Flying in to Saigon, I notice the factory rooftops, the straight, well maintained roads, the neat layout of the housing. All the signs of organisation and commercial savvy that you’d associate with a prosperous forward looking nation, and it takes me aback.
I wasn’t expecting such outward signs of economic vigour. Even from this height, Saigon looks like it’s on the up.
Perhaps this is what happens when you allow preconceived notions of a place to take hold. With Vietnam though, it is all too easy to succumb to such groundless ideas.
Vietnam, after all, is a country which still conjures up strong images of war.
A cinematic place of napalm and guerrillas, of ideologies pitted against one another. Of a rock n roll war played out on TV and cinema screens that we would all prefer to forget.
Looking down from an aircraft today however, such impressions are easily dispelled. The vast green Mekong Delta is lush and fertile, the city itself, bright and optimistic.
If this is one of the last bastions of communism, then, from this height at least, it’s hard to tell.
And on the streets it’s a similar story.
There’s a busy, noisy, hustle and bustle about the place that imbues everything with energy. More Saigon than Ho Chi Minh these days, that’s for sure.
Granted the red flag still flies, “Uncle Ho” is still venerated and held in warm regard as the man who reunited the nation, and uniformed soldiers still patrol the streets, but it’s in the markets and on the street corners, in the skyscrapers and on the billboards, that the true, commercial nature of this country, shines through.
These days the streets hum to the sound of mopeds as people buzz about their business. Bicycles are clearly losing favour which is a shame. I say this not because there is something rather romantic about a city that rings with the sound of tinkling bike bells (though I would say there is) but because the choking smell of petrol fumes loses its appeal after a couple of hours of wandering the streets.
The kamikaze moped drivers are also a force to be reckoned with when it comes to crossing the road. The trick is to cross slowly. This may sound counter-intuitive (and the first few times it is) but trust me, if you move slowly and cross the road in stages, then the demon bikers can see what your plan is and where you’re headed and can get out of the way. By the end of the day, if you follow this rule, you’ll be crossing the road with the same carefree flair as the locals.
Which gives you plenty of time to prepare yourself for the next assault (insult?) course.
The Ben Than market.
Once you’ve made it over the junction and into the Ben Than market, you’ll find that it’s almost impossible to squeeze you way through the maze of brightly coloured stalls. At every twist and turn you are accosted by cheery cries prevailing upon you to come on in and sample the wares.
Beware however, if you are looking for clothes and happen to be of a slightly sensitive disposition, because the stall owners take no prisoners when it comes to commenting on ample western figures. In fact I’d even go as far as to say they’ve refined it into quite an art. They can insult you and laugh at you and yet still convince you to part with your cash!
And it’s only when you’re confronted with this trading banter and commercial eloquence that the rest of the city starts to make sense.
Like the nightlife on the twenty-third floor of the newly erected (5 star) Sheraton Hotel. Here the bar and nightclub does a roaring trade.
The local clientele are young, extremely beautiful girls, dressed to the nines and capable of turning the heads of every western male (and envious female) in the vicinity.
Money, looks, trade, fun and full on joi de vie is what it’s all about these days.
I watched them dance as I sipped a Singapore Sling and took in the neon views of the city below me.
And as the band (imported from Canada) played on, busy strutting their stuff in red leather and pounding out crowd pleasing renditions of The Black Eyed Peas , I had difficulty for a second figuring out where the hell it was I was.
Ho Chi Minh City? This is Ho Chi Minh City?