Saigon - Heart of Vietnam
June 2005©Nigel Spiers
They call Saigon the Paris of the South - wide boulevards, side-walk cafes, wild
traffic and people who speak very little English with a broad French accent. Saigon
is also about the same size with 8 million people crammed into districts on either
side of the wide and muddy Saigon River. Actually the city's real name is
Ho Chi Minh City but somehow that name doesn’t seem to fit and many of the locals
still call it Saigon.
Saigon was a large and sophisticated trading port long before they drained the
swamps of Bangkok and when Singapore was still just a gleam in Lee Kwan Yu’s eye.
The people here are very independent and hard-working and yet Vietnam is still
today one of the poorest countries in the world with an average income of just US
$300 per year – why?
Well - for the last 4,000 years the Vietnamese have been busy - busy fighting
amongst themselves and with their giant Chinese neighbor to the north. As recently
as 1973 the future looked bright for Vietnam – they had finally seen off the French,
the Yanks had withdrawn and the north and south were again united under one
government in Hanoi. The fledgling Communist government then made two really
stupid decisions – centralizing all production in the South and invading Cambodia.
By the eighties the country was literally starving and the world had ostracized
Vietnam both economically and politically. By 1990 Hanoi had come to its senses,
reversed both decisions and foreign investors, sensing an opportunity, flooded in.
However by the late 90’s many of these same companies, faced with galloping
corruption and haphazard law making from Hanoi simply gave up and left behind
half built hotels and factories.
Today Saigon is still trying to get its head above water. Tourism is booming as
people discover Vietnam’s extensive natural wonders, very hospitable people and an
exchange rate of 15,800 Dong to the US $1.
We are sitting in a café straight out of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American –
grand and with plenty of French style but all a bit jaded and tatty. We are
watching some vast American businessmen cruising the buffet and it seems to me
that the last generation in the US made a fortune and this generation ate it.
Actually my dear wife has recently taken to calling me Tu Dam Phat but after
witnessing this Herculean display of Mille Feuille quaffing she lovingly calls me
Dat Thin Manh.
While the Vietnamese people have a long and individual artistic tradition they
are also open to new ideas and the French impressionist painters had a huge
impact on their local artists. Every street in Saigon seems to have at least one
art gallery – an alleyway where dozens of artists of all ages sit cross legged
before huge canvases and the air is redolent with oil paint. They have a brush
in one hand and a little photo of the original painting in the other. No matter
that the nude woman in Edouard Manet’s Olympia has almond shaped eyes and raven
As we head back to our lovely French hotel in a Taxi there’s complete chaos all
around us. The sheer volume and ferocity of the traffic in Saigon makes Bangkok
look like a Sunday afternoon stroll. Scooters and motorbikes dominate the roads
with two or three people hanging on for dear life and not a helmet in sight.
On our right an old AJS thunders along and on the back a European businessman
in three piece suit with his tie and coat tails flapping in the slipstream.
On the left a Norton passes us belching smoke and on the back a heavenly young
Vietnamese woman, in traditional long flowing white pants and gown riding side
At the hotel the taxi driver points to the meter which reads 140 Dong. I give
him a US $1 note at which he smiles broadly and wishes me and my Elephants eternal
fertility. Hmmmm - I think I’ll check my guide book again tonight.
Postcards from Abroad