We arrive in Saigon in the late afternoon. Steam rises from the eating houses; we’re submerged in the sound of voices and engines as the taxi crawls its way through the traffic. The houses on Bui Vien Street aren’t much to look at. Small and narrow, they’re pressed close together. Concrete on brick, a smattering of plaster, hints of green on the balcony. There are shops on the ground floor, and restaurants and bars offering middle-of-the-road fusion cuisine – ‘Vietnamese & European Food & BBQ’, ‘North & South Indian Food Halal & Vegetarian’ – mainly for the Western and Australian backpackers, who saunter around in their tank tops and flip flops, letting their shoulders swing loosely, as if they were by the sea rather than in the city. Asia – one enormous beach.
My travelling companion and I are staying in a simple hostel around the corner on Pham Ngu Lao Street, like most of the young tourists who turn up in the city. Nobody calls it Ho Chi Minh City, always Saigon. You can feel the name on your tongue like a taste of old Asia, like the gentle memory of an era you’ve never experienced. The absurd fantasy of a sentimental spirit. Even so, I just want to sit here and watch the tangled traffic as it flows past, eating pho, drinking beer and doing nothing. But of course it’s not that simple.
It’s the rainy season, and an evening thunderstorm breaks above the narrow streets; everything’s dripping. An opaque network of electricity cables criss-crosses the streets and pavements.
All at once, the view of the neon facades with their cheap adverts, pixelated by the rain, makes me feel incredibly melancholy. It’s our first evening in Vietnam, and it doesn’t stop raining.
It’s always the same when you travel – first you have to orientate yourself, to make the city your own, so you don’t capitulate to its size and bustle the moment you’ve finished breakfast. Our plan was to travel on foot as much as possible, which is always sensible, and only take taxis for long distances (or when the tropical climate made our temples throb, which generally happens sooner or later, especially if you’ve not had enough to drink).
We walk from the bus station to Ben Thanh market, the largest in the city. An indigo lizard darts through the grass in front of it. Schoolchildren come towards us across the field, and the girls immediately want to take photos.
‘You are handsome, but snow white,’ one of them says to my friend.
The teacher invites us to visit the school, to talk about Germany. No problem, although – well, actually, no. We don’t have time. That’s nonsense, of course, when you really think about it, but you say it anyway.
We head onwards through the traffic along Le Loi Street, then across the road. You just have to go – no-one’s going to stop for you, you learn that quickly, so you move through the people, cars and countless mopeds like a diver through a shoal of fish. Somehow, miraculously, you never actually touch anybody.
Time to jot down a few impressions. The residential architecture, plain and functional, is an extraordinary jumble: columned, three-storey kitsch in pastel green next to depressing shacks with metal gates next to clumsy modernist apartment blocks with concrete roof patios, hammocks suspended above them.
Our T-shirts are quickly soaked and there are beads of sweat on our foreheads, so we look for water (you always drink too little). Vietnam is approximately the same size as Germany, and crosses numerous climate zones as it stretches from north to south. Here in Saigon, in the south of the country, it’s always hot and humid, with the stickiness typical of the subtropics. In the north, near the Chinese border, snow falls in the winter. It’s hard to imagine.
We just walk and look, because you never know what might be interesting – that’s a charm people are slowly forgetting, I think, as a cultural skill. But if you say that you quickly get a reputation as a pessimist about progress, and bore everybody to tears.
‘Trung Nguyen Coffee’ is the Vietnamese interpretation of a Starbucks. Their ‘Mother Land Coffee’ is enhanced with ginger, honey and milk. On the prestigious Dong Khoi Boulevard, which leads down from the colonial Notre Dame cathedral to the river, are a number of old and new luxury hotels, as well as luxury boutiques – Hermès, Versace etc. Every takeaway place offers oolong tea over ice, so you can cope with going back into the sticky heat of the day.
We visit the Reunification Palace. There’s a communist tank in the square outside, and the national flag fluttering above the grass. On 30 April 1975, North Vietnamese troops forced their way into the palace and the Americans had to leave the country once and for all. It was at this moment that the ‘domino theory’ set out in US president Harry S. Truman’s famous doctrine – the practical realities of which were then unquestioningly implemented by Henry Kissinger, unnecessarily dragging out American society’s psychosis about Vietnam – finally collapsed. Vietnam, ruled for decades by foreign powers, became a socialist country.
The true goal of the war was peace, according to Richard Nixon; Vietnam still bears its traces. There’s a war museum, for instance, on the corner of Le Quy Don Street and Vo Van Tan Street, where you can see pictures of children severely deformed due to the effects of Agent Orange, and in the tunnels of Cu Chin the guerrilla tactics of the Vietcong are re-enacted like a kind of propagandistic folklore (a day trip cost us 190,000 dong – it was worth it).
Today, Saigon seems like a strange mixture of Vietnam, France and the USA, from the dishes on offer in its eateries – unbelievably tasty and good value – to the old Renaults and the main post office designed by Gustav Eiffel to the brightly lit, not-such-good-value cafes for the urban middle class. The Americans poured money into the city in order to wage their war. Saigon, of course – along with millions of individual people, each of them following their own logic – is launching itself into the future at breakneck speed.
Unlike in the West, where this certainty is increasingly being eroded, Saigon still believes that the future will bring greater prosperity for all.
You can see it in the wide-eyed children on mopeds, clinging to the backs of their parents, sisters and aunts and weaving swiftly through the alleyways, as if there’s not much time for childhood anymore.
Everywhere there’s a sense of energy, efficiency and optimism – people are friendly and goal-orientated. ‘May I help you, mister?’ ‘No problem, mister.’ In principle, the hostels can get you anything: bus tickets, day trips, foreign currency, tickets for domestic flights. It’s very convenient when, like us, you don’t have much time. Saigon charts the course for the rest of the country, raising an obvious question: is that a good or a bad thing?
In the late afternoon we find ourselves back in our neighbourhood, before it begins to rain. I’m amazed how little it disturbs me – in fact, how calming it is. The seventeen-year-old waitress in Bui Vien, where we go again this evening because the food is so delicious, is decidedly pleasant, without putting on a hypocritical show of obsequiousness. She has two jobs, she says, working in a cafe in the morning and in the restaurant from the afternoon well into the night. She never looks tired, is always cheerful, and is amused by how much we eat.
There’s no doubt Saigon has a certain magic in the evening, when it gets dark and the lights go on. The electronic billboards advertising international brands (Canon, Nikon, Sanyo) blaze above the city and its occupants, both a promise and an admonition. They shine upon the elderly people sweeping the paths in front of their shops with straw broomsticks, upon the taxi drivers with their ill-fitting shirts and doctored meters, which increase in hilariously irregular increments, and upon the prostitutes outside their bars in the Pham Ngu Lao quarter, who call after all the passers-by, ‘Where are you going?’, without realising what an existential question that is.
Where are you going?
Good question. What is there to be discovered here – not on the tourist track, but for us personally?
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