Is Saigon just another city, or is there something more?

By Hong Phuc   January 6, 2020 | 05:55 pm PT
With the soaring Saigon skyline descending into a generic urban blandness, it's time to ask: what's left of us?
Hong Phuc

Hong Phuc

A British reporter recently traveled across Asia for a series of stories on how megacities are losing or have lost their distinguishing characteristics.

Nick Van Mead is the deputy editor of Guardian Cities, a sister publication of the famous British newspaper, The Guardian.

Saigon was on his list and he ended up staying in my house courtesy of Airbnb.

One morning, Nick sat by the window and narrowed his eyes as he looked at the Saigon River flowing in the sunlight.

Then he glanced up, pointed at the skyscrapers in the city and remarked that 80 percent of Saigon has been built with modern architecture. The city now looks like any other city in Asia, he said.

Comparing the city to what he remembered from his last trip here, 10 years ago, Nick said there were so many things that have turned Saigon into a city that people will just visit and leave, without having any lasting impressions stuck in their mind.

The city's unique characteristics are fading away as hundreds of historic buildings are demolished to make way for modern real estate projects, he said.

Not very far from where Nick was sitting that morning was the fridge on which I'd stuck magnets collected from places I'd visited. There was a mask of indigenous people in Bali, a portion of Nasi Kandar, a Malaysian dish of steamed rice served with a variety of curries, a Czech beer bottle opener, a Bangkok tuk tuk, a glass of beer from Munich, the Eiffel Tower and a girl in the Vietnamese ao dai.

"What are Saigon's most special things?" he asked, looking at those magnets.

"The Independence Palace, Cu Chi Tunnel, the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Post Office, the War Remnants Museum, and don’t forget banh mi and hu tiu (a Cambodian-Chinese noodle soup that Saigonese have adapted to their taste)."

Later, I took him to Ton Dan Street in District 4, one of the most famous food streets in Saigon.

A paradoxical encounter

At a streetside eatery, as Nick focused all his attention to finishing a bowl of mi vit tiem, a Chinatown-style noodle soup with a herbal broth and roasted-then-stewed duck meat, I talked non-stop about Vietnamese street food culture.

Engrossed as we were, we paid no attention to two local men on a motorbike coming close to our table. Before we became aware of it, the one riding pillion jumped off, rushed to where Nick was sitting and grabbed the backpack he had placed at the foot of the table.

Even as we took in what was happening, stunned, the daughter of the woman running the eatery, yelled at them to get lost and swung the half-a-mater long soup ladle at the thief. Almost immediately, the mother, carrying a toddler no less, joined in, yelling and screaming.

As the situation got out of hand, the two robbers retreated, leave us, particularly Nick, still stunned, jaw dropped, holding a piece of duck bone, sweat running down from his face into the bowl of noodles and mingling with the leftover broth and bok choy.

Once the wannabe thieves left, the restaurant owner unwrapped a wet tissue and gave it to Nick. Smiling, she told him in Vietnamese to just keep enjoying his meal, as if nothing had happened seconds earlier.

Nick found his voice. "The most special thing about this city is the people. This is also the identity of Vietnam."

I asked him to explain what he meant by our national identity. He replied: "That's what allows people from other places to distinguish Saigonese from Chinese, or Saigon from Bangkok or Singapore and any other cities around the world."

It's a heritage that's more felt than seen. Vietnamese southerners, Nick felt, are openhearted, sincere and kind, and also easygoing, unlike his own people, who "always ask for too much."

It is as though the residents' personality is the "gene" of a city, creating its core identity, drawing people to it and making them remember it and talk about it.

After sharing a few of his personal observations about the Americans, Brits and the French, Nick said that while the economic development storm was turning HCMC into Singapore or Seoul, but there was one thing left unchanged, the character of its people. Whew! That was a relief, for me.

A corner of Saigons downtown. Photo by VnExpress/Thuy Tran

Saigon's modern icon, the Bitexco skyscraper, seen via a corridor of decades-old living quarters. Photo by VnExpress/Thuy Tran.

A city is not much different from a human being in that it is not easy to tell a person's true personality at first glance. So, those dropping by a place just for a tour will find it difficult to sense its true personality. To do so, visitors have to dig deeper into different layers of the locals' lives, from its broadest boulevards to the narrowest alleys. A superficial look will not reveal much, least of all the nuances of ideas, beliefs, aspirations and desires in the heart of a society.

I call Saigon home. I make a living here. I observe and I make choices. I know there is a pothole at the corner of the street near my place that I should avoid every time it rains. I know that I should close the window in the evening to protect my ears from the karaoke singing and shield my apartment from the smoke coming from a charcoal stove where pork is grilled on the other side of the street.

Nick notices different things, and says it to the world. Describing Dong Khoi Street in the heart of the city, he says it illustrates "the scale of change" that's taken place.

"The art deco and modernist buildings of the early 20th century fell into decline during the Vietnam War, but the area has undergone a revival of late with stores by Gucci, Dior and Louis Vuitton..." and the highlight along the Saigon River these days is "a glitzy showroom featuring a bright yellow Lamborghini Huracán supercar and three different models of Bentley..." and finally, "the historic center is increasingly filled with generic architecture which could be anywhere in Asia."

Given the worldwide readership that the The Guardian enjoys, Nick’s piece would have been read by many, and it is, a damning indictment of sorts, the saving grace being the friendly, hospitable people of the city.

This saving grace has high value. It is an indirect tourism service that creates lasting impressions in the minds of visitors. It makes up for defects in other aspects. The good impression visitors get about locals' cultural identity, customs and behavior in a place is a special product of high value in the tourism industry. It is a product that meets the "intangible" needs of travelers like learning about and gaining insights into new cultures and enjoying cultural exchanges. More than 90 percent of spending decisions of a person stem from the brain's hypothalamus, which also determines human emotions.

It is not difficult to find foreign articles praising the Vietnamese people as a strong point for the nation's tourism industry. Through the years, Vietnam has repeatedly appeared in the list of friendliest countries in the world, as attested by international sites like American Hubpages and InterNations.

At the same time, it is not difficult to realize that the locals, who are a tourism resource, are not included in any development master plans for the sector. It is not easy to include an intangible factor in such plans, of course, but the realization that it has a very crucial, tangible impact warrants attention from policymakers, businesses and other stakeholders.

Ironically, in the age of globalization that blurs boundaries, the need of countries to define their own characteristics become more important than ever. Reports have detailed how languages and other cultural traits are disappearing in many parts of the world, and the homogeneity of urban landscapes is just the most visible symptom of "modernity" undermining national identities and international diversity.

In Vietnam, despite the tourism boom of recent years, agencies repeatedly point out that we have a low rate of return visitors. The sameness of our urban landscapes will only worsen this problem. Why should anyone come here when they can go elsewhere for the same sights and even sounds? The answer is not only that we pay far more attention to preserving our cultural features in all aspects – architecture, cultural artifacts, traditional daily life items that we have used for a long time, our music traditions, etc., but that we find ways to keep our way of life intact, too.

For instance, the southerners in our country (including the Saigonese) have their typical hospitality and openness that mark them out, it is difficult to know if this withstand the onslaught of modernity and the survival battles that follow. Can we find a way to preserve these characteristics that can stand out despite the uniformity of air-conditioners and concrete, glass and steel buildings?

That's the question: Can we preserve the intangible to reap its tangible benefits?  

*Hong Phuc is a journalist at VnExpress. The opinions expressed are personal.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
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