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Ho Chi Minh City

The rickshaw driver wore a red baseball cap and a knowing grin as he pedaled past. ''Welcome to Saigon,'' he shouted in an American accent that could only have been picked up during the days of the United States involvement in Vietnam.

''Long time no see. Check it out.''

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Eight years have passed since the April 1975 fall of Saigon and the evacuation of the last Americans from what was known then as South Vietnam. Although the more austere northerners have sought to impose their strongly doctrinaire Marxist-Leninist way of life on their southern cousins, the easy-going inhabitants of Ho Chi Minh City still find it hard to forget the side benefits - rampant consumerism, rock-and-roll, and ample dollars - that came with the war.

''It's obvious that people are going to compare the situation today with the days when the Americans were pouring billions of dollars into propping up the Thieu regime,'' said an official in the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry. ''As a nation in the process of reconstruction we have certain teething difficulties, but at least no war is tearing us apart. This is what many people tend to forget.''

Flying from Bangkok, Thailand, to Ho Chi Minh City, which much of the local population still pointedly refers to as Saigon, vestiges of the war remain. Strings of bomb craters scar the countryside, while shattered concrete buildings and bridges are easily distinguished.

Later, when riding by bus through Song Be province near the Kampuchean border , I passed through sparsely vegetated areas, a stark contrast to the lush green of the nearby rice paddies and woods. According to a former Viet Cong cadre sitting next to me, the ground had been rendered virtually sterile by American defoliation attacks.

At Ho Chi Minh City, it is hard to believe that its airport was once one of the busiest in the world. At the height of the war, flights landed or took off at the rate of one every 90 seconds. Now, fewer than half a dozen planes use the airport every day. Until recently, US-made planes and other military materiel still littered the runway aprons. Most of those have now been cleared away, leaving only the dismantled remains of some 30 C-130 transport planes.

Outside the main terminal building, a group of buses, official cars, and taxis wait. All but the two nearest parking lots are overgrown. The outlying former South Vietnamese and American military buildings have all fallen into disuse, their fences torn, debris scattered across the empty lots. Two huge trailers with ''Sealand'' marked on their sides, a reminder of the once-bustling American PX supermarkets and commissaries, present a striking contrast to the Vietnamese flag fluttering from a nearby staff.

The Ho Chi Minh City of today is a much cleaner and much less crowded place than during the closing days of the war, when well over 31/2 million people, many of them refugees from the countryside, lived within its precincts. There are fewer vehicles because of the fuel shortages, but as before, there are hordes of bicycles, motorbikes, and rickshaws.

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Cyclists often seem to ride in front of official cars in a gesture of casual defiance to the authorities, moving away lackadaisically only after repeated honking by the driver. Blue-painted trucks, many of them former US Army vehicles , belch thick, black diesel smoke. Occasionally, cars with wood stoves attached like steam locomotive funnels churn through the streets.

But I hardly expected to encounter the odd Jaguar sedan or an MGA roadster negotiating through the melee. Nor was I prepared for a glimpse of a distant figure water skiing behind a skipping speed boat on the Saigon River.

Numerous streets are choked with the ''white'' market, an officially tolerated free enterprise system of sidewalk stalls where one can purchase everything from Japanese-made TV sets to American toothpaste and French perfume. But for a city that for decades was reputed for its energy, entrepreneurial spirit, corruption, and vice, the former South Vietnamese capital has gone through some striking changes.

Most of the bars that used to blare the latest American music and burn their blue-and-red neon lights through the night have been shut. Only a desultory few remain open until the sidewalks roll up at 10 p.m. Rock-and-roll music is banned , though several nightclubs are allowed to operate.

The featured bands, all dressed in exotic Las Vegas glitter, regularly tour the East bloc countries for which their music has been appropriately styled. Judging by the spectators, the clubs seem particularly popular among the northern Vietnamese and Eastern European advisers.

Especially in the Chinese Cholon area of town, every third shop has been boarded up. They have been deserted or sold by owners leaving the country. Others have been confiscated by the government. As many as 1.5 million Vietnamese have sought to escape communist rule since 1975. An unknown number, perhaps hundreds of thousands, have perished in their attempts to reach asylum by boat or by land.

According to recent refugees interviewed in Southeast Asia and Europe, the Hanoi regime is still practicing a policy of persecution and forced emigration of ''undesirables'' such as the bourgeoisie and the ethnic Chinese. When asked whether Vietnam could afford to continue losing what is basically its educated middle class, a Foreign Ministry official said, ''We can do very well without them.''

Nevertheless, government pragmatism has allowed numerous merchants, most of them Chinese, back into the commercial fold in an attempt to stimulate the country's stagnant economy. Highly profitable city trading companies using good local capitalist know-how have been established to attract some of the hard-currency dollars and consumer goods that might have ended up on the ''white'' market.

The authorities readily admit that all is not well with the economy. At the French-built rococo-style colonial town hall in Ho Chi Minh City, Deputy Mayor Du Luyen, a small, energetic woman wearing a gray ''bao dai'' (traditional dress), pointed out that drug addiction, prostitution, war invalids, and orphans are all major problems with which the city has to cope.

'In order to construct a true revolutionary government, we must make efforts to improve our economic situation, to export more, to solve our various social problems and to settle our differences. This all takes time, '' Du Luyen said.

Already in late 1979, the Hanoi regime, not without stern opposition from party hard-liners, adopted a flexible ''basic needs'' approach by introducing far-reaching economic changes. Greater autonomy was granted to local authorities to allow for more initiative. Ho Chi Minh City, for example, is virtually autonomous from the north in its local decisionmaking.

Agricultural collectivization, which accounts for less than one-fifth of the farms in the south, was slowed down. Instead, a contract system, which had been tried but abandoned in the north during the 1950s as being too reactionary, was offered to the peasants to stimulate production. Farmers were permitted to negotiate with local cooperatives to fix production quotas and surpluses could be kept for individual profit. Similar cash incentives were granted to workers.

But the main concern of the ordinary Vietnamese is survival. With wages averaging between 200 and 300 dong a month ($20 to $30 at the official rate, $2 to $3 on the black market) and inflation running at 100 percent a year, making ends meet is becoming more and more difficult.

At present, two important mainstays of the southern Vietnamese economy are the ''care'' packages - some 500,000 arrived in 1982 - and hard-currency transfers from relatives living in the United States, France, and other third asylum countries.

For many southerners, the monthly packages, which contain anything from nylon stockings to bicycles that can be sold at high prices on the white market, have become a principal means of survival. Among the most hard-pressed people are the state workers and party cadres who do not have relatives abroad.

The system operates this way: At the government-run parcels delivery service, for example, located in a drab building in a bustling sidestreet of Ho Chi Minh City, some 800 people turn up every day to pick up their packages. The service director is a former Viet Cong official. So is his assistant.

With classical music piped through the loudspeakers, people sit on long benches waiting for their names to be called. Young women in pale blue blouses process the applicants before sending them to the storage rooms where the packages are issued. Most seem to come from France, but there are a number from California and Washington state, and from Australia, West Germany, and Belgium.

The packages are then brought to another hall, where government officials in dark blue uniforms slice them open and pour the contents onto the counter. They are then carefully examined and recorded in ledgers for customs duty. Long lists of tax rates are pinned on the wall behind: sugar, 80 percent; clothes and tissues, 25 percent; cameras, 30 percent; refrigerators, 30 percent; medicines, 200 percent; alcohol, 50 percent.

According to the posters, guns, grenades, cigarettes, and certain medicines are prohibited; but huge cartons of cigarettes are regularly brought in by airline crews with the connivance of government officials and sold for exorbitant prices in the streets. As I watched, the customs officials also read many letters that accompanied the parcels. ''This is to assure that they contain nothing subversive,'' the director explained.

Even at these apparently high import duties, which are calculated at face value, the recipient knows that he can probably sell the goods, particularly the medicines, on the white market for as much as 10 times their worth. Residents said that they could make as much as 5,000 to 6,000 dong (10 dong to the dollar at the official rate, 100 on the black market) compared to the average worker's salary of 200 to 300 dong per month. Merchandise such as a bottle of whisky or perfume might be used to bribe government officials.

Western relief representatives estimate that roughly one-quarter of the disposable income of Vietnamese abroad is used to support those who have stayed behind. Counting both transportation costs and content value, the parcel traffic alone amounts to at least $200 million a year.

Some observers estimate that the revenue produced by parcels and cash remittances, which are also ''taxed,'' probably injects about $1 billion a year into the Vietnamese economy.

''This outside aid, if you like, is certainly one of the reasons behind the considerable corruption that affects so many of the northern Vietnamese officials sent down to rule the south,'' a Western European development official said. ''Few northerners receive parcels from the West. They are the victors, but the defeated southerners are the ones who appear to be living like kings.''

Vietnamese government officials make a point of repeatedly asking why the United States continues to refrain from establishing both diplomatic and economic relations with Hanoi. At present, Hanoi claims to enjoy good relations with France, Sweden, and Belgium.

''Why can't you be like the French?'' asked a representative of Hanoi's Foreign Ministry. ''When they lost Dien Bien Phu, they didn't simply pack up and go. As a result, we have excellent relations with France today.''

According to the French, however, much of this appears to be wishful thinking. ''I would describe our ties with the Hanoi government as correct, but not necessarily good,'' a Foreign Ministry official in Paris noted dryly.

Although France, under President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, improved its contacts with the Vietnamese from 1977 onwards, they deteriorated considerably with the invasion of Kampuchea (Cambodia) two years later. Under Socialist President Francois Mitterrand there has been a slight improvement but certainly not as much as the Vietnamese would like one to believe.

Regis Debray, one of Mitterrand's close but reportedly not-very-influential advisers at the Elysee Palace, visited Vietnam in February 1982. His visit was followed by that of former Minister of Technology Jean Pierre Chevenement to discuss scientific and technological cooperation. Various other bilateral activities and visits were also carried out, but, as a French government official pointed out, there was ''nothing of real breakthrough substance.''

In December 1981 the two governments signed a protocol agreement for French economic aid worth 200 million francs ($34.9 million). But this has been temporarily frozen because of Hanoi's failure to pay off previous loans and inability to live up to the requirements stipulated by the International Monetary Fund and the Club of Paris.

''Basically, we cannot encourage the sort of complete and close relations we would really like to have until the Vietnamese leave Cambodia and Hanoi gets its financial books back in order,'' said a French diplomat.

Nevertheless, Hanoi placed great faith in the visit late in March of Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson. French diplomatic circles, however, have played down the trip.

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