There are some famous photographs from the Vietnam War. I was fortunate enough to go to an exhibition of these when I lived in Thailand (as Vietnam at the time had not yet opened itself to the west or to tourists). One of the famous photographs is of a North Vietnamese tank bursting through the Presidential Palace gates in 1975. In 1990, almost exactly 15 years later, I found myself right there, looking back at the gates from inside the Presidential Palace.
I was there representing New Zealand at a multilateral meeting of the Mekong Committee, an organisation providing international funding for development projects to the countries along the Mekong River. I had been a diplomat overseas for a grand total of three months, and it was my first visit to Vietnam.
At the time, the country was still subject to the US embargo, but with the fall of the Soviet Union, there were indications that this wouldn’t last long. But Vietnam was still largely isolated. Tourists had not yet started coming, hotels were yet to be opened, renovated, or developed. We stayed at an old hotel on the banks of the river – the rooms were large, simply furnished, stuck in a 1960s time warp. We were careful what we said inside them.
Ho Chi Minh City* or Saigon was an assault to the senses. Always more prosperous and commercial than Hanoi, there were already many motor-cycles on the streets, weaving in and out of the bicycles, beeping their horns, warning “I’m coming! I’m coming!” The streets were crowded, bustling, and, lining the streets and providing welcome shade, were dusty, scraggly trees. The grace and peace of Hanoi was not to be found in this city, full steam ahead to the 1990s and the 21st century. “Get out of my way, I’m coming!” the entire city shouted.
The French influence in Saigon was less obvious, although there were still some grand old villas remaining. (I wonder if they’re still there?) I explored the streets of the city with the other diplomats. We searched through stores for lacquerware and art. We watched the locals live their lives out on the streets, preparing food at dusk, children playing after dinner, men chatting into the evening. Aside from us, the only other foreigners we saw were a few Russians or east Europeans, the last remnants of their countries’ dominance in Vietnam over the previous decade and a half.
The meeting lasted several days, and there were a number of social functions. A dinner on the banks of the Mekong River was memorable for the delicious, fresh Vietnamese food; the flavour of a fresh spring roll was light years from the deep fried version available in Asian restaurants around the globe. I chatted to one of the Vietnamese government officials. His English was impressive. “Where did you learn it?” I asked, naively. “In the jungle” he said. I thought about it for a moment. His age fitted. Of course he did.
Over the next few years I returned to Ho Chi Minh City several times. Each time the rate of development was dramatic, the change huge. On one of my visits I met a young man working for the Chamber of Commerce. His English was fluent; he told me he had studied it for only one year at night school, whilst working. The achievement is still mind-boggling to me. The energy, the talent, the diligence, the hunger for progress of the Vietnamese was phenomenal.
On some of these visits I met up with some of the Colombo Plan students who had studied in New Zealand in the 1960s. There were a few left in the city, but most had emigrated. The five or six who were left celebrated the return of western visitors and New Zealand friends to their city. They had been through some difficult times, some extraordinarily difficult (even now, to protect them, I feel I cannot write their details), but had come through the other side, their talent showing through, committed to helping their country develop. One evening a colleague and I had arranged to meet these men for dinner. We rode on the backs of their motorcycles through the evening traffic, and enjoyed a relaxed evening, with our Vietnamese friends reminiscing about New Zealand in the late 60s and early 70s. They all remembered a particular advertising jingle for a grocery store chain, and laughing, recited it together “Four Square is cheaper! Cheaper! Cheaper!”
By the time of my last visit to Ho Chi Minh City in 1996, this time as a business person not an official, it felt like a different place. No longer did I feel I was going back in time. Now I felt I was in a more normal, vibrant developing country metropolis. Hotels were renovated and sophisticated. The world was flocking to Vietnam. Fortunes could be made (and lost) there. I’m curious to see what it is like now, but I’m also reluctant to spoil those memories of being there in the early days.
* At the risk of upsetting anyone, I am going to call this Ho Chi Minh City rather than Saigon because a) that was its official name when I was there, and b) I’m running out of places beginning with H.