Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Visiting Saigon

HO CHI MINH CITY -- What to call Vietnam's former southern capital is a question.

After military forces from then-North Vietnam conquered the Republic of Vietnam in 1975, Saigon's name was changed officially to Ho Chi Minh City, in honor of the north's revolutionary leader.

Thirty-five years later many vestiges of Saigon remain. The airport locator remains SGN. You hear "Saigon" in conversation. The residents are known as "Saigonese."

Yet, street addresses are given as Ho Chi Minh City or are abbreviated as HCM City.

So, what is the proper reference? The distinction is in whether you are making a verbal or written reference. If you say it, "Saigon" is appropriate; if you write it, it's "Ho Chi Minh City."

Many parts of Saigon would be familiar to American GIs who served in Vietnam during the war. Some have been remodeled.

The Opera House, which housed the National Assembly when Saigon was capital of South Vietnam, has been refurbished. The nearby Caravelle Hotel, too, has gone through a major renovation. The Continental Palace Hotel, where many journalists stayed while covering the Vietnam War, has a remodeled look. The open veranda of the first-floor restaurant has been enclosed and now houses a fine, French restaurant.

The throngs of motorcycles and motorbikes remain, except there are even more now. During rush hour, the stream of motorbikes seems never-ending. The 2-wheelers own the far right side of the curb lane, while 4-wheeled traffic owns the rest of the lane, plus what can be squeezed from the oncoming lane.

When confronted with a red light at an intersection, the 2-wheelers keep moving until traffic given the green light is within a half-meter of their taillights. Two-wheelers turning right seem to be free of all constraints. You soon learn the most dangerous place to be crossing a street is at an intersection.

Four-wheel vehicles making a turn must nudge their way through the 2-wheel traffic.

The key to driving in urban areas of Vietnam was summed up by a Vietnamese friend as, "You have to keep moving." Another rule seems to be: Always look straight ahead and never look back.

Restaurants are abundant and many are excellent. Each time I return to Vietnam I find a new dish I like. This trip is no different. Two favorites this trip are fish cooked with red chiles in a clay pot and a shrimp paste spread on a piece of wood and roasted.

At lunch on Tuesday, we shared a table with a man and 2 women from Pleiku, in the Highlands, on a visit to Saigon. They added to the enjoyment of the meal.

After lunch, we boarded our van and headed north to Cu Chi, site of the Viet Cong's 250-kilometer tunnel complex.

Location:HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam

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