Saigon Stories

Every city has its own creation myth and Saigon is no exception. The name alone offers so many possibilities. Saigon could reference the forest of kapok trees that once stood on this site, an embankment on the river or a royal city.

Saigon flooding
Flooding in District 2. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Today, Saigon is not a beautiful city. Crowded, noisy, thick with scooters. The sidewalks in our part of town, District 2, are crumbling at best. Half the time, we have to walk in the street. That is, if the street isn’t flooded from the last tropical rainfall.

District 2 is the expat neighborhood of Saigon. There are 28 international schools here, not counting the French international school in District 1. We meet Mirjam, a Dutch expat who’s lived all over Asia. She estimates that there are 5,000 Dutch living in Saigon, all connected in one way or the other to the business world of Vietnam. District 2 has a Korean hair salon, a Japanese pharmacy, French patisseries and German backers, not to mention the multitude of grocery stores catering to the homesick expat. Living in the bubble has its advantages, Mirjam says. The place goes to bed at nine pm, unlike the rest of Saigon.

Or should I say: Ho Chi Minh City? Saigon is a name that harkens back to two different periods in Vietnamese history. First, as the name of the French capital of Cochinchina (1862-1954) and later as the capital of the then newly declared capital of the Republic of South Vietnam. The Vietnam War (aka the American War of Aggression) changed all that. When South Vietnam fell to the Communist North, Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City and its status as capital given to Hanoi.

War

Saigon books
Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

Maybe it’s the books I’ve been reading to prepare for this trip to Vietnam: Night Sky with Exit Wounds, The Sympathizer and, now that we’re here, Monkey Bridge. The poetry of Ocean Vuong and the novels respectively by Viet Thanh Nguyen and Lan Cao are all rooted in the experience of war.

How could they not be? Anyone my age or older would have been a participant in the war, whether as a combatant, victim or both. Adults in their 40s might have heard stories from their parents or simply seen with their own eyes the consequences of war. 

The War Remnants Museum has two particularly hideous exhibits. One is a reconstruction of the former prison camp Con Dao where the South Vietnamese tortured Northern political prisoners. The other is an exhibit on the long-lasting effects of Agent Orange. It’s hard not to look for signs of war on the peace time streets of Saigon. Or, perhaps, I’m seeing things that aren’t really there.

In Monkey Bridge, Tranh and her 17 year old daughter Mai settle in Little Saigon in Falls Church, Virginia. The year is 1978, 3 years after the fall of Saigon, and still Mai sometimes loses her tenuous hold on what is here and now. Mai watches her best friend Bobbie finger the keys of a Steinway piano. But instead of her girlfriend’s right index finger, Mai sees the stump of a trigger finger that belonged to a friend back in Saigon.

Cutting off the index finger of boys to avoid the draft was not an act the government looked upon favorably, and so it had to remain a secret. But all of us knew what had happened. It was 1968, and Vietnam was becoming a land of fingerless eighteen-year-old boys.

Can Lao, Monkey Bridge (Penguin 1997)

Revolutionary Art

Saigon war
A Mother Joins the Resistance by Tran Thi Hong. Photo credit: Karen Kao

History is written by the victors. They also get to curate the museum collections. The War Remnants Museum, the Reunification Palace, and the Revolutionary Museum of Ho Chi Minh all record the valor of the North Vietnamese victors over their South Vietnamese enemies.

The Fine Arts Museum devotes most of its floors to revolutionary art. The only year of significance in this museum is 1975: before reunification or after reunification. A striking bronze statue made in 1979 by Tran Thi Hong immortalizes “A Mother Joins the Resistance.” This statue sort of says it all.

Afternoon Program by Tran Trong Vu. Photo credit: Karen Kao

At the other end of the art and political spectrum is “Afternoon Program” by Tran Trong Vu. It could have easily served as the cover of The Sympathizer. This work is part of the permanent collection at Salon Saigon, the first contemporary art gallery in Ho Chi Minh City. It speaks, on many levels, of the tragedy of war, when the enemy may be yourself. In Nguyen’s novel, the title character is a double agent. He knows exactly how much damage the Vietnamese can do to each other. As one characters tells the sympathizer:

Now that we are powerful, we don’t need the French or the Americans to fuck us over. We can fuck ourselves just fine.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer

Saigon: here and now

It’s possible to wallow in the wartime past. But Saigon seems to be a city caught in a perpetual forward-moving momentum. Fast cars, tall buildings, a trading city. It’s home to the Ho Chi Minh Stock Exchange and every high end designer brand you can think of. There are gated communities and a new landless class whose sole purpose seems to be to open and close the doors for the wealthy Saigonese.

When we try to explain to our cab driver that we want to visit the Revolutionary Museum, the driver pulls out a bill from his money clip and points at Uncle Ho’s smiling face. The old communist must be spinning in his grave.

Saigon fish restaurant
Fine dining old Saigon style. Photo credit: Karen Kao

You can still find old Saigon in places like District 4 with its stinking sky markets. It was once the stronghold of the Vietnamese mafia. Today, District 4 is slated for imminent gentrification. Until that sad moment comes, you can visit Vinh Khan, the seafood street, to feast on snails, clams, mussels and crab. You can squeeze yourself into child-sized plastic chairs and walk all of Saigon saunter by. Street vendors will offer you peanuts or lottery tickets. You will eat yourself silly.

Or gaze at the surreal art of today’s Saigon artists. “Necessary Fictions” is a duo exhibition at The Factory by Ha Ninh Pham and Tammy Nguyen. Their work explore the roles of maps and myths. I fell in love with Ha Ninh’s series “My Land” (2017 and ongoing) where the Escher-like drawings combine with his science fiction / fantasy narratives. Here, the Pink Army battles with the Yellow Army for control of the Wax Tower. Why?

The Yellow Army is a strictly disciplined and hierarchically organized force that has a medium body temperature. They believe that it is their ultimate mission to inhabit the [Wax Fortress], because the fortress is made of wax, which has a low melting point.

Ha Ninh Pham, Artist Notes to B5 [Wax Fortress]
B5 [Wax Fortress] by Ha Ninh Pham. Photo credit: Karen Kao
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