24, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 16
GUIDE: HO CHI MINH CITY
for TIME by Junko Uchino
Intriguing Mix of Past and Present
By KEN STIER
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.
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Now that the former U.S. Embassy has been replaced by a new consulate,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.
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.
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?
There are many roads to sainthood, and not all of them lead through
the Catholic Church.
More than just a phone number
If you're seeking the offbeat side of Vietnam this is the site for
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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