Wednesday, October 17, 2012


As the jet descends out of the sky into Tan Son Nhat Airport, I peer out the window. Through the overhanging haze I get my first view of the former capital of South Vietnam, a country that no longer exists. In what is now called the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, a vast cityscape stretches below as far as the eye can see. This is my first view of a land that was home to an unwinnable war that haunted my country for decades.

"Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City," the flight attendant cheerfully announces after we touch down. I'm reminded that this place is not called Saigon anymore, at least not officially.

As the jet taxis around the airport, observant passengers peering out the windows notice some of the war’s old leftovers already in view. In a field off the runway, a couple of old army bunkers sit empty and unguarded. This vast airport is peaceful now, but it was also a battlefield. These grounds were once the sight of fierce fighting between American soldiers and the Viet Cong during the Tet Offensive of 1968.

As our jet lumbers towards the terminal, we pass a series of brown, half-cylinder shaped hangars that once housed US military aircraft decades ago. Looking over the wall, I see some of those hangars are still in use by Vietnam's military today. Out in plain view are bulky Russian helicopters, with a slender Russian helicopter gunship parked in the shade. I’m also shocked to see the last aircraft I ever expected to see in this airport: several American made Huey helicopters! These old choppers, the most iconic symbol of the war, are some of the very same helicopters used by the US Army to attack the Vietnamese communists so long ago.
Tan Son Nhat's new international terminal, a sign of Vietnam's push for modernization. (photo: Wikipedia)
When the war finally ended in 1975, Vietnam’s communist government found itself in possession of several hundred captured Huey helicopters. These had been given to the South Vietnamese military, and many were in good condition. These days they aren’t used often, but they have kept more than a few of them in working order. I'd like to snap some quick photos, but if I was seen, taking photos of the military section could get me deported.

These old military reminders here seem rather out of place; it’s mostly commercial airline traffic at the airport these days. All of those American fighter jets that were based here during the war are long gone. But as I look out the window at the terminal gates, I see a familiar sight. Among the many Vietnam Airlines jets at the airport, some of them are American made Boeing 737s. American military jets have been replaced by American civilian passenger jets. I never would’ve guessed that Boeing is now a major supplier for Vietnam Airlines. Well, the war is over. America and Vietnam are at peace, and business between the two former enemies is now growing, even for aviation.

Our flight pulls in at a gate at Tan Son Nhat Airport’s new international terminal, opened just a few years ago. This is no drab communist structure either. Years in the making, the new terminal’s architecture has an open, industrial style; both artistic and modern. I’m starting to see Vietnam’s efforts at modernization. New visitors like me get their first contact with the Vietnamese government at  immigration. Having been through passport controls in former Soviet countries, I expect long lines. But the new arrival hall has 20 lanes open to stamp passports, so there’s little waiting. Immigration here is even faster than back home in the states. The only things old fashioned here, are the uniforms of unsmiling  immigration officers. They are dark green in style, like the uniform of the old North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Old style uniforms in a flashy new airport seem an odd contradiction.

As luggage is collected from the carousel, the baggage tags list their destination code: SGN - meaning Saigon. How strange.

I wonder, Isn’t the official name of this place now supposed to be Ho Chi Minh City? It turns out that for everyday use, the old and new names are more or less interchangeable. This city may be charging into the future, but below the surface the past is never far away.

I grab a taxi, and head out of the airport. Driving along the cities main streets into downtown, my view is bombarded by billboards and neon signs. I’m surprised to see that the propaganda of communism has been replaced by commercialism. Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is all about making money now; capitalism has risen again. The old southern capital is now the commercial capital of the country, ironic, since the city was renamed after an hardcore communist. Although Ho Chi Minh died back in 1969, it wasn’t until after the war in 1976 that his communist successors renamed Saigon as Ho Chi Minh City.  Old Uncle Ho would have turned over in his grave over the name change. Although he was the undisputed leader of North Vietnam, Ho was well known for his humility. Had he lived after the war, he never would have allowed Saigon to be named after him.

A comparable example, would have been if a similar name change had occurred after the American Civil War. Picture this scenario: after the surrender of the southern rebels, victorious unionists of the north announce a declaration. The city of Atlanta, would no longer be known as Atlanta. Thereafter, it would be officially renamed, ‘Abraham Lincolnburg’. How ridiculous.

When conquering Vietnamese communists from the north announced that Saigon would be renamed Ho Chi Minh City, this caused further resentment among southerners. Even today, most of the city’s residents continue to call the city by its former name.

Curious, I asked a Hanoian what she calls the city. She answers, “When I’m in the north, I call it Ho Chi Minh City. When I’m in the south, I call it Saigon.”

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