Vietnam is in the heart: Back to the future in Ho Chi Minh City

In 1996, I flew to Ho Chi Minh City, which is still more popularly known as Saigon.

Vietnam is in the heart: Back to the future in Ho Chi Minh City
Photo by Tron Le / Unsplash

Vietnam will always have a special place in my heart because it’s the first country I visited. In 1996, I flew to Ho Chi Minh City, which is still more popularly known as Saigon, to cover a Sun Microsystems Asia South symposium for Metropolitan Computer Times. This was during the days when Vietnam was just starting to open its doors to foreign visitors and investors, so needless to say we were all excited and just a bit anxious over the prospect of visiting this communist country.

Vietnam has acquired larger-than-life status, what with all the war movies and the angst of a generation of Americans scarred with the loss of lives and the bitter divisions this spawned in American society. Not to mention coming to grips with the fact that, somehow, this tiny country had kicked the butt of the world’s strongest nation.

War and peace

Photo by jet dela cruz / Unsplash

Our trip to Vietnam was also memorable because we had to overcome many obstacles going to that country and returning to the Philippines. The first was an embassy that became overly suspicious when it found out that so many journalists were going to Vietnam. In not so many words, "What the hell are you really going to do there?" was what they wanted to know.

In fact, we only received our visas the night before our flight. Then, the Philippine Airlines (PAL) employees decided to launch a massive strike on the day of our flight. The PAL strike forced us to delay our flight by a day, and to choose another carrier, Vietnam Airlines.

The following day, after worrying whether we would finally be able to get on our flight and being slightly disturbed by how small the Vietnam Airlines plane was, we were finally on our way to Ho Chi Minh City. Once we arrived, the travel agency representative who met us and helped us load our luggage into the van attested to the patriotism of the Vietnamese. While recounting how the Vietnamese people have tried to put the horrors of war behind them and rebuild their country, he said, proudly but without gloating, "Vietnam beat France. Vietnam beat Japan. Vietnam beat America." Now it was time for them to move on, and enjoy the benefits of peace.

Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in Vietnam is a maddening crush of humanity and humidity. I took this shot crossing the road on a Saturday night when when everyone in the city (especially the young) take the opportunity to get out of the house and cruise the streets.
Photo by Matthew Nolan / Unsplash

That visit to Ho Chi Minh City was the first time I saw traffic jams caused by hordes of motorcycles, some driven by ladies in their ao dai, the traditional Vietnamese female attire that Lea Salonga made familiar to Filipinos everywhere. This was a country with a strong culture, one that was still grappling with modernization but was equally eager to preserve its past.

It was also an eye-opening experience, after all those images of the Viet Cong and wartorn Vietnam, those tales of atrocity, betrayal and regret, to finally be in a country that had existed vividly in my mind for so many years. I knew too that we were lucky, because Vietnam is one country that we will probably not have the opportunity to visit again, unlike Singapore, Hong Kong, or the other usual business or tourist destinations in Asia.

20 years later

Independence Palace (Dinh Độc Lập), also known as Reunification Palace (Vietnamese: Dinh Thống Nhất), built on the site of the former Norodom Palace, is a landmark in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon), Vietnam. It was designed by architect Ngô Viết Thụ and was the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. It was the site of the end of the Vietnam War during the Fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975, when a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through its gates.
Photo by / Unsplash

Although 20 years later, I did manage to visit Ho Chi Minh City again, when I was working for Singapore-based media startup and tech startup ecosystem platform e27 and we held Echelon Vietnam 2016.

I wrote the story "From diaspora to a brighter digital future: Why investors are betting on Vietnam" for e27 during that visit. It's still one of my favorite articles among everything I’ve written so far.

"On a historic day in 1975, the world seemed to be ending for many people, including a young girl who had yet to turn 10.
"After beginning the bombardment of the city’s defenders with heavy artillery the previous day, the North Vietnamese troops were now entering the capital and capturing key positions. The little girl did not know it at the time, but her father was making a daring escape from the capital, after knowing that his family had been evacuated. Throughout his long military and political career, her father had been the head of the country’s air force, then its Prime Minister, and finally Vice President.
"With Thailand out of range of the military helicopter he was piloting, her father decided to fly his Huey toward the US Navy fleet, landing on the deck of the aircraft carrier Midway and bringing himself and more than a dozen passengers to safety. He would only be reunited with the little girl in Fairfax, Virginia together with the rest of her family.
"The little girl was Vietnamese-American personality Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen,  and her father was one of South Vietnam’s most colourful leaders, Nguyen Cao Ky."

Vietnam and the future

My city!
Photo by Tony Pham / Unsplash

Back in 1996, while we were inspecting different sidewalk stalls, I struck up a conversation with the Vietnamese war veteran who owned the place. I think I still have his business card somewhere. When he found out that we were from the Philippines, he spoke of former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and how the Vietnamese had always considered Filipinos as their friends, even though the war had divided the two nations.

We were struck by how much these Asian neighbors looked up to us, even as they took pride in being survivors. The man I spoke to of course fought for the US-supported South Vietnamese government, but while he said it was difficult when the communists first took over, the country has moved on and it was time to forget the bitterness of the past while remembering its lessons.

Another thing is that we all felt like millionaires in Vietnam, since at the time the exchange rate was 10,000 dong to the dollar. Yes, some of us were walking around with one million dong. Of course, every time you asked a vendor how much something was, it was worth at least one dollar. The vendors were generally friendly and you could haggle, but sometimes you would be swarmed by the children selling leis, supposedly antique coins and stamps, and other trinkets.

Apart from their patriotism, we were also struck by how disciplined and hardworking the Vietnamese are. In fact, we told ourselves that if the Philippines didn’t watch out, Vietnam will leave us behind in a few years.

Guess what?