Vietnam today

June 19, 1995|By Andrew J. Glass

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam -- THE NIGHT air is hot and heavy with the scent of the coming monsoon. The Americans sit in a wide arc in the bar of the old Continental Hotel, built by the French in the colonial era, sipping iced Singapore Slings. A lovely girl named Anh plays Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" on her violin.

The power fails. The ceiling fans slow to a halt. But Anh doesn't miss a beat as the Americans order another round in the darkness.

There was a time when such an outage here might have presaged a Viet Cong mortar attack from the river marshes. But now it simply means that this city of 5 million people has big growing pains.

After the communists took Saigon some 20 years ago, they renamed it after their patron saint, Ho Chi Minh. By then, the Americans were all gone, having flown home across the Pacific after tens of thousands had fallen in battle. The victors built a museum here. They called it "The House of American Crimes Against the Vietnamese People."

Today, on the museum grounds, Vo Van Quan peddles model Huey helicopters, fashioned from used Coca-Cola cans. The asking price is $2, but he will settle for $1. His best customers, he says, are returning U.S. veterans and the Viet Kieu -- Vietnamese who have made good abroad and come back to visit their old homeland.

Some things haven't changed all that much. Just down the main drag from the Continental stands the Rex, whose spacious ballroom once housed the U.S. command's press center. It was there, at the "Five o'Clock Follies," that young majors in starched green uniforms once gave reporters the latest body counts, intended to promote the fiction that their side was winning the war.

Now on the Rex's roof garden, eight floors above the city, a steady stream of deal-makers from around the world mixes with newly affluent Vietnamese. In the sultry evening air, they drink fine French cognac at $22 a pop.

Down below, Saigon is jumping. Tens of thousands of young men zoom endlessly on their motor scooters and motorcycles down the Rue Catinat and the other wide French-designed avenues as their girlfriends hold on for dear life.

Saigon's markets spill into the streets. They are bursting with just about every luxury item known to man. As of now, nearly none of this stuff is to be had in Hanoi, a 36-hour train trip to the north.

Like an Asian version of Victorian London, the scene fills out with droves of child beggars, youthful pickpockets, petty smugglers, teen-age toughs, dope pushers, pimps and prostitutes. Each group, it is said, must pay off the cops to thrive.

The imported glitter of Hollywood abounds -- from hard rock cassettes to the videotapes that residents of nearby villages watch, huddled 20 deep around communal TVs.

"When the door opens, the flies come in," explains Nguyen Xuan Oanh, who ran the central bank for the South during the war years, before the collapse.

Mr. Nguyen, who is now both rich and respected, drinks tea from a Harvard Club of Boston mug as he greets his visitors. "In this country," he says, "the tail wags the dog. We have lost the war and won the peace."

Andrew J. Glass is chief of the Cox Newspapers Washington Bureau.

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