The great sidewalk cleanup of Saigon, 2017

When he first visited Saigon in the late 1940s, the writer Norman Lewis made this observation of the sidewalk life he saw here, after a short amble through the city:

“It was clear from the first moment of picking my way through these crowded, torrid streets that the lives of the people of the far East are lived in public… The street is the extension of the house and there is no sharp dividing line between the two. At dawn, or, in the case of Saigon, at the hour when the curfew is lifted, people roll out of bed and make for the pavement, where there is more space to perform most of their toilet. Thereafter they eat, play cards, doze, wash themselves, have their teeth seen to, are cupped and massaged by physicians, visit fortune-tellers; all in the street” (22)

Putting aside Lewis’ colonial, generalizing gaze for a moment, we can note the snapshot of what has become a typical Saigonese scene, a picture of personal lives lived publicly on the city’s sidewalks. Seventy some years later, the same public, multi-use nature sidewalks of the city haven’t changed all that much. The first haircut I got when I first returned to Vietnam was on a sidewalk in Nha Trang; I was patiently trimmed by an old barber using tools tidily organized on a cart, complete with a foldup chair, and charged just fifty cents. Such barbers, vendors, cafes, and newspaper stands still keep the sidewalks of the city humming with business today.

Recently, the Vietnamese government has decided to take back what they deem to be Saigon’s unruly sidewalks, back into their control. Police has been firm in their crackdown on illegal vendors, motorbike parking and curbside driving, even fining shop signs placed without their permission. To deter hawkers, vendors, and itinerant motor-bikers, police have erected ankle busting metal rails and even occasional waist high barriers. Some of these barriers form labyrinthine, narrow corridors, others are placed inconspicuously low to the ground and often trip walkers, paradoxically hampering and deterring the very pedestrians they were meant to protect. The ideal outcome is for the city’s spaces to be a little more like Singapore’s: cleaner, more orderly, with regular traffic rules, modern infrastructure, and containing safer walkways.

There are ample arguments for this “take back the sidewalk” initiative, of course. Saigon hasn’t been a safe city for walkers for some time, and that is in part due to the flexible treatment of what a sidewalk should be used for, as observed by Lewis. A visiting Norman Lewis today, would find the city sidewalk much more hostile to pedestrians than the walkways of his day, I’d expect. The space is occasionally a battleground of tense skirmishes between pedestrians, vendors, parked and moving motorbikes all jostling for space. I’d hate to be a young father with toddlers in tow; I can’t imagine how I could take such a toddler around the city in the confusion of activity of these streets.
Some Saigonese complain that the directive has been carried out with blunt, indiscriminating zealotry, sometimes without thought given to its residual effects. My street in D4, for example, rarely has pedestrians on its sidewalks to begin with, given as it is over mostly to motorbikes. The cafes and restaurants lining the sidewalks were already on wide walkways, perfect spaces for stools and the small tables that were there, and with plenty of room left for pedestrians interested in roaming through, or stopping by. With the crackdown, there really no draw for pedestrians to the street, it is cleared for their ambling, but no destination for them to visit. Parking availability for motorbikes is now an issue also. Days after the sidewalk reclamation project started, I roamed around district one for half an hour trying to find a spot for my motorbike, in vain.

Others have noted the unfortunate timing of the directive, occurring before any infrastructure is given to support walkers in the city. The subway system is not close to completion. Traffic is even more prevalent with yearly increases in cars, meaning motorbikes are now more motivated to push onto sidewalks to escape. The city is in the midst of a construction craze, with many sidewalks taken over by the spillover from construction sites, with guardrails and materials blocking sidewalks all the way to city streets.

Residents are further worried that streets relying on sidewalk culture, such as the backpacker street, Bui Vien and its neighbors, will soon be disbanded. These spaces that have taken time to accrue such heavy pedestrian traffic, with clusters of cultures of their own, are seen as under grave threat, and could change irrevocably with the crackdown.

Last week I woke up to a congregation of policemen taking down all the signs on my street in district 4 and moving the cafes and restaurant owners all indoors. Facing my apartment are two cafes that often had customers sitting on chairs and stools, enjoying the tree shade and awning of the building overlooking the sidewalk. I noticed that the stools were already gone, and the proprietors were all out watching the police take down the signs. No argument or altercation took place, just an unsettling, quiet capitulation.

I asked anh Hong, a local banh mi seller in the alleyway nearby, what he thought would happen to the local small restaurants, cafes, and vendors on Nguyen Khoai, now. He simply nodded and acknowledged that he thinks they’ll just adapt.

“They’ve been clearing stalls all morning and they’ll keep doing it. The owners will just move everything indoors now. They have to.”

“But how will customers know that people are selling food and drinks here, if there are no signs allowed?”

He shrugged, as if to say he is disappointed, but believed somehow there’ll still be customers. When I saked him if they’ve asked him to move his banh mi shop from the alley, or if the folks who sell street food in the alley are worried, he said “No, they’ve left us alone. But my wife had to change her location. Now the alleys are busier”.

Within three hours of the police arrival, my street was emptied of signs, stools, business, even including, I might add, any pedestrians. Several days after the clearing, the cafes still remained open, in diminished form, without the customers that used to frequent the stalls in front, traffic watching or reading newspapers in the mornings. Other places had similar diminishment. The com binh dan place I sometimes eat at on Ho Tung Mau, bustling with office workers from the banks and offices nearby during lunch hour, has now become a take out booth, dispensing their dishes in Styrofoam boxes to a small lineup of people. I predict that the housed, indoor establishments, with more expensive food served in air-conditioned spaces, will do better now with the new enforcement of the law.

But will newly regulated sidewalks change the essential nature of Saigon? Is it possible such a crack down might be emptying the city not only of illegal vendors and bull-rushing motorbikes, but also of social commerce, draining the city of the distinct energy of its sidewalks, leaching it of any of its unique, distinct aspect and assimilating it into the conglomerate of the preformed monoculture of high rise driven Asian city.

As mentioned earlier, the crackdown is partially an aspirational movement for what the government hopes Saigon is ever progressing towards: more order, infrastructure, cleanliness. Outlying districts such as Phu My Hung and the future District 2 – the latter unabashedly aiming to become Vietnam’s version of Shanghai’s Pudong – have provided models of top down design that are less chaotic and more socioeconomically selective than the mixture of sidewalk living that exists here now. One imagines the government and developers prodding the city towards such planned models of urbanity.

Such an aspiration for Vietnam is the subject of an ethnographic study and book by Yale anthropologist Erik Harms. Called Luxury and Rubble: Civilization and Disposession in the New Saigon, the book provides a thorough study of exactly these two outlying master planned spaces, Phu My Hung and Thu Thiem. It describes how inhabitants of these spaces foresee not just a new suburb extension of the city, but an ethos and way forward for the country as a whole:

“…They [inhabitants of Phu My Hung] truly believed that the vision of public life emerging in Phu My Hung held much more promise for the future of Vietnam than most of the visions that had existed in the past. For them, it didn’t matter whether the development was ‘privatised’; what mattered was that it helped foster a renewed sense of public life and community” (Harms)

Contrary to expectations that such developments lead to isolation, Harms’ research suggests new forms of socialization borne of selectivity and a common social class, thriving under the architecture of grand, planned spaces. He mentions, for example, a gathering of retirees who exercise in the mornings under the shade given by the high rise condominiums, and in the broad, safe, walkable sidewalks and bridges of this planned society. Meetings over Pho and coffee, conversations allotted to lives informed by leisure and privilege, followed with conversations often showcasing the speakers’ hopes that such spaces will lead to future ease and growth in civility. Harms mentions how such upper middle class inhabitants make direct comparisons to Singapore in their aspirational views of these new developments. Here is a high school inhabitant speaking of his aunt’s habitation:

“…in the summer she’ll go here and rent and apartment in Skygarden… and she said that, you know, Phu My Hung is like Singapore. It’s so convenient for resting and staying…” (Harms)

Mixed with this aspirational common hope are fears of what city Saigon might become when the construction dust clears and these beautification projects are completed. Soon to be closure of artistic spaces like 3A Station and potential shutdowns of independent café and shop spaces like the Catinat building on Dong Khoi and 42 Nguyen Hue, signal a more assertive and involved governmental hand and a notion of what it means to clean up the city.

When my family left Saigon in the 80s, I missed the city’s busyness most of all. I missed the close, audible proximity of other people, the ease of going to see my friend nearby or joining his family at the market, the sense that on any given day, my family and I could interact with neighbors, cousins, traders, shopkeepers, stall vendors, in the public spaces of the city. These moments of socializing were replaced by the spacious but placid suburban landscape of middle America – quiet porcelain gnomes placed on well sprinkled lawns, clean sidewalks barely peopled. Instead of navigating the chattering chaos of Saigon’s sidewalks, my family learned to traverse the confines of our apartment complex. We moved through the wide, safe streets of suburban America enclosed in our expensive vehicle of solitude, our family sedan.

It surprised me then, to return to see pockets of similar suburban comforts and separation in Vietnam. I recall dating a girl some years back who drove me to Phu My Hung’s new apartment complexes, who told me that she dreamt of buying an apartment there someday. She is now married to a Swiss developer and living in Switzerland, her aspirations realized, in a way.

Like others watching the ever rapid progress of this city, I am uncertain what will arise from the rubble of construction. For now, my own prediction for Saigon’s future, coming from an admittedly scant understanding of urban design and from my own innate cynicism, is of a rapid closure of sidewalk vendors and private small cafes, the rise of enclosed, air-conditioned restaurants and chain cafes and shops, the continual erasure of old historical homes and buildings, the loss of colonial remnants of the past, the disappearance street stalls and vendors and the commerce of the walkways of the city. Vendors will move into enclosed markets pre-arranged for them, and the lively, sometimes chaotic mixture of the sidewalks will go the way of the water markets that used to be a part of the waterways of Saigon. Like these cleaned up waterways, the streets of Saigon will be cleaner, more predictable, safe, placid, controlled.

Through Caverns Measureless to Man: Exploring Quang Binh Province

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I

n Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

Awakening from an unrestful sleep, perturbed by an ever roaming mind and a good hit of opium, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote these lines in a rush of creative inspiration. He may have been dreaming of Vietnam’s Quang Binh province when he wrote them.

Certainly for me, the landscape and geology of Quang Binh province have come closest to the natural realization of the romantic chasms and caves of ice in “Kubla Khan”. The area is a dense jungle in shades of green, with tall vine-entwined trees and dense foliage forming a thick canopy that conceals hundreds of caverns and the streams and rivers that course through them.  Continue reading

No Colours of Green Fields: Inside the caves of Phong Nha

Part 1 of the trip is here: Through Caverns Measureless to Man

…through the meadows homeward went, in grave
And serious mood; but after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.

  • from The Prelude, by William Wordswoth

Wordsworth saw mountains as reminders of the divine, links for the human mind to the heavens, fearsome conduits. These “huge and mighty forms” loomed over and overwhelmed his childhood self, troubling his dreams, but they also cracked open his childhood imagination, expanding his interiority just as water flows through limestone to form grand spaces. The Romantics were drawn to mountains, seeing them as the fearsome sublime, beings that remind us of our small existence in a gargantuan world.

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A Mary Oliver Story

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H
ere is a Mary Oliver story for you.

One summer many years ago, when I was starting my first year in college and trying to figure out who I would become, my mom and I stayed in Cape Cod for cheap at the home of a friend of hers from medical school.

Our first morning there, my mother woke up at dawn for a walk on the beach and asked me if I wanted to come. I groggily, grumpily, told her no, preferring to sleep in. I was at the age when one gets angry at being pulled along to family vacations, when there are more important things to do than take a morning walk with your mom. I had brought some paperbacks that I wanted to get through and had stayed up late the night before reading them, in part to not deal with possible conversations or forced chatter with my mom’s medical school friends.

An hour later, just as I was waking up from slumber, my mother came in, all smiles and sun happy.

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Flooding Season

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The worst flooding in Saigon comes in late October to December. Black clouds roll in from the direction of Vung Tau, pushing up river like a gathering horde; the once airy sky turns heavy and dark, auguring unrelenting rains to come. In minutes the streets are overwhelmed. Motorbikes are caught mid journey. Drivers wait it out under cafe awnings, watching the streets turn to streams, streams to rivers, rivers to oceans of disturbed waves, all in a Saigon minute.

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No City for Old Men

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For my first few months back in this long term stay in Vietnam, I tried my hand at writing articles and short pieces for whatever places wanted them. Most English media sites about Vietnam were online zines, and the pieces that were in demand told of the country’s developing future. Editors wanted reviews of new restaurants and bars, real estate, life hacks for living in the new Vietnam, interviews with influencers, pieces advocating novel luxuries here or soon to be here.

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Adrenaline rush in a left turn: the morning motorbike commute

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S
o a year of writing ends and a new year of teaching (my lucky 13th year) begins, for I’ve taken a position at Saigon South International School teaching I.B. English and 10th grade English. I will be driving every morning for 15 – 20 minutes from district 4 down to Phu My Hung, south of the city, to get to my classroom.

I’ve been making the drive the last few weeks for new teacher orientation, starting around 6:50 or 7, when the city seems already wide awake and buzzing with activity. Let no more assumptions be made that Saigon is a city of idleness, its citizens nostalgic loafers in cafes drinking cafe sua da and complaining of failed relationships all day, for in the morning, I join a legion of motorbike traffic shuttling workers to their places of labor.

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Books I’ve read on my year off

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It’s coming upon a full year since I took my sabbatical, and I suppose it’s pretty much over now. Aside from giving me time to write, this break also allowed me to do more reading than I normally could in the hurly burly of attending to a full time teaching load.

Here are the books I’ve finished in my year off, and a few words about a few of them (to be added to when I have time). I should say that I’m quite positive about the books on this list, mostly because I’ll never finish a book I don’t like, and I’ve leafed through many books and put them down partway through. Life and sabbatical years are too short to waste on bad reading.

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Monsoon season

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D
ownpours at the start of the rainy season are routine, appearing and departing like the clicks of a clock ticking time. At three, the sky turns moody and darkens. At four, a downpour. By six, all is clear and the diesel thick air gets washed, the clouds hang, dripping pastel prettiness, just in time for visitors to take to sky bars and watch the sun dip into the horizon.

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Em Chua 18: Some thoughts on the most successful film in Vietnam

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“All Americans are sluts”, said my friend Vu.

“Wait… What?” I exclaimed, assuming this was just misspoken English on Vu’s part, though he is fluent in the language.

“Yeah, Americans are all sluts, man. That’s what most Vietnamese locals think just from watching Hollywood films and shows.”

The group of male friends, all Viet Kieus and Americans, nodded their agreement. Vu was the only local in the group, and he had our attention:

“Everyone is sleeping with everyone else. Different kinds of people all sleeping with each other in different ways. We think Americans are all slutty.”

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