Miss Saigon is returning to Broadway next spring. The revival of this classic musical about the Vietnam War is refreshed and always touching, and has been a major hit in London. Visiting Ho Chi Minh City (former Saigon) last week, I met two of the lead personalities, or at least their 2016 incarnation, “The Engineer” and “Thuy”.
Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City for my first visit in 6 years, I found the frenetic city I remembered. High rises now tower over the Gia Long Street building. This is the building shown in the photograph that for many defined the war, where one of the last American helicopters left from the rooftop as Saigon fell.
The Presidential Palace gates are sparkling new, repaired from the damage of North Vietnamese tanks crushing the gates. Capitalism, or at least the variant allowed is thriving. Chanel coexists with the requisite flag.
But most illustrative of 2016 Vietnam was meeting two young guides, both men in their early 30s. They both lived in Ho Chi Minh City and made their living in tourism. For one, the city was still Saigon and money was the ultimate goal. For the other, the victory of the North over the South and America, was sweet and the ideological war continued. For those familiar with the musical, they were the Engineer and Thuy personified.
The Engineer was charming, he took us to the newly created Artist’s Village to see various artists at work and to hopefully buy. On the way he told us his father had fought for the South and that he would be disowned if he ever called his hometown Ho Chi Minh City. It was always Saigon. We had very detailed descriptions of the cost of everything. His respect for those who could afford the new high-rise condominiums was clear. His distain for those from the North or who had communist leanings was clear. Money, money, money was the refrain of the day. “Oh you live in Washington, D.C. How much do you earn, how big is your house? That is a very expensive city.” He has big dreams and a laser focus, reminiscent of a line of a song in the musical, “Why was I born of a race of that thinks only of rice and hates entrepreneurs.”
The next day we met “Thuy” from the musical. He told us he was from the rural, agricultural north and his respect was saved for those who support the communist party system that had been so good to him and his family. They had all they need and those that wanted more were traitors. He showed us the “road that our troops took to liberate the country” as the tanks rolled to the Presidential Palace. We heard tales of loyalty to Ho Chi Minh and all that Uncle Ho represents. He was a child of the revolution and was very proud.
Coming from the south of the U.S., I understand that it takes many generations, if ever, for sectarian divisions to heal. I was surprised at the openness of both young men. Both had a strong vision of their dream future. And Boubil and Schönberg, the creators of Miss Saigon, had captured both perfectly 27 years ago in this blockbuster musical. I can’t wait to see it for a third time when it returns to Broadway. The lessons are as fresh today as they were when it premiered in 1989.
Please note: I was an invited guest of Silversea Cruises for this voyage through the South China Sea. Well known for their luxury onboard, they also delivered the ultimate luxury to me, the chance to rediscover Vietnam of today.