“I was very sad that I couldn’t buy my little shop, but it was so expensive – the landlady sold it in the end for 20 taels of gold,” he says. “Now it’s a currency exchange place.”
The loss of his premises means that Saigon-born Binh now operates from a larger workshop on Huynh Thuc Khang. Between sky-high rentals and an increase in international companies moving in, opportunity and affluence, he says he’s seen downtown Saigon change considerably over the last few decades.
“There are more art shops, upscale cafes and more modern electric shops. Before it was all tailors and local restaurants,” he recalls. “Thirteen years ago I used to live in a house where the Sunwah Tower is now. Le Loi Boulevard has stayed pretty much the same, although the businesses have changed. Before it closed five years ago, my family had a photographer’s saloon there which was opened in 1946. Now it’s a bank.”
The same is true of many streets downtown. Small family-run businesses have declined alongside the proliferation of large multinationals, and fewer local people are taking the family business route, opting to follow their chosen career path instead.
“You also see a lot of white girls working here,” says Helene Kling, a French artist who arrived in 1996. “Before, most female Europeans here were expat wives accompanying their husbands. It shows that women can now earn a respectable living in Vietnam, whether they are Saigonese or from overseas.”
Alongside Sinh, who established backpacker institution Sinh Café, and Kim of Kim Café fame, businesswoman Dung was one of the driving forces of Pham Ngu Lao’s development into a budget travel hub back in the 1990s.
She describes how Pham Ngu Lao was once a two-sided street. The local railway came to a stop here, originally extending to Ben Thanh Market. But in the 1990s both houses and railway lines were cleared to create the park opposite the New World hotel, and to make space for a shopping and entertainment development which remains unfinished to this day.
Born and raised in the area, the Allez Boo and Go2 owner has watched Saigon’s backpacker area flourish as more and more foreign faces pour into the city.
“Every house in Pham Ngu Lao is used for business, for hotels, restaurants and shops, and because people can lease their property out for up to US$5,000 a month, they don’t need to do anything else,” says Dung.
Women that used to stay home to cook and clean now manage offices. Children that used to work the streets selling flowers or gum are now more likely to be found in afterschool English classes or an internet gaming den, and young men and women socialise freely without being chaperoned.
“Now you see young boys and girls driving together and walking around together on the street,” says antique furniture salesman Le Van Au. “Older people think that this is a bad thing, but I think it’s good. It should be like that for the new generation.”
In Search of the Past
Middle-aged Au has spent more than 20 years travelling Vietnam in search of old furniture to reclaim and refurbish, and most days can be found charming customers in his yard, tucked away on a patch of prime real estate opposite Saigon Centre.
“I love furniture like it’s my wife!” he says, spreading his hands grandly. “It’s a part of Vietnamese culture – interiors have many different periods of design. Some are French-inspired, but are not from France and are mixed with Chinese, Cham styles, colonial, and other European styles.”
He says he welcomes the development of the city, as Vietnam needs a modern hub that can compete with its Asian neighbours in terms of connectivity and commerce.
“Ben Chuong Duong Street along the canal used to be all shophouses, but that area has been cleared to make way for the new road,” he explains. “It’s a good thing – before Saigon was like a kid and now it’s finally growing up.”
Inevitably, limited space means it’s been a case of out with the old and in with the new, meaning that much of the original French architecture has been lost.
“People might like the look of an old building, but don’t want to live or work in one,” says Richard Forwood, who came to Vietnam to realise his dream of establishing a furniture factory in 1989. Like many architectural enthusiasts, Richard can name any number of old buildings swallowed up by urban rejuvenation.
“I remember lots of old houses, along Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, Nguyen Binh Khiem and Xo Viet Nghe Tinh,” he says. “There used to be an official notary office with marvellous green railings where the Sunwah Tower is now on Nguyen Hue. The colonial-era treasury building on the same side also nearly came down, but a conservation group saved it.”
Not all were so lucky. “The shophouses where Graham Greene set much of The Quiet American is now the new Times Square development,” Richard continues. “Khai’s restaurant between Le Thanh Ton and Ly Tu Trong has gone, and so has the park there.”
Colonial-era architecture wasn’t the only aspect of Saigon’s aesthetic to get the chop – 1960s mock art deco and more recent Soviet-influenced styles were pulled down indiscriminately, and as low-level structures have been lost, so have the city’s green spaces.
But even those sensitive to retaining the charm of the cityscape say that they, too, are guilty of clearing vestiges of the past. When local restaurateur Alexander Egert was forced to relocate Vasco’s and Camargue from their colonial-era housing on Cao Ba Quat – now just a big hole – he also joined the ranks of the demolition men.
“Many of the old buildings are just too derelict to save,” he explains. “I found a colonial building for Camargue off Dien Bien Phu and when we tried to raise the roof, the walls started to fall down. I had to make a decision – try to support the old walls or pull them down. We had to pull them down. I did try to recreate everything in the old style, but the whole building is brand new.”
Retain and Recondition
Despite the breakneck modernisation of the city, many aspects of it still evoke old Saigon, with attempts by local people to restore the structure and retain its history. The People’s Committee building, Opera House and Reunification Palace are just some examples that stand testament to the city’s past.
“It’s good to see the Continental Hotel has remained the same,” adds Alexander. “Other areas are also still pretty much intact – Ham Nghi, the banking sector, Calmette with its DIY stores, Ben Thanh Market and the antiquities shops nearby.”
Some foresighted business owners sacrifice a modern image in favour of recapturing the past – at restaurants like Mandarin and Hoi An you can dine surrounded by the opulent style of the feudal-era central coast, and some new buildings, like the Park Hyatt, have clearly been inspired by colonial architecture.
“In terms of development, the greatest thing to happen to the Vietnamese was getting a passport,” says ceramics exporter and restaurateur Lawson Johnson. “They’ve went from no information to the internet, and not being able to get out of Vietnam to trips to Singapore for the weekend. Now local craftsmen can travel to Frankfurt and discover the aesthetic standards of the rest of the world.”
An Ole Time Tradition
Some people could argue that the city has missed out on a chance to redevelop its quaint waterfront heritage into an attraction similar to Singapore’s retail and entertainment centre Clarke Quay, but for many locals, better infrastructure and modernisation to attract, create and maintain more jobs is first priority.
The city’s expats also feel that as Saigon has grown, the city has lost its village-like innocence and camaraderie of the 1990s. Alexander Egert was one of the first off the proverbial boat when the country opened up in 1991, and says Vietnamese residents in District 1 took it upon themselves to keep track of his every move.
“I remember one shoe shiner knew all my friends, and he’d tell me where they were,” he smiles. “He’d ask me why I wasn’t having dinner with so-and-so at a particular restaurant that night, and I’d say I was meeting someone else. He’d say: ‘Ok, I’ll tell him that.’”
Alexander goes on to describe his daily dinner routine, eating canteen-style at Vietnamese restaurants that stretched from building to building, each with a collective of seasoned chefs squinting against smoking coal-filled clay barbeques as they turn sizzling chunks of pork and squid on the grill.
“People used to eat like that all the time,” says Lawson. “It was a great social meeting place – cheap beer, plastic seats, great seafood and bia hoi. You can still find these places, but they’re not everywhere like before.”
The abundance of KFC outlets, takeaway pizza joints, frozen yoghurt shops and hamburger stores promising punters “Saigon’s best burger” reflect the globalisation of the city’s eating habits, especially among youngsters. But the abundance and diversity of international restaurants also proves that the Vietnamese have retained their sense of adventure when it comes to new cultural experiences.
“The middle class in Vietnam have learned to enjoy many things, particularly food and drink, and they’ve also learnt how to drink wine,” says Dung. “Ten years ago it was hard to find a bottle anywhere.”
But Dung is also quick to add that the locals still honour many of their traditional culinary customs.
“We always used to buy fresh fruit and pho from the sellers outside our school,” she remembers. “Today students still do the same. People enjoy coming together to eat outside, and I don’t think that will ever change.”