Motor scooters are biggest hazzard in Ho Chi Minh City

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Any assumptions that I might have had about Vietnam today resembling the country from my last visit more than a half-century ago were shattered during an initial short stroll from our centrally located, Park Hyatt Hotel.

Vietnam’s population is now about 95 million, 13 million in this city alone. Most of them appear to be driving scooters and other vehicles on my street. Bullets and artillery may have been the biggest hazard in 1967-68, but today, crossing the street is more dangerous.

Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) is a booming Asian metropolis, the economic and financial center of the country. It has a growing, dynamic, educated work force that is attracting lots of multi-national corporations to locate here.

The cityscape is marked by modern high-rise buildings, while glitzy clubs and upscale restaurants cater to an increasingly cosmopolitan population. A young urbanite couple can buy a very nice two-bedroom apartment here for around $250,000 (USD). Penthouses are selling for $1.2 million.

While many here are still very poor and struggle to survive, there is a vibrant energy that appears to move even the poorest to create their own enterprise. It’s messy, chaotic and ragtag in appearance, but reflects the unconquerable spirit that carries them forward in spite of the hardships they must endure.

Based on these first impressions alone, I’m thinking the people of Vietnam have moved on. And speaking of moving, never have I seen so many people on so many scooters. It is how everyone gets around, rain or shine.

More than half the population was born after the war ended. Today 40 percent of the people are 25 or under. Only about 6 percent of the people are over 65.

We were scheduled this morning to go to the “War Remnants Museum.” Established in 1975, its original name was the “Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes.” In 1990, its name was changed to “Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression.”

Are you picking up a theme here?

With the establishment of U.S. relations in 1995, Vietnam dropped the Crimes and Aggression parts and gave the museum is current handle.

Name change or not, the point is blatantly clear. The exhibits include abandoned or captured U.S. military equipment, like a UH-1 “Huey” helicopter, an F-5A fighter, a M48 Patton tank, a couple of bombers and unexploded shells.

We opted for a drive-by peek and moved on to the former South Vietnamese governor’s palace, now called Reunification Hall.

In 1975, a North Vietnamese tank crashed through its main gate, ending the Vietnam War (which they call the American War by the way).

According to the story, Gen. Minh, who was the de facto head of South Vietnam, was in the reception chamber when the VC officers leading the assault entered the room. “I have been waiting since early this morning to transfer power to you,” Gen. Minh said.

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

Reunification Hall is an ornate time capsule frozen at 1975. Two replicas of the original VC tanks that broke through are on exhibit near the building. Inside, the president’s quarters and various meeting rooms are preserved in time. Photos of American ambassadors meeting with South Vietnam officials align the walls. The building appears capable of use for current affairs, but those are all now centered in Hanoi.

Next, we drove by the United States Consulate, former site of the U.S. Embassy. It was attacked and overrun during the 1968 Tet Offensive and figures prominently in my memory even though I was 30 miles south of Saigon, near My Tho, when all hell broke loose. My Tho was also overrun that night.

Re-reading my post-Tet letters home brought it all back.

Today our consulate is an inhospitable-appearing, closed off, heavily-guarded virtual fortress.

These places and images are far more significant to people my age. My impression is that the current generation of Vietnamese here in the city formerly known as Saigon have consigned them to history.

We go to the Mekong Delta tomorrow. I expect more vivid memories to follow.

Notes for travelers: We used Asia Trans-Pacific Journeys to plan and book our trip to Southeast Asia. So far it has proven to be an excellent choice. All connections have gone perfectly. Our guides are outstanding, and the hotels are top of the line but very affordable.

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