Old Saigon lives on

On the eve of Liberation Day, Joanne Lane discovers Ho Chi Minh City's history, authentic pho and memories of war.

I'm sitting on a busy corner in the Pham Ngu Lao area of Ho Chi Minh City, drinking a fruit shake and watching gorgeous girls in tight jeans and heels work the tables of the expatriate men next to me.

Perhaps I'm getting carried away with the stereotypical image of raunchy GI bars or Graham Greene's "house of 500 girls" in The Quiet American but to me it looks very much like a scene from old Saigon, when a good dose of decadence prevailed.

Of course, Ho Chi Minh City hasn't been officially called Saigon in more than three decades. The communist government changed the name of the city to honour the nation's great nationalist leader in 1976. But Saigon is still used by old-timers who can't get used to the name change and for the commercial centre.

Based on the behaviour of these girls, I'm beginning to wonder whether things have really changed that much since the heady days of old Saigon. One of the expatriates has just told me the phone numbers on the walls around the city are for girls you can ring for "Saigon liaison", for want of a better phrase.

Today, Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam's cultural heart and the industrial powerhouse of the nation. The busy inner-city junction where I'm sitting seems to represent something of its gritty, energetic and sensory overload.

The traffic here is fast and furious, with taxis, buses and trucks throttling past carrying loads of food, passengers and other goods, while motor- bikes buzz like bees between them carrying at least several children or even building materials a huge pole is balanced precariously on one.

This junction also represents something of the capitalism that Vietnam has adopted. The communists took the south to rid the nation of such influences. But with the passing of time comes a new way of life and today more than 60per cent of Vietnam's 80 million people were born after the Vietnam War.

There's plenty of entrepreneurial spirit here, including that of the 10-year-old boy who comes past our tables swallowing flames and even a snake, although fortunately he pulls the latter out again. Even the working girls stop to watch as he makes a few dong from all of us.

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One of the bars on this strip, Cafe Zoom, is owned by an American married to a local woman. He also sells Vespa scooters, a tangible symbol of the Western values embraced by many young Vietnamese.

Across the street are beauty salons and modern high-rises that now dominate a city skyline where once the highest points were the spires of the Notre Dame Cathedral.

Despite its modern appearance, you don't have to look far to see where Ho Chi Minh City has come from. Still surviving are old churches, temples and post offices with their French colonial architecture.

Rue Catinat, famous in Greene's time, is still a strip of boutique hotels and shops, now called Dong Khoi Street.

The hotels where war correspondents once caroused simply have a fresh lick of paint; the bars where GI soldiers once danced on R&R still belt out tunes to rowdy audiences; and the Vietcong tanks that surged into Saigon still lie facing the Reunification Palace.

Ho Chi Minh City doesn't seem to have forgotten its past at all; rather, it has embraced it. The remnants of war have become drawcards for thousands of international visitors each year and this week will be among the busiest, as the Vietnamese prepare to celebrate on Thursday the 32nd anniversary of Liberation Day and the end of the American War, as it is known here.

Memories from both sides of the war are sold in the Dan Sinh Market (formerly Yersin Street), where you can buy army surplus gear, dog tags, Zippo cigarette lighters, canteen bottles and gas masks all purporting to be original. My favourites are the GI helmets bearing the war slogan: "When I die I'll go to heaven as I've spent my time in hell."

You can also find history over a simple bowl of noodles in the old Hoa Binh (Peace) Noodle Shop (7 Lo Chinh Thang Street, District 3), a rustic place that serves authentic pho, or Vietnamese noodles. It may look like any other pho shop in town and it may be difficult to find but it was the secret meeting place for the VC in Saigon. The Tet Offensive of 1968, which influenced the outcome of the war, was planned behind this nondescript shop front. The shop owner during that era, Ngo Toai, has died but his sons still ladle out noodles.

The War Remnants Museum (28 Vo Van Tan, District 3) is one of the city's busiest tourist sites and one of the most grisly. From the impromptu pet market on the street selling dogs and turtles, you walk inside to US armoured vehicles, artillery, bombs and infantry weapons. The museum documents the atrocities of Vietnam's wars, though the main focus is on the American involvement in the Vietnam War. There are graphic descriptions and images of the effects of napalm and Agent Orange on babies and civilians. Most visitors wander around slowly, taking in what for many is their first chance to hear the other side of the story.

The Reunification Palace (106 Nguyen Du St, District 1), the former presidential palace of South Vietnam, is the other place to experience Ho Chi Minh City's past. Little seems to have changed here since tanks burst through the gates to claim victory for the communists in fact the tanks still line the entrance.

This palace is now a museum and eerily preserved in the state in which it was left. It has classic 1960s architecture and '70s furniture, conference rooms, the president's living quarters, a cinema and card room. Wander up to the helicopter terrace or descend to the basement to explore a network of tunnels, including a telecommunications centre and command room.

The other time to glimpse old Saigon is after dark. The Apocalypse Now nightclub is still the best in town, the action here dating from when US soldiers were stationed in Saigon. The bar is still oriented towards foreigners and attracts gay clientele and working girls.

War correspondents gathered at the Saigon Saigon Bar at the Caravelle Hotel (19 Lam Son) and it's still a popular spot that retains a colonial feel. Drinks are pricey but you can't beat a G&T at sunset on the balcony with terrific city views.

A longer journey to see the remnants of wartime Saigon is the 90-minute trip outside the city to the Cu Chi tunnels. This network once extended like a cobweb covering 200 kilometres, allowing the Vietnamese to employ guerilla tactics against the French and Americans. Today they have been excavated and enlarged so you can walk or crawl through and admire the ingenuity of people who lived here. It's fascinating but extremely claustrophobic.

My final journey isn't to the Cu Chi tunnels but the city police station. Somehow I manage to thwart an attempt by a motorbike bandit to steal my camera an increasingly common crime affecting tourists but I end up spending the night at the local station.

It is all very theatrical, really. The bandit misses my camera, becomes unbalanced, steers into a pole and then runs off on foot while the locals grab the scooter and call the police. They arrive with sirens blaring and I'm taken in to give a statement.

A young English-speaking policeman gives me a cup of tea and tells me I'm lucky not to be hurt. What will happen to the man if he is caught?

"I cannot tell you that, madam," the policeman says, hinting at dark, antiquated punishments. With that statement our conversation ends and I'm free to go.

Three decades after liberation, has Ho Chi Minh City changed so much? After a week of working girls, tanks, VC tunnels, overwhelming traffic, rowdy bars and a police interview, I've experienced the old Saigon and the new HCMC. So I've decided to concur with Thomas Fowler, the war-weary journalist and central character in The Quiet American: "They say you come to Vietnam and understand a lot in a few minutes. The rest has got to be lived."

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Singapore Airlines has a fare to Ho Chi Minh City for $990 with an aircraft change in Singapore. Vietnam Airlines flies non-stop for $960. Most fares allow you to fly into Ho Chi Minh City and out of Hanoi. (Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, excluding tax.) Australians require a visa for stays up to 30 days. Liberation Day is celebrated throughout Vietnam on April30, particularly in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. It is a day of remembrance and a public holiday.

Staying and eating there

Miss Loi's Guesthouse is a good budget- to mid-range option in the colourful Co Giang area. Rooms from $US15 ($21). At 178/20Co Giang Street, District 1, phone (08)8379589 or contact missloi@hcm.fpt.vn. Or try the classier Caravelle Hotel at 19 Lam Son Square, District 1. Rooms from $US280, phone (08) 38234999 or see caravellehotel.com. For some great street-side eating, go to De Tham in Pham Ngu Lao. A group of restaurants has beach chairs spilling onto the footpath. De Zoom on the busy intersection is particularly good.

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