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Looking at Vietnam through a new lens

The Communists won the war, but capitalism was the ultimate victor as today’s Saigon demonstrates

brunch Updated: Jan 14, 2018 00:02 IST
Vir Sanghvi
The fancy parts of Saigon can seem more prosperous than Mumbai or Delhi
The fancy parts of Saigon can seem more prosperous than Mumbai or Delhi(Shutterstock)

When you tell people you are going to Vietnam, they look vaguely confused. Those who are a little more familiar with the region ask where in Vietnam you are going. If you say Ho Chi Minh City (the new name of Saigon) they look disapproving and suggest various resort towns. If you do want to go to a city, they say, you should go to the capital Hanoi, which has more history and is prettier than Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon.

Over 13 years ago, when I first went to Vietnam, I was greeted with this sort of reaction. And last month, when I went back for New Year, many people were openly incredulous: why would anyone want to go to Saigon?

Well, because of recent history. My generation grew up on stories about the Vietnam War, read books, heard music and saw movies located in Saigon. It wasn’t just The Deer Hunter (and anyway the lurid, neon-lit street in the movie was not even located in Saigon; they shot it in Patpong in Bangkok). It was Apocalypse Now, Despatches, Good Morning, Vietnam, and even Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and the movie they made of it.

When I first went, all those years ago, people told me: hurry! The Vietnamese are embracing capitalism. The city will soon begin to look like Bangkok. Go before its character changes forever.

A still from the movie Good Morning, Vietnam

And so I went and stayed at the towering Sheraton, then the smartest hotel in town. But I liked the older hotels, most of which were down at heel and rundown. The Caravelle had once been the haunt of the legendary American journalists who had covered the war, often between drinks at its rooftop bar. The Rex Hotel was where the US military briefed the press every day through the ’60s. The briefings – described as the Five O’clock Follies because they bore no resemblance to reality – were immortalised in books and articles. American radio broadcasts (as featured in the Robin Williams movie Good Morning, Vietnam) took place in the Brink Boq building across the road from The Rex.

The Continental Hotel, in the same area, had an older history, dating back a century. It was here that Michael Caine sat at a charming pavement café, wondering whether he was losing his girlfriend to a CIA agent, in the movie of The Quiet American.

On my first trip, the hotels must have thought I was mad when I asked to be shown around. (Why, they probably wondered, does an Indian care about these things? Good question. I don’t have an answer.) And because everything looked so faded and sad, the hoteliers were a little embarrassed about showing me their properties.

At The Sheraton, gleaming and new, they told me that I was looking at yesterday’s Saigon. The Sheraton was the new Saigon, soon to joined by the Park Hyatt, part of it built on the site where the Brink Boq building (of Good Morning, Vietnam fame) used to be. 

In Saigon, people are friendly and prices are low (Getty Images)

And yes, the city I saw on this latest trip was well on its way to becoming a Bangkok clone with shiny new constructions everywhere. But the old hotels had not vanished. Instead, they had been renovated and spruced up. Far from looking faded, they now seemed part of the new Saigon with expensive designer shops (Hermes, Burberry, Dior etc) on their ground floors.

The Park Hyatt, where I stayed this time, is, as everyone had predicted over a decade ago, the fanciest hotel in town with world class restaurants and an elegant ambience. But the Continental next door has rediscovered its magic. I went back to the pavement café that Michael Caine had frequented in The Quiet American and found that it had regained its old charm (an old lady played ‘Sway’ on an accordion) and retained a sense of place.

Young Vietnamese do not like talking (to foreigners at least) about what they call the American War (well, they can hardly call it the Vietnam War, can they?) but press the older ones and the memories come pouring out. The rewritten history of their country requires them to regard the Americans as evil oppressors and the Communist armies (who came in from what was then North Vietnam) as liberators. But they will talk about the terrible period after Saigon fell to the Communists in 1975, when anyone suspected of having collaborated with the Americans was thrown into jail or publicly disgraced.  

Post-liberation Vietnam had the worst of all worlds: totalitarianism, deprivation and hunger

There was terrible poverty. One man, now in his 40s, told me that for several years after the ‘liberation’ his family could only afford to eat tapioca. It was eight years before they got a little rice to mix with the tapioca. And post-liberation Vietnam had the worst of all worlds: totalitarianism, deprivation and hunger.

The War Remnants Museum reminds us of the horrors the US inflicted on Vietnam (Shutterstock)

All that changed when the country – which is still run by the Communist Party – embraced capitalism and looked for foreign (often American!) investment. The prosperity of today is based on capitalism. But, from all accounts, it does not necessarily extend far from the big cities or trickle down much.

Indians are not shocked by economic extremes – we have enough of them at home. But it is a little unusual to see a country that is entirely fuelled by capitalist wealth (and tries to lure Western tourists) still talk warmly about its victory over Western capitalism and the triumph of communism.

Tourists will be encouraged to visit the harrowing War Remnants Museum to be reminded of the horrors the US inflicted on Vietnam and every tour stops at the old Presidential Palace where the Communist tanks first arrived in 1975 to declare victory.

Most of us have seen photographs of the frantic helicopter evictions from the top of the US Embassy in Saigon as the Americans pulled out in 1975. I tried to find those locations but the old Embassy has been torn down and replaced by a new Consulate. And, in any case, many of the choppers actually took off, not from the Embassy, but from the roof of the CIA building, then one of the tallest structures in the city. That building still survives but it now seems tiny and is dwarfed by the huge skyscrapers that the new Vietnam has built around it.

But suppose, that unlike me, you have no interest in the Vietnam War. (And I reckon that holds true for most of you!) Should you still go to Saigon?

The Park Hyatt is the fanciest hotel in town with world class restaurants

Well, that’s a tough one. Saigon has much to offer the average tourist. The people are friendly. Prices are low. Hotels are relatively inexpensive. The food is good. Most Indians like Vietnamese food (which bears the same sort of relationship to Thai food as Bihari cuisine does to the food of Bengal). Every Indian visitor loves Vietnamese coffee – much of it is made from the Robusta bean and sweetened with condensed milk. The fancy parts of the city, with their designer boutiques, can seem more prosperous than Mumbai or Delhi.

Opera at the Park Hyatt serves excellent Italian food

The international food is good too – better than in India. At the Park Hyatt, Square One, a new restaurant, is visually stunning and does terrific French and Vietnamese food. I brought in 2018 at Opera, the Hyatt’s Italian restaurant, and the cuisine was excellent while the service was brilliant.

Standalones can be very good too. Indians like Hum, which does vegetarian Vietnamese food. I thought Stoker, a steakhouse, was on par with anything I have seen in Asia. The same owners also run Firkin, a secret bar (up a flight of stairs behind an unmarked door), which has a drinks list that could rival any bar in New York or London.

But there are drawbacks. One of them is the airport. The Vietnamese give you an e-visa authority letter which is pretty meaningless because you have to hang around at the airport for a visa on arrival for hours even if you have the e-visa letter. Immigration staff are lazy, surly and possibly dishonest. The queues at immigration when I arrived, were among the worst I have seen. It took me 90 minutes, from the time I landed, to negotiate the airport (and that’s by using Fast Track!) which was longer than the flying time from Bangkok to Saigon.

And finally, if you have no interest in the Vietnam War, then there is really not much to see. You are far better off going to Siem Reap (Angkor Wat) or even Bangkok. Nor will it get much better. As one weary Vietnamese told me, the Communist regime’s dream is to create a new Singapore. (Since when do communists dream of a capitalist paradise like Singapore?) But they will only get as far as creating a new Bangkok.

And the old Bangkok is still around. So, why bother?

From HT Brunch, January 14, 2018

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