Crossing the Mekong delta, my plane skirts the Saigon River, coiled like a snake around Ho Chi Minh City—HCM City for short, an abbreviation for a well-earned name. My mind goes back to the last days of April 1975. In my hostel dining hall at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), we had a large map of South Vietnam, with red flags placed to indicate the advance of the Vietcong towards Saigon. On April 30, the news of Saigon’s fall was received with great jubilation. “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh! We shall fight, we shall win!” Slogans rent the air and hundreds of students and faculty marched from the JNU campus to the Vietnam embassy in central Delhi on a hot summer’s day, expressing solidarity with yet another Asian people who had pushed imperialism back.
Close to a half-century later, I am here, ironically, as a guest of the French, invited to speak at a conference of French trade diplomats. It was in the mid-1950s that the French withdrew from Vietnam and the country was divided between a communist North and a US-supported regime in the South. The battle for Vietnam’s full liberation became a bloody war between the world’s most powerful military machine and a peasant-based guerrilla army. The anti-war peace movement that swept across the world through the 1960s defined our youth.
The only reminder of that horrible history in a foreign tourist’s guidebook is an invitation to visit the famous Cu Chi tunnels. Some go four levels below ground and many are linked through passageways. In these underground tunnels with narrow entry points, the Vietcong hid, rested, strategised and nursed their wounded as they carried out guerrilla attacks on their enemy.
The tunnels apart, there is a reminder of the war and of the Vietnamese victory at the war museum. Captured American tanks and aircraft are on display. That’s about it. Today’s HCM City is no longer focused on this past, having become home to US, Japanese and European investment in a big way. Vietnam has become the go-to country for Western and East Asian multinationals decoupling and derisking from a rising China.
More than Western companies, brands and products, it is HCM City’s lifestyle that today harks back to its colonial past. The cultural footprint of France is all around. In French cafés, pâtisseries, boulangeries, bistros and brasseries. America, too, has left behind more than captured aircraft. Blue jeans, steak houses and Starbucks. Vietnam has embraced globalisation with ease despite the horrific memories of a napalmed nation.
Vietnam is on the rise imitating Deng Xiaoping’s China. The view across the Saigon River, of bright lights and tall buildings, reminds me of Shanghai in the 1990s, indicating a new energy sweeping this nation. My French hosts take me to the rooftop of Le Café des Stagiaires, across the river. A DJ plays zesty music and we raise a toast with fine French red wine. On my first visit to Shanghai in the early 1990s, I looked at the newly emerging Pudong from across the Bund and called it the “Manhattan of the East” in a newspaper column. I am reminded of what an American banker said to me in a Shanghai bar two decades ago. “China is a good place to invest,” she said, “and Shanghai is a safe and fun place to live in.”
Vietnam has learnt that lesson. It’s not just infrastructure and economic policies that investors look for. They also want the good life. Investment in education, skills, and infrastructure—hard and soft—has made Vietnam globally competitive and an attractive destination for business and tourism. From a nation devastated by war, Vietnam has risen Phoenix-like, well-educated and well-fed. An Asian tiger on the prowl in a changing and challenging global economy.
I drive down to Cho Lon, a longtime Chinese settlement west of the city, and visit its Binh Tay Market which is full of ‘Made in China’ goods. So far, Vietnam has managed to stand up to China, having pushed it back in a border war in 1979, but it has also learnt to work with its domineering neighbour. As a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), communist Vietnam has learnt to deal with ease with the wider world—the US, China, Japan, Russia, France and India.
Saigon, for me, was also the backdrop for my favourite author Graham Greene’s classic account, The Quiet American, of a Vietnam caught between a retreating France, an advancing communism and a belligerent America. Greene was insightful and prophetic about the tragedy waiting to unfold. Sitting at a café near the architecturally impressive Saigon Opera, I think of Thomas Fowler, played by Michael Caine in the movie version of the book. Fowler awaits his mistress, the beautiful Phuong. The ageing, cynical Fowler represents a Europe retreating from Asia, unwilling to marry his mistress. The younger, handsome Alden Pyle, a CIA agent, is the eager American madly in love with Phuong. Fowler sees no reason why Vietnam should not be left to its own fate. Pyle is on a mission to liberate it from the spectre of communism.
HCM City is prepared to deal with Greene worshippers. “Buy Graham Greene,” says an old woman selling books on a kerbside near City Hall. Greene’s favourite hotel, The Majestic, has been restored to its full splendour, with an elegant entrance facing the river, and a lovely rooftop bar serving cocktails and coffee. Vietnamese coffee has made waves around the world and HCM City has a coffee café at every street corner, offering a wide variety of coffees.
Someone in my hotel lobby bar hears me asking the barman where in the hotel I could smoke my cigar. “Saigon has some lovely cigar bars,” he interjects. “Go down the street outside towards the river.” I discover the city has a Saigon Cigar Club and TripAdvisor gives it 4.5/5.0. I walk down from my hotel, the Saigon Intercontinental, to The Majestic, walking down Rue Catinat, now Dong Khoi Street, once regarded as Saigon’s Champs-Élysées. There I spot a bar within a shop—‘Cigar & Whisky’. This is the heart of Greene-land.
Vietnamese cuisine is becoming popular in India, yet, I am not prepared for its variety. At a restaurant offering traditional Vietnamese cuisine, I discover the pleasures of fish cooked with turmeric and lemongrass and chicken cooked with tamarind and garnished with pudina (spearmint). French influence on Vietnamese cuisine has enabled delightful possibilities for the gastronomical tourist.
At the southeastern edge of ancient Vietnam, the region around Saigon, there was a Hindu kingdom of the Champa dynasty, with a Sanskrit name Nagaracampa. I set out in search of the city’s famous Hindu temple dedicated to Goddess Mariamman. It is located in the heart of HCM City, full of cafés and massage parlours, crowded markets and modern high-rise buildings. Built in the 19th century by Chettiar settlers, this temple also has images of Vinayaka and Saraswati. It’s time for the evening arati. A pujari is ringing the bell as I step in.
Sanjaya Baru is a political commentator and policy analyst and author of, among other titles, 1991: How P.V. Narasimha Rao Made History and The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh