Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, is named after the North Vietnamese leader who led Vietnam’s independence movement from the French.
I was lucky enough to visit Ho Chi Minh for four days last summer while conducting some research on the footwear industry, and was even luckier to get the chance to explore a little bit of this Pearl of the Far East.
The lucky part of the visit happened as I was unable to secure a visit visa to China (talk about Pak-China friendship) and so decided to take a detour to Vietnam. The first thing I noticed upon landing in the city was the sheer number of scooters and motorcycles. If you think Karachi or Lahore has a large population of scooters, you would be in utter shock in Ho Chi Minh. They plague the streets like mosquitos and flies over a desi naala, driven by men, women, teenagers, senior citizens, pretty much everyone and anyone who could not afford a car and needed to get around on one of these two-wheeled vehicles. It was honestly overwhelming. Crossing the street was a game of cat and mouse, where I felt like a lowly mouse trying to navigate a forest of cats. My only regret is that I didn’t do a motorcycle tour of the city myself.
The next thing I noticed was the French-ness of the architecture. It was like being in Paris, but not really, if you catch my drift. Regardless, just like anywhere else in the former Third World, elements of colonial rule could be spotted all over the place, from the buildings to the food. One of my favourite things about the place were Banh Mi sandwiches, which consisted of various assortments of meats, veggies and eggs (depending on your preferences), stuffed in a French baguette. Delicious. These sandwiches can be bought for as little as a hundred rupees, or twenty-thousand Vietnamese dong. You read that right. As a local there told me, everyone in Vietnam is a millionaire.
Ho Chi Minh, and pretty much most of Vietnam, was ravaged by the US in the Vietnam War during the 1960s and early 1970s. The US deployed hundreds of thousands of troops to ‘liberate’ the people of Vietnam from Communism, and supplemented that with a massive bombing campaign of napalm, chemical weapons, and good old-fashioned TNT. I didn’t realise the extent of the damage, especially human suffering, until I visited the War Remnants Museum, just a few blocks from the Independence Palace.
It was one of the most powerful experiences imaginable, with detailed physical remnants, images and accounts of just how much destruction was caused, and how high the human cost was. I came out of it sombre, but also perplexed about the modern-day Vietnam’s push towards an export-driven economy and friendly relations with the US. When I asked a local about this, she said something profound: “In Vietnam, we don’t think about the past, only the future, and how we can become a better and stronger country.” That’s forgiveness and industriousness.
The country’s infrastructure has surpassed places like Pakistan and India, with a manufacturing industry that is slowly but surely lifting the country’s war-ravaged and impoverished country out of poverty and into industrial status.
I also visited the Cu Chi Tunnels, about an hour or so outside the city. These are a vast network of tunnels that were dug into the forest, where the Vietnamese fighters hid for days and weeks and even months, living, breathing, cooking, playing, studying, procreating — and surviving. Imagine being in a dark hole no more than three or four feet deep, for months, as the ground above you shakes every few minutes as another bomb is dropped overhead.
During this tour, I also ran into an alumnus of my college, an American guy, who happened to be backpacking through the country for a month with his German girlfriend, after having spent a few months doing the same in New Zealand. This brings me to another major element I noticed in Vietnam — backpackers.
Just like scooters, the country was crawling with youths from the UK, Western Europe, the US and Australia, who were all there to explore and find themselves for a few weeks before getting back to the real world. They all wore the backpacker uniform. One head of long messy hair, often tied back with a hair-tie. One pair of polarised sunglasses hanging from the neck. One t-shirt, usually without sleeves, or so worn-out that one might as well rip off the sleeves. One pair of cargo shorts. One pair of sandals. Two to twelve wristbands hanging from either wrist, and even around the ankles. And one backpack, usually named after some obscure mountain trail, consisting of a camera, chargers, diarrhea pills, a change of clothes (I hope), and a random assortment of items required by today’s millennials. Most of them would spend a few days in Ho Chi Minh before heading off to the Mekong delta, where they would fight humidity, malaria, and nature, to soak in some of the country’s awesome natural beauty.
Some of these backpackers, particularly British males, had ‘moved’ to Vietnam for months. This made me notice the seedy side of the city. At least that is how I perceived it. I noticed that everywhere I went, I saw a British man, between the ages of eighteen and sixty, with a Vietnamese ‘girlfriend’, between the ages of twenty and thirty. Something about it did not feel right.
To settle this uneasiness, I chose to visit the Jade Emperor Pagoda for some spiritual cleansing. I got there on a rainy day (it rained every day in Ho Chi Minh, at the same time, with the same velocity, like clockwork), soaked and frustrated. However, when I entered the temple, I had stepped into a peaceful haven. The temple had statues of dozens of deities scattered all over the place, and was full of worshippers standing there silently in front of the statues, offering prayers and devotion to various representations of their higher power. Some of them also waved incense candles as they prayed, adding a mystical vibe to the whole experience.
I hung around there for a while, found some peace and appreciation for Ho Chi Minh, and then left for the airport to head home to Karachi.