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20 YEARS LATER, ENERGY OF HO CHI MINH CITY IS REMINISCENT OF . . . SAIGON

In the days when American GIs roamed its streets and the Vietnam War gnawed at its edges, the Communists denounced Saigon as a depraved city of greedy consumers, corrupt officials, drug addicts and 200,000 prostitutes.

"Tens of thousands of Honda and Suzuki motorbikes and Mer-cedes and Datsun sedans of every color and hue rush along, belching clouds of exhaust fume," reads one tract from those times.It also contrasted the "insolent, U.S.-style" high-rises on Saigon's Nguyen Hue Avenue with the squalid, tin-and-cardboard shanties of workers living along muddy canals.

Then - 20 years ago this Sunday - the Communists seized this former capital of U.S.-backed South Vietnam, ended the bloody war and vowed to transform the "reactionary and rotten" city into a sober bastion of socialism.

To underscore their intent, they renamed it in memory of their deceased revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh.

Come to Ho Chi Minh City today, during the low-key 20th anniversary celebrations, and stroll up Dong Khoi Street after sunset. You might think you were back in the Vietnam War era, when this was probably the world's most infamous bar strip.

A young woman, one of the city's thousands of prostitutes, propositions a passer-by from the back of a Honda. "Marijuana? Opium?" asks a trishaw pedaler-peddler. Also back in force are the pickpockets and "Saigon Cowboys," cycle-riding thieves.

And what about that symbol of unbridled capitalism, the Mer-cedes Benz?

At a gleaming showroom, smooth-talking sales executive Ho Thu Yuen says business is good, and future prospects even better. The director of a Vietnamese construction company recently ordered a top of the line model for $300,000, high import duty included.

Given all this, some residents believe Ho Chi Minh City should better be renamed Saigon. And many veterans, reporters and businessmen returning for the first time in 20 or more years are amazed how some things have remained the same or have resurfaced.

Years of economic stagnation ensured that many parts of the city were left physically unchanged from the 1970s and earlier. U.S.-built structures, such as the bunker-like embassy, still stand alongside graceful French colonial buildings on tree-lined boulevards.

Returnees also see the same brazen, stubborn, proud, and yes, greedy Saigon spirit, and the uncanny local knack for making a quick buck in the most difficult of circumstances.

"The people haven't changed very much. They still have so much energy," says Bob Shivley, a war veteran from San Francisco who returned in 1992 to go into business here. "I think the Saigonese are winning (against Communism). They know how to play the game."

Experiencing a resurgence in whorehouses - this time for rich Singaporeans and Taiwanese rather than American GIs - cannot be regarded as a victory. Nor can the persistence of the fetid, canal-side slums, which officials say they hope to eradicate by the year 2000.

And as before, there is a wide gap between the rich and very poor in this kinetic city of five million. Now, it is the Communist bosses, and not U.S.-propped presidents, to blame.

As a whole, Ho Chi Minh City is again an island of relative prosperity in a still impoverished land. The city's average per capita annual income is $676 compared with $129 for the nation.

The city has attracted the largest amount of foreign investment in Vietnam, and accounts for some 30 percent of the country's gross domestic product. The pace of business activity seems even more frenetic than before 1975 and construction cranes loom over the urbanscape.

Nguyen Hue is set to be an avenue of skyscrapers, earlier Communist criticism notwithstanding. The eastern bank of the Saigon River, a classic tropical scene during the war, is studded with vast billboards soaring above the tops of palm trees. They advertise IBM, Toshiba and Canon.

Cholon, the city's seething Chinatown, became a virtual ghost town between 1975 and 1986, when the Communist Party came out of its ideological straitjacket and initiated economic reform. Today, every square foot seems to be taken up by buying or selling and Cholon once again drives the city's economic engine.

"The bad days are over," says Phuong Nam, an employee of a Cholon gold and money-changing shop where another women stuffs hundred dollar bills into her pocket and machines count the huge piles of Vietnamese currency.

In the streets, some flags and bedraggled propaganda banners celebrating the 1975 Communist victory barely make an impression in the overall bustle.

It is unlikely that many here would bet that the revolutionary slogans and portraits of Lenin will still be around come the 30th anniversary. And neither are aging returnees likely to find much left of the Old Saigon in the wake of economic changes surging through the city.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Vietnam's numbers

Dates and statistical glance at the Vietnam War:

- Arrival of first U.S. military advisers: 1950

- U.S. combat involvement: 1965-73

- Year of peak U.S. combat involvement: 1969 (543,000 troops)

- Americans killed: more than 58,000

- Americans wounded: 365,000

- Vietnamese killed (military): South Vietnam, more than 1 million; North Vietnam, 500,000 to 1 million

- U.S. cost: More than $150 billion

- Date last U.S. ground troops withdrawn: March 29, 1973

- North Vietnamese victory: April 30, 1975