Saigon by Any Name Lives On


OK, so it isn’t Saigon anymore. But hold the obituaries. Good times are here again. Strip away the veneer of communism and there, among the ghosts of the past, this former wartime capital still has the heart of a hustler and the soul of a damsel.

Actually, the name Ho Chi Minh City never caught on in the first place. It was like turning Boston into John Fitzgerald Kennedy City. It just didn’t sound right. It conjured up no images of Graham Greene on the Continental Hotel’s veranda or tamarind-shaded boulevards or lazy summer days around the pool at the Cercle Sportif. It didn’t even carry a whiff of the war that so shaped the city’s character.

So Saigon, in casual conversation if not official terminology, continues to be Saigon to most Vietnamese.

But by whatever name, great changes are sweeping across this city of 5 1/2 million inhabitants, once the capital of South Vietnam. The odd union of communism and capitalism has unleashed the entrepreneurial spirit and creative energy of a postwar generation, and Ho Chi Minh City is throbbing to the beat of jackhammers and late-night discos. The peace dividend, at last, is drawing compound interest.


“Times are good, no doubt about it,” said Nguyen Van Tran, 22, who has opened a shop specializing in imported food and liquor. “You can smell the opportunity. There’s money around.”

Across from the remodeled Majestic Hotel, on the far banks of the Saigon River--where Viet Cong guerrillas used to move freely through shantytowns--towering neon signs blink out a red-lettered message for the future: Hitachi . . . Fuji . . . Compaq.

Their reflection shimmers across the nighttime waters, bathing anchored freighters and gliding sampans in an eerie glow.

The placards of progress, or at least change, are everywhere. Construction cranes perch atop half-finished office high-rises like giant birds. A Marriott, a Hyatt and a Ramada Inn are going up, and a Hard Rock Cafe is coming. Honda motor scooters choke the avenues, and the endless bars on Tu Do (Freedom) Street (now named Dong Khoi, or Uprising)--where GIs once bought “comfort ladies” $5 shots of “whiskey” that were really just tea--have given way to shops advertising products made by Cartier, Rolex, Christian Dior.

Designer jeans with a cell phone in the hip pocket have replaced the ao dai, the flowing women’s garment worn over tight pants, as Generation X’s favored style of dress. Caviar is as easy to find as rice. Plans are underway to open a stock exchange (even though only 20 of the 6,000 state-owned enterprises in the city have been privatized), and huge crowds of shoppers are already flocking to the country’s first air-conditioned mall, the Superbowl.

“It’s like this every night, until about 2 in the morning,” said the 40-year-old bartender at Apocalypse Now, where expatriates and Vietnamese yuppies were jammed shoulder to shoulder, sipping Heineken and Johnnie Walker Red. “I don’t think any of the Vietnamese here understand the significance of the bar’s name. They’re too young. They just like the place.”

Economic Engine

If any proof is needed that Ho Chi Minh City is the engine driving Vietnam’s transition to a free-market economy, here’s some evidence: The city contributes one-third of both the national budget and industrial output. The per capita income ($1,000 a year) is three times the national average. Seventy percent of U.S. economic activity in Vietnam and 33% of foreign investment are centered here. One thousand foreign companies are represented. The number of Americans living here has grown in less than three years from 300 to 3,000.


But although Vietnam is one of the last surviving Communist states and the party remains well entrenched, particularly in rural areas, the country’s real ideology has always been nationalism. The urban postwar generation has little interest in politics or communism. What drives it is an almost obsessive quest for education, knowledge and financial success.


“What this generation has, and mine didn’t, is opportunity,” said Ho Si Khouch, 65, a professor of history at Ho Chi Minh University. “We looked ahead to war. They look ahead to peace. They’re much more independent, dynamic, creative than their fathers were. They don’t want to study the subjects we did--history, philosophy, poetry. The majors they’re choosing now are business, economics, English language, computer sciences.”

Over its 300 years of history, Ho Chi Minh City has had at least eight names and has long marched to its own drummer. Although most Vietnamese look to Hanoi, the political and intellectual capital, with the same sense of fondness the French have for Paris, Saigon/Ho Chi Minh has always been where the action is. If Hanoi is Salt Lake City, proper and strait-laced, Ho Chi Minh is New Orleans, flashy and a bit wicked.


The city as it is today evolved out of swamps and marshland after the French arrived as colonizers in 1859. Using forced labor, France filled in canals, built wide boulevards, glitzy casinos, exclusive sporting clubs, grand villas landscaped with palm trees, cathedrals and a state opium factory at 74 Hai Ba Trung St. Saigon--"a French city flowering alone out of a tropical swamp,” one writer called it--became the capital of French Indochina and a city nearly as beloved by the French as Paris itself.

Hardly more than a decade after the French left--in 1954, with the fall of Dien Bien Phu--a new war was underway and hordes of Americans had turned Le Loi and Nguyen Hue streets into a sort of mini Ft. Bragg. The black market thrived. Vendors blanketed the sidewalks. Prostitution flourished. Capitalism, in its most conspicuous and least attractive form, had arrived.

“The city’s long exposure to France and America certainly affected the people’s mentality, because they’ve been accustomed to a market economy for decades,” said Nguyen Son, who operated a clandestine Viet Cong radio station in the Mekong Delta during the war against the United States and is now spokesman for Ho Chi Minh City’s government, which is Communist, at least in name.

“If you asked me, from someone’s appearance, who is a capitalist and who is a socialist, it would be difficult to tell. But I don’t see any conflict. To build socialism, you have to use capitalism and take from it what is good. To some extent, a market economy doesn’t belong exclusively to capitalism but instead is an achievement of all mankind.”


War Memories Fade

Although bartenders on the terrace of the Rex Hotel--bachelor quarters for U.S. officers a generation ago--still mix a good martini, and the abandoned fortress-like U.S. Embassy from which Americans fled April 30, 1975, still stands on Le Duan Street, the memories of that wartime era are growing increasingly few, and Ho Chi Minh City is rapidly taking on characteristics that are uniquely Asian.

The sandbagged United Press International office at 19 Ngo Duc Ke has been swallowed up by a cluster of cheap restaurants where construction workers eat noodles with chopsticks. The Melody Bar next door, a favorite of journalists looking for love or conversation, has simply disappeared. The veranda of the Continental Hotel, built in 1885, has been torn down, and South Vietnam’s presidential palace is now Reunification Hall. In its basement war room, amid charts with red patches to mark Viet Cong positions, are stacked dusty telex machines and radios.

Ho Chi Minh City’s transition from wartime turmoil to peacetime prosperity has not come without peril. Numerous high-profile business tycoons have crashed, brought down by inexperience, mismanagement and the government’s favoritism toward state-owned ventures. Corruption is so widespread that many Vietnamese cannot get a bank loan without dispensing bribes. Pollution, unemployment, chaotic traffic and a widening gap between rich and poor all trouble city planners.


Petty--but seldom violent--street crime is so common that hotels advise guests not to venture out with jewelry, watches, money or anything of value. The smiling, dirt-poor cyclo driver (very possibly a former South Vietnamese soldier) who offers to pedal you around the city in the carriage attached to his bicycle turns into a demon once you are his passenger, refusing to stop at your hotel until the price is negotiated upward. Old women in conical hats brush innocently against you on the street--and pfffft, as if by magic, the Mont Blanc pen in your shirt pocket disappears.

Western economists note that the burgeoning opportunities of a free-market system, officially adopted by Vietnam in 1986 and bolstered by the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo in 1994, have made it difficult for the city and state companies to attract capable administrators, most of whom can find greater rewards in the private sector. To the disappointment of foreign investors, Vietnam last year reaffirmed its commitment to focusing its energies on revitalizing state-owned enterprises.

But if Ho Chi Minh City’s economic foundation is still shaky despite the lustrous sheen on top, what is solid, Western business-people say, is Generation X’s eagerness to work and learn.

Eager to Learn


Daytime waiters run nighttime catering businesses. Secretaries go to school when their day jobs are done. Students get one degree and start studying toward a second. Hotel clerks who speak French as a second language are learning a third, probably English. Shopkeepers squeeze courses on computer science into their weekends.

“I take it for granted,” a European businessman said, “that three nights a week, my staff will be in school studying something after work. They may not know exactly why they are studying this or that, but the big thing is they are willing to learn.

“And that, in the long run--regardless of what the government does or doesn’t do--is going to bring about the future they aspire to and are entitled to.”