Monday, August 22, 2005

After Saigon

I spent a few days in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) with my sister. What an incredible place it is: still relatively unspoiled and uncommercialised, as McDonalds and Starbucks are banned, but buildings are springing up everywhere as investment pours in (Vietnam was one of the world's fastest growing economies last year) and everywhere you look tall, extraordinarily narrow houses and shops are being constructed.

Little boys pull at your sleeve, selling flowers or postcards or chewing gum, some followed by shadowy Mr Big figures who obviously scoop up their takings. We knew to avoid giving them money, but we gave two little boys some Chupa Chups lollies and they sat by the roadside enjoying them and waving happily to us. After that, like the do-gooders we are, we bought some notepads and pens to hand out, but then no one followed us and we only managed to give away one, along with a Mars bar and some little sweets from the hotel, to a little boy of about 11 in a dirty blue sweatshirt, shorts and bare feet, who seemed non-plussed by our gift. Later I found out that their "minders" will sell anything the little kids are given, so perhaps he was wondering how to hide his haul from the Fagin character who was with him when we met him, but whom I was hoping we managed to lose in the street.

The day starts extremely early as 5 am, even on a Sunday, with honking horns and the ferry across the Saigon river - just outside our hotel window - endlessly shuttling streams of people on scooters back and forth.

People are friendly but tourists are routinely ripped off - we are fair game. You pay in US$ or the Vietnamese currency, the dong (current exchange rate 30,000 to the £) - if you pay in US$ the price seems to be vastly more than the equivalent in dong (think of a number, double it). There is little or no order on the roads and everyone piles along at top speed, families of four perched on one scooter, children and all, the women with incongruously elegant elbow length satin gloves, swathed in scarves and hats like the mujahideen. There are new colours and sounds and smells everywhere. Women sell food from huge glass containers perched precariously on the back of their bicycles like a mobile cakeshop. It is exhilarating.

We visited the War Remnants Museum - which used to be called, bluntly, the museum of American War Crimes - where the reality of war is clear. Hard to say much about this without sounding trite. It was hot and I sat on the steps next to an old US helicopter - a Huey - unable to look at any more photos of torture and mutilation. I couldn't help thinking of George Santayana's aphorism: "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it".

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