There are certain phrases that you are banned from using as a travel writer. “A city of contrasts” is one of them. It’s just been used too many times.
So I’m not going to use it to describe Ho Chi Minh. I’m not.
Instead I will say that Ho Chi Minh is a city riddled with contradictions and inconsistencies. It’s a hard place to get your head around, and even though I was there for seven nights I feel like I only grazed the surface.
Vietnam is a single-party communist state. The North won the war. The South, or rather capitalist America, lost. Yet since the late 1980s Vietnam has operated as a market economy, and in 2006 it joined the World Trade Organisation and became part of the globalised capitalist financial market. If there is a sharper image of this than the People’s Committee Building and a newly erected statue of Ho Chi Minh raising his arm in an aggressive salute, flanked by buildings containing Western designer shops such as Chanel and Cartier – the very pinnacle of capitalism – then I’m not aware of it. Propaganda posters, bright red and cartoonish, are plastered on rough brick walls above which back-lit screens flash familiar logos – Canon, Pepsi, Apple. Capitalism is what’s propelling Vietnam forward today, yet it was the devastating war that was fought for the communist ideology that necessitated it. In 1975, despite being a land of paddy fields, Vietnam was having to import rice, production was so low. There were ten million refugees, three million unemployed and one million war-widows. The country was devastated. It was only by playing nice to their ex-enemy and the country they had supposedly ‘beaten’ in the war so that America would trade with them again, that Vietnam was able to get back on its feet.
Yet while the economy is indeed growing it is a case of the rich getting even bloody richer, and the poor, well staying poor.The gap between both is far wider than any other country I have visited on this trip (although perhaps on a par with India), and the super-rich of Vietnam live almost exclusively in Ho Chi Minh. They are all pretty much self-made, either from investing early on in the market economy, benefiting from a boom of some 2000 percent in property prices over the course of a few years, or from importing foreign goods. Mercedes and Bentleys roam the shabby streets, and, as they are taxed almost 300% by the government, owning one is an indicator of even bigger wealth than it would be in say Europe or the US. Currency restrictions mean that these million, millionaires cannot take their dong outside of the country so are forced to spend it internally, often buying property they have no intention of living in, or even renting out. There is the beginnings of a middle class in Ho Chi Minh, yet its growth is slow and the gap continues to widen.
It’s still not a city of contrasts though.
The government is actively trying to encourage Western tourism (having recently been hit by a decline in Chinese and Russian visitors), as demonstrated by their recent offer of free two week visas to EU residents. It’s a country with a rich and fascinating heritage and landscape, yet one that is remarkably cavalier about its protection. The Fine Arts Museum houses some incredible pieces of combat art and stunning abstract paintings, yet they’re hung in rooms with open windows, no air-conditioning, and dusty building works taking place right next door (and are very poorly curated). The charming French colonialist buildings that add so much character to parts of the city are being torn down to make way for shiny new flats; no building protection society currently exists in Vietnam.
It’s a city that is stuttering, as opposed to flowing, forward. A half finished tower block sits abandoned in a prime spot right on the river. The company responsible for it ran out of money and was not able to attract investors, and it has now been left open to the elements for so long that the concrete has deteriorated and the whole thing will have to be pulled down. There is a young, educated, passionate generation champing at the bit to bring their country forward, and there is a real sense of frustration at the deeply embedded corruption which currently has the country in heavy iron shackles.
It’s also a city whose past is very much present. There is something brutal about it, something still very raw about the things it has been through and born witness to. You can’t be in Ho Chi Minh and be unaware of, what they call, the American war. I remember quoting Louis de Bernières’ Captain Corelli’s Mandolin in my History GCSE, “History is the propaganda of the victors” and I thought of it again when walking around The War Remnants Museum. America usually wins wars so it’s rare for us to hear the stories of their victims, yet photo after horrific photo did just that. I felt bile rising up my throat as I took the first few in (it was the only museum I visited in the city with decent explanations next to each exhibit), and physically nauseous after just a few minutes. The photos of Agent Orange victims were particularly disturbing: bulbous faces, disfigured limbs, crinkled paper-like skin. Only S-21 in Phnom Penh has ever had such a powerful affect on me; humans treating other humans with such cruelty is just the most horrific thing. I was very aware that it was a one-sided telling of a complex narrative, yet it makes it even harder to understand the country’s current consumption of Western culture and goods. Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC all have multiple outlets in Ho Ch Minh, and some young people told me that they like eating at them because it shows that they are wealthy and modern. How can they fetishise American food and brands, when just a generation ago it was the country responsible for the people in these photos? I’m not sure if its forgiveness or forgetfulness, or just a demonstration of how quickly the world moves on.
Vietnam is a fascinating country, and Ho Chi Minh a tough but immersive gateway into it. I’m sure that as I continue northwards the contradictions will continue to present themselves, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever get my head around them all. But I’m going to keep trying.
(And, shhhhh, don’t tell anyone, but Ho Chi Minh IS a city of contrasts).