April 27, 1999 Diary Entry
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). I'm AMAZED by Saigon! I have never, ever seen a place change so fast. The pace of building here is like San Francisco during the building boom, and I don't mean it's "relatively" that fast but ABSOLUTELY that fast, or faster! Virtually EVERYTHING has changed. Not an iota of the seedy feeling remains. It's much cleaner, for one. The older buildings have in great numbers been renovated and/or repainted beautifully. The Caravelle Hotel, the musty place near where I stayed in 1995, is completely redone. The "old" part has been repainted, the marble polished to a high luster, the carpets all redone, art deco furniture installed, etc. There was an old bank next to it; that was razed, and a twenty story five-star extension of the Caravelle's been erected in its place. Across the street, a new Hyatt is going up.
In 1995, I saw a tacky contemporary music revues in the run-down National Theater. My friend's uncle (a GREAT guy I talk with in French, I can't believe I can remember French from my childhood in Montreal, but I do) told me that building was the focus of HUGE anti-Western sentiment (and physical abuse as a consequence) from 1975-1990 because it was viewed as THE symbol of Western excess -- its ornate French architecture, the statues in the front of buxom women, etc. Even when we were here, they were still talking of tearing it down. Well, it's now been completely redone, buxom statues and all, and it's truly beautiful! (What's funny, though, and it really says it all, is that those tacky music revues still go on...no traditional stuff, or visiting troupes, etc., even on the horizon...)
This stuff is going on EVERYWHERE. I've gone around a lot in the two days I've been here, and it's clean and attractive literally everywhere I've been. Not one person has come up to ask for money like they did in 1995. The street barbers were outlawed. Some of the "character" has been lost but, and I'm not saying I like it much more now, but I'll just say it's amazing to see the changes. Little chic stores all over the place with TASTEFUL, believe it or not, neon signs. Amazing.
Phnom Penh. OK, so that's Saigon. Haven't been pickpocketed yet (as I was in 1995), which makes it more fun than Phnom Penh was the last two or three days. One day I got stopped and forced to pay bribes TWICE to local cops. The first time I had just come out of the national bank--which was an incredible scene--with low paid employees not interested in providing customer service. I went to get some crisp bills for my collection; I walked in and there were at least fifty people in there, all sitting around these big desks (more like conference tables), three or four at each of these, say, fifteen tables, and they were stone silent, not even talking to each other let alone actually DOING something. Not a customer in sight. So I approached one clerk and asked about buying some nice new crisp bills. She tells me they don't HAVE any. Anyway, you get the idea. I ended up shelling out a couple extra dollars just to get a buck and a half worth of new currency.
So I leave, get on my motorbike, and turn onto the street. A policeman pulls me over. No English except "license" and "ticket". I got off the bike and a good samaritan came over and discretely explained I should just give him 2000 riel (the equivalent of about fifty cents); I knew he wanted a bribe, and I was thankful to find out how much, but I was still angry off that he was ticketing me (I figured out by his hand signs) for riding a motorbike on a street where motorbikes were "not allowed". He was pointing at a sign that NOBODY would figure meant "no motorbikes" (I'll add a photo when I get back). This is besides the facts that: (a) to get out of the bank I had no choice but to go on this street--and it was a LONG walk to the nearest intersection--and (b) there were DOZENS of motorbikes whizzing by every minute.
Anyway, I finally handed him the 2000 riel -- and he said NO, he wanted five bucks! He somehow got across he wanted more for his "buddies". I wasn't gonna do it, but he literally grabbed my arm and squeezed, hard, and when I pulled back he pulled me back in his direction. They all had guns and were watching intently, so I figured I better give him the money. He said "thank you" and smiled; I took a chance I'd heard all his English and smiled at him and said "Don't say thank you if I don't WANT to give you this money". Really, I did. Usually I just think of what to say afterwards but I was angry and it just came out of my mouth. Not that this was some brilliant thing to say, but I was pretty surprised and it actually felt good to say it, especially once I knew for sure he didn't know what I'd said.I was smart enough to keep ONLY small riel in my pocket from then on, so when I was pulled over AGAIN I got away with just the 2000 riel bribe and went on my way. [More on Avi's Cambodia trip]