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 As recently as 1973 the future looked bright for Vietnam – they had finally seen off the French, the Yanks had withdrawn and the north and south were again united under one government in Hanoi.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 hair.

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 saddle.

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.

Xin chŕo

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