What is an alternative Sai Gon?

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A view of traffic jam from local restaurant and hospitality school Anre Maisen, founded by a German Việt Kiều (the view has nothing to do with the food and the services).

When I first came back to Sai Gon during mid-July, my sister asked me to join her to go to an event organized by Humans of Sai Gon called Sài Gòn – Ngõ Ghét Đường Thương (Hating Alleyways, Loving Streets – hate in term of loving-hate, if that makes sense at all). Since both of my sister and I study about place and that we both have a deep psychological attachment with this city, it seemed like a right thing to do.

The event took place at 3A Tôn Đức Thắng, also one of the more up-and-coming alleyway-like cluster for artists and designers. Even though I have to say I was quite irritated with it starting more than 30 minutes late, the event was indeed worth a precious Sunday morning when I was supposed to catch up with a fortune teller about my future in Viet Nam.

The two main guest speakers were  Bùi Chí Vinh (writer, poet, and filmmaker) and Trác Thuý Miêu (journalist and a much sought-after MC). In their own words, they represent two parts of Sai Gon’s history – the writer the Sai Gon before reunification and the journalist the transition when Sai Gon still possessed some of its grace and grandeur. So part of their mission on that day was to share with us – the younger generation – about the past as well as their hope to revive that past for the future.

There is something about the old Sai Gon and its former title “Pearl of the Far East” that people – almost all despite of age – cannot detach from, even though elders like my grandma actually admitted that the current Sai Gon is more beautiful than it was in the past (“đẹp”; “đẹp hơn nhiều”).

However, a few weeks later when my sister and I had a reunion with our former high school teacher, we mentioned to him that we are working on a business that involves Sai Gon’s alternative tourism and our teacher shared that when he heard about alternative Sai Gon, he immediately thought of old Sai Gon. We were definitely less surprised with his statement but more so with his definitely of “old Sai Gon”: for him and many expats, as he said, the old Sai Gon means the Sai Gon before 2008, the Sai Gon before Viet Nam joined WTO [in 2007].

While the definitions of old Sai Gon might be different, they imply that people are quite unhappy with the present state of Sai Gon. Coming back to the Humans of Saigon event, as Bùi Chí Vinh said, Sai Gon used to be a model city for other cities in the country to follow – it was first and foremost the leading city of the nation (oops, sorry the capital!). Now, it is just another city. People usually blame the migrants from rural areas to cause the “ruins” of the city. But Trác Thuý Miêu made a very good point, that the grace and grandeur of this city has been put together by immigrant talents. Yet she also spoke out that immigrants should only bring with them the good way-of-being from their homelands and adapt to the way-of-being in this city.

Because Sai Gon is the melting pot of the country, our way-of-being is pretty much a collage that showcase different cultures. Who could say that they are really originally from the city to demand the original way-of-being? (Probably the Cambodians, but that’s another story).

If we were to create a Sai Gon that people could be happy with, how would that Sai Gon look like? What is the alternative Sai Gon that does not only look back to the nostalgic past, but also toward the exciting future?

But like the conversation with my high school teacher, how do we keep our city sane from all those processes of globalization? “Hoà nhập chứ không hoà tan”, to adapt but not get dissolved, had been our country’s motto. But I doubt its real-life effects considered we can be such a xenophelistic society (maybe not with China, just saying).

Another thing that was brought up during that event that I think is so true, is that people live in Sai Gon somehow cannot genuinely hate it. Despite what they say. Despite all the mess: All the food that is actually poison in disguise such as GMOs, MSG, Chinese imports, pesticides, or healthy food gets packaged in all kinds of plastic. The air that is hard to breathe – air pollution is critical.The everyday traffic. The rain that flood the whole city – that night in September was terribly eventful! All those high-level and on-the-street crimes.

They said that it’s easy for Saigonese to overcome their anger, to forget. That it takes only one little good thing for them to get over like every other shitty things they have to deal with. Not sure if I would detest to that. Although I am also deeply worried such a thôi kệ – whatever kind of mindset.

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