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In Search of 'Communist' Vietnam

Notes from a quick, guided visit to Saigon, er, Ho Chi Minh City.

Rafe Mair 16 Mar

Rafe Mair's column normally runs every other Monday, but we tacked on an extra day of vacation this week.

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Motorbike metropolis: Ho Chi Minh City.

My mandate, I think, is to a write a political column for these pages, which I'm about to do, so don't confuse this with a travelogue.

Wendy and I have just returned from the trip of a lifetime, a 37-day cruise which took us to Auckland, Tauranga, Christchurch, Invercargill (all in New Zealand), Hobart (twice), Melbourne (twice), Sydney, Adelaide, Perth/Fremantle (all in Australia), Singapore, Ho Chi Minh City, Cambodia and Bangkok.

Here's a bit of market information for those who follow these things -- baseball caps sold from a high of $23.50 at Raffles in Singapore to $1 in Ho Chi Minh City. I save them, sort of.

Comic book fantasies

Since I was a boy I've always been interested in what was once called French Indochina. This fascination was whetted by a comic strip/radio show called "Terry and the Pirates," featuring such characters as Big Stoop, the Dragon Lady and the young adventurer, Terry. In my mind's eye, I saw boisterous cities full of smells, noises and mysterious back alleys replete with the mystery of West meets East. While I had been to Singapore and Bangkok, I only had my imaginary vision of Saigon.

(First, though, my minimal journalistic ethics force me to advise that when you reach the famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore you may, as your guide tells you, get an original Singapore Sling. However, you sure as hell won't get in at the famous Long Bar (where I first did) but will be admitted to a fake Long Bar on the third floor. But I digress.)

In spite of my memories of mystery, I nearly didn't go to Ho Chi Minh City because I was fighting an eight-week-long flu bug and hadn't slept and didn't relish the idea of a two-hour drive each way. But when would I have another chance?

Our bus was modern and air conditioned and was led by Se, an admirably brief name, who was an 18-year veteran of his craft. When I remarked to him that he resembled Tiger Woods -- a dangerous thing to do to a stranger in a communistic country, or anywhere these days, come to think about it! -- he laughed and said he was constantly told that but he had neither the money nor the women and he'd never played golf.

His opening words set the stage of what became an interesting political epiphany. "Welcome to Saigon," he said.

"What's with this?" I thought, believing that after the Americans were unceremoniously tossed out and unification with the North had taken place, Saigon had become Ho Chi Minh, named after the Mao Zedong of Vietnam. There was more to come as Se mentioned with obvious delight the recent death of a president.

I asked Se whether he wasn't concerned about his candor, especially since there was the driver and his assistant on board. I thought of the tour I had taken with Intourist in the old Soviet Union and the guide's meticulous adherence to the party patter.

Se told us that free speech, unless used to make trouble, was tolerated and this had happened with the falling of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Evidence of millionaires

Before I go on I must give you a word picture of traffic in Saigon. I've been to some of the most crowded cities in the world but I have never seen anything like this! Literally thousands of motorbikes swirling around each other and the larger vehicles in roundabout after roundabout that are pretty good imitations of L'Etoile in Paris. One of our shipmates counted four people on one bike which included a baby in the basket. Like in Rome, it seems that tooting your horn is mandatory -- it was scary yet funny.

After we'd visited the usual places one visits on bus trips like this, I was fortunate to have Se as my seatmate for the ride home.

He pointed out apartment building after apartment building with the penthouse selling in the millions and the smaller flats going for $200,000 and up! "In this country of 74 million," I asked, "in this communist country, how many millionaires are there?"

Se was taken aback by this question and told me that there were none! With as jaundiced an eye as I could conjure up, I said, "Come on Se, for a place to be worth $200,000 there must be a willing buyer with that kind of cash. (He had told us that mortgages were well nigh impossible to get and they ran over 18 per cent.) Se smiled and said that there might just be a few rich people in the "workers' paradise" after all.

"Where would they get this kind of money", I asked.

Se replied, "The stock exchange; almost everyone is into day trading." This was getting to be quite a communist country!

"What about the communist system, and were South Vietnamese glad to see the backs of the Americans?"

Se gave me a 10 minute lecture of the historical divide between North and South going back centuries. When the country had been divided after General Gap slaughtered the French at Dien Ben Phu in 1954, it made some sense to southerners who shuddered at the thought of being governed by Hanoi. While the southerners no more wanted the Americans than their former French masters, many hoped that there would be an independent South Vietnam. I thought his appraisal of the war fair and balanced and I was surprised.

Se also told me of the near famine in the '70s and '80s and how overseas Vietnamese would send help, which the government often intercepted.

Overcrowded rooms

A word about the city itself.

There are more than 10 million in Saigon and it grows by leaps and bounds. It's a curious mixture of blocks and blocks of hucksters standing outside little businesses, which often include living quarters only protected by canvas roofs from the torrential rains that come in season. There are slums -- big time. And there are, as I mentioned, the towering apartment blocks. Se's tale of overcrowding -- 45 people living in a small flat with only three toilets available -- demonstrated that this is still very much a developing country.

Finally, the city has beautiful parks and many old colonial homes built by the French 75 to 100 years ago. No one can pretend any expertise after one day in a place. I have tried to give you a glimpse of what I saw and heard and the surprises it gave me.

But my glimpse of Ho Chi Minh (oops!) Saigon tells me that communism has sure as hell changed!  [Tyee]

Read more: Travel, Politics

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