I had spent my first night in Vietnam at the Majestic nearly thirty years earlier, camping out in a small corner room with a single light that hung from the ceiling. I had eaten dinner in the rooftop restaurant. My waiter wore a frayed tuxedo. I watched illumination flares dropped from U.S. planes cast slivers of light across the dark river. I had no idea what awaited me in the months ahead. Never had I felt so alone or so far from home. Now, the Majestic had been remodeled and the rooftop restaurant was gone. I sat in the lobby, amid tropical plants and wood paneling. I called Sandy in Hanoi on my portable phone. She was going to dinner with a group of Vietnamese friends. “When are you coming home?” she asked. I said I’d be back in Hanoi in a couple of days. Around me foreign and Vietnamese businessmen sat at marble-topped tables, drinking cap¬puccino and talking money. Commerce was in the air.
The marriage of communism and capitalism was an odd one, and any¬one who thinks communism is the stronger partner is naive. Ho Chi Minli City is driving Vietnam’s economy. Its per capita income is more than three times the national average (about $1 per day). The city con¬tributes one-third of both the national budget and the national output. It accounts for two-thirds of the nation’s wealth and 80 percent of the tax revenues. The North had won the war, but the South was winning the peace. Vietnam was being “Southernized.” The Old Guard communist leadership of the North can bury its head in the sands of Marxist eco¬nomic theory all it wants, but its constituency wants the model that Saigon symbolized—an economy that rewards initiative, encourages pri¬vate enterprise, values liberal ideas, and frees itself from rigid government control.
“Ho Chi Minh is different because the city’s long exposure to France and the United States affected the people’s mentality,” says Nguyen Son, who operated a clandestine Viet Cong radio station in the Mekong Delta during the American War and now was the spokesman for the Ho Chi Minh City government. “The people have been accustomed to a market economy for decades.
“If you asked me, from someone’s appearance, who is a capitalist and who is a socialist, it would be difficult to tell. But I don’t see any conflict. To build socialism, you have to use capitalism and take from it what is good. To some extent, a market economy doesn’t belong exclusively to capitalism but instead is an achievement of all mankind.”
In Saigon, the party didn’t even bother to string red banners with revo¬lutionary slogans or flood neighborhoods with amplifiers to broadcast its messages. No one would have paid the slightest attention. The young generation had swapped its ancestors’ conical hats for portable phones, and Saigon was now alive, pulsating to jackhammers and the vibrations of entrepreneurial spirit.
“What this generation has, and mine didn’t, is opportunity,” says Ho Si Khoach, a professor of history at Ho Chi Minh University. “We looked ahead to war. They look ahead to peace. They’re much more independent, dynamic, creative than their fathers were. They don’t want to study the subjects we did—history, philosophy, poetry. The majors they’re choosing now are business, economics, English language, computer sciences.”
I WALKED DOWN DONG KHOI STREET, toward the river, passing dirt- poor cyclo drivers who had once been soldiers in the South Vietnamese Army, as well as a travel agency run by a former Viet Cong cadre who catered to groups of returning former U.S. servicemen. I turned left on Ngo Due Ke Street and entered a fast-food fish restaurant at Number 19, the location of the UPI office during the war. Back then it was filled with the chatter of telexes and old Royal typewriters, field reporters and pho¬tographers coming and going, and it seemed strange to find the place without chest-high sandbags protecting the entrance and floor-to-ceiling U.S. military maps on the walls. I would have given the world to see Bert Oakley, UPI’s legendary rewrite man, still hunched over his typewriter, two packs of Salems and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s on his desk, and hear him rasp, without looking up, “Hey, Davis. I need a lead. You got anything?” He had once seen an envelope that referred to me as Davis, and I am not sure he ever learned that my first name was David.
The owner said she had opened the restaurant here at the former UPI site four years ago. I told her that the storage closet used to be UPI’s telex room and that the kitchen was the photo shop where Kent Potter and the other shooters processed their negatives, shouting with elation when an image they were proud of emerged. I’d briefly lived upstairs, in a third- floor cubicle with no window and an air-conditioner that iced over and rarely worked. But she wasn’t much interested in wartime history, and perhaps that was just as well. Kent had been killed when his chopper was shot down over Laos near war’s end, and Bert had died some years back after collapsing at the bar of the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong. That chapter in my history had nothing to do with her; I politely left, looking for a drink.
On Dong Khoi Street, a sweet-faced woman wearing a conical hat and carrying a baby brushed by me—and pfffft, as if by magic—the Mont Blanc pen in my shirt pocket was gone. I should have known better. The hotels were full of warnings not to carry valuables where they were acces¬sible to pickpockets. This was, after all, Saigon, and the Saigonese were survivors. They had a tough edge that contrasted with the sense of inno¬cence one found in Hanoi. Hanoi had the dreamers, Saigon the doers. The Saigonese had made the transition from wartime turmoil to peace¬time prosperity not without peril—pollution, corruption, chaotic traffic, and a widening gap between rich and poor threatened the foundations of urban civility—but in capitalizing on opportunity they had raised the bar. Thus, it is toward Ho Chi Minh City and its free-wheeling economy that the rest of the nation now casts covetous glances.