Just as I’m sad to see that the warm days of summer are behind us, it’s bittersweet to realize that our coverage of Ho Chi Minh City has come to an end. In tandem with the Burns/Novick documentary on the Vietnam War, I felt immersed in this Metropolis of the Month. A trip to HCMC may not be on the horizon for me, but next time I’m in the D.C. area I will most certainly take an afternoon to visit Eden Village.
It makes sense that Northern Virginia’s Little Saigon is where we ended our exploration of HCMC, since we began by recognizing how empires shaped Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City. “Subject to imperial rule throughout their history,” we noted in our HCMC bibliography, “the Vietnamese people held tightly to their own identity while absorbing aspects of its occupiers—China, Japan, France and the U.S.” To better understand the “navigation of identities, economies and politics,” at play in “this burgeoning Southeast Asian metropolis,” we published two travelogues from wildly different perspectives: a nineteenth-century American-born woman living in Japan, who made a stop in Saigon/Cholon on a round-the-world tour, and a twentieth-century American man in modern HCMC on vacation. While Clara Whitney remarked on the “queer mix of nationalities … these different people and costumes” and the “low marshy shores – completely overgrown with a thick vividly green foliage,” our own correspondent found “a nation awash in youth and motor scooters,” where the “Traffic flows like a giant school of fish along the wide boulevards constructed during French occupation.”
While Cleveland may not be “awash” in scooters, it certainly shares wide boulevards with HCMC–notably Stokes Boulevard, named after former mayor Carl Stokes, which runs eastward from the Cleveland Clinic and Case Western Reserve University towards the suburb of Shaker Heights. We’ll feature several posts this month that examine Shaker Heights, either directly or tangentially, as well as the Stokes mayoralty, the role of sports and arenas in municipal politics, and the experience of conducting research in and on Ohio’s cultural capital and second largest city.
For those attending the upcoming SACRPH conference, we hope that our Metropolis of the Month coverage will ensure that your visit to Cleveland will be historically enriched. And for those who cannot join, we hope that you will share in the spirit of the mid-1990s when the Drew Carey Show ruled the airwaves, the Indians threatened to win a World Series, and city leaders told residents and the national public that Cleveland was the “Comeback City.” Arguably amidst a second renaissance–boosted by a “Believe in Cleveland” boosterism–with a renewed downtown, the best basketball team east of the Mississippi, an equivalent baseball team to boot, and a now-fully-established Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame, it is just as the Drew Carey Show’s theme song attested: Cleveland Rocks!
“That flag is the symbol of the spirit of the refugee,” Springfield resident and Vietnamese American talk show host Liem D Bui told journalists in 2012. The flag to which Bui referred is that of the fallen South Vietnam government and it along with an American flag fly over Eden Center shopping plaza in Falls Church, VA, a symbolic embodiment of Vietnamese American culture and Ho Chi Minh City that some call “a capital within a capital,” for D.C.’s 80,000 residents of Vietnamese descent. 
Eden Center was established over 30 years ago, and it still retains a cultural resonance today–albeit one that remains subject to popular perceptions. “[M]erchants and community leaders worry that, outside their circle, their home away from home is increasingly viewed as a place for gambling and gang activity,” noted Washington Post journalist Luz Lazo, “a perception that some business leaders say hurts business and threatens the vibrant social hub.” Undoubtedly, many residents remember their own difficult arrival in the U.S. Though few recall now, the majority of Americans opposed President’s Ford’s approval of refugee acts enabling Vietnamese passage to the U.S. and in many places they faced discrimination and resentment.
In his 2014 book Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia, Haverford College professor Andrew Friedman demonstrates how the refugee populations that followed CIA efforts in El Salvador, Iran, and Vietnam reshaped Northern Virginia’s built environment and demographics. Eden Center shopping plaza is a symbol of this change, a piece of Ho Chi Minh City on the edge of the American South. While an obvious result of U.S. intervention in Vietnam, the relationships or intimacies that led to the settlement of Vietnamese Americans in Northern Virginia were forged through not just the war but decades of covert action abroad.
Occupation, War, and Covert Action
For much of the twentieth century, American legislators severely limited immigration from Asia and refused the right to naturalized citizenship to those that did come. Of course, this is not to say that migration in the nineteenth or even early twentieth centuries evolved only from military conflict. As Yale scholar Laura Barraclough has demonstrated, Japanese farmers and labors migrated to places like California’s Imperial County and San Fernando Valley to work the land even in the face of discrimination.
U.S. involvement in wars in Asia and its occupation of Hawaii and the Philippines helped to create various transnational connections related to economics, politics, and intimacies (referring to friendships, sexual affairs, and collaborations that occurred as part of covert activities) that later contributed to shifts in immigration policies in the early 1950s. The 1952 McCarran Act removed the ban on naturalization, but maintained quotas for certain groups, notably Asians. Not until 13 years later did the 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration Act redefine the rules for immigration, making family unification a priority and replacing racial quotas with hemispheric ones, thereby facilitating greater numbers of newcomers from Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
During this same period and afterward, covert action abroad in places like Vietnam constructed refugee and immigration flows to the United States. However, where these new populations settled in the U.S. often depended on the quality of contacts developed between American actors abroad and the nations subject to intervention, in this case the Vietnamese. American empire propped up and then negated South Vietnam but also enabled many South Vietnamese allies to gain footholds in the U.S. as residents and later citizens.
The U.S. had an interest in developing capitalist markets in Asia while also building political bridges to defeat communism. U.S. occupation and reconstruction of Japan provides a prime example of this, as was its defense of what became South Korea in the 1950s. In each case, many soldiers stationed abroad developed relationships with Asian women—love, at least for a moment, ensued. Initially, the War Brides Act of 1945 allowed for only non-Asian spouses to enter the U.S. Not until an amendment was added to 1950 legislation were Japanese and other Asian spouses allowed to consistently migrate to U.S. shores. In this way, family bonds, friendships, marriage, and the like influenced government action and policy.
Immigration policy did not dictate the level of migration unilaterally. The relationship between American interventions in Asia and immigration or refugee flows that followed hinged mightily on political realities in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam respectively. During both the postwar occupation of Japan and the Korean War, the nation allied with the U.S. remained, more or less, physically and geopolitically intact. Korea might have been split into two nations but the Korean War, even though it did lead to Korean immigration stateside, did not set off a wave of refugee immigration to the U.S.
In contrast, American actions in Vietnam did not result in victory for its allies; rather, those Vietnamese allied with the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government found themselves targeted by the victorious Communist North Vietnam for imprisonment, torture, and execution. This created a larger flow of refugees to the U.S. and the passage of the 1975 Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act by the Ford administration, despite public opposition. The 1980 Refugee Act subsequently resulted in directed flows of Vietnamese to places like Orange County, California and Northern Virginia. From 1980 to 2000, 531,00 Vietnamese sought and received refuge or asylum in the U.S. Today 40% of all Vietnamese Americans live in Orange County.
While much has been said about how American adventures abroad and the region’s own anti-communist conservatism helped to reshape Orange County demographics, less has been written about a similar process in Northern Virginia or how covert action rather than direct military intervention played a role in facilitating refugee flows. For example, many credit the Marshall Plan for helping to rebuild European economies. It stands as an open symbol of U.S. postwar beneficence. However, as Friedman points out, the same Marshall Plan led to US involvement in Vietnam in the late 1940s, nearly twenty years earlier than the Vietnam War. Indeed the Marshall Plan, established as one expert noted “to help rebuild civilization with an American blueprint,” also approved $685 million in foreign currency for CIA covert political action. By the time the Vietnamese crushed French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the U.S. was paying nearly 80 percent of France’s war costs.
The U.S. agency charged with Vietnamese economic and infrastructural development Special Technical and Economic Mission (STEM), led by individuals like Mark Merrell attempted to “modernize” the Southeast Asian nation and unwittingly contributed to CIA efforts. In his capacity as STEM leader in Vietnam, Merrell’s activities – road building, economic development, housing complexes – reconstructed the shape of Vietnam’s built environment. “[Y]ears before Americans are seen has having significant spatial impact on the country, [Merrell’s] work … entered, altered, and established crucial aspects of the built environment and material life of Vietnam that became incorporated into its physical expression as a place, that defined how it was experienced by local residents and later observers,” reflects Friedman. Rufus Phillips performed similar duties after Merrell. “He dug wells. He brought fertilizer. He handed out medical kits. He rebuilt markets, roofs, roads, and bridges,” points out Friedman. “[H]e sculpted American aid, American material, and American building techniques into the landscape of Vietnam.” One hears the enthusiastic, Kool-Aid drinking voice of The Quiet American’s Alden Pyle whispering in the ears of men like Merrell and Phillips as they promoted U.S. stewardship of their Southeast Asian allies.
If Merrell and Phillips constructed the built environment with materials and U.S. money, others worked relationships. Take Edward Lansdale, who was sent with the “Saigon Military Mission” to ensure that Vietnam did not reunify even as the U.S. agreed at the 1954 Geneva Conference to do just that. Lansdale used his charisma, inquisitive nature, and aptitude for political calculations to build personal relationships with Vietnamese collaborators that forwarded U.S. interests. “Lansdale prided himself on understanding not only the politics, but the cultures of places he entered … He claimed to communicate on good humor alone,” Friedman writes. “And he almost always acquired his cultural knowledge through one on one experiences of extreme intimacy with people he knew for political reasons.” Lansdale supported the efforts of Merrell and Phillips, seeing in medical aid, for example, a way into Vietnamese hearts and minds while also providing U.S. companies an inside track into emerging markets where businesses could demonstrate the superiority of American wares to a people “hungry for technological improvement.” The Saigon Military Mission disbanded once Vietnam formally split, and the agents returned to NOVA.
Soon after, however, in 1965, Lansdale returned to Vietnam as a special assistant to the US Ambassador to “organize and carry out what was now called a ‘rural construction’ program.” Lansdale held frequent parties in his Saigon home, welcoming US dignitaries, Vietnamese elites, and others in a heady mix of politics, camaraderie, and intrigue. Luminaries like Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger sometimes attended, mingling with Southeast Asian counterparts, developing intelligence, and drawing conclusions about U.S. actions. Creating this “cultural corridor” between NOVA and Vietnam did not ensure real equality between actors. Race and U.S. power always remained a dissident murmur preventing equal relations between individuals. Even those agents who came to treasure Vietnamese culture sometimes expressed their view of the nation’s people in racist terms. One writer noted surprise at the opinions offered by members of Rufus Phillips’ team regarding the Vietnamese. Greeted by the particular team member’s part-Vietnamese and part-French wife in a home filled with Asian artifacts, the biographer encountered a man who seemed less than impressed by Vietnam. “I then proceeded to interview a man who in the course of an hour used such racist epithets as ‘goddam slopes’ innumerable times as I asked for his thoughts and recollections about his time in Vietnam.” Admittedly, Lansdale would do much to help collaborators settle in NOVA in the years after the Vietnam War, but these relationships always rested on unequal partnerships.
Coming to America
By April of 1975, South Vietnam’s fall seemed imminent, but despite clear indications of American failure, no real evacuation plans for Vietnamese allies emerged. While the aforementioned legislation of the mid 1970s and early 1980s facilitated waves of Vietnamese immigrants to U.S. shores, the initial 1975 evacuation symbolically represented their fates. The image of a bedraggled U.S. helicopter taking off from Saigon as thousands of Vietnamese living in “apocalyptic fear” of the incoming regime sat below forced American policymakers to answer a simple question: What had the South Vietnamese earned by allying with the United States? “The evacuation degenerated quickly into an improvised experiment in racism,” one official remembered. “Only those with white skin were assured a way out.” In eighteen hours of emergency evacuation, 5,595 Vietnamese joined their American counterparts in departing Saigon. By the end of April, a total of 42,123 Vietnamese and others found their way out via “black flights.”
Many ended up in refugee camps run by the Pentagon in one of four places: Camp Pendleton, CA, Fort Chafee, Arkansas, Elgin Air Force Base, FL, and Fort Indiantown, PA. The refugee camps ran civics classes to instruct the Vietnamese on US customs and ways to redefine themselves in this new environment. “In lessons about work, when a woman made the motion of casting a fishing net, the teacher would correct, ‘I am a housewife,’” notes Friedman. “When a man made a gun with his hands and said, ‘I rat-a-tat-tat,’ the teacher would recommend, ‘I work with my hands.”Their pasts would have to be wiped clean, though as will be seen, this process contained greater complexity than any camp instruction could hope to solve.
Needing a sponsor to escape the camps and get established on U.S. soil, many refugees fell back on the intimacies established before and during the Vietnam War. As a result, many found their way to NOVA and specifically, the Dulles Corridor, a twenty five mile stretch from D.C. city limits near the Pentagon to Dulles International Airport inhabited by large concentrations of American covert actors often in the employ of the CIA or Pentagon. “Identification by empire,” reflects Friedman, “may have voided the landscape of South Vietnam as their homeland, but it allowed them to settle and claim the CIA’s and Pentagon’s suburban landscape as their own.” By June 19, 1975, 3,733 Vietnamese had settled in Northern Virginia, and within five years 9,541 resided in the area. Many refugees settled in proximity to their refugee camps, hence Orange County’s proliferation of Vietnamese residents. Some migrated to Washington state, New York, and Minnesota, where established Asian American communities resided. Northern Virginia differed in that it was neither proximate to any camp nor could claim an established Asian American population. Intimate connections to CIA covert actors led Vietnamese to NOVA where they settled largely in Arlington County, not coincidently home to many of their military and government sponsors. Many key Vietnamese actors active in U.S. counterinsurgency programs there appealed to and even visited Lansdale; he even hosted gatherings at his McLean home, “where newly arrived refugees could organize some self help groups.”
Not that average Virginians welcomed their arrival. At best, many white residents of Northern Virginia, a region at the time still pockmarked by the legacy of Jim Crow segregation, resented the newcomers and demanded they integrate into local economies and cultures as quickly as possible. Others more maliciously wondered aloud if NOVA would be able to remain truly “American.” Vietnamese newcomers might have used their intimacies to secure a new home in the burgeoning Northern Virginia suburbs but they did so unevenly as their white counterparts, some guilty of subterfuge, torture, and assassination, settled into cushy office jobs in government and private business. For example, Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the man photographed famously executing an alleged VC collaborator during the war, settled in NOVA, even opening a pizza parlor named Les Tres Continents, but remained subject to the occasional ominous threats for his actions during the war.
Whatever his complicity or guilt (the story behind the shooting remains as murky as during the war), some came to his defense. “Everybody did it, it’s not only him,” the Vietnamese wife of an American State Department official commented. “The past in Vietnam is not in the United States.” The physical and conceptual newness of Northern Virginia helped in this regard. “Violence rests in the past, and the past is geographic, distant in very sense, relegated to the lost Vietnam that can’t penetrate the resilient visual immediacy of Virginia’s suburbs,” Friedman explains.
Even in the face of racism and the difficult process of establishing new identities and careers, Vietnamese refugees first settled in Arlington, Falls Church, Annandale, Vienna, and Clarendon and along the thoroughfares that connected them, like Wilson Boulevard and Columbia Pike. They did not settle en mass in one large “immigrant ghetto” but rather dispersed though a “wide swath of the Dulles Corridor landscape.” They established businesses and worked jobs that radically differed from their occupations in Vietnam. A navy commander worked as a bag boy at a local Giant supermarket on Leesburg Pike; women who worked for large American companies now clerked at the Fairfax Quality Inn.
Soon, cultural and business institutions took form. In 1975, Rev. Nhi Tran established the Holy Martyrs of Vietnam Catholic Church in Arlington. In these early years of settlement, Clarendon formed the heart of this new Vietnamese community with its Little Saigon. Even before 1975, in 1972, the first real Vietnamese presence in the county bulged with the establishment of a restaurant, followed by other restaurants like the Queen Bee, and grocery stores. Vietnamese immigrants lived in old government housing, new garden apartment developments, and some of the nation’s first FHA insured demonstration projects. Indeed, the very architecture of the state sheltered refugees from the country’s foreign policies. When the metro line to the area was completed, bringing government offices, Vietnamese businesses migrated further out to Bailey’s Crossroads and Seven Corners in the Falls Church area.  In fact, 60 percent of Vietnamese resided within three miles of Seven Corners.
It would be here in the early 1980s, where Vietnamese refuges would take an old run down shopping plaza and refurbish it into an economic hub and a visual representation of their community. Jefferson Village, a 500 unit, 70 building project, and the Willston “garden apartment complex” more or less bookended Eden Center and both came to house large numbers of Vietnamese Americans. Ironically, these apartments also provided accommodations to CIA agents and military officers who had worked for men like Mark Merrell in Vietnam decades earlier.
Named after the Eden Arcade in Ho Chi Minh City, Eden Center soon emerged as not only a hub for the NOVA Vietnamese community and a physical reminder of U.S. foreign policy, but also as a sort of capital for the Vietnamese diaspora. “All Vietnamese communities around the world look up to this one as the crown of the anti-Communist government and its sense of duty,” one Vietnamese immigrant told interviewers. Ethnographers found that for many Vietnamese transplants going from the capital of South Vietnam, Saigon, to the capital of the U.S. seemed fitting, hence Eden Center’s status as “capital within a capital.” The “Little Saigon of the East Coast,” noted one Vietnamese American and Maryland resident.
Today, Eden Center continues to fly two flags in the center of its parking lot: an American one and the flag of the fallen South Vietnam. The practice began in the 1980s and while it testifies to the influence of local Vietnamese Americans it also bears witness to American actions abroad. Even local governments have taken formal notice, such as in 2003 when the local Board of Supervisors granted recognition to the South Vietnamese flag as the “heritage flag” of NOVA’s Vietnamese American community. Residents themselves fought for this distinction, arguing that Fairfax County did not have to abide by U.N. regulations and could ignore “international protocol” in regard to Vietnam’s “actual flag.” “It is a wonderful, unique environment,” Falls Church City Council member David Snyder told journalists in 2012. “I often say to people, ‘If you want to get a great, wonderful taste of Vietnam without going, taking your passport and spending a couple of thousand dollars on flying . . . just pop in your car and go to the Eden Center.’ ”
Nor do the mechanics of U.S. covert action simply stop, but rather continue in surprising ways. Successful refugees like developer Vietnamese American Tien Hoang, himself a 1975 arrival to NOVA, returned to Ho Chi Minh City in the 1990s, building housing complexes in Vietnam and selling units through a sales office in Falls Church. He even planned a strip mall in Vietnam based on American models and hoped to name it “Little Fairfax,” telling interviewers “It’s like Reston [VA] was back then.” In the end, Vietnamese Americans like Hoang and others who collaborated directly with U.S. actors returned to Ho Chi Minh City in search of development opportunities not as “conquering South Vietnamese Republicans but as American capitalist emissaries looking to develop its land,” Friedman argues.
Unlike other recipients of covert aid such as Salvadorians, the Vietnamese refugees had the “benefit” of a very visible war that flickered across American television screens and polarized popular debate. Facilitated by intimate connections to U.S. officials, a result of their alliances during American occupation of South Vietnam, the Vietnamese carved out conceptual and physical space in Northern Virginia through their own sweat and toil, a capital within a capital.
 June Q. Wu, “Police Raid Falls Church Cafes,” Washington Post, August 12, 2011; Tom Jackman, “Two Dead in Eden Center Shootings in Falls Church,” Washington Post, July 15, 2012; Luz Lazo, “Months After Police Raid, Eden’s Center’s Vietnamese Community Worried About Image,” Washington Post, March 30, 2012.
 Luz Lazo, “Months After Police Raid, Eden’s Center’s Vietnamese Community Worried About Image,” Washington Post, March 30, 2012.
 Laura Barraclough, Making the San Fernando Valley: Rural Landscapes, Urban Development and White Privilege, (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011).
 Andrew Friedman, Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of the U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2013), 128.
Tourism matters in ways we don’t always consider, often functioning as a “transnational practice imbued with meaning,” as historian Scott Laderman argues. For example, in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, the U.S. government took an interest in promoting tourism in Southeast Asia, specifically in Ho Chi Min City (then referred to as Saigon and Cholon). Writers extolled Saigon’s mix of “French modernity” and Southeast Asian tradition. American policy makers believed U.S. travelers to Vietnam would strengthen ties between the two nations and publicize the efforts of South Vietnam to remain independent in the face of the alleged communist threat from the North. Searching for international legitimacy—particularly since its creation negated the agreed upon reunifying general elections prescribed by the 1954 Geneva Conference—the South Vietnamese government also saw in tourism a means to secure its status. “Visitors will be amazed by [Saigon’s] physiognomy, a happy combination of old Oriental civilization and blooming modernization,” noted a guide to HCMC produced by the South Vietnamese government’s National Travel Office.
Growing up in the late 1980s and 1990s, films like Rambo, Platoon, and countless other Vietnam War movies portrayed a nation besieged by violence and an enemy obsessed with American invaders. Even films that were arguably more critical of the U.S. intervention, like Stanley Kubrick’s very dark Full Metal Jacket,conveyed the idea that the Vietnamese sought to eradicate their American counterparts at all costs; any attempt to explain or describe motivations other than those of Americans was largely eschewed.
Even in seemingly sympathetic moments, many U.S. observers never seem to question the general morality of the war or the fact that when Americans discuss Vietnam, they are most often discussing the U.S. “Many Americans travel to Vietnam to learn not about Vietnam but about the United States,” Laderman notes in his 2009 work, Tours of Vietnam: Travel Guides, War, and Memory. It always seems lost on many Americans that whatever lengths the Vietnamese went to repel invaders, they were always fighting in defense of their country, a very important but often ignored point.
The most recent 10-part Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary series on the war serves as only the most recent and accomplished example of this self-referential obsession, coming on the heels of 2014’s The Last Days of Vietnam. To their credit, Burns and Novick do more than anyone else before them to present a broader context to the war and draw out the most ignored experiences of the conflict, at least in the West: that of the millions of Vietnamese civilians who perished and North Vietnamese and Vietcong soldiers who fought off American interlopers.
Still, even in its brilliance, the documentary sometimes falters. It fails to fully explicate the history of Chinese interference in Vietnamese affairs and sometimes sets up false equivalencies between the behavior of the French and Americans with that of North Vietnamese and guerilla fighters in the South, the Viet Minh and Viet Cong.
Equally troubling, notes Christian G. Appy in his review of the first episode in the series, U.S. policy is too often depicted as based on mistaken impressions, tragic communications failures, or misunderstandings rather than on the expansion of power in the face of what the nation’s intelligence community believed to be a reputable “policy of global counterrevolution,” argues Appy. “The United States did not stumble unwittingly into Vietnam.”
Beyond War in HCMC
If you watch the aforementioned Full Metal Jacket, the film’s first half focuses on the psychological wringer that is and was Marine boot camp; the second half of the movie unfolds in the troop’s deployment to Vietnam, specifically the travels of Private Joker (Matthew Modine). This latter portion of Full Metal Jacket opens up in HCMC with Joker, a journalist for the Army, being robbed of his camera by Vietnamese thieves who speed off on a motorbike. Needless to say, while this might have been an accurate portrayal of the city’s nightlife amid war in the late 1960s, it underscores the very dynamic described above. More importantly for our purposes, HCMC today is a very different metropolitan animal.
I spent three days in HCMC around Christmas of 2013. What you find in this South Vietnam metropolis isn’t tired communist architecture, hostile residents bent on robbing G.I.s or drab “comrade”-inspired clothing and pop culture, but a nation awash in youth and motor scooters. Traffic flows like a giant school of fish along the wide boulevards constructed during French occupation; the immensity and collective nature of the traffic oddly matches the grandiosity of the boulevards. One steps out gingerly into a busy Haussmanesque thoroughfare as motorbikes swarm around you, yet they always seem to avoid collision with pedestrians and each other. Admittedly, upon the first couple of attempts, the process feels more than a little disconcerting, but by the end of your second day it feels natural.
Quaint boutique coffee shops, small businesses, street food, restaurants, and sidewalk commerce abounds. The bustling walkways of the city animate HCMC in countless ways; they communicate “a tale of human condition … something both gritty and humanizing,” A.M. Kim notes in her study of the metropolis. Nearly one third of the city generates a living from sidewalk commerce, and low cost food, household sundries, and services all can be found simply by strolling along city paths. The government may be communist politically, but what you see all around is pure capitalism.
Much of the nation and certainly much of HCMC’s population is under 40. In two decades, the city has doubled its size; in even less time, the average income of its citizens has tripled. Most residents vaguely remember the conflict with the US, if at all. The fact is the U.S was last in a long line of occupiers: the Chinese, French, Japanese, and French (again) all came before America’s benighted intervention. France’s footprint exceeds that of its American counterpart. The former Francophone presence simply can’t be ignored as the city’s urban design and distinctly French architecture exerts itself upon visitors and residents alike.
Take, for example, Independence Palace. Built originally by the French in the nineteenth century and formerly known as Reunification Palace, it was once home to the South Vietnamese government and, before it, Japanese occupiers during World War II. It stands simultaneously as a reminder of imperial rule and the Vietnamese people’s rejection of occupation, be it French, Japanese, or American.
Then again, despite its burgeoning reputation as one of Southeast Asia’s cosmopolitan metropoles of the modern era, the city cannot be fully divorced from the U.S. intervention. Some of its most popular tourist destinations, like the Cu Chi Tunnels and the War Remnants Museum, have everything to do with the war. In fact, according to Laderman, by the early 21st century, the War Remnants Museum emerged as the city’s most popular tourist trap.
Cu Chi Tunnel
The Cu Chi Tunnel tour on the outskirts of HCMC serves as great example of the post-war tourism. Where else can you spend the day with giddy Australians, Japanese, Malay, Kiwis, and countless other citizens of the world as you crawl though old VC tunnels or witness displays of military ingenuity, while a tour guide points out the various booby traps used against American forces.
“The man in the black pajamas,” Walter Sobchak mutters in TheBigLebowski, “a worthy adversary”. Indeed, some workers on the tour don the very outfit to which Sobchak refers and in a way the uniform serves as the centerpiece. At one point, you sit in wooden huts drinking hot tea as guides tell you about the black uniforms worn by insurgents. You can even pay 10 dollars to shoot old VC rifles on the facility’s target range, an opportunity this writer passed up but several others quickly took advantage of. As our guide noted, “Today we welcome Americans as our friends.”
Granted, the Cu Chi Tunnel tour seemed surreal to this American observer, most notably as a contingent of Malaysians tourists stood for a group photograph in front of a confiscated American tank. Yet, for the Vietnamese, the Cu Chi tunnels represent a sort of Mount Vernon, Gettysburg, and Battle of Yorktown all in one; centuries of conflict with foreign invaders bested through a combination of grit, will, and innovation. Neil Sheehan, a journalist who covered the war and author of one the conflict’s defining books, A Bright Shining Lie, pointed out in a 1988 interview, “The Vietnamese simply will not tolerate foreign domination; their whole history has been one of repelling invaders.” With the American defeat, it had shrugged off Western occupiers, one a traditional colonial imperial force and the other a modern superpower, through no small amount of sacrifice. Tourists, and perhaps the Vietnamese themselves, don’t visit the tunnels out of bitterness; they visit to celebrate a hard won victory for independence.
To put the tunnels in perspective consider Michael Moore’s short-lived TV Nation, a show which once asked how we should think about war reenactments. Reliving Civil War battles might seem harmless, but what if we reenacted the 1975 “Fall of Saigon”? Our tour guide referred to the American retreat from the city as liberation but graciously acknowledged for Americans it earned the “Fall” moniker. When Moore reenacted the event in one episode he was met with bewilderment and sometimes hostility and anger, yet how different is it? Moreover, would Americans be so gracious with a nation that essentially invaded, occupied, and forcefully prevented unification for seven years? I doubt it. I’ve encountered countless numbers of students who get riled up about the Japanese and Pearl Harbor, and that was a military target.
The War Remnants Museum
“This Museum may be a hard pill for many Americans to swallow … but [the] truths underlying these exhibits [are] as important to our history as [they are] to that of the Vietnamese people.” – American Veteran circa 1994 as recorded in the War Remnants Museum comment book.
Between indiscriminate bombings, American-backed coups, and Agent Orange, the conflict collectively resulted in over 2 million civilian deaths. One could argue that the U.S. has a lot for which to atone in Vietnam. We visited the tunnels before going to the War Remnants Museum—formerly named the “American War Crimes Museum” and later changed to simply the “War Crimes Museum,” before settling on the aforementioned title today.
A visit to the second floor of the museum forces observers to witness the atrocities that occurred toward civilians, notably women, children, and, yes, infants. One doesn’t walk away confident about American motives or interests. Human rights abuses appear to have been legion in the war and obviously not limited to civilians. Did the North Vietnamese regime torture POW? Yes, but unfortunately so did the US.
To be clear, while soldiers are responsible for their behavior and some committed horrible atrocities, as an American tourist the museum elicits contempt for the United States’ political leaders – Truman, Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, and Nixon. As documented by David Halberstam in The Best and the Brightest, the nation’s political leaders put soldiers in an untenable, morally ambiguous position. David Marinas captured the tragedy of the war for American soldiers in heart-wrenching detail in his 2004 work They Marched into Sunlight. American veterans who walked away from the war were left with real questions over what exactly their purpose was; in contrast, Vietnamese veterans of the conflict can look back assured their sacrifices not only meant something, but contributed to their nation’s independence.
Over 50,000 American soldiers tragically lost their lives, but nearly 3 million Vietnamese, the lion’s share of that number civilians, died in the process. When you see pictures of Agent Orange’s long-term impact, such as indescribable birth defects and the like, the carnage of Cold War containment forces one to readjust their perspective. Tony Judt and others have suggested the problematic nature of historical tropes about America’s Cold War “victory” and the righteousness of containment as a foreign policy. The museum drives this point home in brutal fashion. Yet, when you go the museum, it’s not dominated by nationalistic Vietnamese but Western tourists.
Is it one sided? Yes, it never really interrogates the abuses of the Communist regime after reunification. Of course, that being said, whatever one thinks of the North Vietnamese government and its abuses, Vietnam was its country. In an age of false equivalencies, this seems to be worthy of consideration and a point that non-Americans certainly take into account. As Laderman explores in his book, the museum offers visitors a space to express their reactions to its curatorial efforts. One Malaysian tourist heralded the Vietnamese as “freedom fighters” battling for liberty and unification. A Singaporean immigrant from Canada added, “To say no more war is naïve. . . You have to fight for your rights and freedom. I admire the Vietnamese people for defeating foreign powers to regain their dignity and stand proudly as an independent nation.”
American responses run the gamut from shame over our involvement to anger over what some visitors view as a biased account. The response by the daughter of one veteran sums up this dichotomy. She acknowledged the U.S. had made mistakes that “cost lives, future, and security,” asked that forgiveness be given but then qualified with this plea: “The side that isn’t displayed in this museum is what the Vietcong did to our boys. They made mistakes too.” As Laderman points out, the Vietnamese probably aren’t searching for forgiveness since they didn’t invade America. The idea of national liberation never entered her mind.
Over the past two decades, HCMC has reinvented itself and reemerged as a city on the make, yet, for many American visitors all that is new remains tied to events over half a century old. Natives of the city might feel equally tied to the past, but its meaning and effect prove far different and HCMC’s future, though always impacted by China’s regional influence, appears to be, finally, fully its own.
With European colonialism exterting itself in Asia by the 1860s, Ho Chi Minh City, then known as Saigon and Cholon respectively, had fallen under French control. As Gwendolyn Wright and others since have noted, city building served as a central aspect of French colonialism. French leaders believed beautiful, grand cities embodied the nation’s strength, sophistication and imperial reach particularly during an historical moment in which Germany threatened the Francophone empire. It helped that new urban design standards established by law in mid-nineteenth century Paris would be enacted at the same time as France expanded its presence across the globe.
Depending on the admiral installed to lead French efforts in Saigon, the city’s urban development proceeded along at rates related to leadership’s enthusiasm for such projects and the finances required to implement them. For example, one of HCMC’s early governors, Louis Adolphe Bonard, pursued the city’s urban development aggressively until a shortage of funds undercut his efforts. His successor Admiral La Grandiere “commissioned the construction of several institutional buildings and parks, as well as 15,350 km of streets,” writes historian A. M. Kim. “Obsessively controlling, he also issued an avalanche of decrees and regulations that left little to improvisation.”
Governors like La Grandiere and Bonard imagined the future Saigon as a bustling, heavily populated metropolis. The former sought to design a city of 500,000, the latter of four million. Needless to say, in the late nineteenth century the cities that would become HCMC a century later consisted of far fewer citizens than these dreams envisioned. In 1873, French officials counted over 150,000 residents in Saigon-Cholon: 82, 681 Cambodians, 49,595 Chinese, 16,638 Malays, 1,391 Malavard, and over 7,500 Europeans, though only 1,114 of those were considered permanent inhabitants.
Even in the nineteenth century, visitors remarked on the diversity of the city. Clara A. Whitney, the daughter of William C. Whitney, had resided in Japan since 1875; her father established a business college there at the behest of the Japanese government. In 1880, as she and her family traveled back to America they stopped in numerous cities along the way, including Hong Kong, Singapore, Ceylon, Cairo, Naples, Rome, Florence, Geneva, Paris, and of course, Saigon. Only nineteen at the time, Whitney’s 1880s journals, housed at the Library of Congress, provide insight into Ho Chi Minh City’s early years under French colonialism. Saigon proved only a brief stop on her tour of Southeast Asia, but Whitney provides useful, if also Eurocentric observations on the city as it embarked on its Haussmanian redevelopment.
Upon their initial approach to the city, Whitney noted Saigon’s “low marshy shores – completely overgrown with a thick vividly green foliage” and searched for monkeys and alligators along the shore as her steamer moved toward the harbor. Heat greeted Whitney and her fellow passengers: “We arrived in the Saigon harbor and cast anchor beside the wharf in the boiling mid day son of this the hottest place in the world! It is the [Vietnamese Winter] but everybody goes around either in white or very scantily clothed.”
According to Whitney, “this curious desert town as French colony” arose out of the jungle. The “smooth and glassy banks” of the Mekong River surrounded them as the river wound in and out upon their approach to the city, and where she saw the “white spires and red roofs of what appeared to be a great city lying like a magical [metropole] on this waste of green foliage and placid waters.”
To her mind, Saigon’s most impressive building was its Agency of the Messageries Maritime, the second home to the French Shipping Company created in 1851. The agency was housed in “a great white building with a flaming red roof over which metallic dragons climbed up towards the Unicorn and Crown of the French coat of arms.” Whitney believed they had anchored and put into port on an island just across the river from Saigon, but in reality she and the others had docked at Thu Thiem, a peninsula, or more precisely, an oxbow across from the city.
Well before France’s arrival, Thu Thiem contained a market (1751) and judging from the writings of U.S Navy Lieutenant John White who visited the city in October of 1819, functioned as a site of bustling, energetic commerce. Boats ferrying fruits, teas, “timber, bamboos, and new canoes, from various parts of the country” remained in constant motion around the city. Whitney reported similar activity sixty years later and, like White, noted the centrality of boats in the lives of Saigon residents. “Towards the evening we went on shore in a queer little boat whose bow resembled a gondola,” wrote Whitney, whose “arched cover protects a raised platform on which the passengers are expected to sit. Like the Chinese sampans these boats seem homes for families too to judge from the pillows and cooking utensils … around the walls.”
Both White and Whitney, due to their own western conceptions of urbanity, obscured or failed to grasp the use of space in a river town like Ho Chi Minh City. White “denigrated life on shore as impermanent, inundated, eroding, muddy, lacking order, and unfixed,” historian Erik Harms notes. Rather what White should have noted was the means by which inhabitants best utilized space in order to create a “linear form of urbanism set against a backdrop of less developed land, which was reserved for agriculture, fishing, and gathering activities.” Arriving six decades later and with French urbanism on going, Whitney drew fewer conclusions about wasted space or impermanence perhaps due to the city’s development or her own time abroad in Japan.
HCMC’s cavalcade of ethnicities was not lost on the young female traveler. Whitney commented on the diversity of Saigon citing Chinese boatmen, French soldiers, Hindu carriage drivers, and Arab merchants all around her: “in the market place, one met a queer mix of nationalities. It was a positive pleasure to see all these different people and costumes.” Unsurprisingly, Whitney falls into the usual Orientalist tropes form the era, using the word “queer” repeatedly and it remains unclear how much she was able to distinguish between Saigon’s Chinese residents and those of other Asian ethnicities, most notably the Vietnamese.
Whatever Whitney’s own prejudices, she paid close attention to the sartorial choices of residents. She noted the black trousers and long robes buttoned up to the neck but slit on both sides to the hip of boatwomen. The boatsmen resembled Chinese rowers, dressed in “wide white trousers, a little short white jacket and a broad brimmed straw hat.” For twenty cents an hour, Hindu men in picturesque dress transported Whitney and her fellow travellers along in cabs pulled by “energetic well fed little ponies.”
Similarly, she records the numerous turbans worn by local guards, the silver and gold hair combs in women’s hair, the amber, silver, and coral jewelry that adorned merchant women in the market. “The women were dressed much very much like the boat women but some wore amber and coral necklaces and bracelets and all wore little beads of amber in their ears fastened on the under side,” she explained. “Some were immense tortoise shelled combs pinned with silver.”
In moments, Clara even seems to indicate the slightest measure of sexuality. She finds the Hindu cab drivers to be “the finest men in physique . . . Tall and muscular, dark skinned and eagle eyed their darkness set off by their bright costume.” Their racial characteristics do not escape her or their perceived relationship to Europeans. “They are cousins, not to be ashamed of. It seems strange nevertheless that these queer people are nearly related to us [more] than the Japanese are in fact our Caucasian cousins.”
Whitney marveled at the local fauna and flora at the Governor’s gardens, where the caged tigers impressed her—but not nearly as much as her awe for the city’s verdant vegetation. “I never in my life saw such magnificent shrubbery. The palms and bananas grew in a state of luxuriousness. One leaf alone of a banana tree was five feet long and two wide. The palms were gigantic,” she noted. “Deep crimson” flowers grew all around.
What of Saigon’s urban development in 1880s? “The streets are wide and clean – paved with square blocks of stone and very smooth. The sidewalks are shaded with quivering mimosa trees,” she recorded. Hotels abounded and churches, cathedrals, and temples were not uncommon.
Admittedly, Saigon’s low lying, swampy location presented difficulties—a point Whitney returns to on more than one occasion—but by the mid 1880s, five boulevards, nearly 40 streets, and three quays had been constructed, amounting to over 23 miles. “The pavements are everywhere well shaded with thick foliaged trees of all kinds and the drains well looked after by the municipality,” noted on observer in 1885. “Lamps line them at regular intervals.” Whitney seems to have encountered the city as it built up this sort of infrastructure.
Whitney soon left the city for Singapore, but six year later married the son of a prominent Japanese Naval officer, Kaji Umetarō with whom she had six children. She eventually returned to the United States in 1900 and settled in Pennsylvania, where she subsisted off income supplied by her husband (who remained in Japan) and the money she earned by writing about Japan.
For fans of Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern, Ho Chi Minh City is a familiar place. Both men have recorded numerous episodes for various television series over the years dedicated to the urban alchemy of HCMC. They laud its cuisine, marvel at its energy, and generally wallow in the boulevards and alleyways of Vietnam’s commercial and cultural capital. Obviously, such visions of HCMC oversimplify the city’s (and the nation’s) existence. After all, Vietnam itself is “neither wholly Eastern nor Southeast Asian,” as one scholar of the city argues; it cannot be considered fully socialist or capitalist, and instead it follows the vague government directive of a “market economy with a socialist direction.” It is exactly this kind of in-between space, this navigation of identities, economies and politics beyond binaries that help one to understand this burgeoning Southeast Asian metropolis.
Late nineteenth and early twentieth century European tourists sometimes breathlessly described the city as the “Venice of Asia”; French colonists dubbed it “Little Paris.” Subject to imperial rule throughout their history, the Vietnamese people held tightly to their own identity while absorbing aspects of its occupiers—China, Japan, France and the U.S. HCMC encapsulates this tension; it didn’t officially become designated as Ho Chi Minh City until 1976, but existed as two cities divided by the Saigon River, Saigon in the East and Cholon in the West.
By the late nineteenth century, Saigon represented the efforts of French colonizers intent on communicating to the world the grandeur of its Haussmanesque urban planning, the strength of its empire, and the “rationality of its modern bureaucracy,” notes Annette Mae Kim. Defined by its grid plan, roundabouts, and grand boulevards, Saigon would later be designated the French colonial administrative center in 1931. During colonization much of its population consisted of Western and Vietnamese elites or Vietnamese working for the colonial French government. Unless they worked in the service sector for colonists, Chinese and Vietnamese residents were prohibited from living in French neighborhoods.
HCMC’s Chinese population lived largely in Cholon, while Vietnamese largely resided in areas peripheral to both Saigon and Cholon. Between the late 1700s and mid-1800s, Saigon fell into disuse and sometimes into outright disrepair. At the same time, Cholon experienced steady growth, but did so based on a widespread Southeast China model. “Each community centered around a temple that also housed its association,” Kim points out. “Buildings lined streets that were oriented to access the canals built for transportation and trading …marked by narrow, curved roads toward the river …”
Cholon’s merchants, of mostly Chinese and Vietnamese descent, operated as middlemen, “hard driving bargainers” and conduits between the “disparate” worlds of Southeast Asian trade routes, western colonialism, and the dizzying diversity that each brought to the region. Southeast Asian sensibilities, notably what Tana Li describes as HCMC’s place at the frontier of Vietnam’s southern borders, inculcated in residents a certain independence that enabled them to cling less tightly to traditional bonds between state and society. The earlier Nguyen rulers of South Vietnam in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries differed from the Trinh in the North. Through trade and openness to culture, the South defined “new way[s] of being Vietnamese.” By the late 1880s, this diversity and emphasis on trade visibly demarcated Cholon from its neighbor Saigon. “As truly as Saigon is transplanted France, Cho’lon three miles away is transplanted China. With something over two hundred thousand inhabitants, Cho’lon is more than twice as large as its French neighbor,” one observer noted. It exuded modernity in its blazing electric signs above its shops and trams and motorcars that sped along its paved streets.
During the 1920s, Vietnamese anticolonialism took root in HCMC. In the interwar period, pro-independence movements and class consciousness gained greater footing among the city’s poor, yet the Vietnamese could not occupy Saigon more fully until the 1954 Geneva Conference.
For much of its history, HCMC’s place as a trading center made it a site for migrants and refugees. This proved especially true in the 1950s as tensions with the North increased the flow of refugees to the city. The areas between Cholon and Saigon bulged with new arrivals from the north. South Vietnam’s turn toward market-based capitalism, supported by the United States, brought new economic opportunities to HCMC and in turn drew more migrants and refugees as well.
American forces ushered in a thriving urban economy that benefitted some Cholon residents, though some observers bemoaned the changes that had undertaken the city by the late 1960s. “The good old days of Saigon are gone forever. The famous tree lined boulevards of Saigon have been widened to provide maneuvering room for the trucks, jeeps, and Hondas that are crowding out the Cyclos these days,” writer Dick Adair reflected in 1971. The threat of war and air conditioning kept people inside. “Gone is the simple pleasure of sitting quietly and gazing at the passing scene while sipping a refreshing drink,” Adair wrote.
Often missing from accounts are the voices of the Vietnamese. The Vietnam War made a generation of American writers famous: David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, and Tim O’Brien among others. Ho Chi Minh City often served as their headquarters abroad as they wrote dispatches to Americans back home. Graham Greene’s The Quiet American casts a large shadow, and the many American films made about Vietnam in the 1980s and 1990s arguably eclipses these examples combined. In all these examples, the viewpoint of the Vietnamese is marginal at best. Even urban histories often ignore the majority of Vietnamese residents in HCMC, since many as noted lived just outside Saigon and Cholon, divided between the peripheries of both cities. Still, emigration from HCMC has helped to shape modern American demographics and urban life in places like Orange County, California and Northern Virginia, a topic we will visit this month at the The Metropole.
With hostilities ended and a communist government asserting itself across a newly unified Vietnam, HCMC fell into economic isolation. Though long at the center of international trade routes, “Saigon literally vanished form the Southeast Asian mercantile orbit in the space of five years,” notes Eric Tagliacozzo. Hanoi’s ideological dedication to communism shrunk HCMC’s economy such that when Western observers returned to the city many recoiled at the levels to which the standard of living had plummeted. “[P]eople had begun to live on next to nothing,” Tagliacozzo writes.
Judging from the Bourdains and Zimmerns of the world, HCMC is currently experiencing an economic and cultural renaissance. However, like many cities in the developing world, the traditional dichotomy between urban and rural does not fully capture its sprawling nature. Take Hoc Mon, an often, ignored peri-urban district on the edge of the city that serves as the focus of Erik Harms’s study on modern day HCMC. “There are no Vietnamese poems about Hoc Mon, which is littered with construction materials, marked by the ‘creative destruction’ of global industrial expansion and unbridled urbanization,” argues Harms. A product of the postcolonial world order and a totalizing global capitalism, Hoc Mon embodies the exciting but troubling growth of urban areas like HCMC. “Poverty is not beautiful, and the landscape it produces smashes ideal categories against the concrete realities of lived life,” Harms cautions. At once, Hoc Mon raises questions about socialist utopias, the promise of capitalism to lift all boats, and the divide between our conceptions of the inner and outer city.
Yet, do not count Hoc Mon natives out, Harms asserts, for in their social and economic lives they exhibit a certain “social edginess” rather than marginality; they are not simply vessels on the ocean, but active participants. “Sometimes people actively edge their way into opportunities created by their position on the urban fringe,” he suggests, “at other times they are edged out by processes beyond their control.”
In the end, HCMC offers a fascinating, complex insight into modern metropoles. For over two decades urban historians have sought to dissolve the overly simplistic lines dividing the urban, suburban, and rural, and Ho Chi Minh City seems to be doing this not only theory, but in practice. In many ways, it seems to have been doing so for much of its complicated existence.
As per usual, the bibliography we have provided is far from comprehensive and really serves as a means for readers to get their feet wet. We welcome additions to the bibliography in the comments section below. Thanks to Scott Laderman for his help with getting us started on HCMC.
Michael Waibel, “The Production of Urban Space in Vietnam’s Metropolis in the Court of Transition: Internatnalization, Polarization, and Newly Emerging Lifestyles in Vietnamese Society,” Trialog 89.2 (2006): 43-58.
Michael Waibel, Ronald Eckert, Micheal Bose, and Volker Martin, “Housing for Low Income Groups in Ho Chi Minh City: Between Reintegration and Fragmentation,” ASIEN 103 No. April (2007): 59-78.