If you walk down the streets of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), you’d be hard pressed to find evidence of the communist’s victory over capitalist South Vietnam, 40 years earlier. On the surface, at least. Everywhere you look, symbols of uber capitalism line Nguyễn Huệ Boulevard, like Starbucks, Polo Ralph Lauren, the Apple Store, and … Carls Jr?
Sure, why not? Everyone loves a good burger, regardless of political leanings.
Look overhead and skyscrapers loom on the horizon. You can try your luck at one of the large casinos, like the lavishly renovated Vegas style Rex Hotel. And that’s not all. Ho Chi Minh City has, like its former capitalist incarnation, a serious drug problem.
“You can walk up to any cigarette vendor in the street and they will offer you marijuana,” Nguyen Thanh Tuan, a reporter for Tuoi Tre News tells me.
I’m having coffee with Tuan at the Cafe de l’Opera in the Caravelle Hotel Saigon. Tuan is a native denizen of Saigon but also lived in New York City for a number of years, working there as a reporter for The Daily News. “New York was fine,” he said, “but compared to Saigon, it was boring. Saigon is more exciting.”
“Is marijuana legal here?” I ask.
“It is not legal,” Tuan says, “but the authorities generally look the other way. Penalties for weed usually consist of a light fine. Go down to Pham Ngu Lao, the back packers area and you will find vendors on every street corner.”
“I’m not familiar with the area,” I say. “Is it far form here?”
“In that case we have to go,” he says. “You must experience it for yourself. It’s not far if we take a cab.”
We exited the premises and hopped in one of the dozen cabs outside the Caravelle.
Even though the hour was late, closing on midnight, the streets were crowded with people. We crawled through traffic until we reached our destination. Pham Ngu Lao, located in District 1, is an area stretching upwards to a kilometer long.
Bustling with cheap hotels, bars, nightclubs and restaurants, patrons sit on plastic seats lining the sidewalks, drinking cocktails out in the open air into the early morning hours. Vietnamese and foreigners of every nationality crowd the densely packed streets.
Tuan approached a cigarette vendor carrying one of those old-school wooden cases strapped to his neck. Tuan said a few words and the vendor lifted up the falls bottom of his case and pulled out some weed.
“They all have it,” Tuan said. ” I ask for “cỏ” (grass), and for 100,000 đồng ($5US), I get an amount the size of a dime bag.”
Marijuana and Opium During the Vietnam War
Prior to the arrival of the Americans and the initiation of the Vietnam War, drug laws in Vietnam were ill defined and had little priority in its criminal justice system.
As a result, marijuana could be purchased openly in Saigon. A survey conducted in 1966 by the U.S. military identified 29 fixed outlets in the city selling pot.
In addition, there were packaged brands of pre-rolled marijuana cigarettes available to choose from. Popular brand names included genuine Craven “A” and Park Lane packages.
Subsequently, rules for marijuana use amongst U.S. soldiers were also lax.
By 1968 however, a comprehensive program was implemented by the U.S. Army to eradicate the use of weed amongst its ranks.
Educational programs were implemented warning soldiers of the dangers of marijuana usage, and arrests for marijuana possession reached a high of 1000 soldiers per week.
The Vietnamese government followed suit and began cracking down on the sale and use of marijuana amongst the civilian population.
Aircraft were used to locate marijuana fields and South Vietnamese soldiers were sent to destroy crops.
Ironically, the suppression of marijuana in Vietnam coincided with an increase in heroin availability and addiction amongst civilians and soldiers.
It has been alleged that Colonel Nguyen Cao Ky used the South Vietnamese Air Force to ship heroin from Laos to Saigon from 1965-1967.
The CIA was running its own operation in Laos at the time.
In its attempts to fight the left-wing Pathet Lao and Communist North Vietnamese, the CIA backed the anti-communist Hmong tribe in Laos.
The CIA provided the Hmong with guns, money and training to support its fight against the communist regimes.
The primary cash crop of the Hmong was opium, so the CIA provided Hmong commander Vang Pao with Air American UH-1 helicopters to transport the opium from the highlands to distribution centers in Long Tieng and Vientiane.
By 1969, a network of heroin laboratories had opened throughout the “Golden Triangle,” an area which included Southern China’s Yunnan Province, Burma’s Shan States, northern Thailand and northern Laos.
This new dope, designated as high-grade no. 4 heroin (90% pure), was subsequently shipped to U.S. soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War. By 1971, there were an estimated 37,000 (10-15%) U.S. soldiers addicted to heroin.
French Colonization and Opium Production
Of course, the use of opium in Vietnam started much earlier, going back to the beginnings of the French occupation in the 1800s. Prior to that, opium use in the country was confined to a small group amongst the Chinese population.
In 1897, France sent Paul Doumer to Vietnam as governor of French Indochina. The French colonies had not yet turned a profit and so it behooved the good governor to make Vietnam a viable source of investment.
To do so, he turned the engines of agriculture towards the cultivation of the lucrative opium crop. As the Vietnamese became addicted to the opium, he levied a heavy tax on its usage. Those Vietnamese who could not afford the taxes were subsequently stripped of their homes and land, and would have to submit to becoming day laborers, working the land they once formerly owned.
The French built a modern opium refinery in Saigon to supply an ever growing number of opium dens. By 1918, there were 3098 opium shops and 1512 opium dens in French Indochina.
By 1939, the number of opium addicts in Indochina had ballooned to 100,000, creating a demand so great they had to import an additional 60 tons annually from Turkey and Iran.
Unfortunately for the French and the addicted Vietnamese, the Brits nixed all shipping trade to the region during the Great War.
This forced the French back to the drawing board. Ever resourceful, the French began expanding production in Laos and Vietnam. As a result, opium production in the region went from a scant 7.5 tons in 1940 to a respectable 60 tons by wars end. The 1950’s saw an Indochina self sufficient in meeting its own opium needs.
The French left the region in 1954, leaving the field open for America’s entry. This did not deter the flow of opium and by 1969, the Golden Triangle was cranking out a harvest of 1000 tons of raw opium per year.
By the end of the Vietnam War, there were an estimated 150,000 heroin addicts roaming the streets of Saigon.
Heroin in Ho Chi Minh City Today
Tuan joined me for my ceremonial last drink on the eve of my departure from Ho Chi Minh City, on the roof of the Hương Sen Hotel.
“We did a story in Tuoi Tre News,” Tuan said, “About the open air drug market around the An Suong Bus Station on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City.”
“What did the story say?” I asked him.
“The report stated that heroin is so prevalent in the area that locals have to close their doors as early as 6pm on a daily basis to avoid risks from rampant drug dealing and use.”
“That really sucks.”
A recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated there were now 342,806 opiate users in Vietnam, second only to China. According to the report, opium production in southeast Asia has tripled since 2006, with the majority of the yield coming from Laos and Myanmar’s Shan state.
Looking out over the skyline of Saigon, I was blown away by how far the city had come. Dragging along, nonetheless, many of the same old demons.
This updated story by Andrew Arnett was first published in May, 2015 @ The Stoned Society