Young Saigon

Open to the world

IN THE BUILDING opposite mine here in Ho Chi Minh City, still commonly called Saigon, an old man in the top-floor apartment tends his rooftop garden. He climbs there via a ladder every morning, shirtless and holding a plastic watering can, and spends a half hour amid green potted plants. I watch him shamelessly, a 31-year-old Australian Jimmy Stewart in a Vietnamese Rear Window. How old would he be? Old enough to have been in the war. He moves slowly, and pays no attention to me or anything else beyond his tended patch of green – in fact, he appears to be encouraging a wall of creepers to all but block out his view of the street.

But where he turns away, I want to look outward, to the street and the city. We’re close to a bus stop, and when I look away from him and down I can see, besides street stalls, motorbikes and general bustle, a steady trickle of well-dressed young people walking along dragging wheelie suitcases. If they’re heading towards the bus stop they’re typically diddling on their phones, and I imagine them calling up their confirmation itineraries. If they’re heading away from the bus stop, into the warren of narrow Saigonese alleyways, I can usually see airline baggage ties fluttering on their luggage. Where are they going, or where have they been? Study? Work? Tourism? They walk briskly, exuding a sense of purpose.

Minh and Bao, both in their twenties, live in the four-storey house that I’m staying in. They rent its upper rooms through Airbnb; the ground floor Bao uses for his start-up. Whenever I go outside I pass a dozen undergraduate-age Vietnamese sitting in a nest of laptops and power cords beside whiteboards full of squiggles. Outside I have to run a gauntlet of parked motorbikes; the space immediately before the front door is blanketed with shoes. When I pass through the kitchen Minh is making coffee: Vietnamese beans put into an Italian-style coffee-maker. ‘Thank God it’s Friday!’ he says. These and other colloquial grafts onto his speech hint at his US education. He dresses well, in slacks and buttoned pastel-coloured shirts. Minh has an idea, he tells me. He works at the Saigon offices of a foreign bank. Vietnam has just liberalised restrictions on foreigners buying property. Everybody is still wary, though: banks of getting involved with foreigners, foreigners of Vietnamese law. But Minh knows the law, knows banking, knows foreigners, and wants to wade in. He’s building contacts, hoping to start consulting on such deals.

In Café Nguyen, which looks onto a canal flowing towards the Saigon River and where I go for cà phê sữa đá (coffee with milk and ice), a young man sits and streams the European Champions League on his laptop. Young professional types jog past with iPod plugs in their ears, headed for an asphalt path that runs along the canal – briefly, I hear a faint, tinny Katy Perry. I hold up my smartphone to wordlessly ask for the café’s Wi-Fi password, and the teenager who works the early morning shift grins, nods, punches it in. I have breakfast at a stall hawking bún thịt nướng – grilled pork and vermicelli noodles with cucumber, lettuce, peanuts and chilli sauce. I’m a regular: the vendor is a fiftysomething man who, when he sees me sit on a plastic chair at one of his plastic tables, now says, ‘Ah’, and simply prepares me a bowl. His wife is next to him, snipping pork into pieces using a pair of scissors. Fiftysomething – so, children during the war. They speak no English. It’s the young customers who start conversations with me. They ask me where I’m from. But when I say Australia, their typical reaction is not to dwell on distance or difference – that one-word summation, ‘kangaroos!’, that I’ve heard so many times in so many places – but to point out connections between Australia and Vietnam, mostly those of migrants and students. A young man tells me that his sister lives in Perth. He visited her last year: Vietnamese food in Perth is good, he reckons, though not as good as in Saigon. Another young man in crisp military uniform – red stripes on his shoulders, black shoes shiny and meticulously laced – pulls up on his motorbike, sits down next to me and starts telling me about his cousin, enrolled in a business course in Sydney.

When I left Melbourne for Vietnam a month ago, I sat in Tullamarine Airport and, as a means of using up as much of my Vodafone data as possible, trawled on my phone through mostly Western news stories from Western news websites. They had focused, almost without exception, on rising nativism and nationalism, desires for walls and ‘strong borders’, distrust of foreigners and foreign influences, fears of the different or new. But here in Saigon I find myself surrounded by young people who are unabashedly optimistic about the idea of a future that is mobile, fast-changing, and connected – people who are inclined to see opportunity rather than peril in a globalised world.


IN THE MORNINGS I work on my laptop from Minh and Bao’s top-floor terrace; today, Bao appears to take the air. Many young Vietnamese are trying to launch start-ups, he tells me: there’s a push to turn Saigon into a regional start-up hub. But the Vietnamese government, while not against start-ups per se, doesn’t quite understand what sort of ecosystem is needed. Bao strums his fingers restlessly on the wooden table as he speaks. To really get a start-up culture, he muses, Vietnam’s education system has to be reformed: local schools and universities will need to adopt different education models and curriculums. ‘Right now everyone wants to go to university in America. Or Britain or Australia. But mostly America. I would like to go to America, then come back – bring back the skills.’

Vietnam’s government, he adds, also has to get more comfortable with free expression, creativity, non-conformity, an open flow of ideas. A few months ago, during street protests, they shut down Facebook and Twitter – and this, Bao says, is the sort of thing that can’t be allowed to stand. A single orchid, purple, sits in a pot on the terrace, and Bao looks at it as he talks. The start-up entrepreneurs are young and the top politicians are old: that’s the gist of it, Bao tells me.

An hour later, Minh’s girlfriend Lien appears. She works as a French translator and an English and French tutor. One year when Lien was in school, French volunteers arrived and taught French language classes. Their emphasis on French culture sparked her interest. Lien often brings a bag of croissants to the house. Every time I see her she seems to have a book, sometimes in English, sometimes in French, sometimes in Vietnamese. She tells me about Vietnamese literature, and I jot down titles. Lien enthuses to me about languages – about verbs, structure, vocabulary, memorisation tricks. Mastering them has been her ticket to the world, literally: she spent two months teaching English in a village in Thailand, her first international trip, then went to France on exchange. She’s just started to learn Korean – she pores over a textbook when she’s not preparing for evening classes. It’s a popular language to learn here, she says, because so many Vietnamese love Korean pop culture.

Lien has another idea. She wants to go to Paris to study perfume. There isn’t much Vietnamese perfume yet, she tells me – she gets hers through a friend studying at Duke University, who brings it back once a year in her suitcase. So Lien wants to try making some here, using the scents of local fruits.

It occurs to me that maybe all the cà phê sữa đá has gone to my head, and that I’m simply projecting onto these young Saigonese my desire to find an outward-looking, open-to-the-world inversion of Brexit Britain and Trump’s America. So I’m heartened to find a YouGov/Economist poll, published in The Economist magazine of 19 November 2016, which asked people in several nations this question:

Globalisation is the word used to describe the increasing movement of products, ideas, money, jobs and people around the world. Overall, do you think globalisation is a force for good or bad for the world?

Of the survey’s Vietnamese respondents aged eighteen to thirty-four, 92 per cent called globalisation a force for good. While majorities of young people in other countries were also positive, more positive than their older fellow citizens, Vietnamese millennials’ voice of approval was the most dramatic. By comparison, in the same age bracket, nearly two-thirds of French, half the Americans, Australians and Britons thought globalisation a force for good.


I GO FOR a walk, heading towards the downtown core of District One. Hundreds of kids in white uniforms head loudly into blocky, yellow-coloured, French-era school buildings. Saigon is dotted with co-working spaces: inside, young people pore over books, small groups huddle and peer at screens. Not only is Saigon booming, Saigon feels ‘open’ in the widest sense of that term. Everywhere I go, five- to ten-year-olds say ‘Hello!’, sometimes adding an extra couple of sentences learned from their English classes. A commonplace thing here, Vietnamese children greeting foreigners – but now, I pause and reflect on the behaviour’s significance. These kids see me and gasp, run up to me with outright eagerness: they’re not only keen to practise what they’ve learnt at school, they also seem keen, even in a city significantly overfull with Western tourists, to create a brief but real moment of intercultural connection. I feel energised just to be in this milieu, and as Vietnam imbibes foreign influences, I begin, modestly, to imbibe some Vietnamese influences. I start reading a history of Vietnam. I start listening to some Vietnamese music. The sight of all this frenetic Saigonese activity has prompted me to work harder: I’ve started getting up at five, the same time as much of the rest of the city. Small steps only, but I can discern, tangibly, the possibilities that come with immersion in a new and different place.

Around me in Saigon are French restaurants, Chinese factories, Japanese cars – and a few months ago, the then-incumbent US President was around the corner. Minh recently told me: ‘When Obama came…it was like a festival! Everybody was on the streets trying to see him. Everybody!’ I asked him why, and he said because Saigon has always been open to the world. ‘In the north, in Hanoi, they look more to China, they think mostly about China,’ but here, according to Minh, people also look south, east, west. The two countries Minh most wants to visit are India and the US, the first to see religious sites (he’s a Buddhist), the second to see the world’s leading power in science and technology. ‘I’d like to visit Silicon Valley,’ he says, his glowing laptop screen illuminating his face. ‘See where they did it.’

So many young Saigonese adore Obama. Is it merely because Obama is a giant celebrity? Or is it because Obama appears as the supreme embodiment of cosmopolitanism, tolerance and diversity, things of which they vehemently approve? ‘We love Obama!’ one of Bao’s start-up colleagues tells me on the terrace after I get back to the house. ‘We loved it when he visited Vietnam. We love his speeches, we love his wife and his family. We love his respect for the world.’ Recently Minh was driving me on his motorbike, and we’d zipped past a huge picture of Obama outside a temple that he’d visited. Minh pointed to the entrance gate of the temple and said: ‘You should go there. Obama went there!’ It’s good to be in a place where such a figure still personifies a possible and even probable future, rather than a suddenly distant-seeming past.


JUST AFTER LUNCH, Bao asks me: ‘How is the economy doing in Australia?’ I tell him it’s in a bit of trouble because demand from China is slowing down.

‘That’s a problem for Vietnam, too. Because of the commodities.’

‘Yeah – all these commodities. China’s kept Australia’s economy going for ages, but now we’re thinking, what happens if it stops suddenly?’

‘I think the answer is to diversify,’ Bao says. I look again at this ground-floor room: at the whiteboard, at a French textbook for beginners on the bench, at a calendar with upcoming Airbnb bookings on the wall. ‘Vietnam needs to do what China did, we need to put a lot of money into innovation, R and D. But we still have to build our infrastructure up. China’s already done that, mostly. You know we’re about to start building a subway system here in Saigon?’

‘Australia should be putting more effort into all that, too,’ I say. ‘We should be trying to plug into that new economy, but we’re slow to change.’

‘But Australia already has a high level of development?’ Bao enunciates the phrase ‘high level of development’ as if it has religious connotations.

‘But we don’t encourage that stuff as much as we should. Ten years ago China was buying huge amounts of coal and iron ore from us, and we should have used it for nation-building, but we wasted it on tax cuts.’ I’m feeling verbose because the whole conversation is inspiring me: all this talk of education, infrastructure, innovation, R and D, retooling. Such a relief from reading The Guardian on my phone, which is all about stonewalling climate regulations and bigotry from ministers of the Crown.

‘I went to China last year,’ Bao says. ‘To Tianjin. I hadn’t even heard of it, it doesn’t look that big a place on the map, but the skyline was amazing. The infrastructure was amazing.’

‘Yeah, China’s incredible nowadays. Those train stations look like airports. Those airports look like space stations. You go there and you think, “surely all this activity will lift us all”.’ It occurs to me that neither of us has yet mentioned conventional national interests, or the old tropes of ‘civilisational’ difference and divergences. Our talk is all economic connections and complementarities, foreign methods we could import, networks that we could strengthen and be strengthened by.

Bao says, ‘It’s the future.’


IN THE LATE afternoon a thunderstorm appears on the horizon, and swallows fly back and forth in panicky loops. I’ve begun taking motorbike taxis around Saigon. When waiting for customers the drivers sit on their bikes with their feet up, as if relaxing in a hammock. I hail one, hold onto the seat under me and we zip through a laneway lined with lit-up fruit stalls, bump across the pavement in front of a small white church, fly across a bridge spanning the Saigon River. I signal to stop at Dien Bien Phu Street, get off and start to walk. Night falls. Abruptly, I see a brightly illuminated billboard beside a high-walled building that turns out to be Indonesia’s consulate. The billboard shows a set of photographs of an Indonesia–Vietnam trade summit, information about an Indonesia–Vietnam student exchange program. Streaming ABC iView yesterday I’d seen Malcolm Turnbull calling for a bilateral free trade agreement with Great Britain to be fast-tracked; now, I contemplate the extraordinary barrenness of imagination this suggested. With his blue suits, large silver head and booming voice regurgitating bland sound bites about negative gearing, the Prime Minister, as he’s filtered to me here in Vietnam, reminds me of some vacuous, drab-coloured parrot, his policy substance being steadily eroded by some Tory-only form of intestinal worm. And I think, in this Saigon night, surely we can be more ambitious – surely our generation
will be more ambitious.

Phở for dinner. A twentysomething guy next to me politely corrects my pronunciation. He lives in California, but is back for a short visit to see family and friends. He has questions about Australia. What sort of foreign trade does Australia have? How easy is foreign investment? How seriously is Australia committed to multiculturalism? How big is its Vietnamese diaspora? And how’s the internet speed in Australia – fast? Nope, I tell him, the internet is better here. A problem, the guy says, that’s how people make connections. As he eats his phở he smiles widely and often; here, if not elsewhere, he seems to me to be saying via his proffered advice and lines of questioning, he thinks of multiple identities not as a weakness, not a sign to others of potential non-belonging, but as enriching, rewarding, his diaspora membership and different passports plugging him into rich and promising worlds.

I squeeze lemon over my phở, ladle in chilli, use my chopsticks to stir. Across the road is an electronics store filled with smartphones and laptops. Inside, I see a young woman hold up a power cord, look at a shop assistant with an inquiring expression. It starts to rain. The rain is torrential, and our view turns into a watery blur. The restaurant’s lights flicker uncertainly. Several motorbikes veer off the street and hurriedly park. Their drivers get off, throw a tarp over their bikes, sit down in dripping ponchos, pour themselves tea, order, settle down to wait out the storm. The twentysomething guy asks if I’ve seen the footage of Obama and Anthony Bourdain eating bún chả in Hanoi. Our bowls of noodles steam. The street begins to flood. Someone wades out with a broom handle and jabs a spot, presumably a drain, and the water begins to recede. Traffic washes past. Opposite, the young woman leaves the electronics store with a purchase in a bag. Someone else looking to make connections.


THERE’S MUCH TALK these days of the momentum achieved by those who want their respective nations to turn inward. Saigon shows me how much momentum exists in the opposite direction: the depth of the desire, at least among the young, and especially in Asia, for globalism. And it suggests the potential of that basic orientation – of welcome rather then rejection of outsiders and outside forces – to be a positive force. Back on the terrace at Minh and Bao’s, now surrounded by darkness, Lien tells me that in Paris last year, ‘I saw a family of Syrian refugees. They were just sleeping, on the street. It gets so cold in France at night. I gave them five euros.’ She shrugs. ‘I think they just want what we want – to get the most they can from the world.’

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