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     Volume 7 Issue 40 | October 10, 2008 |

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Vietnam On Fast Forward

Syed Zain Al-mahmood

The waitress set down the cup of coffee and said, “That will be fifty thousand dollars.”

I snapped out of my reverie and gasped. “…huh?”

“Fifty thousand, please!.” The girl repeated patiently but firmly.

Saigon elegantly combines the modern with the traditional

I had the uncomfortable feeling that here was a waitress who was definitely under the influence. Then I remembered. I was in Vietnam, and my friendly waitress was talking in dongs, the local currency not US dollars!

“Can I pay in dollars?” I asked.
“Sure,” came the answer. “Three dollars.”
I handed over the greenbacks and smiled to myself. In Vietnam, how easy it must be to become a millionaire!

The incomparable George Bernard Shaw once said, “I dislike feeling at home when I am abroad”. In Ho Chi Minh City (many locals still call it Saigon) I was in no danger of feeling at home! If forking out millions for a taxi ride wasn't strange enough, there was plenty of exotica to put the most hardened traveller on sensory overload!

Vietnam is a study in contrasts. From the plane I could see the lush green mountains, winding rivers and the geometric shapes of the rice fields. I could imagine the rice farmers in their conical hats bending double to plant the seedlings. After I landed at Tan Son Nhat airport, the picture of idyllic beauty quickly gave way to the sights and sounds of a busy metropolis. Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam's economic and cultural hub. With its teeming streets, colourful shops, and vibrant nightlife, Ho Chi Minh City gives the impression of a city rushing to make up for lost time. But look beyond the hustle and bustle, and the signs of a rich heritage are there in plain view. Vietnam's charm lies in the fact that it blends the contrasting images nicely. Unlike Dhaka where the modern seems to rise by ruining the traditional, Vietnam's largest city mixes the old and the new into a seductive cocktail.

The organisers of the conference I had come to attend hadn't arranged lodging for us. Left to fend for myself, I had decided to be adventurous. I would stay for two days in strictly budget accommodation in true backpacker style. My final two days would be spent wallowing in sinful 5-star luxury at the Hotel Caravelle. In between, I would dash up north for a date with Hanoi, Vietnam's capital -- the Grand Old Dame of Indochina.

The conference turned out to be a bore. The keynote paper had everyone nodding off. In the post-lunch session, I sneaked out and made a break for the wide open spaces.

Students offer prayers at the Confucian Temple of Literature

One of the very first things that you notice on the streets of Saigon is the huge number of motorcycles a veritable tsunami of two-wheelers. They dart about like criss-crossing shoals of fish, steering and swerving to avoid each other and pedestrians. Many of the riders are female. The motorcycles are to Vietnam what the horse was to the Wild West. I saw people using motorbikes to do all sorts of things, from carrying sacks of rice to transporting the entire family-- dad in front, mom at the back, and toddlers sandwiched in between!

Crossing the street seems like a death wish in Saigon. But after a few tries, you understand that it's a kind of organised madness! It requires a leap of faith, but the trick is to wade in and walk slowly but steadily. No sudden starts or stops, and the tide of motorbikes will weave merrily around you!

After a couple of close calls, I made it safely to the Ben Thanh market area where my new Vietnamese friend Nguyen was waiting. We had only met the day before at my hotel, but I had exercised my considerable charm, and now we were fast friends. Nguyen was going to show me around Ho Chi Minh City. There's nothing like local knowledge. We took a taxi, and headed downtown. Nguyen was apologetic about the heavy traffic. Little did he know that after Dhaka this was like a stroll in the park!

To most of us in the outside world, the name Vietnam stands for war. Indeed, relics of war are scattered about the city as a grim reminder of what the Vietnamese people went through. Before the Americans, there were the Chinese and the French. The Vietnamese are a nation who fought off three super powers and I had half expected them to be a dour, resentful and warlike lot. Far from it. The Vietnamese people are remarkably friendly, and they're embracing the future with infectious enthusiasm. “My dad fought the Americans,” says Nguyen. “But now we're doing business with the Americans. America is our largest trade partner”

This breathtaking pragmatism is one of the reasons Vietnam has come so far so quickly. Although officially socialist, it has adopted a free market approach with gusto, and for the past decade the country has boasted one of the highest growth rates in the world. Foreign investment is flowing. Many Vietnamese worry that the new boom in commerce might erode their social values and threaten their cultural heritage. But for now, at least, they have got the balancing act just right.

American army issue Zippo lighters

First stop Notre Dame Cathedral near Dong Khoi. The red-brick neo-romanesque structure with its twin spires dominates the skyline. It was built in 1877 using bricks from Marseilles and stained glass from Chartres. Across the square from the cathedral is the beautiful Saigon Post Office with its distinct French architecture.

The Giac lam Pagoda in district 10 is the oldest Pagoda in Saigon. Built in 1877, the pagoda is interesting for its elaborate wall tapestry and gilded statues. A monk showed us around, and then asked for a “fee” for special prayers. I was reminded of a khadim asking for a donation to his mazaar. Same story, different setting.

Tucked away in the centre of busy Saigon is the Mosque Jamea. Built by South Indian traders, it seems an oasis of calm. Exploring the compounds, I found an Indian restaurant and had a meal of the most delicious meat and parata!

The Dam Sen theme park failed to impress, but I liked the Reunification Palace. It was the seat of the South Vietnamese presidency and the war was officially ended when it was occupied on 30th April 1975 by North Vietnamese troops. It has largely been left untouched and one gets an eerie sense of history imagining the moment on that fateful day when South Vietnamese leaders waited quietly for opposing forces to come and take control. The tank that smashed through the gate to end the war is still there by the way!

The War Remnants Museum (formerly Museum of War Crimes) is a harrowing chronicle of the effects of armed conflict. It displays brutal instruments of war -- tanks, howitzers, fighter-bombers -- and images of the carnage they inflicted. Most gruesome were photos of people affected by Agent Orange, a chemical exfoliant sprayed by US aircraft. I wonder if we will have a museum like this in Baghdad any time soon? Perhaps they will turn Abu Gharib into a memorial?

I am a souvenir hunter. I love to hunt for bric-a-brac that represents a locality, something unusual that your friends back home cannot buy from Aarong. An interesting souvenir available at the War Remnants Museum is the basic but rugged Zippo lighter used by American soldiers during the Vietnam war. It's estimated that 3 million Americans passed through Vietnam during the course of war, and almost everyone had a Zippo. “Hundreds of thousands were left behind,” says the man behind the counter of the shop. “We take the brass shell, and install a new lighting mechanism.”

I asked Nguyen if divisions caused by the war still exit? North versus South, East versus West? Nguyen's answer was typically pragmatic. “It does no good to harbour resentment and stoke anger. We are united as a people. The war is over. We have moved on.”

After Reunification, there were no witch hunts and no vendetta. The Vietnamese understand that divisions must be smoothed over for the common good and a common future. This is their greatest strength, and a lesson for the rest of us.

Nguyen took me to dinner, and I was presented with my first Pho opportunity. Pho is Vietnamese noodle soup. You eat it with chop sticks. Having lived in Japan, I thought I could handle chop sticks. But Pho requires special technique. I twirled the noodle around my stick, but just as I was about to pop it into my mouth, the blasted thing would fall into the bowl with a plop! Nguyen almost died laughing.

I said goodbye to Nguyen and headed for my hotel. Next stop: Hanoi.

The beautiful Mosque Jamea is an oasis tucked away within bustling Ho Chi Minh City

If Saigon assails the senses, Hanoi caresses them. With its leafy boulevards and Art Deco buildings, Hanoi has a quieter, more old world charm. I put up at the Golden Lotus hotel, and am met by Minh Kanh, Ly and Ngoc, all three are young women in their early twenties and executives for local companies dealing in furniture and handicrafts. Vietnam used to be a matriarchal society and women are doing very well in corporate life.

Minh Kanh is going to take me north of Hanoi to the industrial park. We exit the hotel, and there stands her motorbike. Minh Kanh notices my hesitation and laughs. “Hop on,” she says. “In Vietnam we call this Xe Om literally the motorcycle hug.”

The industrial parks features huge garments, shoe and electronics factories. Vietnam is one of Bangladesh's most fierce competitors when it comes to RMG. The factories are beautifully laid out and many new ones are springing up. Minh Kanh takes me to see her silk manufacturing unit. Hanoi is famous for its silk and there is a dazzling array of designs.

Back in town and its Ly's turn to take me to a meeting at the handicrafts factory where she works. After an interesting tour, we head out to see the sights. More Xe Om. Ly expertly pilots us to Van Mieu, the 1000 year old Temple of Literature. Dedicated to Confucius, Van Mieu is a temple and university rolled into one. “We always prayed here before our exams,” Ngoc tells me. Like Saigon, Hanoi is full of pagodas and cathedrals.

We go to see Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex where Ho Chi Minh's embalmed body is kept. “Uncle Ho” would have been proud to see the economic strides the country is making.

Vietnam honours its glorious past, but has sights set firmly on the future. A 15-year war left it scarred. Now the Vietnamese people are making up for lost time. From its busy industrial parks to its bustling street scene, unmistakable signs of progress are everywhere. Vietnam is a nation hurrying towards tomorrow.


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