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Shades of 'Old Saigon' : Ho Chi Minh City: Vital and Restless

July 09, 1988|NICK B. WILLIAMS Jr. | Times Staff Writer

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — "Here in the south, we are a migrant people, like the Americans," reflected Ly Chanh Trung, a thoughtful, three-term national assemblyman of Vietnam, a troubled country that is still divided in many ways.

"The south looks to the future," the slender, one-time professor of ethics continued. "We rely on ourselves. Hanoi likes to look back."

Thirteen years after the northern army and southern rebels united Vietnam by force of arms, the energy of the country is centered in Ho Chi Minh City, the former southern capital Saigon, a restless metropolis of 4.2 million. The Saigonese want change.

'We Will Struggle'

"If Do Muoi (the country's newly elected premier, and a northerner) abandons the new way, we will struggle against him," declared Nguyen Thi Thi, the grandmotherly dynamo who brought renovation to the city's food-supply system.

Hanoi, the seat of national government, is a third the size of Ho Chi Minh City. It is a capital clutched in tradition. Great schools of bicyclists silently circle its once-beautiful streets and lakes, past shops dark with disuse. Men's faces are shadowed by ubiquitous green pith helmets. State workers wait stoically for food and fuel rations, which were eliminated in the south in the early 1980s.

City Loud and Brash

Ho Chi Minh City, by contrast, is loud and brash, a capital of hustlers still tinged with a trace of decadence that keeps the character of old Saigon. Here, the occasional Mercedes-Benz is seen plowing through the street crowds, and near City Hall, under a tarpaulin, rests a bright red MG convertible that some enterprising owner has restored to near mint condition.

"Why are the women bicyclists wearing long gloves?" an outsider asked.

"To keep their skin light," a visiting northerner sniffed. "And they think it keeps their hands soft for their husbands."

When the beauty of a bride was noted, the northerner pointed out that Ho Chi Minh City hairdressers do wonders of transformation and that looks are sometimes enhanced by facial and eyelid surgery.

The French and the Americans have been replaced by Soviets, but in the kitschy, fifth-floor restaurant of the Rex Hotel the atmosphere is little changed. The other night, a tipsy Soviet woman in an off-the-shoulder gown rose from her chair and showered her dinner companions with a bottle of contraband champagne.

However, despite a bit of fun around the fringes, Ho Chi Minh City has not escaped the problems that have gripped all Vietnam in recent years. Inflation is soaring and jobs are scarce. At least 10,000 Saigonese are sleeping on the streets, according to Vu Tuat Viet, an editor of the newspaper Saigon Liberation.

Inflation is killing the economy of this nation of 63 million. The rate has tripled in the last six months. A kilogram of rice (2.2 pounds) that cost 150 dong last year (about 5 cents at the black market rate) now costs 500 (about 17 cents) on the free market.

Worse yet is the fear of more inflation. A few months ago, as the government was preparing to issue new currency notes in denominations of 1,000, 2,000 and 5,000 dong each, the head of the national bank prematurely announced the move.

"In two days, the price of the dong against the dollar (on the heavily played black market) almost doubled. Now it has tripled," said Nguyen Xuan Oanh, vice president of Ho Chi Minh City's Industrial & Commercial Bank, who is a close adviser of Communist Party leader Nguyen Van Linh.

Lack of Faith

In the rice-rich Mekong Delta, Oanh said, farmers are holding their crops off the market as a hedge against further inflation. In Cholon, Ho Chi Minh City's Chinese business district, traders turned their assets into gold and dollars as the spiral began. No businessman has faith in the country's hidebound national banking system.

One merchant pulled three worn and taped U.S. dollars out of a cash box, handling them like a treasure, and asked a visitor to exchange them for more marketable new greenbacks.

"Poor families put all their efforts into making a living, into getting two meals a day," observed editor Viet. "They have no time to watch their children," he added, noting a continuing problem with drugs and street crime.

Bad as it is, the pressure is mounting.

"Teen-agers are entering the city's job pool at a rate of 60,000 to 70,000 a year," said Nguyen Vinh Nghiep, deputy chairman of Ho Chi Minh City's People's Committee.

Tens of thousands of other job-seekers will be thrown into the pool if the country, as promised, withdraws its military forces from Cambodia over the next two years.

'New Economic Zones'

Some will find work in government enterprises; others will be sent to job-training centers or to the so-called "New Economic Zones" around the city and in the hinterlands, rough pioneer-style state farmlands.

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