Thanh Pho Ho Chi Minh is nearly always called “Saigon.”
These photos are from over 25 years ago, a time when the city and the country were opening the doors to capitalism and foreign influence. It was a run down, dirty city, but that was what made it exciting. There was so much to see, so much life on the streets. Foreigners scrambled to purchase factories, or open restaurants, or source local manufacturing. Locals spied opportunities in the emerging tourist market. The government and the mafia saw opportunities everywhere. Local war veterans drove cyclos or started small trading. Foreign veterans returned to the scene of their horrors, and stayed.
The Saigon skyline doesn't look like this anymore. Nor should it.
Vietnam was emerging from decades of wars, with itself, the French and Americans, China and the Khmer Rogue.
In the early 90s, infrastructure was primitive.
Moves to loosen the economy were under way. (Yes, that is cash in those sacks.)
Saigon was raw and gritty.
The traffic was chaotic but had a method.
Parts of the city were genuinely charming.
Street were filled with micro businesses and food stalls.
"Socialism with capitalist characteristics" or some such was the catch phrase.
Vietnam was a wheeler dealer's paradise and a trap for the unwary.
Saigon always lead Hanoi in terms of buzz, excitement, hussle.
Construction of the New World Hotel in 1995 was a step-change in the development of Saigon.
It's size, location and boldness marked Saigon as a city on the move.
I spent about 12 months there over a couple of years until 1995.
Most of my time was spent at the Saigon Cafe, watching the traffic, human and vehicle, through Pham Ngu Lao and De Tham corner.
The area was the epicentre of the booming backpacker scene, attracting plenty of hussle.
Cafes, tour agencies, bars, used book shops all popped up.
Families lived and traded in the lanes behind the new facade.
At the far end of De Tham where I lived was a shabby produce market.
Opportunities that never existed before were available.
Mobile traders made the rounds.
Rain, hail or shine, traders had to make a living.
When I wasn't at HQ, I would ride around town, checking out other neighbourhoods, taking photos.
There was never a shortage of photo subjects in Saigon.....
....from vendors hawking their goods around town.....
.....classic cars and motorcycles being brought back to life.....
....to the wacky vehicles plying the streets, there was so much to photograph.
Government social campaign billboards made for great back drops, too.
Many of the old French buildings and famed hotels and restaurants were around Dong Khoi St.
Even the upmarket streets of "downtown" were full of sidewalk hustlers. (Love that smile!)
Sometime in the 90s, the city began banning cyclos from certain streets, starting with downtown. Few people supported the idea, except maybe Vinataxi.
Saigon's many markets were always busy and colourful, although the traders at Benh Thanh were annoyingly persistant.
Other smaller markets are spread around, as well as the biggest, Cho Lon, in District 10.
Back then, there was no attempt to even hide the wildlife trade. I didn't even know this market was there, just stumbled upon it. Nobody cared about photos.
Selling sparrows is common in south east Asia. Releasing the birds brings good fortune to the buyer. Not the birds, though- they get recaptured.
Foreign money and know-how has been pouring into Saigon for almost 3 decades now.
The city rarely stands still.
Has all the change washed away the character and grittiness of old Saigon?
Are the people enjoying all the changes that have come?
Don't it always seem to go/That you don't know what you've got till it's gone/They paved paradise, put up a parking lot