March 23, 2013
Ho Chi Minh (Saigon): Where Everyone Knows Bill Clinton's NameBy Clarice Feldman
You cannot miss that Saigon, as natives still call this city, is booming. Writer Gemma Price reports the swinging spots -- Blanchey's Tash, Chill's (sky bar and lounge, and restaurant) and Bobby Chinn's whose specialty is seafood ceviche with coconut truffle sauce) are hopping every night. She also says shopping is first rate at Huong' fabrics, Tailor Dung's the Saigon mini mall (full of international luxury goods), and the main city market, Ben Thanh.
For this resurgence Bill Clinton who signed the 1994 Act lifting the trade embargo on Vietnam is given a great deal of credit by the Vietnamese, whose economy was faltering until then. Of course, there was some bipartisan Senatorial support for this move, but in the mind of the residents, he gets the credit, and if he chose to move here and run for office, he might do well indeed. In the same vein, Bella Abzug who first announced to the South Vietnamese who were desperately low on ammunition that the U.S. would not advance them "another dollar," is blamed for the end of the government of South Viet Nam though she certainly represented more than herself when she did so.
The Ben Thanh market, which is the only one of the Price-recommended hotspots I saw, is very tiny for the growing metropolitan area, which now numbers 7 million people. Despite high unemployment, younger Vietnamese, unwilling to live the high-risk low reward life of rural farmers, are drawn to it like iron filings to a magnet. Still, in this small space, almost every imaginable good is sold. There are a handful of supermarkets in the city where, for the first time, concepts like expiration date are being learned, and food in this market is very expensive, The market is too small; having been built to serve the city's needs when the population was only 200,000 people and the cost of owning a stall is very high ($100,000 for a pocket sized kiosk that sells sundries like chewing gum).
The market lacks air conditioning or refrigeration and residents with money shop early for the best quality foodstuffs, and the poorer the shopper, the later he makes his perishable food purchases, most of which are hardly fresh after mid day.
It's still early when we arrive and as it's the second day of Tet, many shops will be only open briefly for last minute purchases. Among the vendors on site are the fishmongers, who in Asian tradition, sell mostly live fish, which are cleaned on purchase.
The city was developed under French rule and reminders of the period are still tucked about -- the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office are particularly picturesque and featured in every tourist brochure, though the former's major interest is in its exterior architecture, as it now is the home of cheap souvenir shops. Officially, the government makes much more propaganda use of the remnants of U.S presence there, even though this emphasis seems to be a constant reminder to the South Vietnamese of their bitter loss. Next to the Post Office is a flat roofed building which everyone will note to visitors is the former CIA headquarters where the famous Reuters pictures of helicopters rescuing the remaining US officials before the fall of the city to the North were taken. And the Reunification Hall (the former Presidential Palace with its deep underground bunkers) is well-maintained by the government and widely visited .The site of the former US Embassy is still fenced, though the building itself has been torn down. In front is only a stone slab memorializing those men who died trying to storm and occupy it.
It might seem that with all this effort, there'd be more hostility to visiting Americans but we saw and felt none. This may seem less surprising when you realize that half the population was born after the war and have no personal experience of it. The sites of greater interest to me, in any event were the Museum of History and the Chinese area of the city (Cholon).
The Museum is quite small, but it displays artifacts from prehistory through 1945.
Alongside the museum is the water puppet theater, a remarkable bit of artistry, which has existed for 1000 years.
Our guides hustled us onto pedicabs outside for a brief trip. Even though the streets were far less crowded than usual, taking a left turn against traffic in a pedicab is an experience. If the driver errs, the passenger who is carried in the front is the first to be hit. In addition to the mostly for show pedicabs and the thousands of motorbikes, there are some cabs and buses, but for the poor, the jerry rigged appearing tuk tuks, four seat attachments to motorbikes, seem the most common way to transport larger groups and/or more goods than can be carried on a bike.
I think the most interesting place in Saigon is Cholon ("Big Market") first settled by Chinese refugees in 1778. It's still a big commercial area, and during the war U.S. soldiers and deserters made this a large black market site. Although the Vietnamese instituted an anti-Chinese campaign in 1978-79, the Hoa people who live here still speak Chinese. The remarkable Thien Hau temple here, noted for its ceramic sculptures is very crowded with Tet celebrants when we visit.
Progress in Saigon is marked but uneven. On one hand there remains only one public library to serve 7 million metropolitan residents. While housing seems short for all the many immigrants to the city, a recently built condominium building fetched prices of $2 million for a 100 square meter apartment.
One basic good -- gasoline to fuel the ubiquitous motorbikes -- is hard to find. There are few gasoline stations visible in the city. Imaginative entrepreneurs, skirting the law, have come upon a solution: They place upended building bricks alongside the city's lampposts with cardboard funnels on top. Motorists pull up, toss money into the funnel and from hidden spots the black marketers jump out and fill the bike tanks.
There seems to be a very strong entrepreneurial spirit among the young here, but statist policies and lack of capital put a damper on this. The fact that the country exports cheap agricultural goods, limits the purchase of high tech products from abroad and constrains domestic investment opportunities.
Sihanoukville: What Happens When You Kill Off All Your Educated Class
This is a relatively new city having been started in 1955 to create an international port to facilitate trade. Cambodia was devastated by the Khmer Rouge, which from 1975-1979 murdered about 2-3 million people, principally, but not exclusively the entire educated class.
The population of the city is small -- only about 200,000 people divided in three districts. Tourism though small is it's first source of revenue, the second is agricultural products, largely rice and beans.
Half the population of Cambodia is under 15 and though public school were established with compulsory education in 1993, pressure for places is so high that most elementary students attend school only half days, Most of the people (90%) are Buddhist, the remainder are Christians and Moslems
Our guide who was forty years old (a child when the atrocities took place) admitted to knowing little about the Khmer Rouge. Public schools are just beginning to teach about this period of their nation's history.
As in Vietnam the streets and waterways are full of trash.
The biggest manufacturing operation here is Angkor beer, and most of the houses along the roadside look poor. Alongside the roads, there are shacks selling essential goods like cooking oil and the central market, though hot and noxious smelling, is large for the size of the city. Everything from poorly crafted 22-24 carat gold jewelry, cheap clothing and toys, produce, fish, and candies is sold here, and small dining stands exist in the center of this large emporium.
Unlike Vietnam where motorbike passengers must by law wear helmets. Here, they are free to wear them or not.
The tuk tuks, however, look better constructed.
There's a remarkable temple complex on the outskirts of town where, surrounded by begging children, money, dogs, young monks, the French speaking chief Buddhist monk of the country (who, by the way drives a Lexus and has photographs of himself in California with local celebrities there) lives. The temple and some of the sculptures are quite remarkable.
Nearby is Sokha Beach, an unspoiled large beach with soft sand and gentle warm waters. Alongside the beach is at least one luxurious hotel full of Western and Asian visitors, and along the road are walled properties whose owners encouraged by the earlier steep land price rises , presently stalled, are hanging on for better days.
Not far from there is a very expensive bridge built by a Russian to a small offshore island on which are being built a number of very luxurious seaside villas.
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