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SAIGON: Observations and predictions

Things I thought about...


I suspect any baby boomer going to Saigon expects to field remarks about the "American War". Don't. Saigon is mainly a young city now, and what interests young Vietnamese about America is... being American. Or at least speaking English and becoming as financially comfortable as Americans (comparatively) are. The few older people I encountered may have cared more about that painful part of their history, but none ever mentioned it.

The one poignant encounter with that era I encountered was a handsome grey-haired man who had kept an air of authority even as he worked pushing a rickshaw, and tried relentlessly to get me to buy a ride in it. "I have a friend in America! I have a friend in America!" he repeated almost indignantly, as if that should demand all my attention. At one point he said he had served in the South Vietnamese army. I had read before I left on one site that such soldiers had been "reeducated", then deprived of their citizenship and forced to work menial jobs. Even as he tried to cajole me into buying an hour's tour, I could feel his anger.

Otherwise, as a fluent French speaker, I was sneakily looking forward to having an "in" by being able to speak what used to be the second language of the country. No more. The only person I met who spoke more French than English was the old keeper of the Taoist temple. The younger people only cared about one language other than their own: English. Which, more often than not, they were delighted to practice.


It was in the rather Americanized Diamond Plaza of all places that I tried a can of very Vietnamese Corn Milk. This is one of those ideas that makes complete sense once you try it. I don't happen to be lactose intolerant, but if I were I'd probably be delighted to find this drink, which tastes remarkably like cow's milk, and is also unexpectedly refreshing. If you've got a Vietnamese market near you, give it a try.

In another shopping center, I had my first can of "Sarsi" soda. This is said to be a kind of sarsparilla (root beer) but it tastes, in a word, like licorice. I'm not wild about anise or licorice drinks like Pernod, Ricard, etc., but carbonated, it's pretty refreshing. And if you're among the hoards of licorice lovers out there, you'll probably love it.

When I went up to the Sheraton's Level 23 bar, it was to see the view. I pretty much had a drink as an obligation. But the second time I went I had a kiwi cooler that was so good I had another. Probably pretty pricey by local standards, but $6 for me, and worth the price.

On the other hand, should you see the rather pretty name of durian on a menu - it's a fruit - you'll probably want to give it a miss. The durian ice cream I had tasted fine - unfortunately, it smelled like a cesspool. Which is apparently how durian is supposed to smell.


I went to Saigon because I expected it to change greatly, and I left feeling that I had been right, that I had arrived just at the upward swing of a rising curve. Without being either a prophet or a pundit, I came away with some expectations of where Saigon would be in a few years, and which I am not shy about sharing. Within five or so years, I expect that:

  • The scattered plazas and mini-marts I encountered will be readily found within blocks of each other
  • As fixed prices become established in such places, bargaining will become less common (though hardly disappear)
  • The dong will become significantly stronger (though interventions to encourage export may drive it down again)
  • Tipping, now sometimes included at 5%, will be common at 10%, and probably 15 in the better places.
  • Several young Vietnamese entrepreneurs will have made names for themselves beyond Vietnam.
  • At least one Vietnamese company will play a major part in its sector worldwide
  • More private cars will replace the ubiquitous motorcycles (with attendant problems, since the city's infrastructure is not in the least prepared for parking so many large vehicles; will parking structures be the result?)
  • McDonald's and Starbucks will make their inevitable appearance.
  • Crosswalks and traffic lights will be more respected than not (though traffic tickets will also be given out fairly often.)
  • Crime will increase (mainly street, but probably some corporate as well)