It's the first day in Vietnam and our guide Thuan is a young Vietnamese who tells me that two-thirds of the population is under the age of 25 and has no memory of the war that defines the country for the rest of the world. Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon, as it was known, is a relatively new city with a history of three centuries. The economic boom is evident from the construction cranes, the buildings covered with orange tarp and the glitzy shops. The USA, which once went to war with Vietnam, signed a trade agreement in 2000 that has contributed to the growth of Vietnam, making it one of the fastest growing economies in Asia. It has its share of problems: a high rate of inflation and a reputation for incorrigible corruption. But what lingers in your mind after a visit is the country's balmy warmth, its vibrant cities and the friendliness of the people.
Defined by war
The country has seldom known peace: Chinese occupation, French colonial rule and then war with the Americans, following which millions fled the ravaged country in search of opportunities. Called the Viet Kieu, many are returning now having learnt English and gained entrepreneurial experience, transforming Ho Chi Minh into a city of ten million people. Half the population commutes on motorcycles, armed with masks and gloves, weaving their way through the anarchic traffic. Helmets are akin to fashion statements, bringing a riot of colour and designs to the streets. Others use the Vietnamese rickshaws, known as cyclos. The city's first subway system is scheduled to open in 2014.
Street food is very popular here. At every corner, you will see portable restaurants with people seated on plastic stools, bent over bowls of Pho (pronounced fuh), the national comfort food. Pho is a fragrant broth of rice noodles with beef or chicken, spring onions, bean sprouts and fresh herbs. Thuan tells us about Pho 200, an outlet that became famous when Bill Clinton ate there and now advertises itself with the tagline ‘Pho for the President'! Also try the ubiquitous Banh Mi, a salad of radish, carrot and pork bits that is stuffed in a baguette. Don't miss the wonderful thick coffee either. Vietnam produces great coffee and is the world's second largest exporter. With your stomach full, you can start wandering around. The city is divided into numbered districts and District One is home to the main attractions. We drive past the Neoclassical Municipal Theatre and the landmark Continental hotel which was the frequent haunt of writer Somerset Maugham and is also the setting of Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American.
We save our energy for Cho Ben Than, the Central Market built in 1914, where you can get textiles, glitzy ao dais (the national dress), baskets, crafted bags and coffee beans. It looks like a souk bursting with unbridled energy. Nothing has a price tag so remember to bargain. What makes shopping here really enjoyable is the temperament of people - hardly anyone is angry or irritable as I haggle. “Indian... big eyes,” they say. Dong, the manyzeroed currency, makes me feel like a millionaire. Hours go by looking at exquisite lacquerware embellished with dragon flies, bottles of snake wine, carved wood, silver jewellery and bundles of silk.
An old heritage
The legacy of 100 years of French rule percolates through daily life, from elegant boulevards to baguettes stuffed with cheese and meat and a love for good coffee. There are glimpses of picture-postcard Vietnam at every corner - old women in pajama suits carrying bamboo baskets suspended on a traditional yoke, selling luscious dragon fruit and juicy rambutans. Young girls riding bicycles in skin-tight ao dai – long-sleeved tunics worn over satin pants. I'm struck by the pre-dominance of women in the work-force and wonder if it's a carry over from the war.
The Notre Dame Cathedral stands at the heart of the government quarter in Dong Khoi, its front square dominated by a statue of the Virgin Mary. The bricks are from Marseilles, the glass from Chartres and the foundation is designed to bear ten times the weight. Across the road is the elegant General Post Office designed by none other than Gustave Eiffel. It resembles a European train station with an old world glass canopy, a dramatic vaulted ceiling, vintage maps, a huge clock, old-fashioned phone booths and counters from where you can send postcards. Watching over it all is a statue of Uncle Ho or Ho Chi Minh, the goateed hero who graces most placards, stamps and bank notes. It was he who led the forces to victory against the French in 1954. Then there is the Reunification Palace that was the residence of the French Governor General and later, of the South Vietnamese President. It was here that communist tanks stormed the gates victoriously in 1975. There are boatshaped tables, carpets with dragons motifs, regal staircases, receiving rooms with red chairs, heavy drapes and ornate lacquer panels. The President's living quarters have quirky exhibits like horse tails and elephant feet that he received as gifts. There's a heliport on the third floor and the basement is a telecommunications centre with old maps, analog phones, a war room and escape tunnels.
In search of a different atmosphere, we walk through Cholon, one of the world's largest Chinatowns. Here we encounter calligraphy, temples with incense smoke and oriental music. We visit a lacquer factory to watch patient workmen use crushed duck egg shells and mother of pearl inlay to create masterpieces. For a dose of culture we see a water puppet show at the Golden Dragon Theatre. The tradition dates back to the 11th century and had its beginnings in the flooded paddy fields of the Red River delta. Here, the stage is set on murky waters as puppeteers manipulate a complex system of strings and poles from behind a bamboo screen. There's a live orchestra resplendent in traditional costumes. The puppets are made of special wood and coated with waterproof paints. We are enchanted as dragons belch fire, men row boats over stormy waters, phoenix fight, and goddesses preen.
We make a day trip to the Cu chi tunnels, a maze of underground tunnels stretching over 250 km that the Vietcong used to wage a guerilla war against the Americans. We crawl into the narrow spaces to see the deadly traps the Vietcong used. Another day, we travel on the Mekong in a small cruise boat and experience the mosaic of paddy fields, fruit and shrimp farms, mangroves and floating markets. We enjoy the soporific pace of life and the interesting encounters with locals along this watery highway. We came to Vietnam with images of a devastated land and a broken people gleaned from war movies. We found a forward looking country and people equipped with equanimity, rooted in the past but looking solidly to a bright future. Under the cloak of communism was a firm capitalist heart. Market over Mao!
Published in The Week, 2011