Standing in Dogma a tongue-in-cheek store of colorfully kitsch,
Communist-themed memorabilia, propaganda posters, coffee mugs,
coasters and T-shirts it’s hard to reconcile Saigon’s wartime
suffering with today’s ambitious, confident city.
The missing connection is made a few blocks away at Khao Silk,
an upscale boutique selling fashionable clothing and accessories.
On the wall, is a photo of Michael Caine, snapped in the store
during filming of the war-era movie, “The Quiet American.” Seeing
that picture, past and present came together and Saigon, or Ho Chi
Minh City as it is now named, ceased to be the bright, up-tempo
city I had come to know and returned to a previous self the dark,
bombed-out war nexus of Graham Greene’s novel.
Fast-forward to the present day, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is one
of Asia’s hottest tourism cities. With Vietnam’s economy booming
(it grew 8.5 percent last year) and the World Travel & Tourism
Council predicting its travel and tourism industry will have the
world’s sixth-highest growth rate between 2007 and 2016, HCMC has a
spring in its step. Pacier and more metropolitan than Vietnam’s
northern capital, Hanoi, it is no longer the preserve of
backpackers wending their way through Southeast Asia.
The panoramic view from Saigon Saigon is the best in the city.
The bar itself, on the 10th floor of the Caravelle hotel, is a neat
metaphor for HCMC’s embracing of the finer trappings of tourism. At
night, its cocktail-sipping clientele clamor for the best terrace
tables to gaze out across the neon-lit, yet still largely low-rise
skyline. Below them is a city reinvented; teeming with chic cafes,
Asian-fusion restaurants, glassy shopping malls and elegant bars
From up high, the most obvious reference point is the grand
Municipal Theatre on Lam Son Square, with the trendy Q Bar next
door. Directly behind sits a brand new boutique Park Hyatt hotel.
HCMC’s penchant for style has gained the city its own Luxe City
Guide, the discerning tourist’s companion to the 16 chicest cities
in Asia. Glossy lifestyle magazines, such as Saigon CityLife and
Saigon Inside Out, report the latest openings and events.
Scrape below the shiny veneer, however, and HCMC’s tragic
history begins to surface. Throughout the city, rows of
French-style, colonial-era mansions and hotel facades such as the
Rex and Continental and the stunning former Hotel de Ville
underline the French determination to recast Indochina in its own
image. The U.S. Consulate on Le Duan Boulevard was rebuilt on the
grounds of the former American Embassy, which was attacked by
Vietcong soldiers on Jan. 31, 1968, during the nationwide Tet
Offensive, and was later the site of a mass helicopter evacuation
marking the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in April 1975.
But the true horrors of the Vietnam War are recaptured at the
War Remnants Museum. Opened in 1975 and recently renovated, it is a
chilling, graphically distressing reminder of the dehumanizing
effects of this brutal, prolonged conflict. According to a 1976
book by professor RW Stevens, $925 billion was expended on the war,
and millions of U.S. Air Force bombs were dropped.
The Museum’s collection includes some of the bravest and most
emotive war photography of the 20th century. Superbly documented
and narrated, the photos include the work of Robert Capa, Robert
Ellison, Larry Burrows and Kyoichi Sawada’s Pulitzer Prize-winning
photo of a mother and family wading neck-deep across a river to
flee the bombing. Also on display in the courtyard are U.S.
military tanks, aircraft, helicopters, bombs and missiles.
After a couple of hours inside the museum, I emerged into the
early evening dusk and into a whole new HCMC experience: rush hour.
Though there is plenty of car traffic, the scooter rules and the
two-wheeled street crush is mind-blowing. Every combination, from
entire families to office workers, delivery drivers and canoodling
couples, zip past. Crossing the street is an art form, combining
mental agility, a keen eye and no small amount of bravery. Caught
in the swarm, it’s easy to imagine how a beekeeper feels when
lifting the lid of his hive. But once you’ve started to cross, keep
going scooter drivers do skirt around purposeful pedestrians.
With my legs still intact, I made for the twin-spired Notre Dame
cathedral and sat in its small park to collect my thoughts and snap
some photos. Bad move. Another swarm descended on me, this time
good-natured but persistent fruit, map and postcard vendors.
Instead, I crossed the street to sneak a peak inside the
French-colonial General Post Office before it closed.
With its vaulted roof, varnished wood-cabin telephone booths,
large map murals and portrait of Communist revolutionary Ho Chi
Minh, I felt I had miraculously materialized back in the 1880s. I
poked my head outside, and the racetrack sounds of the scooters
reassured me that time actually had not warped. A city of
Trip Options from Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City is a great base to explore the Mekong Delta, a
picturesque lowland tapestry of swamplands, fruit groves, floating
river markets, rural villages, coconut plantations and rice
paddies. Two- and three-day trips can be arranged by hotels and
also booked at one of the cluster of tour agencies located on Pham
Ngu Lao and Da Tham in the backpacker district of the city.
For clients with limited time, a one-day trip to the Cao Dai
Cathedral and Cu Chi Tunnels is highly recommended.
Guided trips explain how entire villages and armies overcame
appalling conditions of intense heat and humidity in summer and
damp and cold during winter by surviving underground. Tours also
reveal examples of vicious human mines and traps designed to maim