City once had all the usual trappings of a royal residence built by a self-indulgent ruler: an ominous moat, a series of secret enclosures to help keep the riff raff out, extensive apartments for the hundred-something concubines, various receiving halls to deal with the proles, and lavish royal bedrooms for the emperor and the queen mother, who seems to be the one really running the show half the time. Only about 10 of the original 160 buildings survived the damage from bombings in ’68, but what is left is in decent condition.

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Hue doesn’t have the bustling modernity of Saigon, or the historicity of Hanoi, but it’s a pleasant city for a day and one that refreshingly doesn’t feel like one giant tourist display.

The remainder of my time in Vietnam will be a mélange of different things, including a stop in Hanoi, a journey east to the geological wonder that is Ha Long Bay, and finally, a trip north to the rural agricultural area just south of the Chinese border, before I continue onto Laos.

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