Saigon, now renamed Ho Chi Minh City, emerged in the years immediately after the end of the Vietnam War with remarkably little physical change. The colonial-era buildings that gave the place its distinctive character still stood in the centre of the city untouched by anything like the madness that had occurred in Phnom Penh. In 1981 what was immediately apparent to a visitor who had known the city before was the absence of the chaotic traffic of yesteryear in this early period of communist rule. It was not hard to see other changes, from the police drafted down from the north in their ill-fitting uniforms, to the drabness of daily dress, particularly among the women on the street. Except on Sunday; when fashion consciousness triumphed over communist austerity; or in private homes, there were almost no women to be seen wearing the distinctive and graceful ao dai.
Yet beneath the clear signs that this was a city being ruled by a very different government, it was not hard to detect remnants of attitudes that harked back to the recent pre-communist past. Perhaps the most obvious, one that has been remarked on by many who visited at this time, was the determination of the city’s inhabitants to continue calling it Saigon. In doing so they enshrined the feeling of distinctiveness that cut across political boundaries. It was not surprising that Madame Nguyen Phuoc Dai, the former South Vietnamese lawyer, senator and renowned owner of the Bibliotheque Restaurant, insisted that the city’s name was Saigon. In a city where standards of service and cuisine had sharply declined, a visit to Madame Dai’s was almost de rigeur in the early 1980s, not least because she was ready to give free rein to her feelings about rule from the north. But to hear the city called Saigon by Dr Quong Quyen Hoa was another matter.
Dr Hoa had been the Minister for Health in the southern Provisional Revolutionary Government while the Vietnam War still raged. A pediatrics specialist, she had gone into the local maquis in 1968. When I met her in 1981 in a house full of beautiful antique furniture and porcelain, she consistently spoke of the city as Saigon and she was dressed in an ao dai of the finest silk. But more significantly she was vehement in her criticism of the way in which the government in Hanoi was treating those who had fought on its behalf in the south. ‘We have been recolonised by the north,’ she told me. The members of the Provisional Revolutionary Government had been discarded by a northern-dominated regime which formulated plans for Saigon, and southern Vietnam generally with little if any regard for local conditions. As for Vietnam’s Soviet friends, Dr Hoa said that like most southerners, indeed like most Vietnamese, she tolerated them for the moment because they were needed. But they too would only be transients on the Vietnamese stage.
Whatever Dr Hoa’s feelings about Hanoi’s errors, she was clearly not suffering materially and I felt that I gained a more representative assessment of life in Saigon from Phuong, a Vietnamese who had studied in Australia and now worked for the city government, earning what was then the equivalent of US$14 a month. He confirmed the tensions between northerners and southerners, a situation marked by the northerners’ arrogance and their doubts about the extent of revolutionary zeal among Saigon’s population. With a wry smile, Phuong observed that the northerners had good reason to have these doubts, not least because the population of greater Saigon, including Cholon, still counted upwards of 800 000 ethnic Chinese who had never identified their interests with any state, communist or otherwise. Phuong’s comment rang true, for only the week before in Hanoi the Vietnamese Foreign Minister, Nguyen Co Thach, had told me the government was going to ‘break’ Chinese control of commerce in the south. They did not do so then, and nearly twenty years later they still have not done so. The Chinese merchants are still there, and Thach is dead.
As for Saigon’s ethnic Vietnamese population, Phuong continued, of course there was dissatisfaction. You did not have to have held an important position in the pre-liberation government to dislike many of the changes that had taken place. But to think this was a sign that dissatisfaction would be translated into any serious action was absurd. Southerners, in any event, loved to grumble, and too many foreign journalists who were now visiting Saigon were ready to look at life in the city and wonder how ‘nice people’ like him could put up with the conditions that existed, and which were obviously less attractive than what could be found in the West. So much was unsatisfactory; he noted wryly, but it was far from insupportable. And, he concluded rather tentatively, even someone as apolitical as he was found the fact that the whole of Vietnam was now governed by a Vietnamese regime was important.
How many “national” liberation movements end up being regional, ethnic, or religious recolonizations on a smaller scale? (Or, in Indonesia’s case, a larger scale.)