Monday, August 24, 2015


I haven't traveled much in the past month. My aggressive tour of Vietnam's National Parks in July kind of wiped me out and spending August in one place sounded very appealing to me. The advantage of sticking around in one place is that you start to create routines and build on projects or relationships. The constant making and breaking of ephemeral contact while you travel can make one feel lonely. Staying in Saigon for just a month has been good for my soul.

First, I resumed Vietnamese class earlier this month. When I first got to Saigon, I was doing 20 hours a week. I've cut back to 12 and am enjoying it a little more. I've hit the point in my language studies where I'm starting to learn special vocabulary. This past week, I learned how to talk about a trip to the doctor's office and explain what hurt. This is great stuff to learn, but I won't use it everyday (hopefully) and so I won't have many opportunities to reinforce it. It's helpful that I now know how to say "I have a cough", but by the time I have a cough and need to say it, I will have surely forgotten it. Regardless, just applying myself to Vietnamese several hours a day helps keep up what I have learned and do use everyday. My latest project is to learn the lyrics to a Vietnamese pop song. My teacher suggested this one by who seems to be the Vietnamese equivalent of Jack Johnson. I can sing the first two verses so far, which has come in  handy a few times. 

One of the times I used my limited Vietnamese singing ability was during a presentation I recently gave at the American Center. The American cultural center here hosts all sorts of English speaking events and I've been pretty active there recently. During a series they did on American states, I presented Texas, naturally. In an attempt to make the presentation a little more interactive, I included a little segment where we all learned and sang the first verse of "Deep In the Heart of Texas". The audience was a little shy about singing at first, though, so I was able to loosen them up with my own rendition of the first verse of the Vietnamese Jack Johnson song. It was enough to make everyone laugh and break up the ice a bit. After that, they were much more enthusiastic with the singing and clapping. You have to give a little to get what you want and me singing a Vietnamese pop song seems to be good collateral when asking others to embarrass themselves. 

I've also been spending my Monday nights in August at the American Center leading a Massive Open Online Class, or MOOC. The class watches the lecture video online over the weekend and then we all get together on Monday evening to answer questions, go over examples and just talk about the topic of Problem Solving and Decision Making. Granted, it's a pretty broad subject, but I've had a lot of fun doing it. I hadn't ever really taken a MOOC before I led the discussion for this one and, I have to say, I'm a fan. I think learning at your own speed and doing it on your own time can really serve students better than the traditional, rigid class schedule. One of my favorite moments from the MOOC was during the class on group decision making. We had a hypothetical situation in which someone walked through the door and offered the class $10 million if they could make a unanimous decision on what to do with that money. The class was split between investing it, creating a scholarship fund and donating it to charity. They all presented their cases, debated the points and even were able to convince a few people to change sides, but in the end, we didn't reach a consensus and so the fictitious benefactor had to leave us and find another group to donate his money to. It was fun to watch them engage with each other and all make really valid arguments. 

For those keeping count, I'm now on the fourth activity that has been keeping me busy in general. Earlier in the month, I started a little chess club that meets up every Wednesday at a local university. I've never really been part of a chess club, so it's cool to be able to play people face-to-face. Vietnamese people in general are not comfortable with direct confrontation, so it's been interesting to watch them deal with chess, which doesn't have any pretext of passive aggressiveness - it's all out there on the wide open board. In one game in particular, once things started getting heated, the guy I was playing started making small talk, as if to reaffirm our mutual humanity while we slay each other mercilessly on the chess board. At least, I assume he was trying to diffuse the tension. Maybe he was trying to appeal to my humanist side in an effort to get me to cut him some slack. He ended up winning, so maybe he's playing a more conniving game than I gave him credit for... Anyways, a couple of kids have been in regular attendance and they don't seem to have any pretensions about being "nice" on the chess board. I've played the ten year old twice and both times just barely escaped with a win, only because he's made crucial mistakes in the end game. All the extra play seems to be paying off.  I've been playing chess with my uncle on a regular basis since 2007 and of the hundreds of games we've played over all of those years, I've managed to win maybe 10 times. However, just last week, I managed to beat him three times in a row - an unprecedented feat in my budding chess career. I'm not necessarily ready to take on the Russians yet, but at least I have evidence that my game is improving. 

On the more social, less confrontational side of things, we've found a good swing dance community here and have really been getting involved with that. Bryn and I have even taken it to the next level and taught a few classes. The scene in Saigon is pretty small and mostly beginners, but that just means that Bryn and I can actually make a difference here. I'm hoping to get even more involved and maybe start teaching a regular beginner's class. This sounds ridiculous to me, because in Austin or DC, I'm not nearly good enough to consider teaching, but since the scene is so young here, even if I can just teach people the basic step and a few simple moves, we will have made a big improvement. The perks associated with teaching swing dance have already started trickling down, too. Just last night I was invited to teach a class up on the 43rd floor of the highest building in town! I could barely even recognize the city from way up there. Swing dance has opened so many doors for me all around the world and I'm sure it will continue to create opportunities for me here in Saigon. 

Sixth, and finally, is my solo project that I started when I first got to Vietnam. This one doesn't actually require me to be in Saigon to keep up, but I don't know when I'll ever get another chance to write about my rubber band ball. I know, this may not seem exciting, but ever since the days of Pee Wee Herman's gigantic ball of aluminum foil, I've had a dream of making ridiculously large balls out of a household commodity. Vietnam is a great place to start a rubber band ball because I swear this country is actually held together by rubber bands. They're everywhere. Any food you order take-away involves at least four rubber bands and the ubiquitous, disposable rain ponchos use rubber bands to seal at the wrists and waist. Just walking down the street, you see them all over the place. Although I'm tempted to pick them up off the sidewalk, I've made a rule for myself to only pick them up off of the ground if I find them in my building (which I do all the time) since the ones on the street probably aren't hygienic. Considering that I've only been collecting since May, I think I'll be able to grow this ball pretty large by the time we leave. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Endangered Architecture in Saigon

A few weeks ago, I was writing to a friend about to come visit advising not to spend too much time in Saigon; the real treasures of Vietnam were outside the city in the countryside. That opinion has changed dramatically over the past few weeks, mostly thanks to a book that I found recently. "Exploring Ho Chi Minh City" by Tim Doling offers 23 walking tours around Saigon and surrounding areas. So far, I've only done two, but those two tours have easily doubled my knowledge of Saigon. The short story is that if you come visit, you should plan on doing one of these walking tours with me.

This book has confirmed what I already suspected about Saigon: this isn't a city that parades its best sites in broad daylight. I've tried a few times to just go on walks around Saigon and see what happens and usually that results in coming back home a few hours later hot, exhausted and convinced that all there is in Saigon are motorbikes and banh mi stands. The best of Saigon is hidden down inconspicuous alleyways, behind walls or locked up in controversial stories that aren't immediately apparent. After comparing a few walking tours from the book with a few walking tours without the book, the book definitely wins. 

A few weeks ago, nerding out on Saigon's history, I visited Tim Doling's blog and read a series he did on buildings around the city set to be torn down. They are all French colonial buildings between 80 and 150 years old. They are also mostly in district one; the center of the city where property is the most valuable and the most development is taking place. The series of blog posts is called "Date with the Wrecking Ball" and, while many of the buildings make an appearance in Tim's tour book, there isn't a specific tour dedicated to visiting the sites of Saigon with the shortest expiration date. Overcome with a sense of urgency, I plotted out a route on google maps and created a little tour based on Tim's blog posts that would show you most of the old French colonial buildings destined for the wrecking ball. 

Started as the equivalent of a French VFA and ended up as the
Vietnamese lottery commission before it was shuttered last
year and now serves as a moped parking lot
A few days later, we walked the tour ourselves to make sure we saw these little gems before they got knocked down. Some were more impressive than others, but all of them had a unique story that told the story of Saigon's turbulent 20th century. Most buildings started out as French administrative offices but shifted to more of a social purpose as French influence waned towards the middle of the century.  Then they were taken over by the South Vietnamese or Americans until 1975, when the North came in and needed their own office spaces. As the southern economy liberalized in the 1980s and 1990s, the old buildings transitioned from government to commercial purpose - although many of them still house state offices. 

One of the 1975 evacuation points
There are plenty of poignant landmarks, too. The old Pittman apartment building that served as the stage for one of the most memorable images of the Vietnam war is on the route (that building will be knocked down any day now). There's also the old French police station and jail right next to the cathedral along with an old printing press that published some of the first romanized Vietnamese newspapers. An old factory on colonial Saigon's main avenue has been converted into an upmarket cafe and clothing store. However, I think the building that most struck me was the Grand Magazin Charner: the first shopping mall in Indochina. 

A visit to the old staircase of the first shopping mall in Indochina

The Grand Magazin Charner was most recently used as a grocery store, but its doors were shuttered last year in preparation for demolition. The building itself is beautiful and certainly historical, but it has been remodeled so many times that it's hard to recognize the old French colonial architecture. What is impossible to miss, though, is the grand mosaic staircase parading down to the ground floor. I had read so much about this staircase and looked at so many pictures of it, but with the clear understanding that the building was now closed and inaccessible. Allegedly, a local architecture student broke into the building late last year to take the final pictures of the staircase. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find one of the doors to the condemned building wide open and a friendly guard named Cu let us in to get our own glimpse of the lobby and staircase. It made our day to be able to see perhaps the most endangered piece of art in Saigon. There is talk of saving, or at least preserving, the staircase, but its fate is in jeopardy right now. I'm amazed that, given its artistic and historical value, a museum hasn't tried to acquire it. If there are any multi-millionaires out there looking for a nice mosaic staircase, you might be able to get what you need here in Saigon.
Detail of the mosaic

In return for showing us the staircase, Cu only asked for a picture of us in return. When we tried to send it to him, we found out that he doesn't have email. So, we went to a photocopy shop across the street and framed a print of our photo for just $2. I'm not sure he appreciated it all that much, but if you want to see the staircase for yourself, you might try offering Cu a framed picture documenting your visit with him.

Our friendly security guard, Cu

After our little tour, I reflected on the idea of all of these buildings being wiped off the map in the coming year. What affected me most was a little anecdote about the Catinat building, another one of those structures that had seen a dozen tenets over the past century and held books worth of stories about Saigon's struggles through the 20th century. When the French were building it in the 1920s, excavators discovered the foundation of Saigon's old city wall. Did this stop the developers? No. They went on with their construction project and buried the evidence of Saigon's pre-colonial past under an office building. I'm not saying that the Vietnamese should knock the Catinat building down out of spite for building over their old city wall, but in the midst of debate over preserving these old French buildings, I think it is important to remember that the French developed over an existing city. You don't see many structures in Saigon that pre-date the French colonial era. I certainly don't think that the Vietnamese have any moral obligation to preserve these old buildings and it makes sense to me that the Vietnamese would want to build a city for themselves. 

There's also the simple value of these properties. These old French buildings are at most five stories high and yet they are surrounded by modern skyscrapers 30-40 stories high. The opportunity cost of keeping these French colonial structures is high and, in a developing country like Vietnam, they don't necessarily have the luxury of sacrificing millions of dollars in development projects for cultural heritage - especially when the cultural heritage in question is of colonial dubiousness. 

A modernist mosaic beneath L'Usine cafe. I'm thinking that it
depicts water buffalo. 
However, I still certainly hope that the city will figure out a way to preserve these buildings and I do think that there is commercial, as well as cultural, value in doing so. There is talk of incorporating the old facades into new developments or, in the case of the Grand Magazin Charner, incorporating the staircase into the new building built in its place. Southeast Asian cities have developed extremely rapidly and many have done so at the cost of developing a city character. Saigon might aspire to one day be as new and shiny as Singapore or Bangkok, but one of these days, Saigon will eventually be trying to set itself apart from Singapore and Bangkok. One way it can do that (architecturally, at least) is by preserving its unique French flair. I assume that Singapore and Bangkok don't have 19th century Moroccan staircases in their shopping malls or early 20th century factories converted into chic, downtown coffee shops. One of these days, in the not so distant future, these retro-buildings will be way more valuable than another sleek, modern skyscraper. 

So I say "save the old French buildings"! If not for the historical value, then at least for the commercial value!