Monday, August 5, 2013

Loveletter to Sai Gon

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Loveletter to Sai Gon

By Tom Odell

Emperor Jade Temple close to the Sai Gon River

At the Emperor Jade Pagoda

Sai Gon is a city of romance and possibility. The city of surprises. All grown-up in District 1; if you like western food franchises, the discotheque and European prices. Comfortable in tree-lined, energetic District 3. Somewhere someone says 'go out in District 1, eat in District 5 but sleep in District 3.

Le Van Tam Park

I have been in Sai Gon for some weeks now. I haven't really made it to District 5 that I'm aware of. I've been to the Binh Chanh district, the Tan Binh district, Phu Nuhuan and the Sai Gon Pearl zone. Speaking Vietnamese becomes critical outside of the central zones.
One night I went almost up to the airport with a Sai Gon friend. After they went inside their house and despite their directions. I got utterly lost. It is then you discover the size and nature of Ho Chi Minh City. Feel the eight or nine million people. Feel some of the lumpy road under you. I happened upon a swish hotel and the bar manager took me back to the centre of Sai Gon himself. Half an hour on a straight road. I had been miles out. Going nowhere.


Travelling alone for eight months can be a lonely business at times. On one such day I wandered out into the centre of Ho Chi Minh city. After two weeks in a place you fall into the crack between tourist and ex-pat worker. You are neither. The consolation of escape to another location isn't available. Well it is but you don't get to know the place. The structured activity of waking early for work working all day then going home or chewing the fat with a friend and a beverage isn't available either. You've seen all the sights (not a favoured activity of mine at the best of times) too by now. So you walk aimlessly out into the broiling sun and northeast to Le Van Tam park.

A smallish rectangle of tropical trees and benches Le Van Tam is a pleasant haven from the streets and the ubiquitous scooter. Aimless and going along with that state of mind I sat on a concrete bench. With tall tropical trees creating a distant canopy I noticed a lizard on the side of a tree. An odd creature I could swear it was changing colour. It was mainly deep green but with tinge of red and blue I thought. It paid, I paid, no attention to strollers and other park users; teenagers, rollerbladers, resting xe-om riders, businessmen on cell phones.

Maybe the lizard wasn't blue. But she invited a good deal of watching. A man stepped across my line of vision. I smiled. He stopped and spoke in English. This was Giao. He flew fighter jets for South Vietnam during the war. An interesting man he told me that it was extremely unwise to let political opinion out into the public realm. It was not the first time resentment over the Communist takeover arose as a subject in Vietnam. Giao also regaled me with advice on both Japanese and Vietnamese women, different Viet dishes; banh xeo, bun bo and Vietnamese congee, the savoury rice porridge. He also invited me to take coffee with him in future weeks. If I return to Sai Gon, which I surely will, I'll look him up. We spent an hour talking. Sai Gon.

1.     What people listen to in Sai Gon:

'Diem Xua'  by Nhac hoa tau Tring Con Song

Church on Hai Ba Trung

2.     What people listen to in Sai Gon:

'Phut Coi' by Hong Ngoc

Thuy is a social worker here in Ho Chi Minh City. Kindhearted she has a particular interest in the plight of disadvantaged women in the city.

Vietnam has a low GDP per capita. Barely any higher than India. The devastation, the beggars and the rubble of smashed streets found in poor old India are absent (easily found in Cambodia). One or two Sai Gon districts have the forbidding 1960s concrete appearance of Stonebridge Park in London mixed with the ramshackle aspect of tenemented Spanish Harlem in Manhattan, New York. Not yet is this newly globalised economy riding on the wave of economic success. Not yet although District 1 and 3 give a distinctly western impression. It is this modern dynamic impression mixed with the more interesting outlying districts that give Sai Gon its peculiar challenge. She beckons with a long finger. She says 'try me.'

Viet Cinema I
One of the joys of Sai Gon is the cinema. While I have only been to the centrally located cinema just south of Tan Dao Park, there are others around although the leaving of the movie theatre--all your fantasies smouldering--is almost the best part.

The Galaxy Cinema, District 1

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The fusillade of headlights of Sai Gon at dusk and nightfall is truly energising. A loveletter in light. From a hundred thousand travellers.

Stand inside a doorway in the evening, with an mp3 player, for five minutes and watch.

Noble atoms on the thermals.

Sai Gon at night:      

Turn the tube down and watch to these sounds:

'Motherboard' by Daft Punk

Inside the music the plaintive, generous cry of the flute, the weeping bird cry. Sai Gon.

Revolving, returning, opening and open. Always thus. Inside the music is the show-stopping generosity of its people.
Sai Gon

Viet Cinema II
The actress Linh Dan Pham the French actress of Vietnamese descent was born in Sai Gon. She starred in the 1992 film Indochine alongside Catherine Deneuve. More recently she performed in her first Vietnamese production when she appeared as Cam in the 2009 film Adrift or Chơi vơi by director Bui Thac Chuyen. It won awards at the 66th Venice Film Festival. Critically for me the film deals with social and personal issues in modern day Vietnam, which are not often portrayed in Vietnamese cinema, such as homosexuality, and loneliness. It's a fabulous introduction to Vietnam life and its tensions. If you want to delve into deeper Viet Nam.

A still from the film

Linh Pham Dam

Poster for the Film released in 2009

With Mike fluent Vietnamese speaker. Mike from Queens, has lived in Viet Nam for 38 years.

Praying inside the Jade Emperor Pagoda

Nguyen Hue, Sai Gon 1966

Nguyen Hue, 2013

This part of town was old Sai Gon. Now called Dong Khoi. Europeans with money hang around this area. I found it underwhelming. You can buy steak, fudge brownie, ice cream. Just like anywhere else on the planet. I looked for some whiff of interest, some tendril leading me into the bug infested, baguette laden pieces of assimilationist colonial history but came up short. Instead Deloitte and Touche and Hotpot restaurants abounded. I got skinned in one of those in Da Lat. But GorillaZ isn't editorial on groaning about prices and standard of living. During my time in the East I have found that the Number 1 preoccupation of travelling types. Poor things. Is making their money stretch for rooms and travel whilst keeping enough back for booze and blow, abominable shorts, even more hideous cloth sandals, and wigger dreadlock maintenance.

Talking of fashion and youth culture. The music scene has very far to go here. Western bands don't come here yet. Vietnamese music itself hasn't taken off. It is unlikely to appeal to western tastes but why should it? The Vietnamese are an incredible group of people (as long as you don't mind women being second class citizens). I do mind. The Viet are creative and resourceful but infrastructure does not exist, to even begin the pop scene here. There is an example of Viet pop above by Hong Ngoc.

Music I listen to in Sai Gon

Tony's Theme:

By Giorgio Moroder from the movie Scarface.

This music tells a little of Sai Gon. It's scale. It colossal effort. Dignity. Its romance. The jungle waiting to invade from the river.

The Reunification Palace Helipad

The Helipad at The Bitexco Tower

The Helipad
Where you have your helipad is of critical importance. On top of a palace has a certain chutzpah. The ostentatious land on the one at the top of the Bitexco Tower. Or do you fancy a colonial villa just outside the centre? Do you have a low hedge around the helipad perimeter? Remember with a helicopter you can only fly in the daytime. Ask yourself is the helipad for you? It is rumoured that each flight costs $75000. Chances are that you risk alienation from most of your fellow mankind. The sum of the microphysics of power suggest that the rarified world of helipad ownership means you will not be liked. You may even be a villain or at least of extremely flexible morals. How else can you afford to have helicopter land where you live?

View from the balcony, Reunification Palace onto Le Duan, Edge of District 3.

Friends from Hanoi

Handsome Communist building

3. What people listen to in Sai Gon:

'Bien Pho' by Nhac hoa tau Tring Con Song

Devotion to Duty: Linh at Emperor Jade Pagoda

Ambient temp. 33C plus the heat from a roaring brazier


It ain't all sunshine and roses in Sai Gon.

Every silver lining has a cloud.

Try the traffic cops pulling you over for nothing reasons. The best of them.

Having your headlights on during the day.



The Vinicom Shopping Mall

OR mebbe the

Issue of Trust between Natives and Ex-patriates.


The Pollution

A friendly Taoist effigy
In possession of the Three Treasures; compassion, moderation, and humility

A beautiful city ...

A mile downriver the jungle awaits

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