Along with designer clothing stores in the commercial capital of Vietnam are enduring reminders of war's influence.
Historic Ho Chi Minh City shines in the present
Along with designer clothing stores in the commercial capital of Vietnam are enduring reminders of war's influence. Clare Dight finds a city that wants to embrace the future and honour the past.
I struggle to concentrate as Ving, my guide, introduces himself. A myriad of scooters speeding left and right outside the window compete for my attention as the tour bus makes its way into the centre of Ho Chi Minh City. Older women ride pillion in a dignified side-saddle, but tonight it's young courting couples who dominate the road. In the many green spaces that mark our determined procession along the city's boulevards to Lam Son Square, young people hold hands, sip drinks and relax, seemingly happy to be out unchaperoned.
Half-listening, I manage to glean that Ving's hair is cut to emulate Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo, the star of his favourite football team; everyone calls Ho Chi Minh City Saigon because it's quicker to say; and the safest way to cross the road is to maintain a defiantly steady pace, allowing the scooters to dodge you. Ignore your instinct to flee, he says, "and you will probably survive". Some comfort.
Ving has my complete attention, however, when he announces to the group of foreign journalists that a government official from the department of external relations will be joining us the next day. If we ask him any questions about the war, politics or religion from tomorrow, he says, "I will say, 'I am not comfortable to tell you about that'." What's left to discuss, I wonder?
The night is warm and extremely humid as we check into the five-star Park Hyatt Saigon, an imposing building that attracts Saigon's wealthy elite. In the lobby, two Chinese women showily clad from top-to-toe in Hermès are comparing purchases from the nearby Chanel boutique, and the hotel's glass-fronted bar overlooking the street is full of people vying to be seen. The glossiness of the social scene and the French colonial-style interiors are a far cry from Christmas Eve, December 1964, when two Viet Cong detonated a car bomb beneath what was then the Brinks Hotel, which housed US military officers.
The modern shopping malls, fashion brands, and car showrooms that increasingly populate the centre of Saigon may point to a future dominated by consumer capitalism, but it is almost impossible to visit Saigon and not look into the past. Bordered by China, Laos and Cambodia, this slip of a country on mainland South East Asia, 1,650 kilometres long from north to south and only 50km wide at its narrowest point, has been conquered and colonised by, in turn, the Chinese, French and Japanese. The grim determination of its people to repel foreign invaders, no matter the cost, is most graphically demonstrated at the War Remnants Museum, which opened in September 1975, a few months after the "War against the Americans to Save the Nation" (how it is referred to in Vietnam) ended.
On display at the museum is a relentless catalogue of war and its devastating impact on local people, combatants and the landscape. Visitors are greeted by a courtyard parked with fighter planes, tanks and helicopters and a replica prison cell on Phu Quoc Island containing gruesome testimony of torture. Inside, the museum houses a collection of photographs by Larry Burrows, Robert Capa and many other journalists who died reporting the war; alongside evidence of "Aggressive War Crimes" including photographs of infants with terrible birth defects and deformed foetuses in formaldehyde, both the legacy of chemical warfare, as well as a collection of contemporary anti-war memorabilia from around the world. The experience is memorable but bleak. I am not the only visitor who is reduced to tears. In the lobby, a group of children and young adults with birth defects sit playing instruments and making trinkets for eventual sale. Their presence is perhaps the biggest reminder that Vietnam is still dealing with the aftermath of the war.
If shock is the natural reaction to a visit to the war museum, then the next stop, the Cu Chi tunnel complex, elicits incredulity. For 10 years, the Viet Cong dug a 200km-network of narrow tunnels in the countryside some 30km outside Saigon, from where its fighters took refuge and moved goods through supply lines. There is no trace of this subterranean world as I stare out into the dense jungle. Along leafy trails, we pause to admire assorted types of man traps, demonstrated with efficiency and matter-of-factness by staff dressed as Viet Cong. Designed to maim rather than kill and so slow US forces carrying the injured, I'm intrigued and appalled by the ingenuity of the hidden black spikes topped with large fish hooks, but it's not until I enter the tunnels themselves that I'm actually afraid.
It takes less than a minute to scurry, bent double, along a short section of tunnel - something that's only possible because the tunnels have been widened by 20 to 25cm in small sections to accommodate tourists - but the feeling of claustrophobia as the light fades is terrible and immediate. It was here the Vietcong would hide underground for days while munitions rained down from US bombers. They went to remarkable lengths to hide their presence; cooking at dawn to allow smoke to rise with the morning mist and disguising air vents as termite mounds. In spite of Ving's relentlessly cheerful demeanour and jokes about the size of tourists compared with his countrymen, the reality of guerrilla warfare makes for a rather depressing show.
Back in the centre of Saigon, an area that reflects Vietnam's French colonial past, the atmosphere is more picturesque. The French invaded Saigon in 1859 and their influence lasted until the occupation forces of the Japanese army turned on the French administration at the end of the Second World War. Vietnamese tourists and foreigners now tour the grand, late 19th-century architecture of the Old Post Office, Hôtel de Ville (now the People's Committee building), Opera House and Notre Dame Cathedral, all remnants of a fading empire.
Around the corner from my hotel, a few paces from a huge statue of "Uncle Ho", the founder of the Vietnamese Communist Party, modern-day life is in full, joyous flow. Old women crouch on the pavements sitting on their heels, hawking waffles and freshly fried spring rolls. Food carts line the road selling banh mi, a French-style baguette filled with a pâté of meat, herbs and pickle. Their customers sit on low, battered plastic chairs or on the pavement on their flip flops, placed neatly together to make an impromptu seat.
I turn into Dong Khoi Street, where you can buy armfuls of brightly coloured lacquerware, scarves and dresses tailored from gorgeously soft silks and bright gems by the dozen. Khaisilk (www.khaisilkcorp.com) and Liberty Silk (www.libertysilk.com) are worth a look.
As well as Chanel, Burberry, Louis Vuitton and Marc Jacobs, local designers are making a name for themselves with well-cut clothes. Tylho Boutique (84 Ly Tu Trong; www.tylho.com) and Valenciani (www.valenciani.com) at the Saigon Centre on Le Loi Boulevard, all within walking distance in District 1, stock prom dresses in pretty prints, chiffon blouses, and wide-legged trousers that would not look out of place on a street in New York City. Be warned: the garments are slender and tailoring for larger sizes (above a size 12) takes a few days. One treasure trove that points to a rather trendy future is L'Usine (151/1 Dong Khoi Street; 00 84 8 6674 3565), tucked just off the main street past a scooter repair shop and up a staircase to the first floor. L'Usine sells an expensive mix of American menswear brands and local womenswear designers, as well as cool knick-knacks and pretty jewellery that would keep both David and Victoria Beckham happy.
Purse almost empty, you can sit and have a cupcake in the cafe at the front of the store. And so I wander back to the hotel relieved, glad to have seen the bold, more independent face of a hopeful Ho Chi Minh City, as well as learning from the lessons of the past.