like to visit 3A Station in the late afternoons, when visitors come to browse its galleries and shops, or take photos next to its graffiti covered walls. The exteriors of old colonial warehouses that used to be here are kept intact, extending to form colourful alleyways. Small trees, industrial art, and painted walls refract the late afternoon light; on most afternoons, a breeze blows directly from the river and cools the alleyway. A bar at the alley’s end, The Great Hornbill, plays soft dixieland jazz or classic 80s tunes from a lone speaker running into the centre of the makeshift square. A gentle, affecting pace contrast the alleyway with the din of Nguyen Van Cu, the busy avenue that leads into it, offering respite from the ubiquitous construction noise that typify the new Saigon.
The government is shutting this location down at the end of this month, clearing the spot to make way for a large scale high rise development complex of concrete, glass and steel. Further plans to close down other unique spaces have also been loosely announced. One example, 42 Nguyen Hue, “the Cafe Apartment” as it’s affectionately known by its visitors, is also under threat of closure, according to Saigoneer.com.
Like 3A, 42 Nguyen Hue was space converted from a different entity; it was once a purely residential building. Three years ago, when walking street was nearing its construction, cafe aficionados and local shopkeepers saw the potential in the well lighted rooms facing the nearly completed avenue for pedestrians. They requested and secured rights to convert the numerous flats there into places of business. The apartment rooms of the building thereafter were rapidly converted into cafes, restaurants, and small shops selling clothes and gifts designed and manufactured locally. Now, the Cafe Apartment has become a regular stopping point for tourists ambling through walking street, eager to climb its nine floors and explore its byzantine, crumbling interior stair cases, window shopping or sitting down to chat with friends while overlooking Nguyen Hue street and the pedestrian traffic below. The cafes’ numerous balconies give panoramic views of the new walking street from the river all the way to the Ho Chi Minh statue and City Hall.
In certain city blocks in Brooklyn or Melbourne, one can see such creative or coffee zones as those offered by 3A Ton Duc Thang and 42 Nguyen Hue extending into the culture of the cities themselves. These neighborhoods are filled with eclectic alleyways and spaces, with art collectives resting next to bookstores, cafes embedded in small shops, with walkable areas sheltered from the rush of automobile traffic. Such density of art and commerce allow visitors to not only shop, but chat, share, and add vibrancy to the community. Creative, walkable spaces aren’t unique to western cities, either. In Shanghai, one sees numerous examples of areas devoted to creativity and craft. Xiantandi, formed from renovated old shikumen homes, and M50, converted from an old textile mill and factory, make up two examples of successful walkable stretches dense with art, craft stores, and cafes. Such spaces reward and sustain the urban loafer as much as parks can, offering space and time for artists, inventors, and designers to shape their surroundings, to paint, design, and dream.
It’s rare to find spaces in Saigon that reward the ambler more so than 42 Nguyen Hue and 3A Station. The interiors of 42 Nguyen Hue are designed to the aesthetics of individual shop keepers, resulting in a fun afternoon of cafe-crawl for the curious and reasonably fit walker. Places in the building includes the only Poke lunch place I’ve seen in Saigon, selling Japanese sashimi and rice bowls, cafes with varied decor, from the spartan white of “Thinker, Dreamer”, to the overtly cute “Boo Cafe”. The view from outside is pleasant also, with multi-colored balconies and its diverse facade giving colour to an otherwise monochromatic faux black limestone and glass exteriors from banks and hotels that line Saigon’s walking street. 3A is similarly contrasted with its busy neighbors, having grown to become a small island of art and peace in a stretch of the city that is buzzing with business, traffic, and construction noise – the massive Vinhomes Golden River complex is just around the corner.
Inhabitants of cities benefit when ambulatory artistic spaces survive and promulgate; however, areas free from the din of traffic, safe for amblers, and reward the leisurely gait with offerings of architecture, art, greenery and silence, barely exist in central Saigon. The city seems to draw ever closer to the mercantilist ambitions of Bangkok and Singapore, pushing more high rises and air conditioned multi-level shopping malls upon its inhabitants even as its streets get more traffic clogged. For every Saigon Centre built, a couple of colonial era buildings are destroyed, sometimes yielding little to no tangible economic benefit. Witness Union Square Mall at the end of Nguyen Hue, a Vietnamese ghost mall; drive by the failed, closed Paragons outside D1 to see examples of blind faith in the public’s desire for grand, expensive shopping complexes.
Vietnam had numerous creative spaces in its recent past, and have also closed them down. In 2013, Hanoian creatives gathered to form a large complex called zone 9, drawing a quickly burgeoning crowd. Converted from an abandoned pharmaceutical factory, zone 9 grew rapidly into a thriving space for painters, musicians, designers, and artists of all media to come together, collaborate, and create. Frequent concerts and events brought in a public thirsty for independent, creative expression. Six months later, the entire place was quickly shut down. Its brief existence and the government’s rapid closure of the site have been made into a recent film: Zone 9: A Documentary.
As palliatives, the government often sets aside sections of the city for walking and culture. From the creation of Nguyen Hue walking street to the pedestrian only Mong bridge, crossing over to district 4, complete with promenades, to Saigon’s book street Nguyen Van Binh, it’s clear that official planners have impetus to beautify and make the city more walkable. Yet such zones set aside specifically for leisure and culture by government planners tend to effuse a controlled, antiseptic quality. Formed by the corporate or communal mind of bureaucrats, planned sections of town often grow into artificial prefabrications, constructs where human traffic is directed and guided with pretty colors rather than allowed to freely roam. They lack the spontaneity and variety that arises from organic urban collaboration.
Recently created by the government in 2015, Nguyen Van Binh, or book street, is nestled next to the Post Office and the cathedral. Its identically designed book stalls are coloured in bright colour schemes, and staffed by various approved booksellers. The street gets plenty of pedestrians throughout the day, as it offers a walkable space in between two busy roads, but it can’t shake the fact that the books on offer, as with all printed materials in Vietnam, are pre-selected, safe, censored. One partakes in the performance of reading, rather than actually reading anything outside the realm of the accepted. That said, I have bought several children’s books in Vietnamese on this street to improve my middling Vietnamese. Once, I sat down here for a coffee, and opened my Tin Tin translated to Vietnamese graphic novel, then noticed that I was surrounded by several trios pedestrians holding selfie sticks, snapping away. Seeing the throng of tourists whipping out cell phone cameras, selfie sticks, and checking their phones, I felt like I was participating in a part of a preformulated, disney-fied version of a cultural and intellectual nexus. Culture prescribed by the state can feel like that; it is like Gatsby’s library of uncut, unread pages, prettified adornment, not the real thing.
I’m amused to read that city authorities have made plans to create one book street for each of the districts. Even more absurdly, each book street will be populated with books that cater to that district’s particular demographics. I can’t wait to find out what stereotypes and assumptions this will reveal. Will district 7’s book street have a large business and self help section filled with 7 Habits of Effective fill in the blank, to cater to its aspirational upper class? Will District 4’s book street have a larger crime section, celebrating its infamous past? And what of the blue collar working districts of factory workers, like Tan Phu? What will the government assume such folks read in their spare time?
Recently, I stopped by one of the cafes of 42 Nguyen Hue to chat with its owner about the future of the building her shop is in. T. created her cafe and shop partially as a showcase for the inventiveness of Vietnamese entrepreneurs and inventors. Her shop sells women’s clothing and gifts that she designed herself, but also often contains products from local inventors and craftspeople who make pitches to be included on the space’s selling floor. Before Nguyen Hue’s construction was completed, she had submitted and legally won the right to open her cafe and shop in the building, and is one of the first to arrive. Many of her neighbors came soon after.
T. isn’t fully convinced that the government planned to go through with closure of the building. The risk to the economic bottom line is too great, in her opinion:
“According to the new law, other places will need to shut down too, so if the government shuts down this place they’ll have to look at all the other buildings. Other old buildings in D1 have the same status. If you walk around Nguyen Hue you’ll see many other buildings that are like this. Around Sun Hwa building, on Ngo Duc Ke, and Dong Khoi… There are at least 5, 6 buildings like this one. And according to the law, you can’t apply it to just one building. So I don’t think they’ll do it. I don’t think they’ll close us down.”
Listening to T., I’m reminded of the continuously threatened redevelopment of Catinat building on Dong Khoi. Catinat building has been under threat of closure for some time, yet the structure is still there, intact and preserved, still housing its various local shops and cafes. I can’t help fear though, that closing down all these buildings in one fell swoop would be exactly what the government might do, at a near foreseeable future. Or perhaps giving proprietors the feeling that this could happen anytime is the government’s aim, a reminder to owners of who is ultimately in control.
In spite of her belief that the building will stay as it is now, T. is preparing for hers and other shops and cafes’ evictions. She and her staff are preparing to move her cafe to a new space, on the second floor of a bank building further inland from the river. It will still be in district one, but its location is not nearly as ideal. It will lack the human traffic from walking street, and isolated from the other shops and cafes that have been formed by this building. 42 Nguyen Hue is special in that way; it contains a density of all different kinds of shops, snack restaurants, ice cream/smoothies places, and views. And of course, if the building returns to being a purely residential space, nothing remarkable will remain of it. It will simply be as it was, a nondescript, run down old residential building.
As we wrapped up our chat, T. voiced her overall frustration thus: “Everything is always blurry here. Nothing is ever official in Vietnam. We don’t receive any official news. If it happens (the shutdown of the building), it just happens. There’s nothing we can do about that. We just have to prepare and adapt quickly when change occurs.”
In his book Walkable City, Jeff Speck describes a city’s conditions for walkability as predicated on several factors, including “…safety, comfort, and interest”. At the moment, the government seems to wish to take away any interest in walking by shutting down such spaces of attraction for walkers. Meanwhile, there is an aggressive movement pushing citizens onto sidewalks and non-pedestrians off them. To ease traffic load on the city, the government recently suggested that all its workers living within a 3 km radius from their workplace should ditch their motorbikes and walk to and from their place of labor. The police has been clamping down on such activities on sidewalks as motorbike parking, food carts and vendors selling foods, and motorbike driving on walkways. Signage from sellers have been taken down all around town, and plastic stools removed from street side cafes. Many sidewalks now have metal bars about a foot from the ground that force motorcycles from pushing onto sidewalks, a latest construction, amusingly enough, that has garnered numerous complaints from walkers for tripping people over at night as they walked.
Once people are pushed onto these sidewalks, where are the places for them to enjoy their ambling? Saigon has not been a pedestrian friendly city for some time, and there will be further challenges even with these newly cleared sidewalks. The weather is hot year round, an issue exacerbated by growing urban sprawl that is heavy on concrete and lack of natural shade as more construction sites come online. Traffic gets more clogged and pedestrian unfriendly as the population booms. While the subway system that is being constructed will certainly help, its arrival date forever recedes further into the distant future. In the meantime, millions of Saigonese navigate an environment that is hot, crowded, and filled with the fumes from automobile, bus, and motorbikes. In such a setting it’s well nigh absurd to consider a long walk to work as particularly healthy.
In two months, 3A Ton Duc Thang will be razed to make way for a new high rise complex called The Nexus, an amalgamation of all the modern things Vietnam seems to love: a business hotel, luxury apartments, a glass bridge connecting two towers, new working offices. Renderings of the project show a concrete and glass tower of no particular architectural interest. Before The Nexus is fully here, however, its construction years must first come. Yellow construction cranes will replace colorful graffiti walls, billowing construction dust will replace the river breeze, and heavy banging of machinery will take the place of dixieland tunes. The area will simply be an extension of the Golden River complex under construction, around the bend of Nguyen Van Cu. Visitors should come visit and feel 3A’s last breath of rarified non-construction air before demolition properly begins.
Computer image model of “The Nexus”
If, like 3A, 42 Nguyen Hue gets razed to make ground for brand new developments, it’s not quite clear what will take the cafe apartment’s place. The buildings neighboring “The Cafe Apartment”, each one uglier than the next, offer a glimpse of what has been done so far in the name of urban progress.
Lucky Plaza 2, to 42 Nguyen Hue’s left, is a modern shopping centre built in the shape of an office building. A stubbly black box of faux concrete and glass, it raises the bar high for new level of utilitarian ugliness. Next to Lucky Plaza 2 is the Times Square building, finished in 2012, home to the pretentiously named “The Reverie”, Saigon’s most expensive hotel. The Times Square’s interior is decked in gold trimmings and fine marble, with a burnished bronze decor straight out of glossy interior design magazines. Its exterior gives off a snub-nosed, unwelcoming inaccessibility. Tall glass facades, a redundant set of staircases, a pair of impassive stone elephants, and one lone doorman exist to keep the riff-raffs and regular pedestrians from entering the splendour of the building’s interior. Chairs and tables are set out at night around this unwelcoming space to give some semblance of cafe culture, so there’s that, at least.
I’d hate to think that such monolithic structures as the Nexus and The Times Square building typify the future of Saigon. If these are the new aesthetics of the city, then once the construction settles and the dust clears, I suspect what’s left behind will be empty façades, black concrete, ebony steel, reflective glass, all elements that lack humanity. The chaotic, energetic, lively city I currently know and love will be phased out, along with all brief appearances of life offered by creative spaces that allow designers, architects, and artists to thrive. Such areas will move away into the expat enclaves of district 2 or Phu My Hung, and there won’t be much in the center of the city to walk to, or leisurely visit. The sidewalks will be clean and cleared of all vendors, of signage, plastic chairs, motorbikes, pedestrians.