SAIGON 3

One reason for the regional differences is that life traditionally has been harder in the North. Its Red River Delta is more densely populated than the Mekong Delta, and Hanoi’s winter is as chilly-gray and drizzly as Seattle’s. Farmers can harvest only two rice crops a year in the North. If they have a good yield or a bountiful fish catch, they save some profits to get them through tough times. They build substantial homes of ce¬ment and brick designed to last a lifetime. They often live in villages sur¬rounded by bamboo hedges that discourage social integration while en¬couraging xenophobia.
In the South, where the climate is sticky-hot year-round, farmers get three harvests and seldom have to worry about meeting their food needs. If they make a profit, they’ll spend it, perhaps on rice wine to share with neighbors. They build flimsy homes along the tributaries of the Mekong, and if one falls down in a howling gale they’ll throw up another. The South has a better infrastructure, thanks in part to the immense network of roads, ports, and airports the Americans left behind; it also has had a longer, closer relationship with the West, ranging from France’s takeover of Cochinchina as a colony in the nineteenth century to the transforma¬tion of Saigon into a quasi-American city in the 1960s and 1970s. When the communist leadership decided in the mid-1980s to put Karl Marx and Adam Smith into an economic blender and see what came out, Southerners, exposed to capitalism for decades, were far more comfort¬able than their northern brethren in adapting to the demands of free markets.
Over the years, starting in the eleventh century, the migration of peo¬ple in Vietnam has been north to south. First, it was to escape overcrowd¬ing in the Red River Delta. In 1954, it was to escape communism, when upward of 1 million people, including many Catholics, crossed the De¬militarized Zone into South Vietnam, their panicked flight encouraged by CIA leaflets that spoke of a coming bloodbath of Christians. Finally, in 1975, it was to export communism when a huge cadre went south with missionary zeal to cleanse the land of capitalism and wrong thoughts. The migration and the north-south differences probably do not portend political instability because, unlike the Soviet Union when it imploded, deep ethnic and religious forces do not divide Vietnam. Still, authorities in Hanoi try to ensure no one region becomes too dominant by choosing a president, prime minister, and party secretary-general, each of whom has roots to one of Vietnam’s three regions: the North, the Central High¬lands, and the South. One usually represents the army, one the conserva¬tives, one the reformers.
Ho Van Trinh and I ran out of conversation by Hue. I walked through the eight coaches, and as far as I could tell I was the only Westerner aboard. Families were sort of camping out now. Children had taken over the aisles as playgrounds, and parents lay sprawled across the wooden bench seats. No one paid me much attention. I tried the toilet but was driven back by powerful odors. A man asked for a Marlboro, and I gave him two. He asked me in broken English where I was from and how many children I had. The names Sebastian and Aileen did not seem to register with him. The windows in each coach, protected by grates be¬cause children like to throw stones at passing trains, were open. The breeze was heavy with humidity and heat. The countryside passed in a blur of emerald-green rice paddies and sky-blue waterways. We rolled on through the day and into the night.
By dawn on the third day, the seemingly empty landscape had given way to clusters of villages, then tightly packed rows of homes upon homes, and finally a jungle of urban sprawl with glass-fronted high-rises on the horizon. A conductor walked through the carriages, yelling first in Vietnamese, then in English: “Saigon, Saigon, five minutes now.”
Once a fourteenth-century Cambodian village surrounded by man¬grove forests, Saigon, as the French would name it, did not come under control of the southward-advancing Viets until 1698. They in turn were conquered a century and a half later by France under the pretext of want¬ing to stop the Nguyen Dynasty’s persecution of Catholics. Using forced labor, the colonizers set out to create a French city in a wasteland of trop¬ical swamps. The French filled in canals, built wide boulevards and tree- shaded roads—not a single one carried a Vietnamese name or was named for a Vietnamese person, place, or event—and designed grand villas land¬scaped with palm trees, glitzy casinos, and exclusive sporting clubs. Notre Dame Cathedral with its twin spires went up on the site of an ancient pagoda on Rue Catinat, and a state-run opium factory opened on Rue Paul Blanchy three blocks away. The French never loved Saigon the way they did Algiers, but it was as close as you could come to finding Paris in Asia.
“Saigon is very small and referred to proudly by the French as the Paris of the Orient,” sniffed Noel Coward after a pre-World War II visit. “This, I need hardly say, is an overstatement. It is a well arranged little town and it has several cafes and a municipal opera house, but it is not very like Paris.”

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