An Australian diplomat explains how, in his first meeting, he apologised to Vietnamese for the war. They laughed and said, “It was a good war”
I came to the Pham Ngo Lao Street pizza parlour with Khang to watch Liverpool play Arsenal. I also wanted to talk about another great game: the Vietnam war. Of course the Vietnamese don’t call it that. They speak of separate French, American and Chinese wars. Khang, a 23-year-old multimedia student, is more into his country’s nascent gaming industry than about his countrymen’s defeat of three great powers in a row. “My grandfather sometimes mentions it,” he says vaguely.
I am to conclude that it would be hard to find a country that is so unfussed about such a feat of arms. When Khang mentions seeing his dream house in Da Nang, I pounce: “Wasn’t that where US troops first landed?” He humours my obsession with ancient history. “Maybe,” he says. “I like Da Nang because it has big Western-type suburbs.” I met an elderly American few weeks later who broke into tears in Da Nang. “I just thought how pointless it had been,” she said. The locals probably thought: When are these Americans going to get over their war?
Like many French colonial cities, Ho Chi Minh City nee Saigon has perpendicular avenues and a plethora of cafes. Tea-drinking Vietnam is the world’s second largest exporter of coffee. Now the Parisian culture is besieged by neon lights, night clubs and an economy that has grown as fast as India’s over the past five years. All Southeast Asians say: “Saigon is Bangkok about 15 years ago. The people are still friendly, the traffic isn’t terrible and the foreigners are relatively few. Better enjoy it now.”
One fallout of French rule is the excellence of Vietnamese pastries. Even Ho Chi Minh was a crème caramel-maker before he took to the gun. I guess the Americans are to blame for the Vietnamese love of ice. They have beer on ice for breakfast and cognac on the rocks late at night. “You have to stop them from putting in ice,” warned contemporary Vietnamese artist Nguyen Kim Dinh.
The American-trained Dinh has just been told by the Department of Culture that his nudes can’t be exhibited because of their “low artistic quality.” The local Timeout, in a mini-reminder that Saigon marked Hinduism’s easternmost spread, quotes angry photographer Thai Phien: “Our ancestors drew and worshipped linga and yoni, so why is nude art considered…unsuitable for our habits and customs?” Cultural skirmishes in a country whose wars had disallowed it the luxury of “art for art’s sake”. Brush to canvas had only been propaganda. It is the “Viet kieu” — the diaspora, often children of families who had fled the wars — who are pushing local art into the 21st century. A tour of Saigon’s Galerie Quyn shows how far art is moving, but the curator admits, “The buying still depends on expatriates.”
A few blocks away, a shop sells war poster reprints — “Celebrate Destroying 150th B-52 bomber!” — for $10- 50. An original goes for half-grand. The young salesgirl is dismissive of her wares. “Best to buy copies. They printed thousands. Propaganda, not art.” She comes to life when I tell her I am from India. “I love Indian food. Naan is my favourite. But Indian restaurants too expensive here.”
Fee Fi Pho Fum
Vietnamese food, on the other hand, is cheap and good. Everyone knows pho, a kind of noodle soup with DIY ingredients. Viet cuisine merges the best of different parts of Asia.
The “Saigon pancake” is made of rice flour, turmeric and coconut milk, but stuffed with wok-fried pork and shrimp. One wraps it in lettuce and a mint leaf before consumption.
If your plate holds small translucent rolls and delicate-looking edibles, it is probably from Hue, which still retains the imprint of its imperial past. A short stay won’t allow you to get a full taste of Vietnamese cuisine, I was assured. “It’s all about knowing how and when to use the different fish sauces. Even the Viet can get them mixed up.”
Vietnam is doing a similar pick and choose operation when it comes to its economy. On one hand, it’s siphoning off the t-shirt and rubber sandal makers fleeing rising Chinese labour costs. On the other hand, Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Thien Nhan declared at the Asia Society Corporate Conference that his country is planning to have one million infotech workers by 2020. For a lot of educated Vietnamese this is the main reason India’s name resonates. Aptech and NIIT have nearly 100 centres here. I ask a few IBM executives whether one million was realistic. They shake their heads. “If we get half of that, that would be good.”
An academic explains the educational system, a success when it came to mass literacy, isn’t hot at imparting 21st century skills. “One third of the curricula even for doctors is about Marxism-Leninism and Ho Chi Minh Thought,” he said. A Tata Steel official, closing in on a $ 5 billion steel deal, confides his big headache will be to find 2,500 trained workers.
One night in Saigon
Some young Indian businessmen take me bar-hopping on my last night. It proves to be the standard Thai thing: lissome bar girls sitting next to you, laughing at anything you say or don’t say, and deftly filling your glass with Johnnie Walker Gold. After 2 am, action shifts to underground night clubs hidden in sealed upper storeys. “There are only about 10 like these in Saigon,” says an adman before the house music and the strobe lights limit future communication to SMSing.
An Australian diplomat explains how, in his first meeting with senior Vietnamese communist leaders, he thought he should apologise for the war. “They laughed and said, ‘That was a good war’,” he said. “For them, the wars are just a blip in a two thousand-year history.” Back at the hotel, I look at my worn copy of Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War, North Vietnam’s classic war novel. Next to it, that day’s Saigon newspaper asked whether Hanoi’s latest economic stimulus was enough. It was time to move on.