We arrived in Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, this late morning around 10:30am. As we took a Grab ride and headed towards District 1, the city felt very much the same and different from the first and last time I was here in January 2008: the roads were still narrow, the street signs were in Vietnamese and English. The buildings were anywhere from two- to five-stories tall, all just as skinny as I remembered from before and was surprised by. But what shocked me was seeing a very different skyline: far more skyscrapers and multiple-storied, modern buildings were there today, not to mention Landmark 81 and the Saigon Skydeck/Bitexco Tower, which were built just in the last couple of years. In 2018, the tenth tallest building in Asia is Landmark 81 right here in Ho Chi Minh City. Endless Starbucks abounded in different neighborhoods. Many bubble tea chains from Taiwan and mainland China dotted the streets. Even major well-known Korean cosmetic brands like Innisfree have brick-and-mortar shops here. We’ve arrived in one of the fastest growing economies in the world, one of the top 20 globally and depending on the source, one of the top 5 in Southeast Asia. This is a world my mother never would have dreamt of coming into existence given what she saw and knew from the 1960s and early 1970s before she left the country during the Vietnam (American) War.
I took a picture of the skyline from our hotel room along the water and emailed it to my dad so he could see it and show my mom. I looked out at the view and marveled at it. In just 11 years, this much growth has happened. But since 1975 when the war ended, who from that period, like my mother, could have imagined Saigon to look like this, to be this prosperous? Who could have fathomed that the city would be this developed, that Wi-Fi would be available at even random hole-in-the-wall restaurants, or that pretty much every young person in a major city like Saigon, Hanoi, or Danang, would own and regularly use a smart phone? My mom always insisted, no matter when the conversation happened, whether it was in the 90s, in 2000, in 2008 when we came, or even last year, that Vietnam was the poorest country in the world. She liked to say often, “there wasn’t even enough rice to eat! We were so poor!” I never agreed with her in her absolutes, but what was the point of arguing? When I show her these photos, she will know she is wrong. But more importantly, she will see that the country that she once called home, a country where she and many of her family, friends, and extended relatives, witnessed heartbreak, tragedy, violence, and terror, is actually moving forward. It is growing. It is thriving. It wants and has stated goals to be a “developed” economy. And she will have that to smile about, knowing that life there has moved on, and at a relatively quick rate.