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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