Kris à Genève

A Canadian living in Switzerland

My new life as a millionaire

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(… in Viet Nam)

I arrived in Saigon late in the evening of Saturday, February 12th. A colleague on my research project is the dean of the Faculty of Geography at Saigon’s University of Social Sciences & Humanities and had sent one of her students, a tiny girl named Vy, to collect me at the airport. She had come with her father on his scooter, and he followed behind as she rode in the taxi with me. She dropped me at my accommodation for the first few nights in Saigon: the Foreign Affairs Office Guesthouse. The room was big and blessedly quiet despite its central location in this loud, loud city. It was odd to descend the steps from my room into the waiting room of the International Organisation for Migration on the ground floor, but overall it was a great location for my introduction to Saigon. More than anything, the name was cool – Foreign Affairs Office Guesthouse – so I stole several shampoo bottles printed with the name.

My colleague, Dean Loan, is a sweet, soft-spoken lady in her forties. She arrived on Sunday morning with her daughter to help me settle in the city, and was deceptively efficient. When she dropped me back at the hotel two hours later, here is the list of things we had accomplished, all at a quiet pace:

  • Rented me an apartment
  • Bought me a SIM card and left my mobile phone to be unblocked from my Swiss provider
  • Shown me a brief taxi tour of the downtown area
  • Walked me through the closed university grounds
  • Taken a leisurely coffee and breakfast near my newly rented apartment

Very impressive Loan – thank you. It was reassuring to have all of those arrangements made so early and painlessly, and I have spent the subsequent week in a relaxed frame of mind, preparing for my research, exploring the city bit by bit and generally settling back into Southeast Asia. Oh, I also bought the DVDs of the first few seasons of the HBO series The Wire, and am unashamed to say I am more or less addicted.

To begin, here is a shot of my studio apartment. Like many houses in Viet Nam, this one is only as wide as the room shown, but it stretches back a ways. My landlords are an elderly Vietnamese couple who speak no English but are always in the house, so although I speak to them several times a day coming and going, it is a monotonous string of hellos (xin jow). The apartment is clean, bright and on an upper floor – I like it.

Here is a photo of an amusing fixture in the bathroom. The blue man looks happy in several different ways.

The house sits in an alley off a main road near the university. “>Here is a map showing the police station next door. My house is in the alley directly to the left of the police station. As in other Asian cities such as Bangkok, addresses in Saigon include not only simple street references as we have in Canada or Switzerland (123 Simple St.), but also derivative addresses for the many alleys that have grown off the main streets. These are further complicated if houses were subdivided, rebuilt or built up. Therefore my address is: 18A/A8/6 Đương Nguyển Thi Minh Khai. Here is the entrance to the alley, followed by a couple of photos of the view from the upper floor of the house.

One day last week, Loan invited me to join an excursion south of the city that she had organised. She spoke so softly that I understood few of the details – all I heard was “mangrove” and “German.” I assumed I was accompanying a visiting German researcher interested in mangroves. On the day, I discovered it was a whole group of Germans from the geography department of the University of Cologne. They were interested in the urban geography of Saigon, which is perhaps Asia’s fastest growing city and is fast approaching megalopolis status. The day included an excellent contrast: a presentation from the developers of Saigon Sunbay, a massive proposed “tourist city” south of Saigon; and the Vam Sat ecotourism site, lost in the various tributary rivers of the Saigon River delta. The contrast was not only in the types of development, but also in that both sites sit within a UNESCO-designated biosphere designed to protect the large mangrove swamp that dominates the Can Gio district south of the city.

The Saigon Sunbay development is not the kind of development I like in the first place, but it is doubly controversial because it claims it will exist outside of the protected biosphere by building two peninsulas of reclaimed land for its needs . When I lived in Singapore, I was fascinated to see how much that island has been extended by reclaiming land, but there they take decades to let the land settle before putting heavy buildings and roads on it. The Saigon Sunbay folks expect to do it in three years! Although the proposal seems ridiculous, it has all the permits it requires, has completed a massive six-lane highway through the centre of the biosphere (it is on the far tip of land from Saigon) and just needs to raise enough investment capital before it begins breaking ground.

I did not shoot too many photos during the day, as I enjoyed more than anything the opportunity to chat with other academic-minded folks. Not to mention that I am still a little starved for society in Saigon. The German students were of bachelor and masters levels and were taking part in an excellent German tradition of short practicums abroad as part of the core curriculum – what a great idea. Here are some photos from the trip to the ecotourism site, which includes a crocodile sanctuary:

This next photo may just be an exciting discovery for science, history and indeed, the world. Remember how in biology class, they taught us that fish at one point started to move onto land, adapting their lungs to breathe air and their fins into legs? Well, it is still going on, it seems. None of the people there could explain this odd-looking creature to me. Is there a Dr. Daphne out there who can help?

Over the last few days, I have been planning my first photo outing in Saigon, which led me to reflect on my first impressions of the city. I settled on three: 1) rapid expansion, 2) traffic and 3) noise. These may not read as positive impressions, but from the perspective of my development studies, it is a fascinating city. I’ll leave noise for now, as I have not thought of a way of photographing it.

Viet Nam is one of the darling children of the international development sector – perhaps one of the only countries who will come anywhere close to meeting its Millennium Development Goals. And Saigon has been its commercial centre since long before its current development phase, indeed stretching back to before the French period. But the boom in development since the 1990s has left the city’s planners and public works department in the dust. They are building highways, high rises and massive housing projects as fast as they can (1. rapid expansion), but still the city is bursting at the seams. Here are some photos from an underpass / tunnel / highway project in the southern part of the city centre, alongside the putrid Saigon River.

Nothing to do with my impression of the city, but near the construction site is the Ho Chi Minh City Stock Exchange, with a Vietnamese version of Wall Street wildlife.

Now to the second impression: traffic. I attended a talk by a city planning official who said that Saigon absorbs 1,500 new inhabitants per day. And these new arrivals contribute to the city issuing 1,300 new motorcycle licences every day (versus only 80 cars). The swelling population and lagging road and public transit infrastructure leads to nightmarish traffic, and the motorcycle licences mean that traffic has an overwhelming two-wheel character. Here are a few photos of Saigon’s moto-madness. Note that I did not shoot either of these photos at peak time, when the streets are two to three times as busy.

During the colonial and socialist periods, cyclists were an iconic sight in Vietnamese cities. Indeed they continue to be the photo subjects of many visitors to Viet Nam. The following photo shows something of the old stereotype, but with a face mask for the pollution and vehicles whizzing past. The elegant Vietnamese lady on a bike is rare in Saigon.

Aside from the noise and the poor air quality, another downside of motos is when big, dumb foreigners burn their legs on their exhaust pipes. Moto-leg-burns are nothing new for me. I sported one regularly during my time in Southeast Asia, so this one was something of a “welcome back.” Moto taxis are common in Saigon and I used them for the first few days, but am now a devoted taxi customer. Not for the burn shown below, which hurt much less than it looks, but because the air is so bad near the roads.

Sorry for that graphic content – I probably should have warned you. On a lighter note, a definite positive of being in Viet Nam is that I am suddenly a millionaire. In fact, I am newly a millionaire every time I use the ATM. Here is the latest fortune I am planning to spend:

That stash is around six million dong, which converts to a little less than 300 dollars or Swiss francs.

As I spend my millions in Saigon, I am waiting on the last set of authorisations to begin my research in the province of Binh Phuoc, 130km to the north. I have most of the other pieces in place – interpreter, transportation, questionnaire, sunblock – and I think this one will come soon too. My next blog entry may be from rubber country.

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