In Vietnam, Letting Saigons be Saigons

Wide boulevards, baguettes with your soup, numerous cinemas, and a coffee shop on every block. Ah, so this is the ‘Paris of the East,’ the original so-called ‘Pearl of the Orient.’ Shanghai claims both of those titles for itself these days, but we’d say they still belong here. In Shanghai, they try to attract Westerners by razing old neighborhoods to build fake old neighborhoods containing centrally-directed boutique malls. In Saigon, nobody’s trying that hard. It’s just a place that Westerners can like. Did we mention that one of the local staples here is baguettes?

We spent two and a half days in Saigon, the first stop on our counter-clockwise loop around the South China Sea. We were interested in seeing a part of that other market-liberalizing communist country in East Asia, and in glimpsing what we could of the city’s overseas Chinese community. The Vietnam War is another interest, but one that I plan to pursue more next year, when hopefully we make it to both Hanoi and Hue.

Our half-day in China Town was great, although nobody we met there spoke Mandarin. Interestingly, English is very much the lingua franca of the city, at least in the service industry, with even Chinese tourists forced to use it. Many of the Chinese shops (along with many Vietnamese shops) were still closed for Spring Festival, so we did a little mingling at a few of the busy temples and wandered into one community center. (As long as we’re carrying Owen, our intrusions are usually considered by those involved as more like strokes of good luck.) Still, we weren’t able to get much past smiles and waves and maybe a little small talk. We did bump into a handful of Chinese tourists at some of the big sights, and one family was even from Hangzhou. Unfortunately, they were entering the restaurant as we were leaving, and we didn’t get to ask about their impressions of Vietnam.

Our impression, of Saigon anyway, was very favorable. No surprise for this group of foreigners, since the city exuded its Western influences everywhere, and felt much more laid-back than just any comparably big city we’ve been to in China. The reach of the government also seemed much more relaxed: propaganda banners were few, the same shops weren’t endlessly repeated (a tell-tale sign of central management), and museums and historical sights were missing that Chinese component of attempting to over-awe visitors. Although China and Vietnam both have nominally-communist party-state regimes seeking to deliver economic growth while maintaining power through market not political reforms, the two countries feel completely different. I’m reminded of Samuel Huntington’s famous comparison of the US and USSR as basically similar governments, given their similarly high level of governance, as compared to states in Latin America or Africa. With China and Vietnam today, the point is perhaps again illustrated: same forms of government, but widely different substances based on how much the governments attempt to do. The roads in Saigon are in need of re-paving, but on the sides of them people are selling Newsweek and Le Monde.

Another positivd contrast: at the War Remnants Museum, where the former USAID building houses a gallery of pictures of brutalities suffered by Vietnamese during the war, usually at the hands of US forces, one room showcased a few stories of US veterans returning home with PTSD or suffering from effects of Agent Orange. While most Americans would probably still find the museum to be a little ridiculously one-sided (and I’d still agree), I was amazed at the relative even-handedness in comparison to China’s Nanjing Massacre Museum. The museum in Saigon portrayed some American troops, particularly draftees, as people swept up in events created by their government and military leaders. Blame for incidents such as My Lai were placed with the officers in charge. Such perspectives stand in stark contrast to the narrative in Nanjing. There, the blame is placed on the Japanese people as a whole, with a not-so-subtle message that that’s just how the Japanese are. The concluding remarks even warn Chinese visitors that the Nanjing Massacre is just the sort of thing that happens when certain countries (Japan) are strong and China is internally divided. We were expecting the same sort of treatment of history in Vietnam, so the differences between these two museums really surprised us.

Anyway, we’ve written too much already, and in trying to put forth a few half-informed observations we’ve no doubt created the most boring blog post about Vietnam ever written. But before we end with the Owen pictures that you all want, we owe an explanation for the post title. Of course our more worldly readers already know, but we were a little surprised to find here that hardly anybody except the government calls the place Ho Chi Minh City. Except on maps, this place is Saigon.

Alright, here’s the good stuff:

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3 Comments

Filed under Foreign-er Travel, The Greater Southeast

3 responses to “In Vietnam, Letting Saigons be Saigons

  1. On the contrary, a wonderful post, especially given that we also just returned from Vietnam. I think you will find Hanoi with some of the same character. Probably not as Western as Saigon, but still with that very different from China feel. I wish we made it as far south as Saigon.

  2. Grandma Alice

    It is really a treat to read your observations–always thoughtful, often clever, invariably well-written. And to conclude with pictures of Owen the WonderBaby is icing on the cake (butter on the baguette?). Keep the blogs coming, your fans await.

  3. Dorrie

    I am currently in Saigon and agree with many of your observations. English gets you pretty far, everyone refers to the city as Saigon, and the government is much more relaxed than China’s (based on my 2 weeks in Beijing and Shanghai in 2008). This is my 4th trip to Vietnam (Saigon and the southern part of the country) and I like it more than ever. On my first trip here in 1996 I was amazed that people liked Americans, but this is a young country (65% under 30) and people want to move forward. Belated but heartfelt Chuc Mung Nam Moi! (Happy New Year) and I love the photos.

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