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.
I wrote a few pieces for Blissaigon, a lifestyle magazine for women in the city. I wrote a few more for Vietcetera, a site formed by young and upwardly mobile Viet Kieus. I met some interesting people there, but I never really jived with the overall culture of the site, which was about interviews of the successful or up and coming, or investigations of the novel and curated, of expats and prosperous multinationals, of advice for how to develop an international brand for Vietnam, of Vietnam, Inc coming into focus.
Instead, I wanted to write about the ways the city was handling, or in some cases, discarding, its complicated past. I wanted to write about the conflicts between generations in the midst of change, or the massive construction boom and the effects this had upon a forked trajectory of the rich and poor, those left behind and those who could crawl to the trough of sweet FDI money; or about architecture’s effects upon its citizens; or the shifting geography of the city as it grew ever upwards even as its streets turn to mini rivers during monsoon season. After posting a few bar reviews and tourist spot recaps, I realized that the future of Vietnam, as seen and told in many of these sites, tended to be an ever bright trend upwards and there wasn’t much call for my particular interests, so I stopped altogether, deciding to focus on my own possibly not publishable project instead.
There’s no denying Saigon’s preoccupation with the future, its own, and Vietnam’s in conjunction, for what happens to Saigon is happening to the rest of the country. The city notices its present day self as a gear in the grand machine that grinds inexorably towards an ideal soon to be. It tolerates no interruption to this gear’s forward turning. While America produces reconstructions of its past, ruminating on its most roiled, embroiled war with a new Ken Burns documentary, Saigon seems ever eager to project itself into a future of a prosperous peacetime growth.
Susan Sontag described the modern sentiment as a tension “…between two poles: nostalgia and utopia”. For all the skepticism its citizens profess, all the awareness and talks of corruption and environmental taint, the overall push is towards that ever shimmering vision of utopia. Perfection, modern living, and boundless wealth rest forever in the country’s crosshairs. And even if it is an ever moving target – as continuously receding as the deadline for the construction of the first underground station – it is still the primary goal, keenly felt by all.
Most of the people I meet here are optimistic for a prosperous end game, hoping that they’ll be wily enough to participate in this prosperity. The oncoming future seems as near as the ever growing skyline of district 2 just across the river, coming fuller into focus each day. Each day, the horizon seems one floor taller, the roads more clean and cleared, and the new saplings that line these roads, propped up by teepees of iron or wood, make viewers hopeful of novel possibilities, and more forgetful of the old forest that once was there.
Knowing my own tendencies, I admit to a lean towards nostalgia. I am as keen on knowing the lost possibilities of other Saigons, those Saigons disappeared in the transition to modernity, as the Saigon that exists today and will exist tomorrow.
There are remnants of the old in the midst of the new, of course. There’s live music most nights at the sky bars atop the Rex and Caravelle, those renovated historic hotels with decor still pleasantly preserved for searchers of the past, for war buffs and tourists looking to visit and relive the war correspondents’ existence. On Tuesdays, Chu Bar, on Dong Khoi street douses itself in nostalgia; it’s the kind of bar your Vietnamese dad went to, to listen to the past in the chords of “yellow music”. The bored bargirls sporting pompadours from the seventies and orange miniskirts of a Saigon before the fall, the greying crooner belting out old pre-takeover classics; the synthesizer twanging melodies in mournful accompaniment.
But such places are outliers. While venerable old cities are becoming ossified versions of their once glorious past, Saigon eagerly discards its burdensome colonial and conflict riddled history, rejecting anything unprofitable, and adopting cultural phenomena from abroad that are. Craft breweries, high rises and brand names, upper middle class lifestyles in high rises, or upper class villa and house living arrangements, have all taken firm holds in Saigon. Koreans, Japanese, Taiwanese, foreign investors and white collar workers flock here now, modeling novel lifestyles and consumption habits. Returning Viet Kieus join with such expats to participate in new versions of curated living: Saisons and IPAs rather than Heinekens, cocktails rather than bia hois, vaper joints, jazz clubs, and sky bars rather than sidewalk street stools and plastic tables.
Which city has the best night life in Vietnam? Saigon! There’re no other city for parties. Hanoi closes early; the beach cities are ruled by Western vacationers and Asian tour groups – mobs marked by raised umbrellas, racing through sites to snap pics, all turning in early each night. Nha Trang serves borsch to young Russians who party on their own, with vodka shots on menu from midday until next midday; only casually international Saigon remains open for business for all. Just flash some cash and you can make it here.
Young locals frequent beer clubs like Vuvuzela, where house music plays so loud you yell at close range to be heard. Hot girl DJs switch tunes, shake boobs and boob jobs during each transition. Mot hai ba vo! Expats head to Bui Vien and people gaze upon the kaleidoscopic spread of humanity, opened for eyes and ears and nose to feast upon: bearded backpackers, fire breathers and drug addicts, whores and their pimps galore, fights and chairs, people watchers and scene makers. Inside the alleyways one finds street vendors, cheap Saigon beer, stools and grilling smoke, motion and light. At 74 Hai Ba Trung, in the awning of a posh restaurant, you can overhear a westerner mansplain to his captivated Viet girlfriend the challenges of teaching English, telling her of the many fakers teaching here and how it’s hard for a real teacher of the Queen’s English to be operating and giving back to people so eager to learn. Oh aspire, young man, to be a mediocre white man mansplaining to the captive ears of Southeast Asian women. No, scratch that. Aspire, young man, to be rich, dim witted but connected, for they hold the keys to the kingdom. No, scratch that, aspire to be a Japanese salary man working and living in Japantown, young man, for they hold the keys to the kingdom.At Saigon Outcast there are new craft beers and a climbing wall, and expats mingling with locals. In district 2 there’ll be curated chicken wings coming soon, sports bars and babes in a new America in Vietnam.
Drive to the War Remnants museum as part of the war tourist’s track, but talk to anyone here, and you won’t hear much about that old American war. No one wants to hear it; everyone’s ready to move on. The past is the undesirable province of the lost, the left behind. The future is ever bright, ever prosperous, shinier, prettier, more orderly and saner than today, more real and inhabitable than history’s darkness. The bookstores sell best speeches in English, seven habits of successful fill in the blanks, bucket list spots to visit before you die, the biographies of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, Trump’s The Art of the Deal, the bookshelves are full of game changers and aspiration filled achievers. The cinemas are filled with flashy action pics, gruesome horror flicks, light comedies of the prosperous juggling romantic entanglements and white collar professions.
People that come to Vietnam warn others to visit all this, whatever “this”, is, before it changes, before it all becomes a series of tourist traps. Da Nang is Bali as it was five years ago. Saigon is Singapore before its rise. Phu Quoc is Phuket before it became the center of sex tourism. Come see Saigon, city of perpetual adaptability and transience, of bright young things, bauble of the flashy new Orient. Take a selfie by this old corner of the city, next to that pastel walled alleyway of nostalgia, and remember yourself being in that spot, for it shall change irrevocably when you return next month. To the American traveller tired of seeing her country’s culture superimposed on all the other countries of the world, come here and visit. Gather your senses and your wits and come quickly, and come while you are young, for it shall become like all the other cities you’ve visited on your travels, and all too soon.