Monday, April 28, 2014

Life along the Saigon River

SAIGON - Take me to the Saigon River. That’s all. Just take me to the river. That’s a request I often make while visiting the Vietnamese city of Saigon, now officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the Communist takeover in 1975. Let’s clarify something up front: Many inhabitants indigenous to the southern half of the nation refuse the renaming of the city – I agree.

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To them, and to me, it remains Saigon. They lost their city to the Communists, but not their spirit. Traveling throughout southern Vietnam, it is usually acceptable to say Saigon. In the northern half of the country, refer to the city as Ho Chi Minh City. Although the city lost its romantic name to favor a scrawny dictatorial victor, the river has not. The correct name remains Saigon River – or locally Sông Sài Gòn.

The Saigon River is literally the lifeblood of Vietnam’s largest city – about 7.5 million and growing. The river supplies drinking water, transportation, fishing, ports, tourism, and an extremely important link between the isolated rice-farming villages of the Mekong delta and the global markets that buy their products. Like many large trading rivers, the Saigon River is comprised of a complex culture of peoples that have been ravaged by famine, war, and ideologies – ravaged, but never beaten. And that’s what I love about the Saigon River.

To this day, locals say, the river hasn’t changed much. Many people live along its banks, in tin-roof shacks and thatched huts – much of the rusted metal being leftover military material from the Vietnam War. In fact, if anything or anyone changed the local flavor of the river, the Americans did. Most, will tell you, for the better. But that’s not the point of this story.
Many people also live along the Saigon River in expensive condos, in pricey apartment buildings that overlook the meandering mass of water that begins in Cambodia and ends 50 miles later in the bustling South China Sea. Perhaps the strangest thing I find, when I say “take me to the river,” is that life along the river means very different things to many different people.

Saigon is a bustling city, one of the fastest rising economies in all of Asia. To understand the importance of the river, one must understand the city and its inhabitants. From 1954-1975 the city was the capital of South Vietnam. Before that, it was part of Cambodia, which gave way to French interference and war. In 1940 the Japanese, who ultimately surrendered in 1945 at the end of World War II, occupied Saigon. This provided an opportunity for communist Ho Chi Minh to take over.
The French intervened, hoping to keep their rich coffee and rubber empire intact. A war ensued and in 1954 a truce split Vietnam into two countries – North Vietnam and South Vietnam – along the Ben Hai River at the 17th parallel.
An influx of northern Vietnamese into the southern half complicated matters and a war broke out when the north crossed into the south – the Vietnam War. The Americans got involved in the early 1960s and it ended near the Saigon River on April 29, 1975. Many buildings and landmarks along the river have disappeared since then – but many remain.

I love Saigon. It is a fascinating, bustling city full of life – very busy, very chaotic. But also very romantic and historical. The city is geographically – almost culturally – chopped into districts. The poor and the rich know their place, and tourists are steered to certain areas and pulled away from others. But no matter, the river is omnipresent, always a player. Like the Mississippi in St. Louis or Memphis or New Orleans, the river steals the thunder, steals the show. It is the constant, the ebb and flow of life that gives sustenance to a city so desperate for normalcy.
My first few visits to the Saigon River waterfront were purely normal. In fact, my Vietnamese friend took me to the usual riverfront park that all Americans probably see. She didn’t know what I wanted, just that I wanted to hang out “at the river.” Sure, a lot of locals were fishing from the banks and piers, and young Vietnamese teens were walking hand-in-hand. In the downtown area – similar to American cities – the riverfront was clean and showcased. I shot a few photos – all of them postcards that said “Hello From Saigon!” But that’s not what I wanted. I wanted a local experience.

After some debate, I got one. Many locals are reluctant to show Americans anything other than the best of Saigon. It’s easy enough to find poverty and social ills without a local guide – especially in Southeast Asia. Although Vietnam, particularly southern Vietnam, is doing well (American industries do a lot biz in the southern half of Vietnam), many locals are embarrassed about the nation’s poverty and environmental situation. In any case, my friend put me on the back of her motorbike and off we went.
Somewhere just outside the city – I’m not sure where – we stopped on a bridge spanning the Saigon River. It was about 2 p.m. and the sun was burning hot. She dropped me mid-bridge, in the heavy traffic, and took off. At first I figured she left because the traffic was dangerous. Later, I learned, that she didn’t want locals to know that she was associated with the bloke that was photographing the slums and shacks along the river below.

The river rats - as my friend calls them - seem to embarrass the locals. They live for free along the rusted tin and plywood shacks that make up a large percentage of the river’s poorest inhabitants. Some of the tin, she said, came from American military forces during the war – just another reminder that the river is part of our history, too. The river, she says, was full of Americans for many years – the rusted tin and barbed wire nothing more than remnants of war.

“The Americans loved tin and barbed wire,” says my friend Ngoc. Her dad was a South Vietnamese pilot, killed in action fighting alongside U.S. forces. “You still see it along the river from way down south to Saigon.” In fact, the tin shacks along the riverbanks near Saigon give way to thatched huts north and south of the city. The tin huts are a decades-old reminder of the Vietnam War that doesn’t exist outside of the city. For most residents, especially the youth, the war of the past and the river of today are of little consequence. But at night, the river comes alive.

On a humid Saturday night, Ngoc and I motorbiked our way to the outskirts of Saigon. I only ask that we go to a local river hang-out. The brilliant lights of the city’s riverfront stays on the horizon. In the distance, modern glass and steel skyscrapers dazzle the city’s landscape with multicolored mosaics of light. After a 20-minute ride, butt thoroughly buzzed to numbness, we stop. And we have company.

Away from the city, to get the best view, and far from cops and nosy adults – the youth find their spot. The view of the city away is a reminder of the chaos left behind – if even for a moment – but also a view of the city they love. The Saigon River, flowing below, is lit by colored lights along the boardwalk. Below the bridge, locals relax in chairs, sit on motorbikes, chat among friends, and fan the humid air away from another sultry day.
This is life along the city’s river. Free and easy, relaxed and slow.

Her name is Saigon.

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