Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City, Home of a New Capitalist Religion

Ho Chi Minh City used to be Saigon. Gone is Saigon, but welcome to Uncle Ho’s acquired real estate. French and American flavors of capitalist commercial principles have gradually merged with the socialist ideals of the Republic. The result — an expanding, even booming, noisy, cosmopolitan southeast Asian city. It’s larger (more than 9 million persons) than Hanoi in the North, but not by much any more (Hanoi, still considered provincial by some, is catching up and has about 1 million less residents, est.) Most inhabitants throughout Vietnam seem to regard Ho Chi Minh City as the beacon of progressive liberation.

My introduction to the city for the first time on this journey was not so different from experiences in other developing cities in Asia. Again, an infinite fascination is the determination of the motorists pushing always toward or away from the center of the action. There is plenty of action if you want it and can pay. Nightlife is reportedly some of the best in the southeast of the continent, but I confess that I did not have the time to test this theory.

Buu Dinh (post office), built around 1890 at 2 Paris Commune Street opposite Notre-Dame cathedral, is one of Vietnam’s most beautiful examples of French colonial architecture.

Also near the city center, Cho Ben Thanh (market) developed from informal markets created by early 17th century street vendors gathering together near the Saigon River.

The market was formally established by the French colonial powers after taking over the Gia Định citadel in 1859. Destroyed by fire in 1870 it was rebuilt to become Saigon's largest market. In 1912 the market was moved to a new building, designated the New Bến Thành Market to distinguish over its predecessor. The building was renovated in 1985.

I tire quickly of cities and their markets because these beehives of commerce offer too many things. It's a lot for one person’s nervous system to take in without feeling an urge to eat something. The Walmart/Target concept and imitators in the US are maybe a tad more organized and quieter, and definitely more boring, but the frantic dance of the eyes and senses quickly invites a yearning for open spaces.

And on the edges of such abundance, are the occasional specters of dire poverty. I was approached several times in the city by “street” (homeless?) persons. I dismissed one man and his poorly nourished small daughter almost thoughtlessly, only to immediately regret my impulsive, hasty answer. I immediately sought him out, but he had glanced around furtively and quickly merged with the shoppers, clearly intending not to draw official attention. My significant contribution to the next poor supplicant, a few minutes later, did not erase the memory of the child that I had dismissed so carelessly. Obviously, the socialist safety net in Vietnam does not reach all corners of society (unlike Cuba, it seems, where ration cards, available to all citizens, offer at least a basic minimum of food and health care).

Life on the street in Ho Chi Minh City, otherwise, reflects competition for attention and entertainment, with many establishments inviting me to a cup of coffee or pho.

Cell phones are constant companions of young and old alike, often serving as the sole partner of aspiring young actors on the Asian landmass. The “selfie” is one self-indulgent habit that apparently begins at a vey young age in Vietnam. A decade or so ago, on my earlier visits to Asia, many natives would ask me to step in to snap their picture or join them in a group photo op. Today, the phone on a stick is sufficient, and the social impulse has been suppressed, perhaps permanently.

Reunification, a reunion of enemies, is the main take-away for me. Forgiveness or forgetfulness, or both, are part of the human psyche. A welcome to Bill Clinton and Chelsea, his daughter, in 2000 ( a pre-cell phone era selfie) is depicted in a photo peering down from the wall of a renowned and crowded pho shop that our traveling party enjoyed in Ho Chi Minh City. (Another landmark of a different kind, the Rex Hotel, is a delightful place to dine while gazing across the nightlife of the central city. Its rooftop bar was a well-known hangout spot for military officials and war correspondents. The original Rex also billeted the first American troops in Saigon while their tents were being arranged in the first days of the Vietnam War. The American military command's daily conference in the building was named Five O'Clock Follies by journalists who were skeptical of the outcome. The Rex has since been totally restructured and is today a very modern, deluxe hotel and restaurant.

Reunification Palace.

The fully renovated Presidential Palace, which served as the focal point of the anti-Communist resistance in the last war, was the most fascinating of the landmarks I visited in the city. Royal palm trees embrace a 1960s architecture of this government building. The first Communist tanks to arrive in Saigon approached the iron gate in April 1975 and pushed onto the sloping ground. A soldier ran into the building and up the stairs to unfurl a VC flag from the balcony.

Today, a visitor can wander in the ornate reception chamber where General Minh, who had become head of the South Vietnamese state only days before, waited with his new cabinet. According to the televised story, Minh said to the VC officer who entered the room, “I have been waiting since early this morning to transfer power to you.”

“There is no question of you're transferring power,’ replied the officer. ‘You cannot give up what you do not have.”

This ground once belonged to France. A residence built In 1868 for the French governor-general of Cochinchina then became Norodom Palace and finally became home to the South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem’s own air force bombed the palace in 1962. The rebuilt building included a sizable bomb shelter in the basement. Diem was assassinated in 1963.

The Independence Palace (now Reunification Palace) housed the minions of the succeeding South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, until his hasty departure in 1975.

The upstairs has an assortment of grand reception rooms, used for welcoming foreign and national dignitaries, and the setting of final political forays between the old regime and new Ho Chi Minh interlopers (along with defeated allies, the Americans). The 2nd floor contributes a kitsch card-playing room, a cinema and a rooftop nightclub, complete with helipad. In the cellar is an eerie telecommunications center, war room and tunnels with old radio transmitters and maps, seemingly still capable of hosting some sort of dated clandestine Asian snooping and subversion.

Good Morning, Vietham!

My legs wearied, my breathing labored, as our tour of the old presidential premises pushed up and down the stairs from helipad to basement, but my guide and companions soldiered on in good humor and sober contemplation of what historical implications the Vietnam War still may hold. (Even today, for instance, Chinese businesses use Vietnam’s convenient ports to reroute goods and services destined overseas in order to skirt US-induced sanctions and/or tariffs — as the United States once again fears the expansion of Asian power and influence.)

Dominoes anyone

Perhaps the most stand-out of the many traces left by French colonialists in the 1880s is the magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral (as noted above, located near the renovated grand Post Office).

Trying to recreate the feel of the cathedral of the same name in Paris, builders used French bricks and constructed huge Romanesque bell towers.

Roman Catholics and Protestants today constitute approximately 7% and 1% of the country’s population respectively. Undeclared missionaries too may be active in Vietnam. Mennonite and Baptist movements were officially recognized by Hanoi in October 2007. It was reported at the time (Asia News) that Pastor Nguyen Quang Trung, provisional president of the Vietnam Mennonite Church, taking part in the official ceremony, quoted his Church's motto: "Living the Gospel, worshipping God, and serving the nation."

The Three Teachings.

Actually, mainstream religion in Vietnam is “three teachings” — the combination of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism found in Chinese philosophy. Indigenous Vietnamese beliefs (folk religion) added to the spirit stew makes a fuzzy social-political alliance of the living populace and the ancestors.

This system of beliefs is known as tam giao: triple religion.

For now, eight, state-sanctioned religions are officially permitted, and no religion may propagate an ideology that is considered to contradict the government. Mahayana Buddhism claims a 16.4% share of the population according to the Pew Research Centre in Washington DC (2010). Other religions with a significant following include Catholicism, Protestantism, Theravada Buddhism, Islam, Hoa Hao, and Cao Dai.

In the north, around Hanoi, strong Chinese-Confucian strains of symbolism draw public devotions.

Temple of Literature: where Confucian exams were regularly held

According to Wiki, the modern Cao Dai (“high tower”) religion was established in southern Vietnam in 1926, and is “a monotheistic religion that credits God - rather than any prophet or Buddha - as its founder.” Prayer, veneration of ancestors, nonviolence and vegetarianism sustain the adherents of this faith that expects all religions will one day be united for the salvation of all living things.

A supposedly modest Cau Dai temple (Thánh thất Sài Gòn) that I explored within the province of Ho Chi Minh City displayed an extraordinarily extravagant celebration of color and symbols. The three principal colors of Cao Dai are yellow (for Buddhism), blue (for Taoism), and red (for Christianity).

It is the Divine Left Eye, representing God, that ministers to the lay people who gather often in the finely cleaned chambers surrounded by technicolor dragon-studded columns. Supposedly God is Yang, and Yang is the left side. A yin-yang symbol is centered in the pupil of the all-seeing eye. A larger temple is in Tay Ninh, Vietnam.

Three Faiths

(to be continued -- Vietnam's Mekong Delta)

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