Ho Chi Minh City nee Saigon in the light

Saigon in the light: a noisy, grungy, raucous, crowded, petrol-fume and coal-smoke laced town and I have never been so enchanted.

As we were warned, there were beggars every where, which isn’t so enchanting. Walking the streets you pass through a gauntlet of neediness. Stick thin women walk up and down endlessly, a stuporous baby draped over one arm, the other arm incidentally extended out to us. There is either a cottage industry of these pitiful women or there is one who is omnipresent. I cannot begin to imagine what life is like for them.

Each street has a similar tableau as if someone planned out a begging-street-vending master plan. The stick woman with her insensate child; the men with convoluted lower bodies that couldn’t really be called legs, their hands protected by plastic sandals as they drag themselves along; the blind and phoney blind of all ages hawking piles of stamp and coin albums. The postcard girls are ubiquitous - cookie cutter kids, petite, brown-eyed, slightly shabby, but omni-smiling - their designated spacing is every 25 feet. The little ones splay the postcards into an enticing array. They are as skilled as any dealer in Las Vegas. I buy a few postcards.

The little shops open out to the street. The fronts are like garage doors so the entire  storefront can be raised in the morning. They are locked at night with metal gates. I wonder who buys all this stuff? The tourist trade doesn’t seem heavy enough to support this kind of commerce. We pass clumps of Western faces, mostly French and German, I think. No Americans that we can see. We do pass a few Soviet citizens who act as if they almost belong here - maybe leftover functionaries? A heavily made up woman in a cyclo looks like a dolled up Russian matron. One of the men has on a Hawaiian shirt and looks around suspiciously. He might be Bulgarian, come to think of it. Oh yes, more out of place than we are.

It is only 9:00 am but I am sweating madly as I dodge beggars, urchins and cheerful cyclo drivers. Keith and I walk to the Notre Dame Cathedral, a prominent red brick edifice. It is not cool inside, sanctuary for the spirit only. 

I sit, uncomfortable with being surrounded by religion. I wonder if Keith would find a different peace with Buddhism. Catholicism has never struck me as leading to happiness or tranquility. He converted to Catholicism during his tour of service as a Marine. Maybe that spiritual infrastructure is necessary for him. He has a powerful primal force. The overburden of ritual and rule might be necessary to contain a riptide.

On the street, we encounter fellow travelers. We decide to go stare at the second American Embassy. Bill and Dan walk together like the old soldier friends they are. They were in the A Shau Valley together with the 101st - Bill was the chaplain. As with almost all former soldiers who served together, they have an understanding that transcends civilian life.

What never was

I peer through the locked gates. The courtyard is broken up by trees and bushes. It is an ugly place from an ugly episode. We meander around listlessly, in search of what? Not really tourists, but people who have in some way been here before and are patting and checking to see what has changed and what remains indelibly Vietnam.

Many of the courtyards had barbed wire strung on top of the walls. It was rusty, probably circa "our" war (the Vietnamese call it the "American War".) Electrical poles in the cities looked like little rusty Eiffel towers. I understand now why they are re-wiring our hotel.

It was easy to lose 40 years and imagine Saigon flooded with French adventurers, businessmen, whores, and soldiers. They probably sat where we were sitting, drinking iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk, caught up in the ineffable smells of offertory incense and flush marketplaces.

Our walking trips through the heart of Saigon, ringed by hotels and office complexes half built, bristling with rebar, took us past air-conditioned vans full of Japanese businessmen. The Caucasians could have been American or Australian suits. They did not look European.

There is a nostalgic view of bucolic, innocent Vietnam. This view does not hearken back to theFlowers American years, rather, farther back to the years of French colonial rule. The stuff of Graham Greene’s novel, The Quiet American,  is seductive for many who have come to Vietnam, either as explorers, exploiters, or expatriates. 

Greene’s novel - about the nascent U.S. involvement intertwined with French intrigue in Indochina - captures the seductive charm and surreal beauty of Vietnam. There was a watchful presence on the streets.


Men in white shirts, with half-rolled sleeves, dark tropical wool pants and hooded eyes passed heavy looks across our group. Our first night, at a local restaurant, we were scouted by a clutch of government functionaries. They spilled out of a car (the first sign of official-ness) and caused the restaurant owner to visibly twitch. We were studied, pointedly, from the table behind us. They did not eat, drink or smoke. Clearly, we had been informed that our activities were being surveilled in Saigon.

I was more amused than dismayed. Truly an innocent abroad. Not much could have protected us if - for some reason - we crossed the wrong line.

I was also surprised at how oblivious my former military traveling companions were to the influx of government heavies. The fuck me geckos were skittering over the pale greenish yellow cement walls and I saw the hair literally stand up on the back of one my compatriots. He thought lizard had fallen on his collar and kept brushing at it. I wanted to lean over and say, Hey, no gecko, just the evil eyes of the enforcers boring into your head…. I couldn’t easily do that because I was facing our new friends. I just smiled and nodded at them every time they looked my direction. Not a crack in their expressions. They didn’t even pretend to eat or drink. I guess they showed us!

The American mind’s-eye only sees Vietnam as a mini-series broadcast during the mid-60’s until 1975. The idea that the country existed for, according to legend, over 4,000 years prior to the first U.S. military advisors landing in Tan Son Nhat is inconceivable.

Richard M. Nixon, RIP

Traveling as I was, with men who had served in Vietnam during the war, it seemed wholly appropriate during my visit that word passing on the street was that Richard Nixon, the great mechanic of American extraction from the Vietnam War, had died. I can’t remember if we were in Da Nang or Saigon when we found out. Our three weeks in Vietnam had the quality of seamless silk. Time found its own way independent of clocks. For those of us wedded to the clock, I think the bigger rhythms of Asia are seductive. We cannot flee the minutes at home, but the days can spill into each other in Vietnam.

IncenseNixon’s death was not a big deal on the street. Actually, the 40th anniversary of the fall of Dien Bien Phu was getting all the play in Ho Chi Minh City - posters everywhere announced a celebratory bicycle race. Even John Denver’s upcoming concert in Hanoi was a bigger deal than Nixon’s death. Men of a certain age sported round, red pins proclaiming the victory “40th Dien Bien Phu.”  I felt irrationally pleased that these soldiers had defeated the French.

We hunted all over for those pins, covering a couple of kilometers in the process. To no avail,  we scribbled “40th Dien Bien Phu” on odd bits of paper in Saigon street stalls where vendors spoke no better English than we spoke Vietnamese. You could buy almost anything in Saigon, except those pins. During our search, I did pick up a couple of national flags - that lovely, unmistakeable Communist red with a five-pointed, vivid yellow star dead center and a pin celebrating the Liberation (Fall, for us) of Saigon on 30 April 1975.

We walk on sidewalks that are only curbstones and dust.

Although I was never in Vietnam during the American War (as the Vietnamese call it), I imagine that the unabashed market atmosphere, then, resembled what I saw in 1994. Except, during the war, the stakes were higher, and human life had a price: cheap. In the cities and villages, even on remote stretches of highway that seem to run macadam back in time, trade went on everywhere.

Capitalism is instinctive

I love the Vietnamese version of capitalism. They are consummate niche marketers. Little open air restaurants serve one or two basic dishes with a standard array of greens such as cilantro, shallots, or parsley for topping. Pho is a wonderfully salty broth served with noodles and shredded pork, chicken, or beef. It is a surprisingly refreshing in the heat. A widely used condiment, in addition to fermented fish sauce (nuoc mam), is a mixture of pepper, salt and lime juice.

Once or twice I asked for a little loaf of French bread, not realizing that I was in a niche restaurant that did not carry it, and out the back one of the young men would dash. Three or four minutes later, he would surreptitiously duck back inside, with loaves carefully wrapped in newspaper. Customer service, even for a few pennies!

Gas station
Saigon Gas Station: Constance Lee Menefee

At every corner, and spaced at intervals down each street, we encountered miniature service stations. The basic kit for this franchise seemed to consist of an old hand-powered tire pump, a small box of screws and metal pieces, a couple of rags, a discarded plastic mineral water bottle full of motorbike fuel (Vo Gas) corked with a rag, and a dishpan full of water. Motorcyclists and bicyclists stopped to attend to repairs,  gas up, or even get a cheap motorbike wash (about US $ 0.35). Sometimes, the more upscale establishments would sport an old folding chair and pot of hot tea.

Curbside arc welding operations demonstrated the persistent ingenuity of the Vietnamese. Hot water heater problems? Take the heater, via bicycle or cyclo,  to the closest Sparks ’R Us and have them weld a rusty pipe on to it. The notion of protective gear has not made much headway among welders in Vietnam. Farther from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration than Mars here.

Metal working shops were much in evidence. There is not one unclaimed bit of metal in Vietnam. Old fire bases, military camps, and compounds have been heavily scavenged for metal. Scavenging for metal can be a dangerous, even terminal, business. Casualties are still mounting from old ordnance. Even minefields from the war with France ending in 1954 have not all been cleared.

I wonder about the karmic consequences of leaving behind such seeds of dismemberment and death.

In the cities and on the road (that is the road,  the 2,300 km Saigon to Hanoi - National Highway 1) we could always find cigarettes, bottled water, little packages of sour and salty plums, or orange peels, and bottled soda - poured into a plastic bag with chunks of ice and a straw (you might want to avoid these.) The bottles are too valuable to leave the vendor’s hands.


I was coming unhinged from the heat in Saigon and bought some 7-Up from a vendor. She put ice and a straw into a plastic bag and poured the drink in. I didn’t get sick. I blame the heat and brain derangement on my indiscretion.

Ever enterprising, Vietnam also sells its share of animal products, illegal in the U.S. There are entire marketplaces of contraband. An enterprising young cyclo driver decided that I needed to visit the Dog Market, as he called it, as part of my tour of Saigon. It was an extravaganza of dried animal body parts, ground hooves and horns, cages roiling with snakes and crawling with reptiles of all stripes, monkeys listless, amidst pelts, tortoise shell, ivory, birds, and stuffed cats of several sizes, all endangered species. Having been well indoctrinated by American TV, I was acutely uncomfortable and found myself avoiding eye contact, wondering how I ended up here.

The merchants were making up for lost time in post-embargo Saigon. Stacks of boxes with washers, dryers, televisions, microwaves, stereos, irons, and hair dryers filled corners of the tented marketplaces. Catering to the growing American tourist trade, shops and little stands offered skillfully weathered dog tags and Zippo lighters with names and mottoes scratched in (and often misspelled.)

The cottage industry of counterfeiting was evident everywhere. The government struggles to enforce trademark agreements (or so it is said), but it's a losing cause. Clothing sporting famous maker labels was piled high in shop after shop. Tapes and cassettes with photocopied labels were for sale at sidewalk stalls. Color copiers were not commonly available yet, so pirated cassette and video covers are printed in black and white.

In the more extensive, indoor market complexes, there were hats all over - baseball style caps, often with misspelled but familiar company names, elegant straw hats ringed with silk flowers, and the traditional conical hats, most common in the countryside. We could always count on finding elbow-length, pastel gloves much favored by ladies when they ride bicycles or motorbikes around town.

Specialized shops selling motorbike and bicycle seats seemed to be on every block. Puppies in baskets and cages, not a good looking one in the lot, were a staple in all venues. I should point out the habit of canine dining is not so much a custom in the southern parts of Vietnam. There were lots of dogs on the streets, so they weren’t the main course here.

Pens, pads of paper, and faux Swiss Army knives were common commodities. Books of Vietnamese stamps and obsolete currency  for sale every 25 feet, it seemed. Tiny, dark-eyed children carried big stacks of postcards and darted toward every potential customer. Maybe next time. Maybe next time.

And plastic! Such plastic - in vibrant colors, piled high everywhere. It is functional, durable, and eye-catching. What more could one ask of a consumer product? The stools are a little short and narrow for us over-stuffed Westerners, though.

Markets were sensory overload. Stunning masses of yellow, red, purple, fragrant white flowers, were available for a less than a few hundred dong, essentially pennies. Big, flattened metal bowls with ice and live eels, prawns, crab, and fish filled aisles, along with baskets of seven or more kinds of rice and grain. Early in the day, you could find freshly butchered pigs, cuts of beef, clucking chickens, and reluctant ducks in baskets. I thought of trying to cook all this in the traditional Vietnamese kitchen and was daunted. Stacks of greens, bundles of fire wood,  papayas,  tiny sweet bananas, teas, and bright packages of incense lined every other aisle. 

It was a rich soup of sharp, spicy, warm, sweet, tangy odors with just a hint of rot.

I felt at home here, so far from my home.

The Reunification Express

Constance Lee Menefee
Copyright 2000