November 20, 2003 -- It's been a long time since I visited a Communist country, I mused as the Singapore Airlines 777 touched down at Saigon's Tan Son Nhat airport in late October. And then I realized the reason: There are only four left--China, Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam--and, North Korea excepted, Communism and capitalism are making not-so-odd bedfellows. Vietnam in particular has been presented in the leisure-travel press as a hip travel-lifestyle hot spot, with Saigon cast as the Prague of Southeast Asia.
So why didn't any of the writers mention the reception? For the arrivals hall at Ton Son Nhat has all the hallmarks of vintage Communism: long lines, stone-faced bureaucrats and immigration technicalities. It turned out that I had a landing visa, not an entry visa and that lands you at little desks where men with scarlet collar tabs hand out forms, demand money and then send you back to the end of the line. It took more than two hours to get my passport stamped. Good morning, Vietnam.
Outside the arrivals building, though, I found the start of a Communism-free zone, where prices are quoted in dollars as readily as dong, the national currency. At 15,500 dong to the dollar, you find yourself routinely dealing in six-, seven-, even eight-figure numbers, perhaps Vietnam's only similarity to Italy. The best way around this is to bring a few hundred dollars in $1, $5, and $10 bills (or practice your 15 times table).
Taxi drivers loiter about the airport entrance offering $10 rides to the city center, payable in advance. I fell for it. The real airport-to-center city fare is $3-$4 and, at the hotel, when I pointed out the discrepancy between the meter (45,000 dong) and what I had paid (150,000 dong), the driver said he would call his friend, then sped away. Caveat emptor, I thought, always a telltale sign of robust capitalism.
I hadn't been to Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City, of course) since 1989, when I came on a scouting trip for Travel & Leisure magazine. In the interim, it had only deepened its freewheeling character. Hanoi may be the country's Vatican, the seat of orthodoxy, but Saigon is its vitrine, an increasingly glossy shop window for seemingly everything. Looking at an upper-story window of the Diamond Department store, I saw the image of an elderly goateed gentle-man on a red background--a posterized Ho Chi Minh, I thought. Then I realized it was Colonel Sanders. The let's-do-business atmosphere is why the giant Sanyo video sign across from Ben Thanh, the main market, seems right at home.
Yes, there's retail gentrification, but the stores that sell silk and celadon rub shoulders comfortably with those still pushing workaday wares like office supplies. And the gentrification is homegrown, with an emphasis on native skills such as tailoring, embroidery, lacquering and woodworking. Dong Khoi, a street lined with hostess bars during the War, is now full of terrific shops showcasing just such products. Prices are low and the quality is high. The embroidered purse my girlfriend considered buying in a shop for $8 turned up in the boutique at the Hotel Bel-Air for $225. She also had four silk dresses made for $280--the saleswomen were wide-eyed when she said "Apiece?" and she was equally wide-eyed when they said "No, total"--at Kim Yen Tailor and Embroidery, across from the Caravelle Hotel.
That landmark of Vietnam War journalism has been transformed through the addition of a 24-story tower that makes the nine-story original right next door almost invisible. The hotel gets an A-plus for its rooftop bar, an A for its rooms (plush and understated), facilities (pool, gym and spa) and lobby atmosphere (full of city-hotel bustle), but a C for service (rooms not made up until mid-afternoon, packages not sent up as requested). Diagonally across the broad Le Loi boulevard is the Rex, where I stayed on my first visit. It, too, has been given a facelift. It now has some terrific stores such as Thiep (handmade embroidered table linens and children's clothes) and it still has its slightly raffish rooftop bar.
The dining scene in Saigon is remarkable. The Lemon Grass Cafe, around the corner from the Caravelle, is a great lunch spot. (Would that they would open in Santa Monica or Washington.) Nam Phan, which occupies a walled villa on a busy intersection, is just a dream, period. Inside it is calm incarnate--have white, gray, and taupe ever been used to such soothing effect? The food was anything but low-key though: Refined and robust, with layers of flavor. Mandarin was the opposite, a multi-level villa--almost laid out like a Chinese shelf for displaying objets d'art--decorated with antiques and filled with the strains of a trio. The specialty is shellfish, flown in from Nha Trang up the coast, and I've rarely had better.
Much of the pleasure of Saigon comes from strolling, as it is not a monumental city. There are, as is usual in Asian cities, entire streets given over to a single product. The safe sellers are on Vo Van Tan, the sailing-ship replica makers just down from the Caravelle and on adjoining Hai Ba Trung. The men's shoe stores are on Lei Thai Hong Gam, which is just behind the street of antiques stores (Le Cong Kieu). There, every piece of blue-and-white porcelain seemed to be 400 years old. Like I said, caveat emptor.
Buildings that are worth visiting can be done in a connect-the-dots itinerary. The People's Committee Building, a pleasing, Colonial-era pastiche of styles (Baroque, French Chateau, Classical), forms a graceful period to the broad Nguyen Hue boulevard in the center of town. Just north is the Post Office, a dramatic, barrel-vaulted pavilion, with a roof designed by Gustav Eiffel. Inside are old-fashioned, long, brown benches for writing (What an archaic notion!) and tens of windows, each devoted to a specific postal function. It seemed like the duty-and-determination post office of my youth--"Neither rain, nor sleet, nor dark of night…"
The Giac Lam Pagoda, about 25 minutes by cab from the city center, had the hallmark inky-dark and incense-wafted atmosphere of such places. But when I arrived on a Sunday at noon, the place was full of elderly women, pilgrims I surmised, who were sacked out everywhere: three to a bench in a back courtyard, stretched out in corners, camped out beside altars. An attendant emerged from somewhere and just took me in hand, showing me the furnace where bodies were cremated, the wing where the ashes were stored in ceramic pieces (here he pointed out the one that contained his parents) that looked like cabbage heads and finally the various altars. Then he asked for $2; I thought he undersold himself.
My favorite public place was the Ben Thanh market, a furious hive of commerce on Quach Tri Trang Square. It's a large, semi-open-air shed of a building and it seems to contain every product category there is, from live eels and candy tiered up in baroque displays to acres of fabric and, of course, racks of knock-off logo wear. (The Polo washed silk short-sleeve shirts sell for $5).
Of course we visited The War Remnants Museum, formerly the Museum of American War Crimes. Was the name-change telling? Was the museum no longer a tribunal, as it was when I visited 14 years ago, but now just a store-house for the War's odds and ends, from tanks to black-and-white photos? I grew up in the late '60s and I remember seeing the Life covers and the Larry Burrows photos displayed in the museum when they were originally published. In 1989, it felt like they were being rubbed in my face. Seeing them now was like re-remembering a part of your life--not a part that you'd repressed, but one that the passage of time had shunted onto a siding, a case of quasi-amnesia.
When I returned from that first trip, my editor asked me for the gist of it: "The war is over in Vietnam, it's still being fought here," I said, and that's still true. In Saigon, we experienced no hostility--in fact, more than one person came up and expressed affection for Americans--while in America, whether you fought in the Vietnam War now helps prove whether you're Presidential timber. The memories evoked by the museum trailed me around for the rest of the trip, low clouds that squatted stubbornly over the Saigon swirling around before my eyes--a much more western and capitalist city than it was in 1989. I couldn't even take refuge in historical irony; I just kept hearing the word "Why?" resound through the corridors of my mind.
Getting out of Vietnam proved slightly less vexing than getting in--another sluggish line and then the look that says, "You're missing something." It turned out that I lacked a piece of paper, about as big as a passport, with my picture on it, the one I paid $2 for on the way in. "Never received it," I said. After some officious passport page turning and lip pursing, the stamp came down and the face turned to confront the next traveler. Let's hope that the rumors are true and the government is going to drop the visa requirement for Americans at year-end.
There was one more surprise in store. Opposite the departure gate, I came across The Foot Spa, a darkened room with piped-in music and birdsong. The walls were lined with wooden, cushioned recliners and as I had scads of time--I left the hotel three hours before departure figuring it would be squandered in traffic or on immigration--in I went. And had what may be the best foot and lower-leg massage ever, a pedi cure if ever there was one. It seemed, like Saigon itself, a fruitful mix of tradition--the masseuses really knew their stuff--and enterprise. And a bargain (40 minutes, $25), to boot.