On the hunt for Saigon's typographic treasures

By Nhung Nguyen   November 25, 2016 | 09:00 pm PT
If you pay close attention, you can find art everywhere in Ho Chi Minh City, starting with the orange vendors on the street.

Not knowing a language has its advantages, according to Steffi W. Neukirchen.

When the German graphic designer arrived in Saigon two years ago she found herself captivated by hundreds of handwritten signs.

“I didn’t understand the content, I only saw the form,” the RMIT University design lecturer recalled.

Soon she stumbled on a wild sign covered in hand-painted scrawl. Passers-by explained that someone was both renting an apartment and selling land in the same sign space.

“And I thought it was so interesting that someone had written this out, by hand, and mounted it on a pole. And all of the sudden, all of my senses were alerted to handwriting.”


Art on the street: the first sign that caught Neukirchen's attention. Photo courtesy of Steffi W. Neukirchen

From there, she embarked a quest to document all the city's signage, starting with street vendors advertising their wares.

"Sometimes the signs are so beautiful that it makes me think: 'oh, someone with a certain knowledge of handwriting must have helped, or the seller himself/herself has this remarkable ability,” she said.

Neukirchen credited the local "motorbike culture" with inspiring the cultivation of this innate sense for typography.

The signs were designed to quickly catch the attention of passers-by in every possible way.


Captured on the street: A cardboard sign advertising "Orange juice and phone cards" hand-lettered in two different fonts. Photo courtesy of Steffi W. Neukirchen


The type collector pointed out that rice sellers use different fonts to draw attention to different varieties of rice. Photo courtesy of Steffi W. Neukirchen

Neukirchen used her phone to document professional and semi-professional signage, a project she calls “Saigonese Urban Typography”, on her Instagram account.

The result is a catalog containing hundreds of hand-crafted signs.

"I am collecting them because I think many are being wiped out," she said. "[Looking at these signs,] you can see someone must have spent much time doing this, and you feel more of a human connection to these things than something made by the computer."


Art in the making in Ho Chi Minh City's District 2. Photo courtesy of Steffi W. Neukirchen

The project has also connected Neukirchen to local artists who share her interest.

Le Quoc Huy, the founder of a non-profit called Luu Chu - Vietnam's Lost Type helped introduce her to a trove of vintage signage in the shuttered Binh Tay Market in Ho Chi Minh City's District 6.

Neukirchen admits that it wasn't until her fifth visit to Cho Lon in November, when the market had already been cleared for rennovation, that she finally noticed the mesmerizing handiwork.

No one knows whether the two-year rennovation of the iconic chinatown market will result in the destruciton or preservation of its many hand-painted signs.


A handdrawn vintage sign in Binh Tay market. Photo courtesy of Steffi W. Neukirchen

"[Finding] old professional handwriting in the city feels like a treasure hunt because it is so rare nowadays," Neukirchen said. "Sometimes you have to peel back layers, you have to walk (or drive) by a few times before you can actually see them."


An old restaurant sign advertising blood and innard porridge. Photo courtesy of Steffi W. Neukirchen

While looking for impressive local work, she also observed a somewhat retro aesthetic among young professional designers, whose work pays homage to tradition while expressing original ideas.


Photo courtesy of Steffi W. Neukirchen

Describing herself as a type collector, she's considering printing “Saigonese Urban Typography” as a photo book.

"Sometimes I return to a given spot to see the signs and find they have been replaced by some new shops," said Neukirchen. "So far it looks more like a creative process; I have not seen much disappear, but I think it will happen soon."


Steffi W. Neukirchen. Photo by Quinn Ryan Mattingly

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