Posts Tagged 'saigon'

El Mac: Saigon Street Art

So here’s something cool I came across in my internet wanderings last week: a video of American street artist El Mac‘s piece he threw up in Saigon, “Kosom by the Mekong”:

El Mac – Sai Gon, Viet Nam “Kosoom by the Mekong” from Viet Nam The World Tour on Vimeo.

Just, you know, when you start to think you’re doing something cool by travel blogging, there’s some good ole’ street artists to totally blow your shit out of water.

Aside from the images making me nostalgic for Southeast Asia, what’s so cool to me about this is the opportunity for exchange. They say all art is a conversation, right? And us writers prattle on about authentic experiences and living like a local, but street art really offers the opportunity for that in a way that writing necessarily can’t—you know, the good ole’ Tower of Babel.

El Mac isn’t the first dude to be doing this sort of stuff: I got a chance last summer to catch up with Gaia about his work in Seoul, and of course JR is out there giving everyone’s heart a boner with his work. And I guess part of what’s so exciting to me about it is the chance for dialogue it offers—as though the artists were saying: “Hey, I’m here in your country, and this is what I see and this is how I express it, in my culture. And I’m gonna leave it here, for you to see and have, and what do you think of all that?”

And the question may not be being asked to me, but I think it’s fucking awesome.

And I wonder if there’s a way us writers could do something close, even with the limitations of language—if we could find a way to have a similar exchange, in the earnest and uncomplicated way one will point to an object and say it their language, then point to you, and you’ll say it in yours, and you’ll both smile at the difference of it, the arbitrariness of it—neither one’s way right or wrong, but just different, another little glimpse into the vast diversity of human expression.

I’m open to suggestions.

Read more about El Mac’s work here.

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Expensive, Bad and Popular: The Mystery of Highlands Coffee

It was gonna be bad. And not just bad—cheesy, inauthentic and fuck-all expensive. And yet I felt that sneaky smile, that oh-God-I-hope-no-one-sees-me sensation.

I let myself get sucked into the air-conditioned arms of Highlands Coffee.

It’s the Starbucks of Saigon, and morbid curiousity led me to do it—the same cringing magnetism that inspired me to watch Eat, Pray, Love on the airplane (which I incidentally thought was more about codependency than travel). But it’s not just uniformed workers serving bland psuedo-Italian espresso drinks and pre-packaged sandwiches that makes it lame. It’s the utterly, unabashedly Western approach to coffee, and the inherent riddle of it: why does a country that already has its own distinct coffee culture need a Starbucks rip off?

Fancy coffee: it’s the international sign of gentrification. No, no—it’s not just an Oakland thing, or a Brooklyn thing. We in the States may have moved beyond Starbucks to point that we can, oh say, smell the different between Blue Bottle and Four Barrel (I’m not proud), but I think the basic phenomenon is inherently the same.

Case in point: I was in a one-day writing workshop with a girl who was working on a piece about the burgeoning coffee scene in Seoul—hip young kids hanging out for hours, sucking down the sweet stuff—and how it signified a shift towards all things Western.

Fair enough. But why would Vietnam need something like Highlands? Why would anyone forgo a 50 cent ice-cube-brimming glass of powerful black and sweetened condensed milk, drank sitting on a plastic stool under a sun umbrella on the sidewalk—for a sterilized, $2 cup-and-saucer of shitty espresso?

Well, for one, I wanted to use their Wifi and make use of their Western bathroom to wash my face and take out my contacts before an overnight bus. But the rest of the folks, I dunno.

As one might suspect, the majority of customers filling the two-story, corner-office location were Westerns. They didn’t appear to be tourists so much as expats—discussing business deals on their iPhones, explaining their credentials to suited men who sat nodding thoughtfully, glancing at papers and sipping their cups. They filled the cushy, comfy chairs, and their chatter filtered softly beneath the piped-in soundtrack of easy-listening versions of “Seven Nation Army” and Mariah Carey Christmas carols (yes, it’s almost March).

The longer I sat, though, the more the perhaps true draw of Highlands revealed itself to me. A well-dressed Vietnamese woman ate a piece of chocolate mousse cake while her son pretended to do homework. She looked over at him every now and then, and corrected him snappily—mispronouncing the English words he was studying.

A group of women sat on a wrap-around maroon sofa. Their voices were low, speaking in an accented English. I eavesdropped: they were a Bible study. Several members were from Manila, the rest from a scattering of Asian countries. English was, of course, the common denominator language to discuss their newly embraced religion.

And it struck me that both groups were, in their own ways, trying to be Western, adopting the language, religion, dress—and coffee. Was that the answer to Highlands success, or its mere existence? That it catered to people striving, striving? And that it didn’t even matter if the coffee was good (it wasn’t), or that I cost more than my breakfast and lunch combined?

Was that the great global metaphor hidden inside an expensive cup of coffee—the symbol of it? Was it just a different version of me waiting in line at the farmer’s market for 20 minutes to get my special blend of $10 beans?

Well, an hour of free Wifi and one cup of crappy espresso certainly couldn’t answer all that. But it did serve to quell the curiousity—and convince me to stick to the street stalls.

Saigon’s Secret Cities

Zero points for subtlety

It seemed like LA to me: glitzy buildings, endless traffic, neon lights reflecting off the hoods of gleaming cars. After two weeks in Vietnam, Saigon’s wide roads and rows of Western shops, its construction cranes turning this way, that way, like slow skeletal animals—it all seemed terribly wealthy to me.

And even more than Hanoi, there seemed to be no break in Saigon, nowhere to rest or even catch your breath from the heat and exhaust and honking, the billboards and the building, always building—more, higher, newer: an unrelenting city, like hot breath on the back of your neck.

But if you looked, if someone showed you, you could find them—passageways, skinny portals to other places, other cities, secret cities just behind the surface.

You don’t notice them at first—or you think they’re dead-end alleys, nothing gaps between buildings—no wider than a doorway, and you step through them, into them, into another world: alley streets that wind inside city blocks, where people sit in doorways and women crouch over grills of smoking meat and children run and laundry hangs and TVs flash beside flashing altars and telephone wires stretch in impossible tangles, like dreadlocks—in short, where everyday life is lived.

It’s cool and quiet inside—the buildings are high and the alley streets narrow. You pass a succession of doorways, more glimpses into the lives of the people inside, a flood of images: families huddled on the floor around a big cooker, eating rice; chickens clucking around; old men napping in hammocks; women lighting incense and raising it and waving it and tucking it in a crevice to smolder and smoke.

It feels like a Moroccan medina, those deep parts when you wander far enough—little shops set up in the front rooms of people’s homes, the random internet cafe, children running everywhere, squealing and toddling off into doorways. Only the smell is of fish instead of spices, and it’s motorbikes instead of donkeys you have to look out for.

But it’s the same sense of feeling strangely at home, even though it’s so far from your own home, anything you know of home. There’s something incredibly comforting about the living of everyday life. For those of us that have treaded onto the dark side—maybe for all of us—there’s something really precious about the doing of everyday tasks, a simple joy in being a part of the world, a simple part of it all—even if only as a passing shadow on the wall, a white girl snapping photos and peering in crevices and smiling and waving when the children exclaim “Hello! Hello!” in an English they barely know.

You wander and rove, twist and turn, and then suddenly you’re back out on the surface, the wide swarming streets, an assault of heat and honking. It feels addicitive—you want more, you want to go back, go back under. You find another small portal and dive into the cool dark shadows.

It starts to feel like water, like bobbing up and down, in and under the surface, submerging and coming up for air—only you’re not sure which is the breathing and which is holding, cheeks full and a quiet burn rising through the chest.

You move in a strange space through caverns, observing the private lives of organisms you feel you’re somehow distantly related to; you move through a still, dark world terribly foreign but also somehow familiar, somehow like home—at home, in the secret cities of Saigon.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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