She looked just as I'd remembered. Miss Saigon and her reed-like friends dressed in flowing silk gowns were among the crowd that gathered to greet the Oceania Nautica -cruises visiting Vietnam are still a rarity. For the next two and a half days, the ship was a floating hotel as we explored the former southern capital, now called Ho Chi Minh City, but still known as Saigon to all but a few hard-core party cadres.
Has it really been 15 years since I was last in Vietnam? In 1995, it seemed the country had been in suspended animation since the end of the war 20 years before. Then, a U.S. trade embargo succeeded in preventing Canadian companies from booking tours in the country - today it is welcoming tourists and I can't help but wonder if, with the change that is sweeping across Asia, I'll recognize it when I visit again.
For now, though, infrastructure isn't a forte in Vietnam, so we're glad to be aboard the luxurious, 600-passenger Nautica. Last time I was here, air conditioning was unheard of despite temperatures that reach 30 C by midmorning, and open windows let in not only the dust of the streets but the buzz-saw sounds of untuned motorbikes. Even though there are some new hotels, and older places have been retrofitted with better plumbing and cooling, the Nautica docked right near the centre of the city, making it a perfect staging area for an assault on Saigon's highlights, which are mostly within walking distance.
GETTING MY NAM LEGS
You have to learn to walk like a local in Saigon or you'll be in serious threat of injury. Stride confidently into the sea of motorbikes that are racing down the avenues: It's gut-wrenchingly scary at first. But like a scene from The Matrix, everything seems to move around you as long as they can trust you to keep moving in the same direction. Lose your nerve and stop or try to backtrack and disaster may ensue.
Then: Proper ladies rode bicycles and their long gowns fluttered alluringly as they pedalled. Pedicabs were more common than cars as taxis.
Now: Ladies ride motor scooters and most often wear jeans rather than dresses and don face masks to protect themselves from road dust and fumes. Motorcycles outnumber cars four to one, and the pedicabs have been replaced by Toyota SUVs.
Then: The vast, bustling French colonial Binh Tay Market was a den of suspicion. Shopkeepers who had grown up in wartime were wary of Westerners and wouldn't haggle and accepted Vietnamese dong only. Most of the shops sold only traditional clothes and handicrafts, which included wartime kitsch such as imitation Zippo lighters.
Now: The suspicion is long gone. In the market, sellers chat amiably in English, which is taught from Grade 1, and prices are so low there's little incentive to haggle. Locally made handicrafts include gorgeous hand-painted screens and fans and beaded purses, all so freshly made you almost get high on the aroma of still-curing glue and lacquer. Western-style sportswear, shoes and children's clothes are the specialties, as are imitations: "No these are not fake Breitling watches, these are real Breitlings." Believe that at your peril. But Vietnam is actually defending copyright more than some other places in Asia. The copied designer goods here tend to sport nonsense brand names like Gunci, Praba and Shishendo.
THE HIGH STREETS
The old centre of the city known as District 1 is still the best for high-end shopping. It's not a large area and in of a couple of hours you'll be able to hit a variety of the best boutiques the city has to offer.
Then: The Vietnamese are masters of reproductions. You'd find camera stores in which there were dozens of cameras that looked like they had been recovered from a foxhole. Buy a bargain-priced used Hasselblad with wear on the edge and go to the next store and you'd find another with the same distress marks.
Now: Lacquerware that is the finest in Asia, gorgeous silk dresses and fashionable shoes are selling at prices that are a 10th the price you'd pay in Canada. If you can't find clothes in stock in Western sizes, the shop will custom-tailor to fit. My wife had silk dresses made for $40 each and shipped home for an extra $10 and they fit perfectly. There are also remarkable faux antiques to be had. One shop featured reproductions of art nouveau and Victorian bronzes, including ornate pieces with clocks and sconces attached.
THE REX STILL RULES
Then: The classic Rex Hotel with its revolving neon-lit crown was a run-down but charming holdover from the days when reporters and military brass converged at the rooftop bar they called "mahogany ridge." Here, reporters could get enough facts and rumours about the war to write a dispatch without having to interrupt their drinking. But by the nineties it had become a dive, lacking air conditioning, and its rooftop bar served beer and sandwiches on mismatched card tables.
Now: The hotel was renovated, including air conditioning, by the government. The outdoor bar was restored with a throwback Sixties style, including tiki patio lanterns and oversized Chinese dragon statues. A nostalgia menu of snacks includes spring rolls and Crêpes Suzettes served 24 hours a day. The prices seem great by Canadian standards, with a pint of the local 333 beer going for about $2. On the street, you can get a can of brew for about 50 cents.
THE DOUBLE STANDARD
Then: If you had U.S. dollars to spend, you were the enemy; the Vietnamese dong was the only currency accepted. Credit cards were unknown.
Now: The U.S. dollar has become the unofficial currency of the country. Greenbacks are what everyone wants -the Vietnamese dong is trading at such a ridiculously inflated value (about 19,000 dong to the Canadian dollar) that they use small bills for stuffing cracks in windows. Before you arrive, get lots of U.S. cash or euros, including small bills, because they still don't give change. While credit cards are accepted, merchants will tack on a fee for the privilege.
APOCALYPSE THEN AND NOW
Take a day trip to the Mekong Delta, a shadowy network of waterways overgrown with trees and vines at the mouth of the Mekong River, where guerrilla warfare was a nightmare for soldiers on both sides.
Then: An ancient bus travelled on rutted roads rode through a countryside that still, in 1995, bore scars from carpet bombing and napalming. The jungle was overgrown and claustrophobic as we rode on small boats that had white dots painted on either side of the bow. These were eyes, designed to make sure the boat never gets lost and to scare away evil spirits, our guide told us.
Now: A two-hour bus ride on a modern highway passes through verdant rice paddies that have become one of the food baskets of Asia. People still tend the paddies using water buffalo for hauling and plowing. We reach a dock lined with wooden boats that look like they were built for the set of Apocalypse Now. Their hard benches and wheezing engines are fitting trappings for a trip to see what made the delta's baffling maze of narrow waterways so terrifying to patrol during the Vietnam war.
After an hour of cruising up narrower and narrower channels, we stop at a dock that is no more than a rickety plank to visit a quaint village of thatched houses where women assemble to sing traditional songs accompanied by handmade instruments. Then, after a trek through a jungle of palms and hanging vines, we reach a muddy cove where dozens of tiny rowboats await. In each, women in conical hats sit at the oars to take us, two at a time, on a ride that's the closest thing on Earth to a trip down the River Styx.
Keep your hands inside at all times, we're warned, as the boats scrape against mangroves and fernlike palm trees that crowd into the water from the edge of the shore. Every so often, the thicket suddenly clears revealing a thatched hovel that may or may not be abandoned. A potential ambush around every bend? The horror, the horror. Or is it? It's so silent you can hear every twig crack, every splash of the oars. Spooky and claustrophobic, but still a gorgeous journey.
Information on Delta travel: vietnamluxurytravel.vn/vietnam/mekongdeltatours3.html#mk-01