Vietnam: At home in the city that soldiered on

By Laura Franklin

Laura Franklin feels the love in Vietnam, where war has been trumped by resilience.

A Vietnamese boy fishes for turtles on the Saigon River, just metres from the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. Photo / Bay of Plenty Times
A Vietnamese boy fishes for turtles on the Saigon River, just metres from the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. Photo / Bay of Plenty Times

Saigon (alias Ho Chi Minh City) at noon. The scent of frangipani is heavy in the steamy heat. The perfume is almost thick enough to disguise the fumes from thousands of motorcycles which weave and dodge like shoals of tropical fish.

Private cars are rare here. Taxis and the occasional bus chug through the chaos, but mostly the streets are a mad crush of motorbikes, seemingly immune to the inconveniences of traffic lights, road rules or gravity.

A girl zooms past balancing a silver tray laden with noodles, chopsticks, a bottle of beer and a small vase of flowers. A man carefully layers a dining-room cabinet in kitset form across his scooter seat, sits on it and rides away. An entire family unit - two adults, two children and a baby shrouded in mosquito netting - zip by on one small, bright-pink Honda.

Others are ferrying paying passengers. Motorbike drivers for hire - known as "xe om" ("bike hug") - are available throughout the city for anyone brave enough to hop on.

Right now, however, we're content to remain outside the flow of suicidal traffic and, besides, it's too hot for hugging. It's 29C and 80 per cent humidity ... and it's only late spring.

The temperature will increase in the weeks ahead until the monsoon rains arrive in May. Already it's hot enough that a short stroll past the silk tailors and lacquer-ware shops of the city centre becomes a sticky endurance test.

We've walked miles today, from the wide and muddy Saigon river, to the busy neighbourhood pagodas where crowds of young and old carry out their Buddhist devotions, to the manic markets selling dried shrimp, chopsticks, embroidery, noodle soup, army surplus goods and snake wine.

Overcome by a sudden need to escape the stifling atmosphere, the tooting of horns and the ever-present threat of death by motorcycle, we duck into a cafe.

Bliss. The Givral Patisserie on Lam Son Square is a haven of air-conditioning, French baking and stunning Vietnamese iced coffee, which is served long, strong and with a generous amount of sweetened condensed milk.

Through the window, the view is dominated by the arched and colonnaded Opera House and the elegant Hotel Continental, where Somerset Maugham was a regular and Graham Greene set scenes in his love story of the Indochina War, The Quiet American.

At the table next to us, a Western man is explaining to his exquisite Vietnamese companion that his wife doesn't understand him.

With the colonial architecture outside and the romantic angst of the neighbouring couple within, we could easily have stepped into Greene's world, when bloodshed and disaster were never far away, when Western war correspondents engaged in doomed love affairs with intoxicating local women and when the French were fighting to retain Saigon as "The Paris of the East".

As if sensing that the moment calls for exotic charm, a pair of Vietnamese women glide past outside on bicycles, serene amidst the traffic hell, displaying flawless posture, conical hats and the traditional ao dai silk robes.

They are followed by a troupe of cyclo drivers with weathered faces, puffing on cigarettes as they manoeuvre their three-wheeled bicycle rickshaws, carrying harried-looking, red-faced tourists on the wide front seats.

An elderly woman walks along the road edge with the odd bobbing gait adopted by those who use the traditional yoke as a cargo carrier. In two bamboo baskets hanging from her shoulders, she bears pineapples, mangos and rambutan for sale. She smiles a toothless grin as she clinches a deal.

Saigonnais just like these would have been making their way through the city streets when the French arrived in the 1850s, seeking a trading base in the East and attracted by the opportunities for coffee and rubber plantations.

French rule left a legacy of wide tree-lined avenues, attractive parks and buildings, and a special continental twist to the Vietnamese cuisine.

But the colonialists are long-gone now, and the man who freed Vietnam from their control has left his own legacy. It is impossible to travel anywhere here without coming across the goateed countenance of Ho Chi Minh, on posters, placards, statues, stamps and on every note of currency.

The national hero and father of the communist party led his resistance forces to victory in 1954, overthrowing the French by way of the same guerilla warfare that later shocked the United States and its allies with its brutality and effectiveness.

Saigon is officially called Ho Chi Minh City in his honour, but you will not find that name commonly used by locals. Our Vietnamese guide, Vu, tells us pragmatically: "That name is very long. Saigon is short." But that in no way lessens the devotion the people have for "Uncle Ho".

Vu - a young, university-educated northerner - is all sincerity when he says: "Because of Uncle Ho, we have a country. He sacrificed for the independence of Vietnam. He had no wife and children but, in our opinion, we are all his children."

Nationalistic pride is a strong thread running through the fabric of Vietnam. Monuments to the glory of the party abound. Billboards extol the virtues of communist life. War memorials remember victories against US forces, often in a chillingly specific way: "4000 American planes shot down in 1972!"

From repeated Chinese occupations during the dynasty years, through the French colonisation, to what the Vietnamese still call the "American War", these people have seldom known peace.

Even amidst the bustle of modern Saigon, the knowledge is ever-present that most families have suffered terrible losses, GIs once sauntered down these leafy streets and tanks burst through the gates of the Reunification Palace in the city's centre in 1975.

At the nearby War Remnants Museum, history is presented in uncompromising fashion. (Its former name, "The Museum of Chinese and American War Crime", is a clue to the challenging nature of the displays.)

Old helicopters, jets and tanks; a gallery of shocking but moving photojournalism; a litany of atrocities; the effects of napalm and agent orange; replica prison cells ... it's well worth the visit, but not for the faint-hearted.

Likewise the Cu Chi tunnels, a 60km bus trip to the northwest. Dug with bamboo tools and bare hands in the 1940s during the French occupation and expanded in the 1960s as a base for the Vietcong guerilla fighters, this network, more than 200km long, included underground dormitories, cooking areas, hospitals, meeting rooms and escape routes.

Now, some sections of the tunnels have been widened to accommodate Western visitors, but it's still unnerving, creeping on hands and knees through the dark, constricted twists and turns.

Above ground, the experience is equally disturbing. Walking through the humid jungle, we see replicas of booby-trap pits featuring deadly bamboo spikes tipped with poison, concealed tunnel exits covered with grass and leaves which enabled the Vietcong to appear suddenly and silently, B52 bomb craters still visible in the jungle floor.

In the 1960s and 70s, the jungle also bristled with mines made by fearless or foolhardy resistance fighters from unexploded US bombs. And for an added burst of reality, the forest echoes with the crack of rifle-fire from the nearby shooting range where, for a small fee, tourists can discharge an AK47.

In the Cu Chi tourist information centre, a black-and-white propaganda movie praises the heroic deeds of the villagers and tells how the US forces and their allies invaded "like a bunch of crazy devils".

Today in Vietnam, the crazy devils are still invading - but this time the Westerners are coming in peace, and with tourist dollars to spend.

And, despite all they have endured, the Vietnamese people are nothing but friendly and welcoming. Acceptance and equanimity are a way of life for them. They are in love with Uncle Ho, in love with Buddha and in love with love songs (cheesy Western pop ballads croon from every shop and doorway).

With their roots firmly in the past but their faces turned toward the future, they are much like the historic, haunted and yet defiantly joyful city of Saigon itself.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily to Ho Chi Minh City via Hong Kong.

Visas: New Zealand passport holders require a visa which can be issued in four to five working days by the Vietnam Embassy in Wellington. Phone (04) 473 5912.

Where to stay: Ho Chi Minh offers a range of accommodation from the historic, five-star Caravelle and Continental to the comfortable and affordable Hoang Gia Huy Hotel near the Ben Thanh Market. Backpacker and budget options are also available.

Markets: Don't miss Ben Thanh Market during the day and the night market that springs up around it once the sun goes down. Binh Tay Market in the heart of Ho Chi Minh's Chinatown, Cholon district, is well worth a visit.

Further information: See vietnamtourism.com.

- NZ Herald

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