The blockbuster musical Miss Saigon turned 27 this year. It’s been performed in 25 countries and translated into 12 languages, but has clearly yet to make it to Vietnam because nobody has heard of it. That’s probably because it doesn’t cast Saigon in the best light. Based on Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, it depicts a doomed romance between an American soldier and a prostitute during the Vietnam War, when Saigon was a seedy playground for US troops who drowned their sorrows in its drinking dens and brothels.
Eva Noblezada as Kim and Kwang Ho-Hong as Thuy in Miss Saigon: The 25th Anniversary Performance
Following the Viet Cong victory in 1975, the city was renamed Ho Chi Minh City for Vietnam’s first communist leader, although most people still refer to it as Saigon. Four decades on, it’s the country’s biggest metropolis and has fully embraced the shiny promise of consumerism. Yet it’s the city’s chequered history that makes it so fascinating, together with the contrasts: skyscrapers alongside temples, a government-issue red poster emblazoned with a hammer and sickle outside a fancy new shopping centre, baguettes filled with piquant stir fry.
East meets West
The first thing you notice is the motorbikes: thousands of them beeping, jostling for space and jamming the roads. I spotted one carrying a family of five; another trailing three dozen balloons while the scooter behind was piled high with wedding flowers. Fortunately, the main sights are easily walkable or you can plump for the novelty option as I did: a tour in a restored American jeep. My guides, Vins and Cuong, tell me they’re Arsenal fans and their names mean “victory” and “strong” – typical postwar names.
Commuters on scooters in Ho Chi Minh City
Our first stop is the abandoned presidential pad, the Reunification Palace, which became famous when footage of communist tanks crashing through its wrought-iron gates was beamed around the world in 1975. It’s as if time has stood still in its opulent rooms since then. In the basement there’s a bomb shelter with pristine 60s radio equipment. Pointing out the escape tunnel, Vins says that where it emerges is still a secret “just in case”. I can’t tell if he’s joking.
Next, we admire a vast, incongruous Notre-Dame (main picture), built during the 83 years of French rule. The French were also responsible for the boulevards, an opera house and coffee shops, where the chocolaty brew comes with condensed milk. Our final port of call is the Fito Museum, which is dedicated to herbal medicine. There seems to be a plant to treat everything from sexual dysfunction to liver disease.
The next morning, I seek out one of the temples peeking above shop fronts, and the traffic jams feel a world away. Outside, the paint is peeling and dozens of turtles swim in a pond; inside, the air is heavy with incense. Worshippers leave offerings – a bowl of rice, coconut, a can of Coca-Cola – and women in robes chant and strike a gong. Jade Emperor Pagoda is a Taoist and Buddhist temple, so as well as buddhas garlanded with neon lights, giant statues peer down. It’s believed Taoism arrived in Vietnam with the Chinese, who stayed for more than a thousand years.
Tunnels of War
Ho Chi Minh City’s most famous attraction is actually 22 miles northwest of the urban sprawl among paddy fields. The Cu Chi Tunnels are a 75-mile network of hand-dug passages that functioned as a Viet Cong base during the Vietnam War. There were subterranean command posts, living quarters, kitchens, classrooms, weapons factories and even a field hospital. What the Cu Chi guerrillas lacked in ammunition, they made up in ingenuity. They sawed open unexploded bombs and siphoned off the powder for their landmines. They laid medieval-looking but deadly mantraps made with sharpened bamboo sticks.
A tourist tries out one of the Cu Chi bunkers
What’s most staggering is seeing the tiny openings and imagining what it must have been like spending weeks in the scorpion and vermin-infested 50cm-wide tunnels. Visitors can crawl through an enlarged section; I wasn’t the only one who found it far too close for comfort. Alarmingly, the jungle above ground reverberates with gunfire because there’s also a shooting range where you can try out an AK-47.
Afterwards, I needed a stiff drink and found a suitably idyllic setting: an elegant restaurant called The Deck, which sits on the River Saigon and serves dainty pan-Asian cuisine. It’s an oasis of calm and belongs to Ho Chi Minh City’s modern face, together with the chic boutiques in the centre, the cluster of skyscrapers upriver and the monorail being built by the Japanese. Like its mighty neighbour China, Vietnam has its sights firmly set on the future.
Miss Saigon: the 25th Anniversary Performance will be in cinemas on 16 October for one night only and available on DVD from 24 October. Book a ticket for a screening