SAIGON — Saigon.-- Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as the Vietnamese government still calls it, remembered by many American soldiers as a city of sellers and neon, a prostitute of a city, is becoming the true capital of Vietnam. Defeated by Hanoi, her stern older brother to the north, Saigon now turns her wartime blemishes -- her army of prostitutes, black marketeers, pickpockets and scavengers -- into marks of survival.
On a Saigon street a high school drop-out turned food vendor gives his customers sweet rice wrapped in a piece of bitter irony: The paper wrapper is an ink-stained, unfinished school essay describing Uncle Ho's achievements -- Ho's bright road to socialism which now seems headed to a twisted conclusion.
There is no communist paradise here, the Saigon street vendor will tell you. Saigon is instead a city of potholes and garbage heaps. There is, too, a vast public resentment against the corrupt regime, a resentment that Vietnamese writers -- many still in re-education camps -- have described as akin to the death of the national soul.
Poor, cursed Vietnam! Three thousand years old and so little to show for her wisdom. At the southeast end of the Asian map, Vietnam voluptuously coils into the shape of an elaborated ''S''. From one view, Vietnam suggests an economic dragon about to uncoil; on closer look, Vietnam is snaking herself into a basket full of troubles.
At a time without ideas or direction, Saigon is teaching the nation to stumble along by its wits and with cynicism. Now that Vietnam's protector, the former Soviet Union, has self-destructed, Vietnam is on the auction block ready to be sold to the highest bidder. Saigon knows about this transaction.
Foreigners may refer to Vietnam as the ''final frontier,'' a place in which to profiteer, to make quick cash, to wander the virgin beaches accompanied by prostitutes. Natives, on the other hand, are inclined to see a dead end. They wait helplessly for the kindness of strangers.
From Saigon today come new words to reflect the contemporary Vietnamese mind. ''Di quay'' translates roughly to the American ''wilding'': to feast on women, to get drunk, to run wild. ''Song voi'': to live fast, to live for the day. ''Duc lot'': to give money to a high-ranking official in exchange for favors such as avoiding the draft or getting out of jail after trying to escape Vietnam -- still a felony. ''Viet Kieu'': a noun for those Vietnamese nationals from the West who succeeded in fleeing the country and who now return flaunting their dollars.
An ex-communist official, once an idealist from the north, privately concurs: ''Money is king here. Don't you know that if you have money here, you can buy saints?'' When Uncle Ho was alive, it was different, he says. ''We knew what we wanted, but after he died and after we won the war, there was no planning, no preparation, no thinking about what to do with Vietnam.''
Saigon was once the disgraced woman of Vietnam, a city that sold itself. But those were the years that Vietnam, a Third World nation, was romanticized the world over for challenging and finally toppling the giants. Today in Saigon, miserable, homeless children wander the streets mouthing a telling riddle: ''The smart ones have learned to flee. Only the stupid remain here to play this crazy game.''
The French making movies in Hanoi may romanticize the past, but the Chinese once again, as in colonial days, dominate Vietnam's economy. And (irony of ironies) Vietnam yearns for the return of a mythic American who will come as a tourist or businessman with dollars. Vietnam yearns for Saigon's one-night stand.
Vietnam has lost her national pride, her dignity. While the ruling -- class holds steadfastly to power and to its old ideas, fearful of change, the Vietnamese feel a self-loathing. And there is a suspicion here that they are no longer relevant to the flow of world history.
Not so many years ago the outsider was despised in Vietnam. The Amerasian child was the scorned offspring of an illicit union between Saigon and the West. Today the Amerasian has a way out of Vietnam, and thus Vietnam envies him.
Vietnam has come to this: in a park near a church in Saigon, a woman sits, her face swollen, her nose red. (She has attempted to change the shape of her nose and give herself American eyes.) ''I am not Vietnamese,'' she cries in an hysterical and sad voice. ''I am the daughter of American GI. Please, don't you believe me?''
Andrew Lam is a Vietnamese American writer in San Francisco who grew up in Saigon. He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.