National Geographic : 1995 Apr
being assassinated in a November 1963 coup d'etat. Several blocks away, near the An Quang Pagoda, was the place where, in 1968, South Vietnam's police chief, Nguyen Ngoc Loan, fired a revolver bullet through the head of a suspected Vietcong guerrilla. Images of the curbside execution exploded onto televi sion screens back in the U. S., fueling the growing antiwar movement. Yet Cholon's greatest travails began after the communist victory, when the neighbor hood's merchants became the target of a with ering anti-Chinese pogrom and many of the city's most talented entrepreneurs fled the country, taking their money with them. "Now," said Tran Tuan Tai, chairman of Cholon's large Viet Hoa Bank, "people are coming back and bringing their friends." Indeed, Cholon has once again emerged, big ger than ever, as a rallying point for Chinese capital, with investors from Taiwan and Hong Kong, followed by Singapore and Malaysia, far and away the biggest players in the local economy. Yet in Ho Chi Minh City, it always seemed, no sooner had I found another compelling rea son to believe in the city's rebirth than an inci dent of some sort undermined that impression. Near Dong Khoi Street one evening I was sit ting with friends in a bar (this one proclaimed itself the First American Vietnam Veteran Owned Bar in Vietnam) sipping a tall 7UP when a violent commotion erupted outside. About a dozen young Vietnamese filled the pic ture window like extras in a B movie. They brandished bottles and shouted angrily, stop ping just beyond our view. Minutes later they sauntered back, nonchalantly adjusting their hair and clothes. In the brawl-which was rumored to have had political overtones-a young man had been left lying on the pavement in a pool of blood. Later, word came: The man had died en route to a local hospital. SUCH GLIMPSES of Saigon's darker side, and my growing feel for the city, made me wonder how it would ever overcome its roller-coaster history. "Resentments simmer below the surface here like undercurrents in the sea," a Viet namese friend told me when I shared a quiet cup of coffee with him. A student of north south relations for many years, he spoke on condition that I not use his name. When the northerners took control, he said, "they were so afraid southerners had been contaminated by Western culture" that they purged even the hard-core communists from positions of power. Many Saigonese--Viet cong and ARVN alike-have remained bitter. Now, he said, even older feuds between the Buddhists and Catholics, long frozen by com munist discipline, could heat up again. Hanoi had done many good things under doi moi, he said, but now faced a dilemma. Sai gon's innate entrepreneurial flair, hence its greater appeal to foreign investors, would, he and many others believed, widen the econom ic gap between south and north and could, in the worst case, stir secessionist sentiments. If the authorities were suddenly to loosen political controls, he said, there could be bloodshed. "If they go too fast in economic growth, there'll be more smuggling, prostitu tion, bullying, and economic discrepancies. If it's too slow, foreign investors will pull out." Turning her back on the material world, 19-year-old Tran Thi Thu, her head freshly shaved, begins life as a Buddhist nun at Pho Da Pagoda. Ear lier that day, before she cut her hair and buried it beneath a tree, Thu received the blessings of a dear aunt (top). For a time the communists restricted religious training and sent monks and nuns to reeducation camps. Today the appeal of the holy life seems strong, especially among the poor. Monks and nuns re ceive schooling and never go hungry.