Here Be Somnambulist Ville
It can truly be said of Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as it is now called, that the city never sleeps. On the busy street where I stayed, there were two restaurants/bars-cum-nightclubs, Go! and Saigon Buffalo, where activity picked up at night. The loud music and sounds of drunken revelry only winded down late (4 am). I watch from my hotel window across the street as customers lay sprawled on tables. Two hours later, as first light dawned on the city, the street was already bustling with the roar of motorcycles and residents having breakfast perched on low plastic stools at roadside coffee shops.
There are the usual places for tourists and the wealthy to eat, but for most locals, street food is adequate and nutritious. Although Saigon is Vietnam’s growth engine—its 11.5 per cent GDP growth pushes the country’s growth to a respectable 7 per cent—you don’t see here the wide disparities in wealth now visible in Mumbai or Delhi. Luxury stores aren’t that intimidating or expensive, the big cars are mainly taxis, there are many more budget hotel rooms than there are high-end ones, the streets and markets are clean, and the two-wheeler, the most common form of travel, is a great leveller.
Motorcyles and scooters are symbols of Saigon’s energy and bustle, in the same way autorickshaws were, once, in Delhi or the tuktuk is in Bangkok. They outnumber cars some 20 to one, and leap in unison from traffic lights like unchained wild animals, ready to run down a tardy victim. I once waited at a road for 10 minutes not having the courage to cross, when a middle-aged woman couldn’t bear my helplessness and firmly led me to safety across.
Life On The Artery
The Saigon river is to the city of nearly 8 million what the sea is to Mumbai. The swishiest hotels are along its banks, as are crowded refreshment stands, quiet spots for lovers to park their scooters, the ships that anchor there, slums and workshops perched on its banks, the boats and barges that ply on it, and all the traffic of a busy port. The river is linked through canals to the Mekong delta, some 80 km to the south just before it empties into the South China Sea. The delta is so fertile it gives three crops a year, is populated by families that survive on rice, fish and fruit, and swarms with barges and boats that sustain the economies of Cambodia and southern Vietnam.
On a day-long tour, we are taken through the delta to villages ripe for tourist dollars, on boats pushed through creeks where the water is a muddy grey, a passable lunch at one stop, fruit and folk songs at another, hopping between islands in boats, and finally making the two-hour trip back in a speedboat.
A certain historical epoch came to an end when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong in 1975. The dream of unsurpassed American might ended and with it all the promises and vices of the free market as chaos and turmoil took over. Saigon turned into Ho Chi Minh City and began to acquire some of the dourness of life in a Communist state. But not for long, as it began to move towards a market economy in the late ’80s. Now, not a few capitalist vices are back. Many places located in side streets advertise ‘massage parlours’ with pretty young women hanging around outside. Taxi drivers and hawkers are ready to fleece tourists if they can. Restaurants menus from around Asia are proliferant, as is the all-night convenience store like in the US.
French architectural influence is evident throughout the administrative core. The ‘revolutionary museum’ was once the residence of the French governor. There’s a separate Ho Chi Minh museum and the revolutionary museum focuses on the activities of the southern resistance first to French rule and later to American occupation. Besides sections showing Saigon as industrial hub, port and administrative centre, two large rooms feature the people, the artifacts and the events of the five-decade-long fight for independence from France and the US.
A moving exhibit—made comical by the fully dressed couples who come in their marriage finery to take photos of themselves in the solemn setting.
Vietnamese cuisine differs from other Southeast Asian food not in the meats or vegetable used, only in the mix of spices. But no matter where you go to eat, whether on the street or in a fancy place, you invariably have to pay for your water. Even a bar charges you for the water served with your drink. The only place they did not inflict the outrage of asking me to pay for water was an Indian restaurant I went to on my last day in Vietnam. It was of course a relief to eat mutton after having to be content with pork and beef for two weeks. But it wasn’t just the taste of Indian cooking. I knew I was back in a culture where it is a duty to offer water to anyone who asks—and an outrage to expect payment.
I Learnt That
Roadside peddlers can be both persistent and rude. One Saigon dude, after unsuccessfully pestering me to buy his wares, walked away in a huff, then turned around and spat, ‘F*** off.’
Mumbai-based Yogi Aggarwal is a journalist who writes on current affairs.
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