Richard Fell is a former diplomat; he was latterly British High Commissioner in New Zealand, but served in Vietnam earlier in his career. He is the Book Review Editor of Asian Affairs.
Forty years ago, in April 1975, North Vietnamese forces defeated the army of the South, captured Saigon and ousted the South Vietnamese government. Thousands of South Vietnamese fled the country, Vietnam was reunited and the Vietnam War finally came to an end.
I was in the British Embassy in Saigon at that time. I returned again very recently in the company of one Embassy colleague (Michael Kyle) who was also there in 1975 and another who had left a little earlier. Also in the party were a son, two daughters, one of whom had been born in Saigon, sons-in-law and grandchildren.
Vietnam’s economy is booming. In Ho Chi Minh City/ Saigon, new office buildings and hotels are going up all the time. At the famous Continental hotel where we stayed, and where Andre Malraux, Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene (The Quiet American) had stayed in the past, my restless nights were caused not by memories but by all night pile-driving for the city’s first metro system.
While traditional markets, shop houses and street traders remain, luxury goods stores occupy many a street corner. We took to the Saigon River by hydrofoil to see what had changed from that viewpoint. The answer was a multitude of ships of all shapes, sizes and purposes reflecting the diversity of the trade in both directions which was passing through the city (the crisps we had with the local beer were halal and came from Malaysia even though there are very few native Muslims to be found in Vietnam). There were new businesses along the river, and the high rise blocks of flats visible in the outlying suburbs were new too. These and the scale of Saigon’s road traffic underline the case for a metro system though the city’s water table apparently does not make construction easy.
Still, anything which provides an alternative to the endless stream of motorbikes and cars must be worth pursuing. For a visitor, crossing any road is a challenge and not for the faint hearted. There are plenty of pedestrian crossings, some even with ‘little green men’, but these are more often than not treated as a challenge by motor bikes in particular. On one occasion, faced with the daunting task of crossing six lanes of traffic coming in both directions, we enlisted the help of a couple of passing traditional cyclo drivers (there are not many around these days) who shepherded us across the ‘pedestrian crossing’ using their cyclos much as corvettes shepherded WWII convoys. They deserved the tip we gave them.
Many of the French colonial style buildings which are dotted about the city remain in use, primarily as government or Communist party offices it appears. The old Opera House has reverted to its original purpose. The more modernist former Presidential palace, which was a dominating feature in central Saigon in the 1970s, is now a museum, preserved as it was in President Thieu’s time including with his underground bunker, operations room and communications equipment. In the grounds are the first North Vietnamese tanks to break through the palace gates on 30 April 1975 together with the South Vietnamese F5-E warplane which bombed the palace earlier that month, an event which I witnessed from the roof of the British Embassy up the road. The ‘renegade’ pilot of the plane is now regarded as a revolutionary hero.
The iconic US Embassy building from the 70s era was demolished in 1998 and replaced by the low rise US Consulate General. The nearby former British Embassy building remains however and is now the British Consulate General. Externally, it looks pretty much the same as it did 40 years ago. I am not sure it has been painted since then! Inside it is different, having been smartly refurbished. Whereas 40 years ago the majority of staff in the Embassy were concerned with political and military matters (we even had an RAF-crewed aeroplane to help us get about the country at a time of war), now the focus for the staff is very much on trade, investment and education. Our old offices from the 1970s were in active use as classrooms for the British Council, reflecting the insatiable demand for education and training among the Vietnamese. We tracked down too the location of some of our former houses. Mine appeared to have been replaced by an office block and both the block of flats and the house which my former colleagues occupied had been converted into offices. The house particularly echoed the changes. In 1975 it had been on a quiet residential street, now it sits amongst a group of shops and businesses.
In a sense all this reflects the course of change over 40 years. In 1975, Saigon was a bustling, entrepreneurial place but much of this was directly or indirectly based on massive US financial and military assistance. The war was still going on. In 1979, when I visited, the city centre was very quiet indeed with few shops open. By 2001, when I next went, the impact of the Doi Moi liberalising economic reforms, introduced from the 1980s, was very apparent in the shape of new shops and businesses. Even more so today. There is exuberance evident on the streets too especially among young people. The city has renewed and revitalised its historic role as Vietnam’s commercial capital. For many younger people, the events of 1975 are now just history, perhaps a bit like us!