It was, for years, a prisoner of memory—memories of colonialism, the war, and the failures of the Communist era. Through the final quarter of the 20th century, Ho Chi Minh City was stuck in the past. Then again, so were the rest of us. Travelers came expressly to soak up its history, both distant and recent. That was certainly my motivation when I first visited, in 1997, alongside a scattering of backpackers and curious baby boomers. To us, Saigon then felt like one big After. So we swooned over villas built by the French, inhaled jasmine incense at century-old pagodas, bought U.S. Army dog tags for souvenirs at Dan Sinh Market. (Never mind that the dog tags were fake.) We walked banyan-shrouded streets imagining what it must have been like thirty, eighty, two hundred years ago. And the city indulged us: harkening ever backward in its architecture and iconography, fulfilling its role as our time capsule. Hell, we even still called it Saigon. Everyone who lives here still does.
Flash forward to 2008, and that frustrated town held hostage by history has become a vibrant cosmopolis, caught in the throes of what’s next. So much attention and energy is being put toward an idealized future that it’s increasingly hard to see Saigon in the present tense.
Vietnam’s reawakening began, fitfully, in the mid 1980’s, with a series of market-based reforms known as doi moi (renewal), but only hit its stride in the new millennium, during which the economy has kept up an extraordinary 7.5 percent growth rate. This year it outpaced India, Russia, and China to become the world’s top-ranked emerging retail market. Once among Asia’s poorest nations, Vietnam will soon be a middle-income country. It’s definitely spending like one: high-end boutiques and restaurants no longer cater only to tourists (although tourism is one of the country’s biggest industries) but to trend-conscious, status-hungry Vietnamese. A case of irrational exuberance?Possibly: this year, inflation hit 25 percent, stocks took a tumble, and an overheated real estate market began to cool. Yet despite the alarming signs, a boomtown swagger endures in Vietnam’s financial capital.
Saigon has always been a city of entrepreneurs, hucksters, and short-term profiteers, where shops charge their own customers for parking and seemingly every conversation—whether among checkout girls or Party bureaucrats—revolves around money. (People in Hanoi would have you believe all their café talk is about art and poetry, which isn’t true, but it’s a useful indicator of priorities.) The difference now is the scale of the ambitions. Saigon has been riding a huge wave of foreign investment and frenzied property speculation, and all that lucre is altering the face of the city. With farmers and other country dwellers pouring in for new manufacturing jobs, Saigon’s population has swollen from 6 to 8 million in just eight years. Traffic is certifiably crazy—though the city’s first subway system, scheduled to open in 2014, may provide some relief. Local incomes have risen dramatically (but not as quickly as the price of rice); rents have gone through the roof; and new satellite cities are materializing out of the swamps. Change is marching at a furious pace.
If all this comes as a shock to you, you’re not alone. Americans are largely unaware of how much Vietnam has changed since 1975, focusing instead on our common history. Search the New York Times website for the keyword “Vietnam,” and in an average week about 15 articles pop up. Guess how many make reference only to the war—usually in a comparison with Iraq—and how many are about the country today?Twelve and three, respectively.
In Vietnam, the papers are concerned less with what’s already happened than with what’s yet to come. (A typical front page will have at least one artist’s rendering of some sparkling future skyscraper.) Besides, the current generation sees little use for history—a 2008 poll found that 80 percent of Vietnamese students have no interest in the subject. “Aside from discussing some lyrics by Trinh Cong Son [the 1960’s singer known for his poignant anti-war ballads], I haven’t talked about the war once since moving here,” says Hawkins Pham, a Vietnamese-American who works with Indochina Land, a Saigon-based real estate investment fund. This isn’t surprising: two-thirds of Vietnam’s population was born after 1975. “There’s a sense of exasperation among young Vietnamese when it comes to the war,” says Suzie Meiklejohn, a British expat and magazine editor in Saigon. “They’re sick of hearing about it. For anyone under 30 the attitude is, Let’s move on.”
“Moving on” appears to be Saigon’s mandate. I spent six months here in 1998, which might as well be a century ago. Of my life then, almost nothing remains. A restaurant used to be over there, now it’s a Segway rental shop. Businesses shut down without warning, buildings disappear overnight. Saigon exists in permanent flux. Seldom back then did one encounter an actual car, only motorbikes and jingling bicycles. This spring I saw a canary-yellow Porsche cruising Dong Khoi Street. It could have been a Javanese rhino: What the hell was it doing there?The driver was Vietnamese and looked about 20.
Ah, yes, Dong Khoi Street. If there’s a better—or worse—symbol of Saigon’s transformation, please don’t tell me about it. This slender promenade, running from Notre Dame Cathedral to the river, was known to the French as Rue Catinat. Its dozen sun-dappled blocks used to be lined with modestly scaled buildings, their storefronts open to the sidewalk. Here were the favored haunts of colonial society: Café Brodard, a fixture since 1948, and the Continental, Grand, and Majestic hotels.