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The New Look of Saigon, Vietnam

Andrea Fazzari The future of Saigon, Vietnam

Photo: Andrea Fazzari

Before Luc Lejeune opened Temple Club in 2000, Ton That Thiep was decidedly down-market—“just shops selling fridges and videos,” Lejeune says. “Everyone told us we were crazy to open here.” Now the street is a Saigon institution. But maybe not for long. Rumors are flying that the city has earmarked the block for redevelopment. Everything but the Hindu temple, it’s said, will be knocked down and cleared away to make room for…offices?condos?a Porsche dealership?No one can say what will happen, or when.

One thing you could never find in this town a decade ago: a decent margarita. Whether you wanted one is another question—but you can now get a fine rendition at Cantina Central, a Mexican place run by an American and three French expatriates. Loosened restrictions on investment and property ownership have encouraged more foreigners to do business and even settle in Vietnam. (Current estimates have 80,000 expats living here.) Indeed, Saigon now has a restaurant for every nationality. Singaporeans get a chicken-rice fix at the Red Dot; Danes find smørrebrød at Storm P; Canadians head to Le Pub for poutine.

But it is the returning Viet Kieu—“overseas Vietnamese”—who are the salient foreign influence. Some were born in Vietnam and left as children; others were born abroad, in the States, France, England, Australia. Some learned Vietnamese from their parents; some hardly speak a word. After decades of being regarded with suspicion by the government, Viet Kieu are now welcomed more readily. They are no longer categorized with all other foreign visitors when applying for visas, and are finally allowed to own property here. The economy has lured more Viet Kieu to Saigon of late, and they’re bringing with them global styles and trends—which in turn are embraced by young Vietnamese.

“Our clientele is half Vietnamese and Viet Kieu, half travelers and expats,” says Bien Nguyen, the owner of Xu Restaurant Lounge, where local twentysomethings come to drink espresso martinis and snack on tuna-tartare pizzas. “It’s the [native] Vietnamese as much as foreigners who drive the lifestyle market nowadays.” Nguyen, born in Perth to Vietnamese parents, moved to Saigon in 2005. He opened Xu in 2006, and this year, Bun Bo Xu, a casual joint specializing in bun bo Hue, the spicy noodle soup customarily found at humble sidewalk stalls. Nguyen’s version is equally delicious and twice as expensive, but dished up in a polished storefront with smart wooden tables. Bun Bo Xu is quite the hit among the city’s youth, who prefer their street food served indoors with a side order of dance pop.

Down the street at Xu, Nguyen has just added a swank new bar—despite rumors that this whole block, like the one around Temple Club, is slated for demolition. A developer plans to erect a retail and office complex on the site, though a timetable has not been set. “If I get three more years I’ll be happy,” Nguyen says with a shrug. “I’ve been open two years already.” In Saigon that qualifies as a pretty long time.

“Everything is so transient here,” says my friend Thuy Mong Do, who owns a downtown spa called Glow. Thuy’s Vietnamese parents met in Laos, where Thuy was born; in 1975 her family left Vientiane for Colorado. She’s been in Saigon since 2000, and lives with her Scottish boyfriend, Ro, in a walk-up close to downtown. But their landlord may not renew their lease, so they’re considering a move to the suburbs. One Saturday I accompany them on an apartment hunt.

Twenty minutes by motorbike from central Saigon, Phu My Hung six years ago was mainly bogs and fishing villages. It’s now an ultramodern live/work/play enclave for Saigon’s burgeoning middle class, complete with lawn sprinklers, speed bumps, golf courses, and man-made lakes. The broad boulevards are lined with fitness clubs, Vietnamese fast-food chains, and the occasional Korean primary school. One still encounters a fair number of pedestrians, but no cyclo-rickshaws, and definitely no sidewalk barber stands.

“I like it out here,” says Thuy, who is probably just relieved to breathe fresh air again. “The planning is sensible, and you can walk and not look foolish.” (Right then a jogger passes, chirping “Guten Tag!”) Prices, however, are rising fast. Three-bedrooms sell for as much as $750,000; the unit Thuy and Ro are considering rents for $1,800 a month.

It turns out to be too small, so we give up the search for now and reemerge into the stifling afternoon heat. Across the road flows a moss-green canal, and across the canal we can see Vietnam, the old Vietnam: wooden huts on stilts, dugout canoes, fishermen wearing conical hats. They drag their nets silently through the water, appearing not to notice the skyscrapers looming behind them.

Back on the highway we pass more billboards for shiny new apartment towers—only the families in these renderings aren’t Westerners, they’re Vietnamese. Blissed-out mother does yoga on balcony; happy father holds baby up to sky-blue sky. The Vietnamese ad copy reads Experience Singapore in Saigon!

And there, people, is the scary part. Saigon wants to be Singapore. Every Southeast Asian city wants to be Singapore. For God’s sake, why?Such a stultifying, bloodless place! Sterile as a shopping mall! It is a shopping mall! But of course that’s Singapore’s appeal: it is the antithesis of Saigon and Bangkok and Jakarta and Manila—the tranquil to their tumult, the method to their madness, the future to their past. And Saigon sure is starting to look more like Singapore, with those innumerable coffee bars, food courts jammed with teenagers, and trash cans shaped like baby pandas. A proposal has been floated to relocate most of the downtown bars to a designated “entertainment area” across the canal, à la Singapore’s Boat Quay. Meanwhile, a citywide beautification campaign is under way, as local authorities—who designated 2008 “The Year of Civilized Lifestyle”—attempt to crack down on littering, swearing, public urination, traffic jams, and inappropriate dress. (But not chewing gum. Not yet.) The campaign is a “very top-down sort of tutelage” that’s typical of the government, says Hawkins Pham, who wonders how successful it will be. “Singapore is an enviable model, but it has very little street culture. In Vietnam, everything happens on the pavement. People use the sidewalk as their kitchen and their living room. I can’t imagine that changing.”

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