Mekong Review

Fall for Saigon

Connla Stokes

Luxury and Rubble: Civility and Dispossession in the New Saigon
Erik Harms
Luminos: 2016 (free to download online)

Old Paris is no more (the form of a city changes more quickly, alas! than the human heart)
– Charles Baudelaire


In Ho Chi Minh City a year ago, the last of the central bia hoi joints on Thi Sach, where colourful characters drank cheap watery beers from morning till night, bit the dust. On its final evening, a bunch of expats all took a break from drinking IPA and craft cocktails to toast the end of an era, exaggerating how often they went and how much they’d miss it.

Meanwhile, increasingly on social media, postcard-worthy images of the swinging ’60s are being shared, and Vietnamese, many of whom were born after 1975, write longingly of the quiet, quaint scenes. But was it ever so? When the writer Mary McCarthy came in 1967, she described it as an “American city, a very shoddy West Coast one”. Frank Snepp, the author of Decent Interval, went further a few years later, when confronted by a “grimy imitation of Dodge City” where cashed-up horny GIs had the run of the place, eating burgers made of water buffalo meat at girly bars. “Locals had either withdrawn or were cooking up schemes to profit. Shabbiness clung to the city like a scab. It reeked of urine.”

Snepp also came across a returning US army vet in ’71, reminiscing of the long-gone days of 1965, when there were “more tree-lined boulevards, the best Chinese restaurants in Southeast Asia, and equally superior brothels”. Not that the brothels had gone. Indeed, according to a memoir by Scott Laderman, recently published in the New York Times, when the last US combat forces withdrew in 1973, the director of the National Tourist Office of South Vietnam was considering the promotion of sex tourism to boost arrivals flying into Saigon. Many people wanted to visit, the official told a reporter, not to see the mountains, or for the shopping, but “to try, just once, our girls”.

If that’s not depressing enough for you, let’s fast-forward to late 1979, when a chap by the name of Gabriel García Márquez arrived to find “an enormous city, lively and dangerous, with almost four million inhabitants, who go about the streets at all hours because they have nothing else to do”. The Yankee occupation, wrote Uncle Gabo, had created an artificial paradise, and the cost of this delirium was stupefying: “360,000 people mutilated, a million widows, 500,000 prostitutes, 500,000 drug addicts, a million tuberculars and more than a million soldiers of the old regime, impossible to completely rehabilitate into a new society”. All of which makes me better understand why a generation of Vietnamese leaders aspire for Singaporean levels of order, cleanliness, modernity and yes, let’s not forget business and economic growth: they lived through the bad old days.

The powers that be are also not the only ones who hope that this megalopolis-in-the-making will one day have the look and feel of a “world-class city”. Ask any taxi driver or street cleaner; they won’t see shimmering modernities made of concrete and glass cynically. They believe it’s for the betterment of the municipality, and if the city gets richer, so will they, or at least their kids.

Even so, development is a thorny issue. In the introduction to Luxury and Rubble: Civility and Dispossession in the New Saigon, Yale anthropologist Erik Harms writes, “City residents simultaneously marvel at and curse urban development, and in the process they often share the planners’ desire to bring order to chaos by building utopian projects, even as they often disagree with how the projects are implemented and even as they fight for greater compensation when they are forced to give up land for development projects”.

Luxury Rubble underscores the human costs of master-planned, profit-driven urban development while also reminding us of the scale and complexity of the expansion of the city, which needs to better accommodate somewhere around 10 million people (14 million by 2025). Old Saigon may monopolise our memories — real or imagined — but it is increasingly a kernel set within a sprawling, monstrous twenty-first-century city.

Harms’ book focusses on two urban developments, Phu My Hung, which has already been developed in the south, representing “luxury”, and Thu Thiem, which has required the eviction of 14,600 households to make way for a “sustainable, dynamic, mixed-use central business district”. Regarding the latter, Harms dug up a 1973 article by Gus Wright, a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, who wrote: “On my desk is a beautiful picture of how Saigon might look someday. I keep my fingers crossed that it will happen.” He was looking at a proposed master plan for redeveloping Thu Thiem, a “2,500-acre godsend cradled in a loop of the Saigon River … that begs to become the centrepiece of the Saigon of tomorrow”.

That short spiel is enough to make you long for an imagined alternate reality, in which wars, divisions and impoverishment hadn’t thwarted the development of Thu Thiem thirty or forty years ago, sparing District 1 from today’s overcrowding, chronic congestion and structural implosion — not to mention the quixotic footpath-clearing campaign being led by the district’s deputy chairman, who is revelling in his role as the sheriff who will transform this dirty old town into a “little Singapore”. In his mind, that’s a euphemism for “a super clean, orderly, developed city”. Others, however, will hear the words “little Singapore” and envisage a sterile, uptight city where a pint of beer costs $10, and wonder if it’s time to move to Havana. Well, I certainly do.


When I moved from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City in 2012, the country was in the midst of a financial crisis, triggered by the collapse of a property bubble and the arrest of high-level bank executives who had exposed a malfunctioning financial sector, widespread macroeconomic vulnerability and colossal levels of debt. I was following my partner who — in a sign of the times — had been transferred from a financial institution’s investment wing to its taskforce dealing with toxic debt. As a layabout man of letters in search of the easy life, none of this bothered me too much. With its wider roads, my new place of residence felt a little roomier compared to the capital. The traffic was less feral. The weather more bearable. With rosy reflection, I even like to think that in those good old days I enjoyed the sight and sound of each and every thunderous downpour that broke up the otherwise incessant heat.

With nothing much to do by day I spluttered around on my old Vespa PX trying to familiarise myself with the city, its people and dialect. With even less to do by night, I sat at quan nhau (local bar and grill joints) with the few people I knew, drinking our way through crates of bottled beer and snacking on southern dishes. At that time, a number of unfinished high-rises loomed over the Saigon River and central thoroughfares, symbolising the economic and real estate development inertia that had fallen on the city.

But now the economy is back in gear, and development is once again set to “rampant”, so fall for the anatomy of this city at your peril, for who knows what will make the cut. From the razing of heritage buildings to the accelerated rates of gentrification and “modernisation”, Ho Chi Minh City is in the midst of a dizzying makeover — and for now, in many places, is something of a mess. Old Saigon? If we’re to believe the hype — promulgated across hoardings that line the streets — she will be no more. Whoever sticks around will soon be sealed in a sanitised vertical suburbia. The view from their high-rise apartment block? Another high-rise apartment block.

Hence all of the nostalgia that currently renovates our memories of what has been torn down and lost, and even what “it” meant to us. The facade of the now flattened Tax Centre, for example, is already being recreated by artists, not as its unattractive, tacky 2014 self, but as a much more romanticised, previous incarnation from the 1920s or 1960s. Nobody, however, reminisces about the shops inside that nobody shopped in any more.

But is “old Saigon” disappearing? Is it gone? “Each time I land in the city, I invariably look for what is different because it has undergone tremendous change,” writes Annette Kim, whose book Sidewalk City was inspired partly by being unable to point out to friends what was so wonderful about Ho Chi Minh City from a map. “Still, I am usually pleasantly surprised to find how much of the city’s charms have remained.”

Just as French colonials hyped up Saigon as the “Paris of the East” with its Haussmann-style boulevards and replicas of Parisian buildings, Ho Chi Minh City is hyped up as more of a futuristic, vertiginous financial powerhouse than it really is. The urban network of alleyways still accommodates about 85 per cent of city dwellers in inner districts, according to Gilbert-Pham. So, if you’re seeking to get a sense of old Saigon, all you need to do really is duck down an alleyway or side street.

In that way, we might conclude plus ça change. When the British travel writer Norman Lewis came in 1950, he was initially underwhelmed, mocking the tag “Paris of the East” (might as well call Kingston, Jamaica, the Oxford of the West Indies, he sniped): “Its inspiration has been purely commercial. There has been no audacity of architecture, no great harmonious conception of planning. Saigon is a pleasant, colourless, and characterless French provincial town, squeezed onto a strip of delta-land in the South China Sea …”

Impatient with the showpiece Saigon and its westernised welcome, Lewis “plunged into a side-street”, and if he were kicking around District 1 today, we safely assume he wouldn’t be bothered with the skyscrapers that supposedly define the city in 2017. Instead, he’d be perambulating down alleyways and side streets, perhaps concluding that the most fundamental elements of the city remain the same. As a relatively young, multicultural place that has hosted foreigners and migrants since its inception, and as the ultimate and only Vietnamese melting pot, Ho Chi Minh City is exactly what it’s always been: a barrelling, motley and variegated centre of commerce. Old Saigon is still here, even if its form continues to change, more quickly, alas! than ever before, and more than a human heart can bear.