Crossing the street in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) takes a little nerve and a lot of attitude. There are traffic rules, such as stop lights and the direction of traffic flow, but motorcyclists often blithely ignore them. And it is about motorcyclists; estimates range from six million to over eight million of them in this city of some 10 million plus people, but either way, that is a lot of motorcycles.
Even when there is a stop light, there are motorcyclists surging forward. On one-way streets, they surprise you by coming in the wrong direction. Therefore, gird yourself, step out onto the road and walk slowly and confidently across, looking oncoming motorcyclists right in the eye. The rules of crossing are based on predictability. The motorcyclist predicts where you will be by the time he reaches where you are and will adjust his trajectory and speed accordingly.
Speeding up, faltering or slowing down in mid-stride all throw the rider’s predictions, and possibly you, into the drain.
During rush hour, things get even more exciting, with motorcyclists co-opting pavements. Dealing with a multitude of motorcyclists requires an understanding of swarm intelligence. You cross a street dense with oncoming motorcyclists and as if possessed of a common mind, they will part before you like the Biblical Red Sea, reforming magically as you walk by.
The entire adult demographic rides motorcycles, from demure women attired in dresses to bent, grizzled old men with unbuttoned shirts, office workers in shirts and ties, and traders in shorts and T-shirts. To watch the traffic flow by is to watch a movie make-up of HCMC’s residents.
Many riders wear face masks, presumably against the pollution of a million motorcycles accelerating simultaneously. Gloves and long sleeves provide protection against the sun. Appearances count. And so does health, apparently — there are many lovely dense green parks of mature trees scattered throughout the city, soaking up the heat and providing islands of welcome respite from the hubbub.
In the mornings and evenings, city residents do their exercise in these parks. Not just the young and trendy, but matronly women, middle-aged men, grandfatherly types rotate, swing, swivel, sway, pedal, twist and jog away on the exercise machines scattered around the parks, with the gusto and energy deserving of a high-class paid gym. There are line dances, exercise routines in open areas, a sense of community spirit and the vigour of a spirited community.
Many of the parks have lotus ponds, and some with fountains, green pockets of reflective calm, as if to compensate for the manic energy of a city that never seems to sleep.
HCMC is a high-octane city, driven by the work ethic of a people who work long hours to make ends meet. Rents are high, house ownership all but impossible for the average wage earner, competition is fierce and the population of the city grows constantly from a steady influx of migrants seeking the bright lights and promise of a better life than the rural heartland and a farmer’s life can provide.
Yet, there are these oases of beauty, as if the heart and soul of lush, tropical Vietnam is never far away. Many of the streets in the older parts of the city are lined with magnificent, tall trees, which rise regally to cast their dappled shade onto the streets below. There is an abundance of tumbling vegetation in pockets in the city: vertical walls of plants in shopping complexes and the sides of buildings, a glimpsed rooftop garden, buildings constructed around a big tree, as if the city has reconciled its two aspects, the lush, natural vegetation with the non-stop buzz of noise and activity.
As a whole, HCMC has undistinguished, utilitarian architecture notable for the frontal narrowness of buildings and their length, rendering the interiors dark and dingy. There are the beginnings of skyscrapers downtown, the glass and steel towers, that, to many developing countries, are symbolic of progress, but the most elegant part of the city is the French legacy in its oldest sections, for its long and inglorious history includes episodes of occupation by the French, Japanese, Chinese and Americans.
The Central Post Office is a gorgeous building built in the late 19th century, of delicate proportions and restrained elegance, rendered in a pale yellow with white and green highlights. Within is the soaring open space, with an arched roof supported by metal ribs and columns, with a picture of Ho Chi Minh on the far wall.
Outside is the open courtyard, looking across the road to the lofty Notre Dame Cathedral, with its pointed spires and red brickwork. Fountains, courtyards and gardens complete the sense of grace and beauty of what HCMC — Saigon, as it was called then, and still is, today — could be, and once was, when it earned the moniker “Paris of the East”. Although the French surrendered the country after the calamitous defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, their cultural influence has seeped deeply into Vietnamese society.
Of a different ilk, the American presence is remembered in the Reunification Museum, set in a lush lawn and fronting a dense green park. The 1960s-era building was the Presidential Palace when the tanks of the North Vietnamese Army crashed the gates on April 30, 1975, heralding the Fall of Saigon or the Liberation of Saigon, depending on which side you were on.
Vietnam, a small, impoverished country, had taken on and defeated the military might of the US, reuniting the country and fulfilling the vision in a speech given by Ho Chi Minh on Sept 2, 1945, when he proclaimed an independent Vietnam. Sept 2 is Vietnam’s National Day.
Retro and kitsch of the 1960s come to mind when visiting the building, with its reception halls, meeting rooms, private quarters and evacuation helicopter on the roof, all frozen in time in 1975. There is an underground bunker reminiscent of James Bond-type movies, complete with bulky communications equipment, maps on the walls and colour-coded phones for good and bad news.
The War Remnants Museum nearby recalls the traumatic Vietnam War. Captured American military machines are displayed in the front courtyard while the main building is a gallery of photographs and equipment from the war. Rather than the chest-thumping displays you would expect, the photo gallery is sobering and grim, a reminder of the horrors of war and its effects on a civilian, largely peasant population sucked into a vortex of global politics played out in their country. The effects of the defoliant Agent Orange are brought home in wrenching photographs of people affected by the chemical and the widespread environmental destruction. Decades later, the consequences are still being wrought on the Vietnamese people and the environment.
More than anything else, the sheer stoicism of the people comes across, in many decades of continuous war, against the French and later, the Americans.
The bustle of the streets brings home the energy and resilience of the residents of HCMC. Ben Thanh market is a focal point in the city, more so for tourists than locals. Housed in a large single-storey building bordered on all sides by busy roads, it has partitioned sections for food, clothes, shoes, bags, electronics and so on. The vendors are friendly even if almost everyone exclaims “For you, special price”, “What you looking for?”, “Come in and see only” and other blandishments of the tourist trade. But the deals are not bad if you bargain assiduously and the vendors are good-humoured.
Space is not wasted on the sidewalks; every spot being the potential space to sell something. People are eating something almost all the time. Street food is spectacularly good, fresh and inexpensive. A freshly made banh mi sandwich, a cup of addictively good drip coffee, a hot bowl of noodles, grilled seafood and all sorts of snacks lie in ambush along the pavements.
A city is more than the sum of its parts, and HCMC, more than its sprawling proportions, roads and buildings, has a distinct character molded by its human element: the industriousness of people, their cool disregard for traffic rules, their always-on appetites for food and their general friendliness. Although war has proved them to be tenacious and self-sacrificial, it is the obverse side of their characters that makes for a memorable experience of Ho Chi Minh City.