The Story of Saigon I Can’t Tell

Ho Chi Minh, he is everywhere, or, at least, on every monetary bill — a Vietnamese Communist leader.

Ho Chi MInh used to be called Saigon. I know nearly nothing about Vietnam but, or more like because of it, to my twisted mind Saigon sounds romantic. Perhaps for me as a European, it is the ultimate exotica — a forgotten French dream of a colony, Paris in the shade of palm trees. Maybe the idiotic notion was instilled in me by Billy Joel’s (who himself did not fight in Vietnam) “Goodnight Saigon” .

I can’t tell a story of Saigon because I was there for four days, the New Year’s eve of 2014, and did not leave with any significant additions to my poor knowledge about Ho Chi Minh and Vietnam. These are snippets of my half hazy memory. This is not a tourist guide. I can’t even make restaurant recommendations because I have no recollection of geographic coordinates.

I did not travel alone, and, when I don’t, there is always someone who is better with maps and more dedicated too. It gives me the luxury to wonder around like a dumb, wide eyed bird and simply and thoroughly enjoy the scenery.

Oh, and I trip a lot too so it really is for the best if all of my attention goes to potholes and enjoyment without adding navigation to the mix.

I saw a facade of a Communist era I never lived. Having been born and for the first three years of my life having occupied a toddler sized space in the ex-USSR, it was sarcastically pointed out to me that I am supposed to feel like home. I didn’t. But if I squeezed my eyes almost shut and looked at the edges of the city, I did get a nostalgic tingling, a memory of Eastern Europe.

I guess the best way of explaining the aesthetic of Ho Chi Minh is by saying “public school chic”. The long table with a white tablecloth and newspapers stuffed under the leg to balance it out, a schoolteacher with perfectly manicured nails, a stiff jacket, and the tiniest hole in the black stocking, the perfect geometry of a grand government building and the drunk guard sleeping with one leg out on the pavement.

The kids are not alright

After having lived in Hyderabad, India, Ho Chi Minh does not seem “typically” Asian but absolutely lovely so. You get the kick of murderous drivers, especially bikers, or shall I say scooters, yet very little garbage. Christmas lights in smoky, dingy bars that pose as places of good repute are on, you can get anything done and delivered for a couple of dollars and the exchange rate means you are an overnight millionaire.

In the very city center, the Saigon river offered me a view on the city so bizarre, it took my breath away. I didn’t notice at first that something was “wrong”. There were the boats for shipping tourists up and down, flowerpots, the occasional salespeople. I looked across and all I saw was a line if billboards.

No high rises, almost no buildings at all. As if the city were standing on the edge of an abyss, its fall arrested by gigantic Heineken advertisements.

I was also impressed by the outdoor gyms where health conscious citizens wiggle on apparatus that makes you move your hips whilst keeping your upper body straight. The wonderful coffee that drips from a small contraption on top of a cup mixing with condensed milk. The amazing variety of very specialized street food with vendors often selling only one or two items from an ad-hoc stand built around a staircase on the street of an abandoned building.

I am not drawing any conclusions about Saigon, let alone Vietnam, after a four day trip. Do I still think Saigon is romantic? I guess, but then for me any place where I get to drink local beer, act indecently in hotel rooms and eat mysterious foods is.