Swingin’ Through Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)

Saigon – Economic powerhouse – The Vietnamese work ethic – Regional differences – The American War – “Motorcycle for Sale”…

I entered Saigon by bus, snuck past the motorcycle taxis and tuk tuk drivers, and caught a local bus to the center of town.  I passed through the sprawling city into its center and jumped off the bus in the heart of old Colonial Saigon.

I was surrounded by the monuments of the French Colonial Era – magnificent administrative buildings, luxury hotels and cultural centers.  From the Post Office to the reproduction of Notre Dame Cathedral, the old buildings were an elegant adornment on the vibrant city.  I explored these buildings by day and at night I had drinks with friends at the base of the Saigon Opera house, stunningly illuminated with blue and white lights against the dark sky above.

Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, was the jewel of French Vietnam.  The French built a beautiful city, installed electricity, sewers, and infrastructure, and developed Saigon culturally, economically and administratively along Western lines.  The French influence, followed by that of America, created a strong culture of consumerism that Ho Chi Minh’s socialism could not eradicate.

Today, the capitol might be in Hanoi, but the capital is in Saigon.  The economic policies modeled after Gorbechev’s Perestroikia, called doi moi in Vietnamese, are in full swing twenty years after their adoption in 1986.  The wide French boulevards may be decorated with the red and gold sickle and hammer, but they are lined with capitalist enterprises.  Five minutes of bargaining in Saigon’s markets is enough time to convince anyone that this place is anything but communistic.  Like China, Vietnam is a hybrid economy – communist in name but capitalist in reality.

Between 1995 and 2005 Vietnam’s GDP doubled and Vietnam positioned itself to join the top ranks of Asian economies.  The government is privatizing state enterprise and everywhere you can see joint stock companies, that is, businesses created from foreign investment.  Much of the foreign investment comes from what the Vietnamese call V.Q.’s, or ethnic-Vietnamese born abroad in the US or other nations.  They bring with them capital and business acumen and they are propelling Vietnam’s development, but the global economy has drastically affected Vietnam – foreign investment is down 72% from last year.

In 1994 Vietnam joined ASEAN and normalized relations with America, and America responded by lifting the trade embargo in place since the end of the Vietnam War and restoring full diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1997.  In 2000, Vietnam created its first stock market and President Clinton became the first American President to visit the country since its war with America.

Nine years after President Clinton’s historic visit, I made my own less publicly celebrated appearance in Saigon.  I was surprised how welcoming Vietnamese are towards Americans; I expected resentment but instead every other person just smiled at me and talked about how they have family in California.  Most Vietnamese want to put the past behind them and focus on the future.

The Vietnamese impress me.   They are very industrious and work all day, six or seven days a week, carry themselves with the pride of a self-made country, and give excellent value and service.  It is impossible to find the dingy backpacker dives of Cambodia or Bangkok here: every hotel has air condition, television, comfortable beds, and a private bathroom with hot water.  All of us backpackers in search of the most basic accommodation are forced into relative luxury!

Much of these differences between Vietnam and her neighbors can be attributed to the religious divide between Theryavada and Mahayana Buddhism.  Many Laotians are content to sit in a hammock all day, certain that they have thousands of lives ahead of them, so why rush to reach nirvana in this life?

Not in Vietnam.  Since the 1940s, Vietnam has fought in five wars (against Japan, France, America, Cambodia, and China) and they understand how much can happen in one life time.  Unlike Laos, they strive for perfection in this life.  There is an old saying that sums it up well, The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, and the Laotians just listen.

Saigon was an interesting city.  I rendezvoused with expats I had met through friends and from the Couch Surfing website (for more information, click here or view my CouchSurfing profile).  I would like to thank Viet Nuygen for an illuminating conversation and Nichali and Kelly for taking me out on the town!

I went to the American War Remnants Museum and the underground tunnels at Cu Chi and tried to see the war from a Vietnamese perspective.  I met former soldiers from both sides of the conflict, I saw pictures of bloody battles, and I read personal accounts of the war.  In particular, the museum was a horrible showcase of the atrocities of war.

Thus far I have studied each country I have visited and explored histories of wars and dynasties of which I was ignorant.  But Vietnam is different.  I studied the Vietnam War in university, and I felt that, like most Americans, I had a preconceived idea of Vietnam before my arrival. Would it be like the ‘Nam from Platoon or Apocalypse Now? 

I knew there was more to Vietnam than that bloody war between our countries.  The Vietnamese are willing to put the war behind them, and so am I.  The Vietnamese do not hate Americans, and they will probably become one of our country’s close partners in Asia.  So though I will comment on the “American War” as appropriate, I hope to show you another side of this country, a Vietnam with no battles, no bombs, and no bad memories.  It is time to move on, time to see what else Vietnam has to offer.

I started with food.  I sampled everything from snake curry, to pho noodle soup, and snake wine.  At night, I sat on plastic stools in the street and drank bia hoi (literally, raw beer), which is home-brewed beer that costs about 60 cents a liter!  For about $2 I bought almost everyone I met a round of beer.  If only it was the same back home!

After four nights it was time to move on.  Shrewd Vietnamese businessmen sell “open bus tickets,” which take you all the way from Saigon to Hanoi for about $30 and allow you to get on and off in pre-selected cities along the way as you please.  The catch?  The bus drops you off at 5 AM right in front of their hotel, so you are too tired to search for anywhere else.

It was a good price, but I was weary of the commission culture and the inflexible pre-determined route, and I knew I would never get off the tourist trail.  Still, I was tired of bargaining with bus drivers and it seemed like an easy way to go through Vietnam.  I decided to buy a ticket.

But as I walked to the ATM to withdraw cash for my bus ticket, I came across an interesting flyer advertising the following:

MOTORCYCLE FOR SALE!!! THINKING ABOUT GOING ACROSS VIETNAM BY BUS?  WHY NOT DO IT BY BIKE?

A damn good question.  I wrote down the seller’s phone number and arranged a meeting that same night.

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