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Journal of America Team:

 Editor in chief: 
Abdus Sattar Ghazali

 Managing Editor:
Mertze Dahlin   

Senior Editor:
Arthur Scott

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       Ho Chi Minh City Or is it still Saigon, Vietnam

By Mertze Dahlin

Saigon sounds like a far away place and I suppose it is until you get there. As recommended, the best time to arrive is at the beginning of the year, the New Year known as TET in Vietnam. It is nice to be treated as a returning member of the family by whoever meets you. The streets look okay to ride on since you drive on the right side, just like back home, and there are lane markers along the street. A lot of the downtown buildings look like those from any place else you went before. On the corner is a sign advertising KFC and later on you can see McDonalds and a lot of good looking clothing stores. Only thing is, I can’t figure out what is said about the merchandise. It’s all French looking spelling but it’s not French. It turns out that France provided the alphabet for the Vietnamese to use and at one time, the language. Every kind of business that you can think of is displayed all along the sidewalks. There are entrepreneurs of every kind plying their business. Some are located in very small store fronts and extend onto the sidewalk. Others move about in wagons as their portable business or simply have food for sale.    

Venturesome people are everywhere and the following is only my personal interpretation: Those who wish to cross the street simply proceed and do so. The successful procedure is to be unrelenting in your movement. Walk almost as though there is no traffic, especially no motorcycles, which in actuality, number in the hundreds wherever you wish to cross the street. In theory, the motorcyclist computes where you will be when he gets close to you, and he or she makes the appropriate veer to the left or right. You are not expected to stop in the middle and wait for a safe time to continue. That action does not compute, and you may become a statistic.

To operate a motorcycle, you simple merge with everyone else and drive around any obstacles in front of you. Don’t let anyone squeeze you aside. Any space in front of you can easily open to fit you through, you simply aim for it and go.    

Sometimes you get the luxury of riding in a car, usually a taxicab. They manage to get through the platoon of motorcycles rather easily by sounding their horn every few seconds, and let nobody get in front of them. Courtesy is a failing procedure. If you are polite and wait for the other person to move where he wants to, you will not arrive at your destination today.

By all means, if you don’t have a motorcycle, take the bus. They have a unique resounding horn which moves anything in front of it. There is probably an intimidation factor involved because there are few who wish to tangle with a bus.

Transportation by local bus is phenomenal in Saigon. One passes you by every few minutes. It takes only a short while to realize that you should “hail” the bus. Stand out in the road a bit and wave your arms at the driver. This gives him time to maneuver through the flow of motorcycles to reach you. If you are Vietnamese, you simple hop onto the bus as it slows down. If you show signs of elderliness, such as grey hair or you are obviously not from Vietnam, the bus will stop and wait for you to get on. In my case, the ticket seller on the bus reaches out to help pull me in. If all the seats are taken, several people will get up and offer me their seat. On the other hand, if you need to take a bus going in the other direction, I would recommend hiring a taxi to get to the other side of the road.

Once you find out how to get around, it’s time to go someplace. You need to overcome the feeling of safety which surrounds you when you are at home in your hotel or at a family home. It is too confining. It’s easy to turn on the television and watch some entertainment program, which every channel seems to have. You are hard pressed to find a news channel. If you do, it is likely to be from Germany or Russia but be patient. Once in a while, you can find BBC, the Asian version. Still, to go someplace, you want someone else to do the driving and that’s where the travel agencies come to your rescue. Some hotels have their own agency but they are higher priced, considering that you are a visitor from another country and are likely well to do, and price is no object. The locals and the experienced traveler have found “Sinh”, an agency that has many destinations and all at a reasonable price.

Interesting tours include a couple day boat ride into the Mekong Delta where you can experience life in the river communities as it has been for hundreds of years, or you can follow the seashore heading north. Since Vietnam has a lot of ocean border, and have several destinations along the way, they all remind you of a trip to Hawaii. The palm trees are in abundance, hotels have a good view of the ocean, which to me matters very little since I don’t expect to spend my time in the hotel looking out the window. There are plenty of good places to eat and of course the menu is primarily sea food served in several courses so you can enjoy a different flavor at each serving. While on tour with “Sinh”, you don’t need to worry about paying for the meal, since they made the reservations and have taken care of all the incidental expenses when you booked the tour. They take care of everything. Even if you travel on your own, the difference between this coast trip and Hawaii is the cost. Think in terms of one quarter the amount or less.

When talking with other visitors to Vietnam, I discovered that English was not their primary language, although most could speak English. It turns out that people come from many parts of the world. They are from many European countries as well as Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and several other Asian countries; yet only a tiny minority from the United States. I’m recalling a couple from Sweden who have a fishing vacation resort that is very busy in the summer. This being winter, is the time they like to vacation in Vietnam. I also spoke with a woman from France. She laments the fact that her language is not as useful as it used to be years ago anywhere in the world. Now she must resort to English. In Vietnam, only the elderly people may recall how to speak French since many years ago Vietnam was a territory of France, a part of French Indo-China and French was the spoken language.

Life is busy in the cities such as Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon but still referred to as such. Everybody seems to have a job. They go to their offices during the day, merchants have their wares for sale and innumerable vendors have a variety of fruit and vegetables for sale. Major construction is going on throughout the countryside. Locally there are new high-rise buildings in progress. Along the highways, the roads are being resurfaced, new bridges are being built across the many rivers and streams and all able-bodied men are employed. At night, the highways are filled with trucks laden with steel rebar for reinforcement support in concrete structures, trucks full of bricks for building construction and many others, not easily recognizable by me.

There is no welfare system in Vietnam that I am aware of, so therefore the unskilled and otherwise unable to work people are living on the streets. They should not be ignored since you are the only source of income for them. This is a recognized form of employment and the people are aware of it. Just be prepared to have money to provide to them. At times, we can see some severely handicapped person, usually around thirty years of age who may be the children of parents who were affected by the defoliant “Agent Orange” which was spread by the U.S. forces during the “Vietnam war”. These are the crippled offspring trying to get around although they may have no legs, or arms which are terminated at the elbow or even hands at the shoulder without the benefit of arms. These are the stark reminders of the “American” war, as it is referred to in Vietnam. 

 The average person on the street has little recollection of the war because they are all too young. They need to be well over forty years old to recall the war. The older person just wants to forget about it because it was a very bad time of his life. Those who were adults at the time of the war, and were still alive afterwards, had to spend a few years in a communist re-education camp in Hanoi to learn how to live in this new communist country. The persons who would now be elderly are few and far between. They are the few who survived the war. The women who took temporary employment with the American army facilities such as simple office work, copy room activities or even in the kitchen or medical facilities perceived themselves to be at great risk for their lives at the hands of the Viet Cong who came from the north when America left Vietnam. They were somehow declared to be collaborators with the enemy and so to ensure the Viet Cong would not learn of this, they had to burn all evidence of employment at the U.S. Army bases and for their survival, they had to secretly leave the country.

 This was one of the reasons for the well known “boat people”. They had to find some innocent looking fishing boat to get away and head for another country. The boat owner found it to be a lucrative business for him. Nobody had cash, but there always were gold rings and bracelets or even gold money or precious stones. Paper money had very questionable value at the time. That meant that whatever jewelry the family had, went to the boat operator or owner. It was still only a matter of luck if the boat successfully made it out to the sea. Even the boat operator could simply decide to drop his passengers at any remote place and just leave them there stranded.

The exit technique usually involved contracting this small fishing boat and hiding in the bottom with three or four other people until night time when they could sail farther out to sea in order to meet a somewhat larger boat suitable for going on the ocean. This required several attempts because the Viet Cong were always looking for such activities.

On one typical excursion, after meeting the larger boat, it was early evening about 6 PM. There were too many people on the boat, 118 people, but somehow they managed even though they seemed to be lost in the ocean since any land was far beyond the horizon and the waves were immense. They had to sit on the bottom of the boat very close together, no room to lie down and sleep, and the rocking caused many to become sick. When morning arrived they could get up and look around. The sea had calmed down and they could only hope that someone knew where to go. The boat crew provided rations of rice to eat cooked by some of the men. It was served in makeshift paper boxes and folded paper was used as a spoon to eat with. The rice was mostly water so it was like rice soup. The passengers lived together on the boat for about four days until they reached Malaysia, which was only an interim stopping place until reaching an Indonesian port which was sanctioned by the UN to provide a refugee camp. At this point, it was the beginning of an entirely new life in a strange country to be endured as long as the UN could provide a meager ration to live on and to wait until conditions improved at home.

It took about seven years before American relations with Vietnam improved, but when it did, the UN enabled many of the refugees to return to Vietnam. In the late 1990s, the UN again got involved with the Vietnamese and offered eligible persons to migrate to America and other countries. Those that remained developed their entrepreneurial talents and created employment for those eager to work while welcoming the new companies arriving from the United States. Rural lands were developed to build new industrial electronic manufacturing and assembly facilities.

To walk in those neighborhoods now in the late afternoon is to witness many groups of young people walking home from their job at Intel for dinner. In a short while, they are investing their money to buy a new motorcycle and become part of the growing middle class suburban people and to enjoy the many faceted luxuries of their country.

Mertze Dahlin is a Member of the Board of Directors of the American Institute of International Studies.