Ho Chi Minh in a Hermes Scarf?
I recently returned to HCMC – Ho Chi Minh City – better known as Saigon until the end of the “American” War – for a few days on a short business trip. It is perhaps ten or so years since I was there, and as my taxi drove into the city from the airport, the attractive tree-lined roads (the trees were all numbered, showing a degree of organisation not remembered from my earlier times in the city) all the streets seemed organised, relatively free of traffic, clean, well-lit and a far, far cry from the traffic I remembered from previous visits.
HCMC has a population of about ten million people – about half the total population of Australia and a bit higher than the population of Bangkok. During the “American War” the Viet Cong would use the false dawn to mislead Australian and US troops – the old “quiet before the storm” approach.
Modern HCMC was just the same.
As the day broke following my late-night arrival, I tried to go for a gentle jog down Le Long Road from my hotel overlooking the Saigon Opera House – the Continental Hotel Saigon, a lovely 1880s place with peeling wallpaper, and where staff polished the gleaming carpet rods on the staircases each morning. To my dismay I discovered the ten million motorcyclists who had been cleverly hidden away the night before and briefed to look out for and gun down an elderly foreigner staggering or jogging or panting his way along the roads. There they were – in their plague-of-locusts proportions. I believe every rider had been promised one million Vietnamese dong (about sixpence in modern currency) if they were able to deliver a lethal blow to the Hall body.
Indeed, a friend from Tasmania was knocked down several years ago while she was walking on a footpath by a motorcycle travelling the wrong way. The collision caused her to have several stitches in her arm … but I wonder: What IS the correct direction for a motorcycle to travel on a footpath …
Despite the apparent bounty on my head I survived the run and learned that it’s all a matter of blind faith – or blind trust.
A pedestrian trying to cross a road packed with lemmings on bikes and murderous automobiles, simply strides out into the melee, walking at a steady pace, keeping an eye on the approaching traffic (and using a hand-held mirror or remote-mounted television camera if available) to check on traffic travelling at high speeds the wrong way, and walks purposefully ahead, working on the principle that the blood-thirsty hordes on bikes don’t really want to hit you … as it would also hurt them. Amusingly, in the middle of this mayhem, you see young kids on bicycles, no helmets, just cycling along, swerving without signal from one side of the road to the other, and surviving to tell their friends on Facebook about their supreme achievements.
HCMC is actually a delightful place and I have enjoyed my visits there over the years as a happy camera-snapping tommy tourist, or as an education professional trying to recruit students for Australian schools.
Rickshaw Grand Prix
On one visit the group with which I was travelling was certainly professional during the day … but rather let its collective hair down at night after a mojito or two too many. There were then – and are still today – a small number of bicycle trishaws, pedalled by remarkably tiny skinny old men and usually engaged by fat tourists or equally tiny skinny locals. One of our group – John R – engaged the services of an old man, negotiated a price to hire his trishaw to go to another jolly watering hole … and then swapped places with him, placing the old man in the canvas-covered carriage and himself in the driver’s seat, and madly pedalled off down the rain-slicked night-time streets of Saigon.
I wish I could say that he was pursued by furiously-pedalling trishaw police officers or by hammer-and-sickle-wielding triad members … but the only audience was the rest of the silly Australian bunch of “professionals” galloping off in hot and thirsty pursuit.
Since my last visit the city seems to have grown enormously. The city south of the Saigon River is now a mass of tall buildings and even more are being thrown up – and the mighty sixty-eight-story Bitexco Financial Tower tower by the river has a heliport at its fifty-fifth floor rather like the Burj al Arab in Dubai, quite dwarfing the lovely old colonial ochre-washed buildings clustering around its mighty footprint. This part of the city is a delicious contradiction. There are post-revolutionary posters all over the city celebrating Ho Chi Minh’s life and the victory of the communists in the American War … and then there are the new Prada, Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Gucci shops offering the revolutionaries a chance to saddle up with hand-tooled luxury leather goods and imported silk scarves …
I cannot quite recall the appearance ten years ago of Nguyen Hue Street that leads from the river to the statue of HCM himself (or even Himself) in front of the People’s Committee Hall building, but it is now a wide, clean pedestrian zone sprinkled with fountains and decorative benches. One woman I spoke to me told me that it is also – perhaps like La Rambla in Barcelona – rapidly becoming known as Pickpocket Alley. The huge posters along the way show artists’ impressions what it will all be like when it is finished, with numerous decorative banners featuring massed red stars from the Vietnamese flag and even more hammers and sickles and luxury shops.
Hammers featured largely in a long walk I made one day – between an appointment in one corner of the town and another in the opposite corner: the central part of the city is (just) walkable if one has time, energy and does not mind arriving at the destination saturated.
Noise is everywhere. Sometimes it is nice – as I found when I came across an old man playing his saxophone in Tam Dan Park, but then there were the hammers bashing a mangled Honda motorbike at a panel beating workshop next door to the Conservatory of Music. There were buses with permanent Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! sounds blasting out and sounding like World War II submarines preparing to Dive! Dive! Dive! Trucks and even motorcycles were fitted with loudspeakers announcing coming events. Road workers hammered cobblestones into place in new pedestrian areas and cars and motorbikes bleated their horns in vain efforts to persuade the cars, bikes, buses, trucks or pedestrians in their way to GET THE HELL OFF THE STREET.
But none of these noises was quite the scariest.
One afternoon I took refuge in the Diamond department store from the torrential rains that I had until then managed to avoid. To kill time until the storm passed I pottered about floor to floor, finally ending on the fifth where signs told me there was a bowling alley. This was something new for me – a ten-pin bowling place in Vietnam – so I pushed open the doors and entered – and entered an auditory hell.
The rumble and crash of the bowling lanes was quite pleasant compared to the noise of countless computer-generated games with people slashing at fish, fighting Sly Stallone in a Rambo video game, downing inter-galactic star cruisers and driving virtual Formula 1 motor cars at high speeds and high volumes around VR tracks while a pop rock Muzac soundtrack fought for domination – and lost.
It was refreshing to escape, to go back to the forecourt of the building, to listen to the polite murmurs of lottery ticket sellers and to relish the sound of the falling rain as it almost masked from view the lovely old redbrick Notre Dame cathedral.
A night at the opera …
During my morning jog I had seen a poster advertising an evening of songs from the great musicals – to be presented at the Opera House – on my second night in the city. The theatre is a delightful small place dating back to 1897, and members of the HCMC symphony orchestra were tuning up as I found my seat. I noticed several huge loudspeakers hung either side of the stage but did not pay much attention to them … until the show started. Every player in the orchestra had a microphone attached to his or her sax or trumpet or piano of fiddle or drum kit, and every singer had a mic taped to his or her face and every note of music and voice was then amplified thirty-six times and bashed through those speakers I had not really paid enough attention to.
I was four rows back from the orchestra and about five metres from the stage … and had the players or the singers scratched an itchy armpit I would probably have been able to hear it without any amplification. But amplification we certainly did have.
However, by pushing selected scraps torn from the programme into my ears, and shoving strips from my handkerchief on top of them and humming Lah de lah dee la, I was able to enjoy the concert at a reduced volume. I also enjoyed watching a ballet dancer – Chloe – in her solo piece as she slightly misjudged a pirouette and bounced off the proscenium arch …
Perhaps the archetypical Saigon image is one of a woman clad in elegant Ao Dao, wearing a traditional conical straw hat as she cycles through the broad avenues. I saw many women in the traditional outfits, numerous conical hats and untold bicycles – but on this occasion none of them all at the same time. I saw a Bentley limousine gridlocked in traffic and a Rolls Royce parked smugly outside the British Council. There were women and men wearing shoulder-length opera gloves to avoid getting a suntan as they negotiated their motorcycles through the traffic, old people playing Chinese chequers or card games on the footpaths, men asleep on their motorcycles and one elderly man squatting bare-backed on the sidewalk as a local “doctor” applied heated glass “cups” to his back to stimulate the blood flow.
Boys popped up now and again offering to shine my shoes for 30,000 dong – “Just one dollar, sir!” – and there was a man with a pet rat in a cage. Lottery ticket sellers riding their bicycles with push-pull handlebars instead of pedals cruised past the footpath barbers whose sole tools of trade seemed to be a shard of mirror, a pair of scissors and a grimy sheet to wrap around customers’ necks. On a previous visit I had seen dog butcher shops. It was rather disconcerting to see among the usual selection of bloodied cuts of meat found in Asian outdoor butchers’ shops, bits of domestic dog readied for the family ovens. This time, however, I saw more people with pet dogs than dog charcuteries … or perhaps they were just fattening them up until a festive day …
My business meetings came to an end and the festivities of my visit also ended as I boarded yet another plane to fly to Kuala Lumpur and start the next round of meetings, but it was nice to be able to report that I had visited Ho Chi Minh City again – and survived.
- Journey: June 2015
- Text and photographs: © Christopher Hall 2015
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