Saigon: pulse of the rising dragon
The Boeing 777-300 makes its final descent through the afternoon haze, over rice paddies and a jigsaw of narrow buildings like slices of layer cake. We are just a stone’s throw from the delta of the mighty Mekong, whose brown waters I had seen eight months earlier in Laos.
Closer to the ground I spot one pagoda amid the rooftops, then another. I imagine streets heaving with motorcycles, the din of their engines almost deafening. As our wheels hit the runway at Tan Son Nhat, patches of iridescent grass come into view – a comforting reminder that I am back in Southeast Asia.
Our driver is remarkably young, with dark copper skin, kind eyes and a disarming smile. “How many times in Vietnam?” he says in polite, halting English. “First time,” I respond, and he doesn’t mask his delight. Bubbling with fervent enthusiasm, he earnestly tries to describe the rush hour traffic until words fail him.
Eventually we come across the glass spire of Bitexco Financial Tower – 68 storeys high and built in the shape of a budding lotus. It’s a fitting symbol for Vietnam’s economic aspirations, as it treads in the footsteps of its powerful neighbour. We pass upscale boutiques and restaurants; a brightly lit mall emblazoned with the Burger King logo looms over the streetlamps, hung with red banners sporting a single socialist star. Hanoi may be the political and cultural capital of Vietnam, but booming Saigon is its city of opportunity.
The driver turns to me briefly when we stop at an intersection. “I live in Saigon. But my family… from Nha Trang. You know Nha Trang?” I nod and mention its famous beach. His eyes widen and he flashes me a wide grin. A few blocks later I ask him about Bia Hoi, the beer brand illustrated above a roadside restaurant. “From Hanoi,” he says, wrinkling his nose. “Now, a lot of people from Hanoi come to Ho Chi Minh City. Businessmen.” He rushes through Saigon’s official name, at once a jarring contrast to the original before that fateful day in April 1975.
I sit in silence, observing the thundering motorcycles speeding past. Saigon strikes me as a composite of cities that I already know. I see reminders of Kuala Lumpur in the spreading palms and optimistic neon, now sizzling to life after dark. Its mad traffic is reminiscent of Jakarta, as is the exhilarating buzz that pervades the moist evening air. The language too, is strangely familiar. A neon billboard advertising Vietnam’s Southern Bank reads “Ngan Hang Phuong Nam” – Nam Fong Ngan Hong in Cantonese.
The next day we stand in the observatory at Bitexco Financial Tower, 49 storeys above street level. Across the sweeping curve of the Saigon River, a vast tract of vacant land marks the future location of a brand-new business district. A tunnel has already been bored beneath the languid waters, emerging in a ribbon of concrete that will eventually lead to a new airport. Through the glass panes I marvel at the sheer energy rising from a burgeoning city of eight million souls. Young, dynamic and fearlessly optimistic, this is the heartbeat of modern Vietnam.