Thursday, November 8, 2012


Lotus rootle salad....delicious!
It’s a new day, and I finish my last bite of lotus rootle salad in Au Pagolec, an open air restaurant on Saigon's Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street. Open since 1930, the downtown business is family owned. Although closed for a time, it's been passed on through three generations. Like the city's storied hotels, I wonder how this place could have remained open for so long. There are few businesses in town that survived the French colonial years, through the American war years, and into the communist years.

I asked a Vietnamese businessman, who gave me his view on successions. “When the war happened, many rich families have more than one son,” he tells me.  “They don’t  know which side will win, so some families send one son to join the Viet Cong, (communists) and the other son to join the (South Vietnam) government. So no matter which side won, they have a son on the winning side. They can keep their business.” As disloyal as that sounds, it’s not without precedence. Some rich US families did the same thing back during the American Civil War.

Most restaurants in the city are family owned places, but some foreign fast food chains have made their way into the country. McDonald’s hasn’t arrived yet, but there is a popular burger chain called Loteria, owned by South Koreans.  Representing the Americans, Pizza Hut is in town, along with the famous chicken chain, KFC. Outside each KFC restaurant in town, the face of Colonel Sanders  looks out from the front wall. One day, I pointed at his likeness, and asked a Vietnamese woman, “Who is that?”
The romantic Cafe Nirvana

“Ho Chi Minh,” she answered. Hilarious. More than a few Vietnamese mistake Colonel Sanders for Ho Chi Minh. Perhaps it’s that resemblance that helped get KFC into Vietnam.

More popular than fast food joints, are the cafés. The French influence left a strong café culture in the city, and cafes are everywhere. Walking down Nguyen Dinh Chieu, I pass the traditional Café Nirvana. With décor of dark wood, Vietnamese artworks, and antique furniture, the place has an atmosphere of decades gone by. Soft music and a waterfall complete the romantic scene. But there are few customers here.

On the other end of the spectrum, further down the street is the crowded MGM Saigon Café. This place has nothing to do with the famous Hollywood movie studio, but it’s trendy and very popular. This café with a retro 70’s interior is four stories high.  In here the DJ blares music so loud, I wonder how any customers can hold a conversation. This place is part café, part restaurant, part disco. Well, cancel the disco. I have a look at the disco on the 3rd floor, and it’s completely empty. “The club closed,” a waiter informs me,” construction.”

Odd, the club only looked empty to me, and there were no renovations. A friend later told me the more likely reason it wasn't open. “That disco was very popular, but it was also popular with the drug dealers. They sold drugs in the bathrooms. The police came and ordered it closed.”

Walking further down Nguyen Dinh Chieu, both sides of the street become lined with shops. As the Vietnamese economy grows, a middle class is growing with it. More people are getting disposable incomes, and brand names and luxury items are finding their way into the Vietnamese marketplace. Here there's a L’Oreal shop, down the street is a Levi’s factory outlet, and a shop carrying Legos and Barbie dolls. Since the city has the country’s best shopping, western name brands are hitting HCMC.

Many foreigners who live here stay away from the name brands though. Long term expats know that it’s far cheaper for them to get their clothing tailor made, than it is for them to buy brand name clothing off the rack.
The very popular, and noisy, MGM

Another nearby store is named, “Chic & Trendy”. Faceless mannequins in the front window sport outrageous fashions reminiscent of the New York club scene. These tastes are reflected in local Vietnamese fashion magazines. Nowadays in HCMC, western fashions are all the rage, for women and for men.

A Vietnamese woman buzzes by me on a motorbike, and I’m reminded that not all traditional fashion is lost in the city. She wears the national women’s outfit known as the ao dai, seen in most foreign movies about Vietnam. The traditional outfit consists of silk pants, and a form fitting silk tunic. There are slits cut on both sides of the tunic, reaching higher than you might expect. The slits form long flaps in the front and back, leaving just a hint of skin visible on both sides of the waist.

This national dress had all but disappeared, until a beauty pageant was won by a Vietnamese contestant in 1995 wearing the ao dai. The traditional outfit made a comeback, and it’s still worn in some schools, government offices, and for formal occasions.

One of my Vietnamese friends Chi, wears a bright blue ao dai every week for her job at a bank. Chi is originally from the Mekong Delta, but now lives in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

“My mother was VC,” she told me. As a young Viet Cong fighter, her mother was wounded fighting Americans in the Mekong Delta. To this day, her mother cannot raise one of her arms past her shoulder because of a shrapnel wound from the war. Her grandfather was also VC, and died fighting Americans in the Delta. Her father on the other hand, was a draftee in the ARVN, the old South Vietnamese Army. He left the ARVN after only a couple of months. It’s likely he was a deserter.

Born after the war, Chi is from Vietnam’s new generation that drives the growing economy. She is a modern woman, in every sense of the word. She’s a university graduate, financially independent, and an entrepreneur. Besides her bank job, she owns two outside businesses. “I have shop at hotel for foreigner(s),” she tells me. The shop sells souvenirs to business travelers. But that’s not her only side business.
Saigon is the center of fashion in Vietnam. Western trends are popular.

“I have bar on Phu Quoc Island,” she continues. This small bar is in a growing tourist destination south of the Mekong Delta. She occasionally flies there to check up on the business.

Chi was married once, and has an adorable daughter of six. Soon after her birth she learned that her Vietnamese husband, like many urban Vietnamese men, was spending time with prostitutes at karaoke bars. While many Vietnamese wives tolerate this behavior, Chi didn’t, and divorced him. Her husband still visits his daughter on weekends. Chi has moved on, and with her current work and outside businesses, she now earns more money than her ex-husband.

Chi was born after the war, and like most Vietnamese, she doesn’t dwell on it. The subject still comes up though, even with her daughter. “My daughter ask me one day,” Chi relates, “why did Americans come make war here?”
As seen here, Vietnam's traditional dress, the "ao dai", has made a comeback.

That’s not an easy question to answer. Given what happened to Chi’s mother in the war, I’m surprised that she doesn’t dislike Americans, but she doesn’t hold a grudge. “That is past,” she says of the war, “that was so many year before.”

Chi told me that long before she had married, she used to work for a medical organization, and worked with an American doctor. They worked closely together, and soon began dating. He became her first love. ”I loved him so much,” she admits.

That love was reciprocated, and he eventually asked her to marry him.

As much as she loved him, Chi turned him down, since she believed her parents wouldn’t approve.

The doctor cried.

No comments:

Post a Comment