Occasionally, in Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon, behind the smiles and food, I get this feeling of some sort of cultural train wreck. It is like everything we know we hate in America, the things we are trying to change, are formulating in Saigon and in a more glamorized form.
I think I first realized it while riding up an escalator in a western-style but Vietnamese catered MegaPlex of Gucci, Bebe, Ralph Loren, and “elite” and very expensive fast food restaurants with imported French fries, homemade food, real cutlery, and waitresses opening the doors and bussing the tables. In every aisle and on every floor, there were LCD TVs playing music videos from the 80’s and 90’s, and on the loud speaker the Happy Birthday song played repeatedly, sometimes even instrumentally and multi-lingually, urging shoppers that “this day is your day, it’s your birthday.” I didn’t know what the hell was going on.
Outside the MegaPlex, beyond a row of thatch shacks, and on the other side of a group of land mine and Polio and Agent-Orange afflicted beggars, they sell some French baguettes—apparently the French left colonial houses and baguettes, the Americans left phantom limbs, unexploded ordinances, and birth defects. They also sell, believe it or not, some American flag do-rags and “United We Stand” T-shirts. Though there is a teenage MTV-inspired western craze—and 60% of the population is under 25—I don’t think that the Vietnamese market demand is just yearning for a “United We Stand” shirt. The shirts are cheap and surplus, factory leftovers. So that poor teen with dirt smudges on his face doesn’t really love America, he just bought a cheap shirt.
Though, a sort of western craze, or rather a craving for “development,” is apparent and perhaps bubbles over. Walking the streets in the quiet, wealthier, Catholic area where I live, I feel like a Celebrity. Being one of the few westerners, everyone stares, little kids and some adults alike yell “hello,” after which I reply with another “hello” which they follow again with “hello,” and it continues for some time. The elderly, understandably, aren’t as excited to see me. I can completely understand why.
Ho Chi Minh City, I'm told, is by no means Vietnam. It’s closer to a Vietnamese Los Angeles. After a month, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that I needed someplace different. Someplace more, well, Vietnamese. I have been shocked at the safety. I’ve felt safer living in this city of 8 million than I have living in Fargo, close to the campus Frat Houses (though I had some reason for alarm). The people are more than friendly, and the one-party Communist government surprisingly puts forth more diverse candidates than two parties in a certain republic. I am curious to travel north.