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Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh Stay Different

April 26, 2000

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam (AP) _ This Honda-smoked megapolis renamed for Uncle Ho is still better known as Saigon, and the white-bearded gentleman whose image is displayed at the mall by the airport is Colonel Sanders.

Up north, Hanoi is heartland Vietnam. Though marked by ancient China, colonial France, postmodern Marxism and the Neon Age, it harbors the soul of an overgrown village, where who you are means more than what you own.

Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are separated by two hours of flying time, or just over a thousand miles of road, but the distance might as well be measured in light years.

In the austere capital, Ho Chi Minh’s memory is still a religion. His national communism has shaped northerners’ thought since 1945, when they shed French army uniforms to fight for their own liberation.

Saigon is stocked with luxury goods, but communists are in short supply. Southerners, an ethnic mix long exposed to Asian trade winds, like spicier food and livelier nights. They came to the party only in 1975, at gunpoint.

If Saigon is New York, in mentality, Hanoi is old Boston.

``They are two different worlds,″ observes Pascale Herry, a French travel executive who has lived in Vietnam since 1991. A glance around both suggests she may be understating it.


Saigon awakes to the whine of motorbikes and blare of horns. With 5 million inhabitants, it is double the size of Hanoi and twice as large as 25 years ago, when it was an embattled wartime capital.

The conquered city languished for a decade, its old order in exile or in re-education camps. Confiscated landmarks like the Continental Hotel moldered in neglect. Rather than Saigon wealth spreading north, poverty oozed south.

With economic reforms introduced in 1986, Saigon came to life. Foreign capital attracted professionals of every sort; garish office towers and hotels dwarfed the graceful French colonial skyline.

In the early 1990s, people with high hopes but few skills streamed to the bright lights from devastated rural areas. When the 1997 crisis rippled across Asia, many found themselves in dire straits.

Now clouds of street hustlers, from kindergarten age to wizened elders, descend on tourists. Their elaborate multilingual vocabularies seem not to include the word ``no.″

Vendors offering everything from fake Gauguins to bags of heroin occupy alleyways.

``This city poses enormous problems,″ said An Dzung, deputy chief of planning. Public transport covers only 5 percent of demand. Traffic spews pollution. Housing is short. Drainage is a dark subject.

During the war, people crowded into the city center, fearful of Viet Cong lurking in the outskirts. Now city planners cannot shepherd them to suburbs without first providing basic public services.

``We have great respect for our past,″ An Dzung said, explaining that old pagodas, French buildings and Chinatown architecture would be preserved. Skyscrapers of up to 70 stories can be located across the Saigon River, he said.

But long-term plans hold little interest for many residents, whose more immediate concern is finding enough rice and motorbike fuel.

``Terrible, terrible,″ the crab noodle lady repeated, as she recounted the most recent third of her 75-year life. Her judgment of communist rule is philosophical but harsh, and she prefers %mark_on(%)anonymity%mark_off(%).

She was happy in those few years after 1954 when the French had gone and the Americans had yet to come. During the war, people had money to buy her crab noodle soup. Now, with no pension, she works from 4:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. to scrape by.

Young Tan, at 8, sells postcards with cute-kid charm. Told by one tourist to come later, she stayed put, flashed a killer grin, and replied, ``No way, Jose.″ Older hustlers simply snatch and grab from the back of a Honda motorbike.

There is plenty of wealth. Self-taught plastic surgeons make fortunes improving the profiles of the nouveaux riches. A private sector flourishes, above board and otherwise. Restaurants and boutiques thrive.

Old ways persist on the tree-shaded streets that still evoke a gentler past that may not see much future.

On Sundays, Vietnamese fill the colonial Catholic church on a leafy square by the 120-year-old ornate French post office. But, just behind, the glassy Diamond Plaza building looms over the church’s red brick spires.

The restored Continental Hotel was shorn of its fabled open-air terrace, where Graham Greene finished ``The Quiet American.″ It now faces the gaudy front of a 23-story addition to the Caravelle Hotel.

At night, Saigon’s new look is most striking. From almost anywhere, big blue letters atop a tall building read ``Citibank,″ reminding the North that their victory turned out to be less than complete.


Hanoi arises at first light to the pervasive aroma of pho, a richly spiced soup of rice noodles and beef. At dawn, its placid lakes are lined with couples doing calisthenics and old men practicing tai chi.

Traffic is dense, but much of it is pedal-driven and somehow not jarring. Pedestrians cross the busiest streets, like fish in a school, with little risk of impact unless they speed up or slow down, thus confusing the motorbikers.

``In Saigon, you make a lot of money but also spend a lot,″ said Nguyen Dang Phuc, 26, who grew up in the south but moved recently to his father’s house in Hanoi. ``Here the rich and the poor live together, with no class lines.″

Phuc studied English with plans for a fast-track career. He decided he would rather teach ballroom dancing, and he reckons with no trace of immodesty that he may be the best dancer in Hanoi.

``People are more dynamic there, always ready for action and something new, while we take our time and think about things,″ he said. ``I like that better.″

Neither American bombing nor Russian urban advisers have dampened Hanoi’s old-world flavor, a blend of ancient Asia with a 19th century French overlay. Careful planning has added modern buildings to the mix.

``We regard our French colonial architecture as a precious legacy which cannot be seen anywhere else,″ historian Nguyen Vinh Phuc said, pointing out peaked Norman roofs near the citadel and Mediterranean villas farther south.

But the same urban nightmares plague Hanoi’s city officials.

The Old Quarter is made of up 36 streets with wooden houses dating from the 1800s and origins that go back a millennium. Today, 200,000 people jam into tiny rooms off its narrow lanes.

Planners try to persuade people to move to the outskirts but, as in Saigon, they must first provide transport, sewers and water. Meantime, new development in the center goes on at a pace unusual for Hanoi.

French architects designed the sumptuous Opera Hilton Hanoi, matching it to the old National Theater next door, complete with a gray slate Paris-style roof.

When one visitor asked his cabbie to drive there, he ended up at the old Hanoi Hilton, the French prison for Vietnamese rebels where American POWs were later held. Part of it is now a museum. The rest was replaced by a massive office tower.

At the edge of town, busloads of schoolkids file past Ho Chi Minh’s preserved body in a huge mausoleum that overshadows the nearby One-Pillar Pagoda, an old Buddhist shrine rebuilt after departing Frenchmen destroyed it.

``There is something about this place,″ said Jay Ellis, a self-described misfit from Virginia with an easy laugh who owns the R&R Tavern with a local partner. He and his Vietnamese wife have just had a son.

Ellis, 48, opposed the war and managed to avoid it. He first visited Vietnam almost a decade ago and, after a look at Saigon, settled in Hanoi.

His well-stocked bar features portraits of George Washington and Ho Chi Minh above the door, and multinational regulars who mix well. Soon it will be replaced by a five-story R&R Tavern with guest rooms in the old quarters.

``How do you put it into words?″ he reflected, when pressed to describe Hanoi’s allure. ``It’s just so damned real.″