Wednesday, October 27, 2010

What's been going on in the 'Gon

We’ve been back in Saigon for three months and many people ask me what I think has changed in the year I’ve been away. So what’s been going on in the ‘Gon that wasn’t before?

Well, you could just as easily ask – what’s not going on anymore? A lot of restaurants and bars have moved or closed and new one’s have sprouted to try their hand at the slippery food and beverage industry. Take Thai Van Lung for example. I was slightly disappointed to see Alibi has evaporated, but also slightly happy to know that the smug faces of Olympique Saigon’s team photo won’t be smirking down at me from behind the bar every time I order a drink anymore. Bernie’s Bar & Grill seems to be the new kid on this ever-changing block, but some stalwarts like Skewers have weathered the stormy wave of change.

On the other side of District 1, the Old Market (Cho Cu) area is flourishing into the new hotspot. With rent prices soaring in traditionally more sough-after areas, this was inevitably going to happen, with Phatties tapping into this rich vein early. Although some establishments have already disappeared, La Cantina being one, the duet of Gringo’s and Mexican Lindo have jumped up to take their place on this stretch in the shadow of that gigantic joint in the sky; the Bitexco Tower (come on, does it really look like a lotus bud to anyone?!). Other notable newbies include the Drunken Duck and the garish X Club. God only knows what happens in there. I think it’s time for an covert assignment to uncover the social evils of Vietnamese nightclubs ala Current Affair or Carte Blanche – hidden camera in tow – and I’ll report back. 

 The Giant Joint

Of course, the rise of shopping centres would always be inevitable, but I must admit a certain shock at the speed with which certain structures have suddenly, as if overnight, established themselves with a certain authority, as if being long-standing historical members of the city, swathed in culture. Cases in point are the ostentatious Kumho Asiana Plaza and the Vincom Centre. When I left, there was but a massive hole in the ground, hidden by tropical fish-painted construction barriers and just down the road, a little park where all the Parkson staff used to soak up some rays over lunchtime. Fast forward one year and ta da! Hard Rock Café, the much-feted Carl Junior’s and other such nonsense have arisen like the Colossus at Rhodes. I have yet to bring myself to enter either of these Leviathans of commercialism. Oh and Eden Mall’s gone, and the Saigon Square has moved (again).

Around my neck of the concrete woods, the construction of the Crescent Mall in Phu My Hung is bustling along quite nicely, along with a throng of high-rise apartment blocks said to rival Seoul by early next century. Reminiscent of the Cold War arms race sans the hate, the glory of being named Saigon’s “next city centre” is certainly on between PMH and District 2. There’s also the pretty new Phu My Bridge that I have a beautiful night-view of from my apartment. In this dynamic, ever-changing city, one thing remains a constant: construction. A lot of, as my students so often utter. Oh and potholes. Let’s not forget them. 

 Cau Phu My

Other things I’ve noticed is a much-welcomed following of the road rules, in a certain Saigon sense, compared to before. I was at first unnerved by the motorbikes sticking religiously to the right lane whilst blissfully cruising down Nguyen Van Linh Boulevard, wondering whether they’ve implemented Orwellian brainwashing techniques to try prevent (I guess a better word would be ‘limit’) road chaos. Looking around nervously for a remote-activated, hovering eye-in-the-sky camera, I was disappointed to discover that a couple of uniformed Big Brothers spattered along the tree-lined boulevard were the only semblance of authority in sight. Given, last month was “Traffic Safety Month”, and six pairs of stone-faced, aviator-shaded beige-men did greet me every morning on the way to work, but was this the reason for the sudden adherence to the law? Well, September came in a deluge of water, and left in pretty-much the same manner, along with Traffic Safety Month. I woke up on October the first, quite positive (it being a Friday and all) that life in traffic would soon be as traumatic as ever, only to discover that all the bikes and cars were at it, slowly puttering along in their own lanes. Must be something in the water…

Other random things I’ve noticed. The Dong’s sliding oh so subtly toward the big 20 000. Maybe we should hold a big coming of age ceremony when it hits the landmark, but all the fireworks might just get too excited and explode pre-emptively like at the last big bash in Hanoi. The tendency towards the proliferation of yoghurt shops seems to have abated, only to be replaced with a new one in the form of deluxe, multi-storeyed ice-cream shops. Perhaps this worrying trend warrants a post on it’s own, co-authored by the World Health Organisation’s Chair for the Propogation of Child Obesity and Diabetes in South East-Asia.

Otherwise, most things haven’t changed much. Bikes. Dust. Culture. Stares. Rain. Smiles. Yummy food. Noise. Charm. Gloves and toe-socks. Internet censorship. Strange smells. Mystery meat. Apo and Go2. And bucketfuls of uniqueness…