Impressions of Sai Gon

Nowhere in Viet­nam is it more obvi­ous than in Ho Chi Minh city that this coun­try will achieve a lev­el of pros­per­i­ty at least as high as Thai­land in record time. Hanoi bus­tles and obvi­ous­ly rev­els in com­mer­cial suc­cess. But it bare­ly holds a can­dle to the blaz­ing neon of HCM City; Sai Gon that was. One of my first impres­sions on arrival yes­ter­day: the stock of huge, four and five-star inter­na­tion­al hotels: Nova­tel, Omni, Nikko, Sher­a­ton, Car­vavelle (although this has been here for decades in one form or anoth­er). Sur­round­ing the hotels, a rich vari­ety of restau­rants, bars, beer gar­dens and a jum­ble of gleam­ing up-mar­ket inter­na­tion­al-fran­chise shops and fam­i­ly retail busi­ness­es sell­ing a wide vari­ety of any­thing (it appears) that can be stacked up or piled or dis­trib­uted across the pave­ment to slow-down the pass­ing pedes­tri­an traf­fic. If you are not sell­ing in HCM City, you must be buy­ing. So shops, shop­ping cen­ters and stalls remain open from ear­ly morn­ing to about 9pm every day of the week. As for the traf­fic; more of it than I’ve seen any­where oth­er than Bangkok. Floods of motor­bikes car­ry­ing up to four, five and even six includ­ing infants wedged between their par­ents bod­ies and rid­ing on the plat­form between the driver’s out­stretched arms, stream­ing and weav­ing and shoot­ing rapid­ly around imped­i­ments such as traf­fic islands and pedes­tri­ans try­ing to sur­vive the tor­rent. If the traf­fic is slight­ly less chaot­ic than Bangkok, it’s due more to the fun­da­men­tal­ly bet­ter roads—at least in the first District—than to small­er vol­ume. My third group of impres­sions: the sub­stan­tial num­ber of grace­ful french build­ings from the colo­nial peri­od; still well main­tained, still appar­ent­ly ful­fil­ing their orig­i­nal func­tion as town hall, opera the­atre, cathe­dral. And then I noticed a num­ber of build­ings from the six­ties (includ­ing the Rex Hotel, where I am stay­ing, plum in the cen­ter of the first dis­trict; a block below the ornate ninetheenth cen­tu­ry Hotel de Ville) that appar­ent­ly suf­fered a peri­od of sus­tained neglect and have been revived quick­ly or slowly—if still in the hands of a state enterprise—since the 1989 doi moi (“ren­o­va­tion”) pol­i­cy bought Viet­nam its own, suc­cess­ful, glas­nost-like con­ver­sion from a cen­tral­ly planned to a mixed capitalist/socialist soci­ety. Cap­i­tal and tal­ent that fled after re-uni­fi­ca­tion of the coun­try in 1978—many on small leaky boats to Australia—apparently left many such scars behind in the city. This evening, as every evening these days, upstairs in the roof-top beer-gar­den of the Rex Hotel, over­look­ing an inter­sec­tion of two of HCM City’s largest avenues, the flash­ing bulbs of the hotel signs—shimmering, gar­ish, sequences like the signs on a Coney Island or Luna P:ark—signal to the warm night sky that the confidence—the brashness—of the south is back.

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