First published March 2019 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
INTRODUCTION | SKETCHES | MAP | RELATED POSTS
Over the course of a week, I sat for half an hour at five random locations in Saigon, and described the scenes in short, impressionistic sketches, in the hope of capturing something of the spirit of the city. All five of the places and times in these sketches are mundane and day-to-day. Yet, in a very Saigon way, they’re all special; and they all hold, somewhere within them, the reasons why I’ve chosen to live in this city for more than a decade. Because, for me, Saigon isn’t defined by the typical ‘sights’ and ‘attractions’: it’s about the minutiae and the moments, the ambiance and the mood, the life and the food, the pulse and the personality, the unseen and the underrated. There’s no checklist for Saigon: better to dive in, soak it up, sense it, live it. Saigon is a city that leaves it all hanging out: uninhibited, gregarious, and irrepressible. Nothing hides – not the beauty nor the horror – it’s all laid bare in the tropical heat, light, sun, and rain. Everything that’s repulsive and magnetic about this city is there for you to experience. These five, sensory collages are written in a similar vein: on the spot, in the moment, in the open, and largely unedited.
5 SKETCHES OF SAIGON:
In the following sketches, I make no attempt at being objective. I inevitably imbue the scenes with my own feelings, experiences, history, and opinions of the city. But there’s no conscious attempt at themes, although some come through all the same. I picked the five locations completely at random, whenever I had 30 minutes to spare during the day. I’ve titled each sketch and included the address, date, and time of day at which they were written, and plotted them on my map. However, the locations aren’t important: they’re all simply corners of Saigon. These are not heavily edited pieces. Rather I have kept them loose and free, in the hope that they may retain some of the freshness and fluidity with which they were written. A writing exercise of sorts, but nevertheless a satisfying form of self-expression, and one which I hope captures something of the essence of its subject: Saigon.
Context: It’s the middle of the dry season, not more than a week after the Tet Lunar New Year holidays, during which my parents visited from the U.K and I went on a memorable camping trip with my friend in the Vietnamese countryside. These sketches were written on the week of my return to the city, after over a month of travelling. Back in Saigon, I was expecting to face the inevitable comedown of urban living. Instead, what occurred was a realization of the burgeoning life and vitality of the city: not always positive, but irresistible nonetheless.
- SKETCH 1: The Siesta
- SKETCH 2: The Park
- SKETCH 3: The Channel
- SKETCH 4: The Alleyway
- SKETCH 5: The Intersection
Location of 5 Sketches of Saigon, February 2019
View in a LARGER MAP
Sketch 1: The Siesta
• Time: Monday, 18 February | 12:32pm
• Location: Alleyway 36, D2 Street, Ward 25, Binh Thanh District [MAP]
A light breeze takes the edge off this hot, dry, sun-filled noon. On a concrete bench, next to a security guard kiosk, at the entrance to a municipal parking lot, I sit with a double espresso (Vietnamese beans, of course), purchased for a dollar across the street, at one of the many startup coffee shops in this area, staffed by Vietnamese students.
It’s bright and blue and the leaves are out on the trees around the parking lot and the narrow road it fronts: a flame tree, a tamarind, a tropical almond, a copperpod, and an Indian Milkwood. The breeze lifts their canopies lightly. It’s hot, but not sultry or suffocating. Rather it’s a dry, clean heat with a sharp light that brings out the vibrancy of the tropical colours. The dappled sunlight falls in pools on the asphalt, broken by asymmetrical shadows cast by the leaves, like the fur on a tabby cat, transitioning from amber to brown to black.
The guard in the security hut, a man of about 60 with a kind-looking face, is fast asleep in his hammock; the TV still playing the South Korean soap opera that sent him into a slumber. Before his nap, he slapped me on the back and made polite conversation: Where are you from? What do you do for a living? Why are you sitting here? I reply and ask if he minds my being here: Not at all, he says and slips into his hammock.
Things are quietening down after the lunchtime rush. The students at the cafes, noodle joints, and rice eateries on the shady backstreets are peeling away: it’s their siesta time. This is a student area, between several universities and high schools. There are thousands of black-haired young people – the girls and women dressed in long, flowing, white ao dais; the boys and men in blue shorts, pants, and white shirts. They huddle and chat in the shade of the trees, gossiping around plastic tables dotted with iced sugarcane juice; sucking the sweet water and carving the milky flesh from coconuts; digging into polystyrene boxes of steaming rice. Workmen, too – labourers, garbage collectors, electricians, plumbers, and a few suits from the local offices – perch at the roadside eateries, satisfying their midday hunger before their rest.
The security guard has awoken and informed me that’s he’s popping out for some food. Off he scoots on his old Honda Dream motorbike, leaving the TV on and the door wide open: I guess I’m in charge until he comes back.
Now everything has stopped. The students, the workers, the motorbikes, even the breeze has stopped. This is the middle of Saigon – a metropolis pushing 10 million people – and yet, at this hour, I can hear the rustle of the tropical almond leaves as they skate across the asphalt beneath my bench. The ‘siesta’ is the quietest of the daylight hours in this city. Slow, lazy, and lovely: 12.30pm-2.30pm.
My coffee’s finished: it’s time for my siesta too.
Sketch 2: The Park
• Time: Tuesday, 19 February | 11:27am
• Location: Thanh Nhien Park, Thai Thuan Street, An Phu Ward, District 2 [MAP]
A cockerel crows somewhere behind me – as it always does in Saigon. No matter where you live in this urban sprawl, you’re never more than a matter of metres from a real, live rooster or hen. Clouds, like pork floss, drift overheard, blowing westward toward the phallic spike of Landmark 81, the newly-built skyscraper, currently the tallest building in Southeast Asia. I’m sitting on another concrete bench, this time in a small, run-down park, in an otherwise affluent neighbourhood of District 2. The sad pond and fountain in front of me – a bonsai arrangement of Halong Bay-style limestone karsts with moss growing over the rocks – looks as though its ornamental days are over. On the other benches, and on the grass, are delivery boys on their lunch break, motorbike taxi drivers engaged with their phones, and high school girls licking at ice creams before they drip onto the tarmac pathways.
The heat and humidity is mild for Saigon: perhaps 30°C and 60% humidity. The trees (copperpods, eucalyptus, longans) and flowers (birds of paradise, orchids, spider lilies) look healthy, green and full of colour, not yet wilting in the relentless dry season weather. In a corner of the park, a children’s fairground is packed up under a blue tarpaulin. Disney-esque characters and animals adorn plastic-coated rides and slides and bouncy castles. It won’t get going until after sundown, when the temperature cools down.
Several high-rise apartment blocks – built ten years ago, before the boom in luxury condos – encircle the park to the west and north. But the other sides are lined with private villas with walled gardens, pitched roofs, and little classical European flourishes: columns, capitals, balustrades, wrought iron gates, cherubs. They’re attractive and peaceful, but somehow lonely. These are million-dollar plots of land.
A gentle hum of engines – cars and motorbikes – plays in the background, but you could hardly call it noise pollution, at least not by Saigon standards. There’s a sweet floral perfume from the copperpods, whose yellow flowers are falling to the grass with each breath of wind. Birds, too, are part of this urban soundscape – I can identify at least half a dozen different calls. Take away the traffic noise, and I could be in the forest.
My espresso finished, it’s time for me to utilize the open-jawed, penguin-shaped trash cans and ride off to my midday tennis session on two nearby courts, in yet another lush, neat, new middle-class neighbourhood.
Sketch 3: The Channel
• Time: Wednesday, 20 February | 3:16pm
• Location: Thi Nghe Channel Promenade, Hoang Sa Street, Da Kao Ward, District 1 [MAP]
Mid-afternoon – between the lunch hour nap and the rush hour chaos – Saigon is winding up again. With sleep in its eyes, the city, having charged its batteries through the hottest part of the day, comes alive again as the sun starts its slow descent. My bench – obviously a popular one, judging by the huge dent in the middle – is on the banks of the Thi Nghe Channel, whose tea-coloured waters flow backwards; away from the Saigon River into which it should flow. The tide is high – hence, I suppose, the channel’s counterflow – and the murky waters carry a musty scent that’s familiar to me. It reminds me of the muddy banks of the Thames – the river that flows through my home city – where Dad and I went of Sunday mornings to forage in the mud for treasure (what we found were cow bones and an old barge lantern).
Dead leaves and sprigs of water hyacinth float on the channel’s rippled surface. It’s pretty and serene, especially with the trees lining the waterfront promenade. From where I sit – on that promenade – it’s hard to believe that, only a few years ago, this waterway was tar-black, with an oily viscosity. It was, effectively, an open sewer. Even now, when the tide’s out, the blackness reappears and the foul smell assaults the nostrils of all who pass by. But, in the sunshine, on an afternoon in the dry season, the Thi Nghe Channel is refined, genteel, Parisian even: a scene reminiscent of Seurat’s ‘La Grande Jatte’. When the sun sets and the temperatures cool, gondolas will punt guests along the water for romantic, candle-lit dinners, with live musical accompaniment.
A light breeze comes off the channel – why is there always a breeze by water? – cooling my perspiring arms. Men of a certain age ramble up and down the paved promenade in trainers, shorts, and singlets: power walking, slow jogging, swinging their arms above their heads, and cooling themselves in the fountains of water from faucets hidden in the grassy verge to water the trees.
In a sweep of my eyes, from west to east, I can see a mosque-like temple with a bulbous tower; a line of classic Saigon ‘matchbox’ townhouses, all in different styles and colours – one of them painted pink with a rooftop statue of a hooded Jesus; a utilitarian apartment block in front of the sumptuous curves of the luxurious City Garden condos; the bored-grey and monotonous architecture of Vinpearl complex; and, of course, the needy finger of Landmark 81 tower. All this against a flat blue sky with a couple of confused-looking clouds.
The wheels are beginning to roll on Hoang Sa Street behind me; the volume cranking up, the engines purring, horns beeping, and the tension of the city tightening as it approaches the dreaded hour of 4:00pm. Rush hour is fast approaching, and I have no intention of being part of it. I shall leave this place and make a beeline for home before the hour of congestion commences.
Sketch 4: The Alleyway
• Time: Thursday, 21 February | 9:10am
• Location: alleyway 124, Xo Viet Nghe Tinh Street, Ward 21, Binh Thanh District [MAP]
I’ve followed a line of coloured lanterns to a T-junction in a nest of tangled alleyways. Strung along the centre of the narrow paved alleys, the lanterns promise to lead me to a pagoda. But I’m content to sit on a plastic chair, lying unclaimed in front of a diminutive home enmeshed in a cage of metal rails and chicken wire fencing. A smiling local cô (an ‘auntie’) peers out from her own caged dwelling across the alley. Is there a pagoda around here, auntie? I ask. Her frown turns to a smile, and her skin ripples around the mouth and eyes as she describes the Linh Son Pagoda at the end of the trail of lanterns, on the banks of a canal. For 70 years she’s lived in her turquoise-painted abode, complete with corrugated iron roofing and a small balcony with an ancestor altar and a couple of green plants.
Down the corridor of alleyways, the sceptre of Landmark 81 skewers the white-hot sky, bearing down on the fragile alley-homes, which will surely not last the next 10 years of urban development in this area. Like the hutongs of Beijing, they will be demolished for more of the condos that are already encroaching on this network of narrow lanes.
“Hot, fresh bread!’ comes the call from a travelling vendor pedalling his load of baked goods through the alleys. A shop nearby sells dried ginger; next door, there’s an old-man’s café where they sip tea, play majhong and smoke the hours (and years) away; dogs guard each home, scolded by their owners for barking too much, too loud; cats are present only in the scent of their pee. But the alleyways are clean and cool and shady. Peaceful and characterful. The soundscape is chattering voices and the whirring of spokes – not engines; the crowing of fighting cockerels, groomed and in their coops; the fluttering of laundry in the breeze; babies crying. I don’t want this to disappear. But look around, and the average age is beyond retirement: everyone here was born long before 1975. They are not representative of a population of nearly 100 million, whose average age is just 30. This neighbourhood, this lifestyle, this generation is coming to an end.
Vietnamese flags adorn each house, the red background and yellow star standing out against the blue wooden shutters and white-washed walls. The alleyways here are less than two metres wide, their paved surface cracked and uneven; bumpy like the gnarled trunk of an old tree.
A pneumatic drill starts whining. Down the alley, a construction team sets to work. The peace is broken; I shall wander off now. As I move to leave, old auntie cô wheels her mountain bike out of her home. Off she pedals. Where are you going, auntie? To the market, she replies.
Sketch 5: The Intersection
• Time: Saturday, 23 February | 6:42pm
• Location: Tran Quang Khai & Tran Khac Chan streets, Tan Dinh Ward, District 1 [MAP]
I’m sat at a cafe at the corner of a 5-way intersection in District 1. The traffic – about 70% motorbikes – is relentless, but neither chaotic nor unpleasant. In Saigon, traffic is a phenomenon. I’ve always felt that traffic is the city’s number-0ne attraction. It’s unique: you don’t find the same volume and intensity in other big cities. Foreign visitors, and even Saigon residents, like to sit and watch – admire even – the traffic: how it weaves and flows, clogs, coalesces and dissipates, rises and falls with the tides of the day. I’ve been to other busy cities, other ‘great’ cities, but it’s never the same. Saigon, at rush hour, is so obviously the centre of the universe. In its own way, Saigon traffic is one of the wonders of the modern world. And where I’m sitting now is a pretty good vantage point.
The hum of engines is constant. Having written all the previous sketches in quieter corners, I’m finding it difficult to concentrate in this noisy scene. But it’s somehow comforting to watch. That’s another thing that Saigon does so well: the life-affirming presence of strangers together in the same space. Essential to this feeling is the fact that the people in the traffic are visible: they’re on motorbikes, not in cars; outside, not inside. As such, there’s an intimacy to the traffic: you can see the expressions on peoples faces, smell the perfumes – even the shampoos – of drivers and passengers alike: it’s open, al fresco traffic. Put everyone in cars – which is increasingly happening in Saigon – and the ‘community’ of the traffic disappears behind glass.
The intersection is treeless. In place of tree trunks there are concrete pylons, dripping with wires and cables, growing up and hanging down like epiphytes and vines in a jungle. Look around and I get a good cross-section of a typical Saigon high street: a South Korean fast-food joint with a children’s party taking place behind its glass windows; an English language centre, savagely lit with white lights in the bare classrooms; a butcher’s shop specializing in Chinese-Macao-style marinated roast duck and pork, the windows hung with dripping sides of meat; a bleak-looking skincare centre covered in grey pollution; a popular wrap-and-roll-style Vietnamese restaurant, where the tables are bedecked with a dozen varieties of fresh herbs, and families gather on metallic tables for informal meals; several fashion boutiques, phone accessories shops, a sunglasses store, a massage parlour, and the Vietnamese coffee chain where I’m sat. That’s another of Saigon’s wonders: the density of life and commerce – it’s crammed with stimuli. And music, of course, is a constant feature of any Saigonscape. In the background now, Whitney Houston is hitting the long, high notes of ‘I Will Always Love You’.
In need of a bathroom break, I ask the woman sitting at the table next to me, if she minds looking after my stuff – laptop, phone – while I nip to the toilet. She agrees. It’s about a thousand dollars’ worth of equipment. Would I have done the same in London? I hope so, but I’m not sure.
Although this is my last intended sketch, I’m finding it hard to concentrate. This, I fear, is a common symptom of living in Saigon: the distractions – good and bad – are so ubiquitous it’s difficult to focus. I’ll go now and find some dinner – it’s been a long day teaching English to children and I’m tired. The kids at the party in the fast-food franchise across the street (I might have taught some of them earlier today) are jumping around, wielding inflatable balloons shaped as swords. Even the burger joints have life and merriment in Saigon. You can’t deny the burgeoning life of this city: it’s charged with energy.