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Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

By Dominic Light

March saw me again in Asia which in itself pleased me, for I love those countries in Asia I have been fortunate enough to visit and I love March. March as a month, perhaps more than others suggests opportunity, proffers hope and distances the horizon. Wherever I may be when Spring finds me, I always get excited about what may be around the corner, what that is now hidden will reveal itself over the coming months and will I have sufficient money to see any of it.

So it was that on a hot and humid Tuesday evening I found myself sitting on the roof terrace of the French colonial Majestic hotel at No. 1 Dong Khoi Street, Ho Chi Minh City. Above me the clouds lay across the sky like dark, heavy blankets; the Saigon River opposite absorbed my gaze, glowering back, quietly brooding beneath her cloak of traffic.

Running parallel to the Saigon river is Ton Duc Thang street, arguably the most dangerous, certainly for pedestrians, of Ho Chi Minh City’s many carbon dioxide choked thoroughfares. The traffic was racing in unbroken streams beneath my terrace eerie; a maelstrom of cars, lorries, buses, and cyclos. In fact every form of wheeled or semi-mobile vehicle capable of getting its passenger to their destination with greater speed and with greater risk of death was tearing up and down like a chain of soldier ants.

The insanity unfolding beneath me became exaggerated, almost surreal, yet at the same time was counter-balanced by the solemnity and grace of the river that like black ink snaked its way through the centre of the city. Reflecting the city’s lights like a chain of armour, the river offered the only stillness, the only suggestion of silence amid the chaos of the traffic.

I paid my bill and decided to head out and immerse myself in the evening. I was familiar with the city, yet as I stepped from the hotel I looked forward to its surprises. The air was thick and heavy and threatened rain; a rain that you could have set your clock by during the past week. With patience and a good degree of nerve I crossed the road and stood staring out at the river. On the far bank giant billboards promised me a brighter future, cleaner teeth and four-wheel drive, the reality of which for most of the city’s population is far more distant. These dreams illuminated the riverbank, sending colourful, advertising smiles rippling across the black surface of the water; shimmering opportunities that became more twisted and elongated by the many boats plying the waters with more realistic cargoes. Like giant mechanical lungs these dilapidated vessels attached themselves to the riverbank, inhaling bellyfuls of vehicles before crawling asthmatically to the far side where their load spilt from the hold in a frightening cacophony of noise, confusion and pollution. The traffic, like a single mechanical entity raced towards the opposite banks main thoroughfare and with only the faintest sounds of grinding metal, joined the road as appropriately as a tributary joins a river or a blood vessel a main vein.

Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, capital of French Indochina, lies just 10.5 degrees north of the equator making the weather tropical and oppressive, a climatic quicksand. The city lies between South Vietnam and the Mekong Delta and although second in importance to Hanoi, is Vietnam’s economic capital. Like many rapidly developing Asian cities, Ho Chi Minh City is an interesting contradiction between "western-style" development and a culture steeped in timeless traditions and ancient cultures.

Architecturally the city owes much to its long history of French rule, as can be seen in the city’s Opera House or the Notre Dame Cathedral. Indeed for 86 years this "Paris of the Orient" looked to France for its political and cultural direction. Ceded to the French by the Vietnamese emperor Tu Duc in 1862, it was not until 1945 that foreign administered rule ceased and independence was declared by Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh Forces.

Today Ho Chi Minh City’s residents are forward thinking yet still thrive on its recent historical past. It was not until 1973 that the last American soldiers left, leaving in their wake a fragmented and broken country. In subsequent years the Vietnam War became so well and widely documented that today, through television and film, both young and old travel to Vietnam to see firsthand a country that was ravished by war, a war some have seen and many "understand". Now on every street corner, cupboard book shops offer access to this recent past, stocked with countless volumes that document, criticise, praise and even glamorise the Vietnam War, or as the Vietnamese remember it, the American War.

I spent a while browsing in these shops, chatting where possible with the owners to determine the more popular titles. Such outlets rely almost exclusively on the tourist dollar and I thought reading habits would say something about visitors to Vietnam today. It was evident that among the better-selling books on the war were those written from a Vietnamese standpoint and I chose myself such a book – ‘The Sorrow of War’ by Bao Ninh.

I walked away from the river and wound my way up Dong Khoi Street, past restaurants and cafes smelling of France towards the Municipal Theatre, where I turned left into Le Loi Street. I had spent considerable time in Ho Chi Minh City on several visits but had not tired of drifting aimlessly through the streets in the evenings. The imminent rain was still caught in thick, low clouds and so I walked for miles to nowhere inparticular and with no object of focus. With every sense heightened, I moved anonymously through the crowds, slipped silently through the madness and enjoyed self-indulgently the feeling of calm and solitude that at times I carry as a burden.

With circuitous good fortune I found myself some hours later again by the river, albeit some distance downstream from where I had started. The channel was deeper and far wider here, providing mooring for great hunks of ships that sat in silence as tiny figures scurried in silhouette attending to unseen needs. The names of the vessels – ‘Dinoussia Peace’, ‘Fareast Star’, ‘Vien Dong I’ – brought to mind the romanticism of travel and the unknown.

I strolled on and quickly rejoined the madness, was again amid the chaos. The river stared back at the absent onlookers and young couples perched on scooters that lined the bank. Their enthusiasm for what the river represented shone in their eyes, reflecting the lights of the boats that captured their vacant gaze.

When I first began visiting foreign countries I possessed this urge to see everything; every church, temple or mosque would be paid reverence to, every museum dutifully visited, every mountain, beach or field enjoyed, acknowledged, photographed and left as it was found. For weeks before departure guidebooks would be pored over, timetables examined and plans drawn up. Now I find I plan less and as a result perhaps see less, certainly of the physical. But perhaps I now learn more, take more away with me metaphorically and rely more on instinct, frame of mind and the weather to dictate what I do or do not do and less on the recommendations of others.

As in many of the Asian countries I have visited, where there is activity, there is an audience and Ho Chi Minh City is no exception. I recall during my first trips to India, marvelling at the ability in so many to take such vested interest in things so apparently mundane. I in turn would sit and watch as they themselves watched others, a chain of voyeurs entranced by the activity of the everyday. I find now that my own objects of interest and curiosity have shifted down a gear. I can very happily now sit for an hour or two on a street corner watching a game of Mah-jong, or watch laden tugs drag tonnes of sand up the never-ending river, as I found myself doing.

The rain was beginning to fall in large warm drops that were sucked into the hot earth as quickly as they landed. I made my way towards a large tree in a quest for cover, at the same time deciding on a drink, so instead stumbled blindly through a stream of traffic and into the nearest bar.

The rich, fat man sat sweating behind his even fatter cigar. The smoke bulged from his mouth just as the fat bulged from his creased nylon suit. I made my way past him and took a seat at the end of the bar, ordering a beer as I did. A strange mix of people hung like jewellery from the rich fat man, accepting his loud and vulgar comments as graciously as they accepted the dollars he threw from his fists. Beautiful girls, drunken ex-patriates, lost tourists and prostitutes all lent an ear to his raucous ramblings, he their overweight idol that sat presiding over the night.

The sound of the traffic outside joined us briefly as a new customer walked into the bar, the noise and heat slipping silently in on the tail of this new thirst. He acknowledged the bartender and moved slowly to a dark corner, ignoring the strange group that were growing increasingly drunk and bored. I ordered another beer and watched as the rich fat man gestured to the barman, who in dutiful obedience, stopped wiping the bar with studied intent and moved enthusiastically to the wishes of his stagnating friend. The rich fat man drained his drink and shifted his bulk, moving to the edge of the seat. My unaccountable interest in this group of lives was lessening however and noticing the rain had eased, I likewise moved from my seat towards the door.

Outside, the city steamed and struggled on; the roads were still throwing vehicles in all directions, dark figures shuffled through the night – everything was moving. The heat and miles had tired me so I turned to the direction of my hotel and walked on. I was flying to Hanoi the next day but for the time being there was still ground to cover. The rain had stopped and in dark corners of the sky the clouds had lifted revealing bright, sharp stars that winked down at the mayhem unfolding below. I soon found myself nearing Dong Khoi Street and slowed my pace. Everything around me was still going and everything would continue to do so. I took a final look around and as I stepped into the hotel heard the river sigh quietly behind me.

Article Copyright 2004 Dominic Light, All Rights Reserved

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