The moment the rain tapers off in Ho
Chi Minh City, adolescent street hawkers re-emerge from beneath
the awnings to continue their endless search for new customers.
Ten year olds selling lottery tickets run from food stalls to
tailor shops, looking for people who believe that today might
be their lucky day. Them commuters peer out from under the eaves,
wipe pools of water from the new Honda motorbikes, and roar off
into the sprawling arms of the metropolis. One Hanoian resident
living in Ho Chi Minh City complains, "this city has no soul."
But natives turn defensive at the suggestion that they have no
depth. They may seem preoccupied with commerce and fashion, but
they also have romance and sentimentality, and at their heart,
they have Saigon.
Ho Chi Minh City includes a dozen thriving commercial districts
with different names, and at the center is Saigon-District One-with
its old French villas, wide open streets, and an avenue of boutiques
running from the Notre Dame Cathedral to the river. Ho Chi Minh
City is a vibrant, exciting economic tiger. But everyone still
calls the city Saigon and, as everyone knows, Saigon is not only
a place for commerce, but for experience.
Ho Chi Minh City is young and hopeful and on the move. It has
been almost a decade since Hanoi introduced doi moi, a collection
of reforms and new attitudes that essentially released VietNam
from the doctrinaire approach to socialism which Ho Chi Minh's
contemporaries had pursued since the revolutionary leader's death
in 1969. Meaning renewal, doi moi opened Vietnamese society in
unprecedented ways, by allowing foreign investment and greater
freedoms of expression. It has permitted the Vietnamese to own
and operate their own business and, perhaps most importantly,
earn money for themselves.
It is this new opportunity that infuses the air in Ho Chi Minh
City. Not that the Vietnamese actually needed any encouragement.
The entrepreneurial spirit seems almost second nature to most
of them. It's just that before doi moi, they had to pursue money-making
behind closed doors, under the dark cloud of the black market.
Now it's all legal, and the rush to get to the marketplace is
furious. It is not uncommon to see men and women holding down
two or three jobs, or working on construction sites long past
midnight, their efforts illuminated by only a few bare bulbs and
the blue spark of a welder's gun. But doi moi is not only about
making money. It is about enjoying it, by seeing what the world
has to offer, by testing the limits of change. Now that the country
has opened its doors, a period of experimentation has begun, especially
among those who are under 21, which, by recent count, is almost
half the country.
On Teacher's Day (a national favorite), on Reunification Day,
on Christmas, and to a lesser extent every Sunday night, the downtown
streets of Ho Chi Minh City are packed with young people having
fun. They deck themselves out in glitter duds, striking poses
while moving at 25 m.p.h. on their 70cc Honda motorbikes. Boys
with James Dean hairdos and dangling cigarettes loosen their shoulders
to whip like snakes through traffic. The girls ride behind, chatting,
sometimes sidesaddle and at ease, poised cross-legged, as if at
a debutante ball.
True, VietNam is an ancient country, with thousands
of years of tradition behind it. But in Ho Chi Minh City, and
increasingly in Hanoi, the old blends with the new in surprising
ways. I asked a resident once if he liked the ao dai, the Vietnamese
woman's traditional dress. Though noticeably transparent, the
white ao dai has somehow become the high school uniform in Ho
Chi Minh City.
"Of course I like ao dai" he said. "I am Vietnamese!"
"And why do Vietnamese like the ao dai?" I asked.
"The ao dai," he said, "is part mystery, part revelation."
it seems as though tradition is unable to hold young Vietnamese
down. As indo-chic struts down fashion show runways in Paris,
the youth of Ho Chi Minh City are trying out the rudiments of
MTV vogue, albeit slightly outdated, and learning to dress like
Madonna and Stevie Nicks or Sid Vicious and Don Johnson all at
once. The cruising teenagers seem unconcerned that, for their
parents, the air is cluttered with ghost. The youth can barely
remember the war. How could they be bothered by it? Their parents,
though, begin every other sentence with 'Before 1975..."
And end it with nostalgia: from their own youth, for excitement,
even for the old French names of the tree-lined boulevards.
Saigon was always a market for the commodities of pleasure. Although
today's Ho Chi Minh City is too busy to look back, it isn't too
busy to have fun. Everywhere are garden cafe's with dark hideaways,
and discos where swanky singers in miniskirts croon slow-dance
ballads under dreamy blue neon, and "taxi-dancers" wait
for single men as they have been waiting for twenty years. The
people of the city live in a generous world. They have an expression,
"Five won, five lost." It means: Relax, take a chance.
You may lose but you'll always win again. If you get a chance
go visit the beautiful city of Saigon.