Saigon on Wheels: A Review and Remembrance by Ron Steinman
As someone who reviews photographic exhibitions, I should be clear-eyed and without much sentiment. I should throw any romantic feelings and nostalgia out the window and revert to my analytical mind, rather than succumbing to the beat of my heart. But I failed to do that when some time ago, I visited Ed Kashi’s exhibit, Saigon on Wheels, at the Anastasia Gallery on New York’s Lower East Side. His exhibition served to highlight the many images in my mind that I cannot forget. Formed during the more than three years I spent covering the Vietnam War for NBC News, Kahsi’s photos are reminders of what life in Saigon was like for the people who lived in the city as the war raged mostly in the countryside. Also note that though Saigon is now Ho Chi Minh City, for me, as for many Vietnamese who live there now and elsewhere in the world, it will always be Saigon.
This is not an ordinary review. I have too many memories, fond and otherwise from my days in Vietnam. I want to thank Ed Kashi for giving me a few moments to relive selected recollections from my life in Saigon. Interestingly, and equally intriguing, though Kashi took his photos in 1994, the scenes he captured are in many ways little different from those I knew in the late 1960s, the early 1970s and in 1985, my last trip to Saigon.
During the war Saigon was an overcrowded city filled with refugees, piles of garbage on street corners, people sleeping on sidewalks and in alleys often under makeshift lean-tos. The air was fetid, dominated by a variety of smells from rotting garbage, the makeshift fuel that created its odor, burning charcoal, the smells emanating from street side food sellers and a total lack of sewage. After all, Saigon was a war zone.
Motorcycles, scooters, cars of every shape and make, foot powered cyclos and bicycles clogged the streets, making them passable only at personal risk. There were rarely working streetlights, so one crossed at one’s own peril against unregulated traffic. My one quarrel with any of the photos in the small but effective exhibition is with the impressive shot of traffic heading directly toward the viewer. Because of the war and the use of ersatz fuel in generally poor engines, the result was heavy smog that at times made it hard to breathe. Traffic in the 60s and 70s was horrible. In 1994, the streets seemed to be more cluttered and equally chaotic, but nothing for me will ever match the density and pace of traffic at the intersection of Tu Do Street and Nguyen Hue in Saigon.
In the war, people survived as best they could, sustaining themselves through ingenuity, guile, cleverness, dexterity, being ruthless when necessary, and always working hard. In Ed Kashi’s depiction of 1994, most of those attributes seem to remain. One of my favorite photos shows Vietnamese schoolgirls in white ao dais (their traditional dress) on bicycles heading off to school, something that despite the war was a common sight. What I call a companion photograph shows several women riding on a motorbike heading only they know where. That, too, was a typical sight during the war. Vietnamese women always had a strong sense of who they were. Even with war on all sides of the city, they never lost their sense of self.
Despite Vietnam being a Communist country where the central government tries to control every aspect of the economy, free enterprise obviously remained strong in 1994 as we can see in the evocative photo of a cyclo driver manipulating a load of ice on a Saigon street. I hoped he would hurry and reach his destination before the ice melted along with any profit he sought. So, too, is the photo of a farmer in from the countryside equally reminiscent as she, in a cyclo carrying her geese to market, makes her way through Saigon’s streets. As I wondered in the war years, I wondered still as I viewed Kashi’s photos, how the Vietnamese in rickety cyclos, often held together by bits of wire and mechanical inventiveness, managed to balance what they had to sell along with their personal possessions, and, of course, themselves. It seems that some things never change.
I cannot speak to what life is like in 2015 for people living in Saigon-Ho Chi Minh City. It would not surprise me to learn that in many ways the pace of life is unchanged. There is timelessness about Vietnam that I believe evades change. As the country moves into the 21st Century, I sense that it is struggling for an identity that harks back to a bustling past and tries mightily to enter a bright, but uncertain future. Ed Kashi’s photo essay captured the essence of a people in perpetual motion, always on the move, looking ahead to the next possible venture whatever that may be.