HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam – This city’s official title is Ho Chi Minh City (search), but it’s still called Saigon (search) by many people who live here. And in many ways, it remains the city it used to be, with buildings that remind us of its French colonial past.
But Saigon, as I still call it, has changed dramatically since I first visited 12 years ago, as a backpacker.
Then there were very few streetlights, and the roads were heavily potholed. It seemed little changed since 1975, when the North’s tanks entered the city to end the Vietnam War (search).
Perhaps the most striking change now is the number of people. The streets were busy then, but nothing like today.
Back then, a cyclo driver could transport me across the city in half an hour; now it sometimes takes hours to get from the airport because of the traffic.
A good test of the prosperity of a poorer Asian country is the quality and quantity of its scooters. Saigon is full of them, and many cost thousands of dollars and would not look out of place in the streets of Rome.
The communist government in Hanoi (search) always knows how to put on a good show during anniversaries, and Saigon has been getting ready for this main event — the 30th anniversary of the fall of the city to the North on April 30, 1975 — for months, if not years.
Posters and flags are everywhere to commemorate the event. But so are massive billboards promoting American firms and those from other developed nations.
The contrast is stark, and despite the patriotic theme of the 30th anniversary celebrations, Vietnam’s leaders know they need the outside world to help them.
America is now Vietnam’s most important trading partner, and the newfound prosperity it has brought to this country is noticeable on the streets of Saigon.
But Vietnam has a population of 81 million now, and it is growing. Two out of three people in this country weren’t even born when the war ended. Finding jobs for them is going to be the biggest challenge the government will face in the future.
The other big challenge for the leaders in Hanoi is fighting corruption. Speaking to American businessmen here, they say it’s difficult to win large contracts without bribes. Vietnam’s leaders seem to understand the problem, and I’m told they are trying to deal with it.
When I talk to people here, they seem happy that they now have a unified country that has opened up to the outside world.
But it’s difficult to meet with those who were defeated here in 1975. Many of South Vietnam’s soldiers faced re-education camps after the war. Discrimination against them and their families forced many to become boat people and flee Vietnam.
Many of the cyclo drivers that I met when I last visited here had been soldiers in the South Vietnamese army. They said driving cyclos was the only job they could get.
Now it's hard to find them on the streets of Saigon.
I’m told they are banned from the center of the city.