» Ho Chi Minh City Diary »
A missile stream of motorcycles shoots along the roads of Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon) at reckless speed, deftly avoiding pedestrians. Roaring down the shopping mall, chasing up the water-front and throbbing past the Notre Dame cathedral, the motorcycle army is like a bright buzzing burst of locusts. "Mopeds used to come from Japan. Now they come from China," says our guide, "and they are very cheap." In a city of 7 million, there are 2 million mopeds. Ho Chi Minh City is hectic with delicious food and French colonial architecture. Ramshackle mini buses jostle up and down Dong Khoi—the long tree-lined avenue once called Rue Catinat, so well described in Graham Greene's The Quiet American. Yet, this is no longer the gracious Saigon of Greene's Indo-China. But nor is it fully Bangkok either. The city is situated in a cusp between communist control and the free market. The cellphone-toting businessman co-exists with rustic street vendors. Private enterprise appears patchily. Crowded shabby houses are covered with rusty tin roofs, banana palms sprout next to water tanks, grubby socialist-style apartment blocks support giant Adidas and Citibank hoardings on their roofs. Opposite the Adidas ad, a revolutionary slogan dictates: 'Let Us Strive To Be Free.'
But the dollar rules. Stop off to buy pancakes at a roadside stall served by a woman in a conical bamboo hat and she yells: "One daa-laar!" Stroll along an art gallery to look at watercolours and the owner shouts: "Five daa-laar!" Hail a cyclo (rickshaw) to drive into town and the driver shouts: "Two daa-laar!"
Does this frail peasant country which beat back the most advanced military power in the world and sacrificed millions of its youth for independence, now risk conquest by Heinz and Coca-Cola? David Tomasi from Seattle, a war veteran who now runs a travel agency, doesn't think so. "The only reason they're doing business is because the Party's instructed them to amass wealth. If the party tells them to stop, they'll stop." 'Uncle' Ho's face with his characteristic fu man chu beard and quizzical eyes grins out from the dong (the currency note). At millions of dong to a dollar, Uncle Ho is almost valueless. But he's ubiquitous.