Friday, October 26, 2012


This statue at left honors a Vietnamese hero that fought China, not the USA
The colonial clock tower of Ben Thanh market is the unofficial icon of old Saigon. Since Vietnam has returned to capitalism, a landmark from a buzzing market makes a fitting symbol. Like Asia itself, the market is overcrowded, and anxious for money from foreigners.

Unlike air conditioned American markets, the inside is filled with tropical heat.  Crowds weave between hundreds of small stalls, with vendors selling just about anything. There are silk clothes, cosmetics, souvenirs, spices, exotic fruits, live seafood, and snake wine. That’s right, wine made from snakes, complete with a dead cobra still inside the bottle! The wine, and most other goods sold here, are still made by hand. Since this is the heart of the business district, and close to tourist sites, it’s one of the more expensive markets in town. Eager foreigners who visit still find prices cheaper than back home, so they think they’re getting bargains. But there are better markets in the city, with more interesting merchandise.

Out the front clock tower door in the middle of a traffic roundabout, sits a statue of a Vietnamese hero on horseback. This isn’t Ho Chi Minh, but Tran Nguyen Han, a 15th century general who fought the Chinese. A nearby street called Le Loi, is also named for a guerilla leader who fought the Chinese. Long before America’s war here, China occupied Vietnam for nearly 1,000 years. It took centuries of fighting for the Vietnamese to finally kick them out. Fighting for so many years proved the Vietnamese tenacity for enduring long wars, and fuels a still simmering dislike for China today. Yes, the Vietnamese dislike the Chinese, far more than they dislike Americans. Given their history fighting China, it’s not surprising that there are many more statues throughout Vietnam to heroes who fought the Chinese, than there are to those who fought the Americans or the French. It shows who the Vietnamese think their worst enemy was, and who they still fear to some degree.

Having had enough of Ben Thanh market, I search for ‘historical’ merchandise elsewhere. Running between cars, I cross to nearby Duong Yersin street heading for a market with more local flavor, away from tourists. A few blocks down, I reach Dan Sinh market.

Walking in, I note the booths here are crowded even tighter together. There are no foreigners in sight. Walking deeper into the market, I find some unique items. I’ve found the market I’m looking for.
A mass of military gear from several armies is on sale in Dan Sinh market
I first see military clothing from the American, Vietnamese, and Chinese Armies.It’s a strange mix of styles old and new. I look closely for authenticity, since fakes abound. There are backpacks, boots, compasses, fold-up shovels and knives. Some of the goods are modern day US Army surplus. Others are copies made in local shops; even counterfeit US Army patches are made here. I look around, and see US Army, US Army everywhere. There is even ammunition, for rifles and grenade launchers, sold like key chains. These have all been disarmed. Probably.

Soon I come across what look like antiques from the war years, but that’s only at first glance. I’ve heard that many fake antiques here have been artificially aged. There are old looking watches, medals, patches, pins, canteens, dog tags and even class rings. Nearly all of them are fakes.

The most glaring counterfeit examples are zippo lighters. Someone has gone to great lengths to make them look like war antiques. These lighters have been artificially dyed, or even heavily scratched to make them look old and weathered.  They’re engraved with the names of battlefields, or US army units. Some have  wartime catchphrases like “It don’t mean nothin”, or “Live by chance, drunkard by choice, killer by profession”, or “Mess with the best, die like the rest”.  The salespeople fib to me, claiming they’re genuine. “Old from the war,” they say unconvincingly.

Continuing on, I find an exception. I pick up a green steel pot helmet. It’s the old American GI style. As opposed to the other counterfeits, this one has a musty odor, decaying fabric, and rust. This one is actually genuine. The webbing has been altered, to fit a small Vietnamese head. I’ve seen locals use these as motorcycle helmets.

Other booths have more war antiques that appear genuine. There are ammunition cases, canteens, backpacks, flashlights, compasses and mess kits. I’m not surprised to find so much military merchandise for sale. Back during the war the South Vietnamese military was so corrupt, that items such as these were easily stolen, and then sold openly on the black market. In those days, a lot of American military aid meant for the war effort ended up sold on the streets, with the proceeds going into the bank accounts of corrupt ARVN generals.
Helmets, hats and gauges from old US military vehicles are also sold here.

Another booth has piles of gauges that were taken out of old planes, trucks and armored vehicles. After the war most of the old military vehicles ended up in the scrap yard. I inquire about an old, small canvas US army backpack. Worn and weathered, it looks authentic. I quickly learn that the old, authentic goods from the war are far more expensive than the new.

“Forty dollars,” says the stern salesmen. I try to bargain with him, and he snubs me, refusing to bargain at all. That’s a fixed price.

I move on, exploring further into the market, and find another booth with disorganized piles of military gear. Stacks of old photos catch my eye, and I thumb through them. They’re all black and white, darkened by age, and printed in old styles not seen anymore. These are also genuine. In between old family snapshots, I come to many pictures of soldiers in uniform. These were personal soldier’s photos from the the old South Vietnamese Army, officially called the Army of the Republic of Vietnam(ARVN). There are numerous photos of these young men, America’s former allies. Some proudly wear their full dress uniforms. Others are posing with friends, leaning on each other, relaxing.

I purchase one black and white photo, showing four anonymous ARVN soldiers. They are seated on the ground, wearing their helmets, brandishing M-16 rifles. Looking scarcely older than 18, they were probably draftees.

“Where did you get all these photos?” I ask the saleslady.

“Danang,” she says, and gives no further details.

I look at this old photo and wonder what happened to these four young men. There were so many difficulties ahead for these soldiers. When the war ended, most captured ARVN soldiers were imprisoned. These photos are faces from the past, looking at me from across time. How many of these young men survived the war? Did any escape as refugees? Where are they now?


  1. My impression of Saigon was the same as others. With the exception of Uncle Ho staring back at you from the currency; Saigon is essentially unchanged. I've been back to Vietnam 3 times and plan to go again. The Vietnamese are laid back, friendly and seem to have an affinity for Vietnam era Vets. I was smoking a cigarette in front of the Ben Tre market when a rickshaw driver came up to me and asked if I was 'American soldier'? "Yes", I replied. 'What you do in Army', he asked? I told him that I worked in a hospital. He smiled at me and pointed at himself saying; "Me? I dig tunnels'!

  2. I'm glad to hear you also enjoy visiting Vietnam. It is a fascinating place. So the rickshaw driver used to dig tunnels??!! I wonder if he used to dig those tunnels in Cu Chi. Thank you for your comment.