The 25th anniversary of Saigon’s fall has unleashed a flood of existential questions for Vietnamese and Americans. The roads taken, alternatives ignored and current choices compete for attention.Surprises and paradoxes littered the cityscapes of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Hanoi during my two-week April trip to Vietnam. First, Vietnam has become a safe, cheap and fascinating travel destination for American tourists. Schoolchildren, for instance, walk out of their way to greet you with a “hello” at museums and in parks. I’m sure a certain and unavoidable amount of anti-U.S military sentiment exists, yet almost everyone I met seemed very friendly, eager to talk and curious about the United States.
It’s impossible, even for people who have suffered in Bangkok’s traffic jams, to imagine the chaos on Saigon’s streets. Visualize the worst traffic jam you ever sat through on the 405. Now replace each car with five motorcycles, three overloaded bicycles, and a cyclo. Shrink the freeway by two thirds. Add humidity. Subtract traffic rules like lanes, direction and seat belts. That’s traffic in the new Vietnam.
The English language has also made an impressive comeback on the streets. A huge banner, for example, hanging on the recently completed Hanoi Towers proclaims in English: “Office Space Available for Lease.” Of course, Hanoi’s largest banner wraps around the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. It measures at least 20 feet high and 100 yards long and proclaims in Vietnamese, “Vietnam belongs to the people of Vietnam.”These contradicting banners lead to another perception. Traditional communist symbols currently co-exist in an odd symmetry with new corporate logos. The unofficial motto, acceptable to both older communists and younger capitalists, seems to be “money makes the world go ’round.” The attitude, at least in Saigon’s crowded markets and narrow street stalls, feels like “We won the war, you lost. Now won’t you please buy something?”
The intense energy, chaotic streets and constant bargaining for consumer goods in Saigon and Hanoi highlight the government’s dilemma. The country remains extremely poor by almost all standards, including the average number of calories consumed daily. Countryside residents average just over $150 per year, Hanoi residents top $300 per year, and Saigon residents live it up on $600 per year. Women merchants still carry produce using don garh, the two baskets suspended from either end of a pole and carried on their shoulders.
The continual presence of young children peddling postcards, especially in Saigon’s District One and central Hanoi, where tourists visit and shop, can be disconcerting, even overwhelming. I became essentially a walking ATM, purchasing numerous postcard collections, Xeroxed copies of Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American,” “The Sorrow Of War” by Bao Ninh and “Lonely Planet’s Vietnamese Phrasebook.” Visitors might want to have a “giving” philosophy worked out in advance. After a few days, I was giving away the duplicate postcard collections to other aggressive postcard vendors. (I still brought back over 200 postcards!)
My most memorable mornings involved hiring a cyclo driver, riding around wide boulevards, and taking pictures of Saigon coming to life from 5 to 7 a.m. You can watch hundreds of Vietnamese residents exercise in the streets and parks starting at 5 a.m. Senior citizens stretch their bodies; children play soccer in the streets; a few women begin to set up on the sidewalks to sell vegetables, bread and fish. I also enjoyed very early walks along Hanoi’s beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake as hundreds of people exercised. Vietnam’s two state television channels have also created a distinct electronic culture. The channels often show close up images of butterflies, rice fields, and the day’s newspaper – with little or no camera movement. An off-screen narrator presumably provides commentary. Vietnamese television seems the total visual antithesis of MTV’s fast edits, music and seductive commercials.
Another indigenous form of Vietnamese entertainment, water puppet theater, provides an intriguing glimpse into peasant culture. Hanoi’s Water Puppet Theater, a popular attraction, depicts Vietnamese folktales in short symbolic vignettes as four musicians perform a 45-minute concert of traditional music. This peculiar evening of pre-electronic entertainment, celebrating the lives of rice farmers and national mythology, features colorful puppets moving in a languid pool. Designed for 11th century peasants and marketed to 21st century tourists, the Hanoi Water Puppet theater costs less than $3 and includes a free audiocassette. A bargain or a bore.
A far safer bet for sophisticated visitors remains Ha Long Bay, with its spectacular island peaks. Ha Long Bay, selected as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1994 and featured in the film “Indochine,” awes one with its natural beauty. Boat cruises are available taking visitors to hundreds of small, uninhabited, oddly shaped limestone islands for a few hours. It’s a stunning and magnificent place in the Gulf of Tonkin that gives the distinct impression of being unearthly. Tourists usually take a one- or two-day organized excursion trip from Hanoi. During the bus trip to Ha Long Bay, one can glimpse Vietnam’s endless rice fields, water buffaloes, and women in their non (conical hats) working in the fields.
Visiting Vietnam, like visiting Israel, means running into old ghosts from painful historical periods. In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, American tourists can spend several full days just visiting museums and monuments about “the American War.” A strong nationalism and third-world revolutionary rhetoric continue to burn inside Vietnam’s museums, even while local merchants and their consumers dream of a first-world economy.
The national slogan, printed on all government forms, reads: Independence – Freedom – Happiness. Cynics and refugees joke that the dashes stand for minus signs. Ho Chi Minh’s multidecade crusade for national independence from the Japanese, French and Americans was successful. The Vietnamese paid a heavy price for victory and unifying their country – approximately 3 million people died in the war with the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies alone. Given Vietnam’s 20th-century wartime experiences with foreign powers, a certain level of classical nationalism and xenophobia seems understandable.
The War Remnants Museum, called the American War Crimes Museum until a few years ago, crams many disturbing pictures and articles documenting wartime atrocities. A surprisingly large percentage comes from Western media sources, including large color photographs of the My Lai massacre, prisoner executions, and physical torture. According to the guides, the War Remnants Museum is the most popular Saigon museum for Western tourists.
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi remains the country’s central shrine for remembering that long 20th century civil war. Thousands of children, peasants, and tourists walk two by two past stone-faced soldiers. Visitors encounter the legendary state founder in somber silence as people view the well preserved corpse of Vietnam’s George Washington. I couldn’t help wonder how history would have been different if the American government had recognized Ho Chi Minh’s Declaration of Independence – which began by quoting our own Declaration of Independence – in 1946 instead of supporting France’s efforts to regain her former colonies.
Yet Ho Chi Minh’s formula for independence, freedom and happiness – built on the Soviet economic model, national pride, and decades of rebellion – has brought more poverty than prosperity. Reunification led to a forced exodus of at least a million ethnic Chinese, soon known as boat people, rather than some socialist promised land. New wars soon followed with Cambodia and China. I felt sad leaving Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. The cult of Ho Chi Minh, for worse or better, continues.