Others must find what they can. At a restaurant near the city train station, a tall Vietnamese with a crew cut who was waiting tables told a group of reporters, in perfect French, that he had been the household chief for Nguyen Van Thieu, the last president of the American-backed South Vietnamese regime in Saigon. The waiter said he was released from 13 years in a Communist re-education camp just weeks ago.
A writer whose works have been adapted for foreign films and published abroad washes dishes in a coffee shop. "Please," he asked, "don't mention my name."
Asked how things were in his city, he said: "You don't need me to tell you. Just look around."
For those who remain in the city, there will not be sufficient housing. Hundreds of thousands still live in makeshift shacks along the Saigon River, refugees from the Vietnam War. Priority on new housing will go to "war martyrs' families"--the parents of slain soldiers--Nghiep noted.
Plagued by Corruption
Like the north, the south has been plagued by corruption within the party and government bureaucracy. In Ho Chi Minh City, the head of the tax department in one district siphoned off more than 2 million dong in collections, about $666 at the black market rate, or five years' salary for an average Saigonese.
"He took part of the taxes, forced some of his staff to collaborate and punished those who struggled against him," said Viet, the Saigon Liberation editor. "He was sentenced to three years in prison."
Saigon Liberation's campaign against another reputed bureaucratic embezzler was not so successful. She was accused of using funds from her district financial office to build a house. Viet said she has been protected from prosecution and promoted to municipal office.
But with yet-unflagging vitality, the Saigonese seem determined to improve their lot and pull the north along with them. Banker Oanh has high hopes for foreign investment, but not until inflation is controlled. Thi, the food-supply reformer, and Nghiep, the People's Committee official, are counting on increased productivity and private enterprise.
Emphasis on Family Industries
Nghiep said the emphasis will be placed on family industries, which are relatively unregulated businesses--except for taxes--that turn out handicrafts and simple consumer goods. Meanwhile, a number of foreign firms are using skilled Saigonese labor to assemble shoes, garments and other small-ticket items. Major, direct foreign investment awaits codified tax and labor regulations and a stable currency.
National Assemblyman Trung argued that Vietnam's long wars have stultified progress, keeping the country on a top-down, wartime way of life. The voice of the people has been sacrificed to "patriotic demands," he said.
"During 30 years of resistance against the French and the Americans, then just two years of peace before another 10 years of war (in Cambodia), the National Assembly could not play an important role," Trung explained. "During a war, a legislature can do little except vote for the military budget. Because Vietnam's wars have lasted so long, the rubber stamp became routine."
In Hanoi, the workers became a wheel in the war machine, which was greased by subsidies.
Northerners "still look at government as the friend of last resort," said Oanh, the banker, who is a former official of the old Saigon regime and a sometime Harvard University lecturer. "The authorities are still propping up state enterprises. This has to be changed, but no one has the heart to do it."
Southerners 'Can Prevail'
Assemblyman Trung says the southerners will lead the way. "They can prevail because they have the experience," he insisted.
When Ho Chi Minh City eliminated subsidized salaries for state workers, he recalled, "the workers complained. They crowded in here (his offices) from morning to evening. My ears were filled with complaints."
But in its recent session, the National Assembly again endorsed renovations, pushed by officials from the south.
Said Thi, who built a state food-and-fuel conglomerate with private suppliers and distributors and with expertise of officials from the ousted South Vietnamese regime: "(Premier) Do Muoi has promised before the National Assembly, before the mass media. He must keep his promise. Now they know that I was right."
Nick B. Williams Jr., chief of The Times' Bangkok bureau, was recently on assignment in Ho Chi Minh City.