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APRIL 24, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 16


Illustration for TIME by Junko Uchino

An Intriguing Mix of Past and Present

With more than half of its residents under 25 years of age, Ho Chi Minh City is one of Vietnam's most youthful cities. Yet it's still making a career largely from its past. The tropical capital's greatest landmarks and its basic urban layout owe much to the 86 years of French rule. There are grand hotels (many recently refurbished), a baroque post office, the famous Opera House in the heart of the city, as well as numerous gothic churches, including Notre Dame Cathedral at the top of stylish Rue Catinat (now known as Dong Khoai, or Uprising Street). These are the remnants of the "Paris of the Orient" that the French and allied Vietnamese enjoyed in the colonial era.

But if reliving a lost era is the aim of many French tourists--who have been coming to the former Saigon for years--most first-time visitors to hcmc prefer to delve into the more recent American chapter of the city's history. Now that the former U.S. Embassy has been replaced by a new consulate, most of this story is contained in museums.

An Intriguing Mix of Past and Present
With more than half of its residents under 25 years of age, Ho Chi Minh City is one of Vietnam's most youthful cities. Yet it's still making a career largely from its past.

Looking for a value-for-money meal in Ho Chi Minh City?

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The most visited of these is the U.S. War Crimes Museum, housed in the former office of the United States Information Service. In the interests of bilateral relations, it is now called the War Remnants Museum. But despite the name change, the message of the place is blunt--and bound to set American visitors on a moral obstacle course. The gallery of horrific pictures, which has grown over the years, rams home the Manichean belief that the U.S. and their Vietnamese puppets were the unequivocal bad guys in opposing the communists' righteous struggle, without a hint that the conflict was also a civil war. A new room denounces recent efforts by overseas Vietnamese groups to sabotage communist rule and seems to suggest that Washington has not abandoned efforts to reverse the country's liberation. The exhibits exhort patriotic citizens to eternal vigilance.

Similarly didactic messages are echoed in the Revolutionary Museum. Once the home of former President Ngo Dinh Diem's brother--who served as his intelligence chief--and his widely reviled wife Madame Nhu, the grounds are packed with military hardware.

But what makes hcmc so engaging is that much of real life takes place in the streets, unavoidable even for the most determined museum-goers. Most of the city center is ideally explored by walking, especially if you are popping in and out of the handicraft and art boutiques that line Dong Khoi or Nguyen Hue Street, or around the gingerbread City Hall. For longer trips--for instance, between museums and Antique Street, where you are advised not to underestimate Vietnamese skill at forgery--the foot-pedaled cyclo is the way to go. Snuggled in antiquated comfort, you can move about at a leisurely pace that allows you to take in the vibrant city. School girls wearing blindingly white ao dais glide past on bicycles like graceful swans. The rest of the traffic is pure cacaphony--the noise of a population of 5 million that is expected to double in another decade.

When you grow weary of the chaos, stop by the Rex Hotel's famous rooftop bar for a cocktail or, for a better view, visit the breezy lounge atop the newly rebuilt Caravelle Hotel. There are scores of reasonably priced restaurants serving Vietnamese or international cuisine, but for a taste of old Saigon, try the bistros on Ngo Duc Ke, Givral on Dong Khoi, or Camargue in a restored French villa on Thi Sach. During the war, diners at the Club Nautique could sip wine and watch firefights across the Saigon River. These days, the view is less pyrotechnic, but still worth the trip.

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