We flew into Vietnam on Sunday. The airport is new and efficient and we paid the stated rate, $15 to get to our hotel. Having missed the place the first time and going around the block, the cab driver remarked “O my **, that IS it!” Not the most auspicious introduction, but we’ve been around the block a few times ourselves, Pam and I, and we are not easily put off. Our hotel may be modest, but it is clean and moderately priced and in a safe neighbourhood. Anything beyond that we consider conspicuous consumption.

Ho Chi Minh City

We got in early enough for an evening stroll through the upscale part of town, and I have to say we were pretty impressed. The streets and sidewalks are wide, as they are in Phnom Penh, similarly influenced by the French genius for civil planning, and the sidewalk cafes and rooftop terraces were gracious and friendly. We must have walked 20 kilometers on Monday. We started with a tour through Ben Thanh Market, much more organized than Central Market in Phnom Penh, but not nearly as much fun. Prices are pretty well as stated, and the Vietnamese are not easily moved.

Bycycle Rickshaw

We made the mistake of catching bicycle rickshaws outside of the market whose drivers took us two kilometers the wrong way and into a deserted courtyard for a shakedown. We don’t often make that kind of mistake when we are travelling, but we got off relatively lightly and more than a little chagrinned at our naivete. We hoofed it the rest of the day and found Saigon to be full of the romance of French influence and the legacy of protracted war.

It is an odd combination. The Reunification Palace was everything you remember the archectecture of the sixties to be: angular and airy. The Hotel de Ville and the post office pure French colonial gingerbread.

Reunification Palace

Hotel de Ville

The War Museum was suitably horrific, as befits a horrible war. The artefacts of the American genius for crafting weapons of death were eye-opening even for one as cynical as I, and the pictures of the human costs of torture, mines, napalm and Agent Orange won’t be easily forgotten. Salad Nicoise and a sweet crepe at a French cafe went some way to restoring a sense of perspective on a troubling day.

The Vietnamese are a hard and hardened people. Their drive for prosperity is being noted even among their neighbours in South-East Asia who are used to seeing such rampant capitalist ambition. A square foot of land in Saigon is now more expensive than Hong Kong or New York. Everywhere you look buildings are going up; expensive buildings. Our shakedown at the market is just the tip of the iceberg: these people are tenacious and determined. Whatever is takes, they are going to succeed, and they are going to be a force to be reckoned with in this part of the world.

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