MY EXPERIENCES: Saigon Expectations

From my research trip in late 2006… 

Vietnam has never had more foreign tourists running about than now, and the tourism department expects more than two million to come this year — a sizeable increase from last year’s already high numbers. I see lots — looking out tour bus windows, browsing at lacquerware shops on Dong Khoi Street, hanging out open-front travelers cafes in the backpacker area, waving off requests from Honda taxi offers. Some foreigners are here on business too.

At breakfast today a gray-haired French sailor showed me the plans of an 18th-century French three-sail ship he was hoping to build ‘as a junk’ here. Ambitious idea. He was frustrated by one ship-making company’s ‘lack of organization…’ He complained, ‘No one is serious here.’ Nothing could be further from the truth of course. He didn’t have the plans of the boat he wanted to build and apparently expected local engineers to merge one plan with his vision of a Hong Kong-like junk that could reasonably go out on the open sea. I suggested he find a better person to help him than the guesthouse receptionist, like a local travel agent owner who has years of experience with Vietnamese authorities and foreigners’ whims. Yesterday a Texan and his wife started complaining to me in a hotel lobby about their dealings with traditional crafts’ companies they hoped to import goods from. ‘We’ve been working in Latin America for years, no problem… But this is different here.’ Apparently the shops cite high labor costs or high material costs for their high costs. Instead of negotiating, or allowing time and dinners to ease prices down, Tex barked, ‘If you’re really paying three times the average working wage, you’ll be out of business in no time.’ And walked out. That showed ‘em. It still surprises me to find reasonable people that are shocked how ‘things are different’ half way across the world.

Some people come expecting to see the war, and save for Saigon’s top attraction — Reunification Palace — and a few museum exhibits, there’s little to remind you of any war on Saigon’s hectic streets. Yesterday I visited the palace, which was originally a French palace built in the late 1800s, and refashioned as ‘Independence Palace’ for the South Vietnamese government. It was here that VC tanks knocked down the gates and flew the North Vietnamese flag in 1975. Surprisingly, the government has never changed the very-1960s interiors. Guides in traditional dress lead you through on an hour-long tour past the former South Vietnamese presidents’ desk and reception area, as well as military radio equipment from the bomb-shelter basement. You can forgive the tired jokes for all the insight. I liked that the government’s palace had no doors — the downstairs is completely open, with only pillars keeping out the lizards.

Recently that so-called 1000 Places to See Before You Die book included Saigon’s wildly overrated Rex Hotel rooftop bar in its to-do list. The hotel was famous during the Vietnam War as the setting for press-room reports that became known as the ‘5 o’clock follies’ for their smudging of the reality of the battlefront. Ten years ago it was a campy place, with birds in cages, lots of stuffed animals and plants — and one of the center’s best views. Now much of the goofiness is gone, and my visit — just before sunrise — saw the deck empty but for two German ladies with ‘is this it?’ expressions. It’s an achievement to put 1000 sites in a book, but sometimes you need to re-visit places to see what’s changed — the stuff guidebook authors do. (For instance, there’s better though less historic table-side views from ‘Vietnam’s Starbucks’ — Highlands Coffee — across Le Loi Street from the Rex, and Vietnam’s Trung Nguyen coffee serves beans supposedly passed through the digestive tract of weasels — the No 8. Go crazy)