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COLUMN ONE

Saigon by Any Name Lives On

Throbbing to the beat of jackhammers and discos, Ho Chi Minh City has become a land of opportunity for Vietnam's postwar generation.

September 23, 1997|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — OK, so it isn't Saigon anymore. But hold the obituaries. Good times are here again. Strip away the veneer of communism and there, among the ghosts of the past, this former wartime capital still has the heart of a hustler and the soul of a damsel.

Actually, the name Ho Chi Minh City never caught on in the first place. It was like turning Boston into John Fitzgerald Kennedy City. It just didn't sound right. It conjured up no images of Graham Greene on the Continental Hotel's veranda or tamarind-shaded boulevards or lazy summer days around the pool at the Cercle Sportif. It didn't even carry a whiff of the war that so shaped the city's character.

So Saigon, in casual conversation if not official terminology, continues to be Saigon to most Vietnamese.

But by whatever name, great changes are sweeping across this city of 5 1/2 million inhabitants, once the capital of South Vietnam. The odd union of communism and capitalism has unleashed the entrepreneurial spirit and creative energy of a postwar generation, and Ho Chi Minh City is throbbing to the beat of jackhammers and late-night discos. The peace dividend, at last, is drawing compound interest.

"Times are good, no doubt about it," said Nguyen Van Tran, 22, who has opened a shop specializing in imported food and liquor. "You can smell the opportunity. There's money around."

Across from the remodeled Majestic Hotel, on the far banks of the Saigon River--where Viet Cong guerrillas used to move freely through shantytowns--towering neon signs blink out a red-lettered message for the future: Hitachi . . . Fuji . . . Compaq.

Their reflection shimmers across the nighttime waters, bathing anchored freighters and gliding sampans in an eerie glow.

The placards of progress, or at least change, are everywhere. Construction cranes perch atop half-finished office high-rises like giant birds. A Marriott, a Hyatt and a Ramada Inn are going up, and a Hard Rock Cafe is coming. Honda motor scooters choke the avenues, and the endless bars on Tu Do (Freedom) Street (now named Dong Khoi, or Uprising)--where GIs once bought "comfort ladies" $5 shots of "whiskey" that were really just tea--have given way to shops advertising products made by Cartier, Rolex, Christian Dior.

Designer jeans with a cell phone in the hip pocket have replaced the ao dai, the flowing women's garment worn over tight pants, as Generation X's favored style of dress. Caviar is as easy to find as rice. Plans are underway to open a stock exchange (even though only 20 of the 6,000 state-owned enterprises in the city have been privatized), and huge crowds of shoppers are already flocking to the country's first air-conditioned mall, the Superbowl.

"It's like this every night, until about 2 in the morning," said the 40-year-old bartender at Apocalypse Now, where expatriates and Vietnamese yuppies were jammed shoulder to shoulder, sipping Heineken and Johnnie Walker Red. "I don't think any of the Vietnamese here understand the significance of the bar's name. They're too young. They just like the place."

Economic Engine

If any proof is needed that Ho Chi Minh City is the engine driving Vietnam's transition to a free-market economy, here's some evidence: The city contributes one-third of both the national budget and industrial output. The per capita income ($1,000 a year) is three times the national average. Seventy percent of U.S. economic activity in Vietnam and 33% of foreign investment are centered here. One thousand foreign companies are represented. The number of Americans living here has grown in less than three years from 300 to 3,000.

But although Vietnam is one of the last surviving Communist states and the party remains well entrenched, particularly in rural areas, the country's real ideology has always been nationalism. The urban postwar generation has little interest in politics or communism. What drives it is an almost obsessive quest for education, knowledge and financial success.

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"What this generation has, and mine didn't, is opportunity," said Ho Si Khouch, 65, a professor of history at Ho Chi Minh University. "We looked ahead to war. They look ahead to peace. They're much more independent, dynamic, creative than their fathers were. They don't want to study the subjects we did--history, philosophy, poetry. The majors they're choosing now are business, economics, English language, computer sciences."

Over its 300 years of history, Ho Chi Minh City has had at least eight names and has long marched to its own drummer. Although most Vietnamese look to Hanoi, the political and intellectual capital, with the same sense of fondness the French have for Paris, Saigon/Ho Chi Minh has always been where the action is. If Hanoi is Salt Lake City, proper and strait-laced, Ho Chi Minh is New Orleans, flashy and a bit wicked.

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