Monday, 13 April 2015

A New Day

There's something special about waking up ahead of one's alarm, fully refreshed and eager to face a new day. It's like gaining time: whether it's one minute or one hour, somehow it feels like a victory. 

Dong Xoai, Tan Binh district

So it was a triumphant psychocartographer that awoke this morning, more than an hour before the dreaded alarm bells were due to ring. Outside, in the quiet side street to which I've recently moved, birds were singing gaily, and a soft yellow light was creeping out from behind the buildings opposite. Extra buoyancy was granted by the knowledge that a deadline was rapidly approaching. Regular readers (and again I ask if such a thing as a "regular reader" exists) will recall that I recently began an internship with Global Site Plans: my first draft post had been completed but lacked images, so I had to race over Th Thiêm to get some pictures.

Xe om driver, District One, HCMC

Problematically, my SD card was completely on the blink and needed replacing, necessitating a stop at District One. It was the first time in my five months in in HCMC that I'd braved the morning rush hour. Not for the first time I was grateful that I'd invested in a slightly-less-than-cool automatic underbone moped rather than a manual motorcycle: the traffic was so stop-start my leg may well have fallen off. Fortunately the worst of the traffic had abated by the time I arrived at the the tunnel beneath the River Sài Gòn, and I was able to observe the vast expanse of District 2. It's virgin territory, earmarked for development on a scale that dwarfs London's Olympic Park. 

View back to District One

The forthcoming post, which I shall link here as soon as it is online, is really a short overview of HCMC's current pattern of development. The proposed scheme at Th Thiêm is of particular interest to me as it a) involves reclaiming a huge natural wetland and b) is huge in scale. The master plan is to build an entire central business district from scratch, including an international airport and port facilities. Whilst it's easy to be sceptical of the efficacy of top-down planning of this magnitude, it's also easy to get caught up in the pervasive narrative of a dynamic Vietnam racing to catch up with its wealthier neighbours in South East Asia.

It's also of some concern that such a huge ecological asset is going to be compromised. The area is a vast wetland with a rich abundance of flora and fauna, but from a purely anthrocentric point of view it undoubtedly fulfils a valuable role in water management. Situated right in the centre of HCMC's municipality (though outside the traditional city limits), at a bend in the river Sài Gòn, the site is overspill for the limited drainage network of HCMC proper. HCMC's outlying wetlands have been drained and built upon; the traditional city's canal network was also greatly reduced during the inter-colonial (pre-unification era), making the city ever more vulnerable to flooding during he wet season. It's hard to see how the removal of 8,000 hectares of marsh will do anything to mitigate that vulnerability. 

Asian urban development projects have a respectable record when it comes to wetland management, particularly in China. The master plan for Th Thiêm makes provision for the preservation of existing wetlands and includes some artificial wetlands too. It is difficult to ascertain the efficacy of these provisions without a level of expertise that eludes me, however, and such design decisions can be aesthetic rather than functional. 

For the time being, however, judgement shall be reserved. It is, after all, a new day, and I'm feeling uncharacteristically optimistic.

Friday, 3 April 2015


Shortly before arriving in Saigon I came across  Tina Richardson's fantastic blog, particulations. This was back in November, and as regular readers (if there are any of you out there)  will recall, I was beginning an exploration of the former Vietnamese capital, Huế (you can read all about it here). Richardson had recently delivered a lecture at the University of Huddersfield about her own research, preparation for which led her to ponder "what a new psychogeography might look like". Following a discussion with Phil Smith and Alex Bridger she came up with the slide below. A slideshow of the lecture is available at (Tina Richardson recommends downloading the slideshow and viewing through powerpoint so that you get the full benefit of the animation).

For anyone with an interest in the analysing post-modern urban environments I'm sure the lecture would have been inspiring. The terminal slide is a neat summary of where psychogeography might be (or should be) heading, and so I have included it here. However, one item in the right-hand column gave me serious pause- and not, I hasten to add, because I felt it did not deserve inclusion in a list of reactionary approaches to psychogeography. Instead, I questioned the validity of my own pursuits: I was (and remain) a tourist, a stranger in a strange land.

The observant among you will have noticed that Richardson has stated that this list is not prescriptive. Nonetheless, I felt it necessary to re-evaluate my methodology as well as my motive. The city is text, and psychogeography is a deep reading: it demands familiarity. When I moved to Saigon I was reading a text in a foreign language, way above my reading level. Turning a corner did not lead me new and surprising discoveries about how the city fitted together: instead it led me into dark alleyways, labyrinths of narrow streets and a nagging fear that I was, in fact, truly lost.

This realisation did not curtail my sporadic urban hikes (though I have to say HCMC is one of the most pedestrian-hostile cities I have encountered, indicative of my limited experiences outside of Europe), it changed my approach to them, however. I have not, so far, felt compelled to keep any record of my forays, knowing that they will read like travel-writing (and most likely, bad travel writing). There is plenty of that in the world already, and I have no desire to that particular corpus.

The transformation from confident flaneur to ignorant tourist has been difficult. I feel vulnerable if I am alone at certain times. I have begun to consider straying from the main roads an act of reckless bravery. I do not walk alone at night, or rather, there is a very limited area of the city in which I feel I have the confidence to walk at night (though these areas are not necessarily the safest, they are the ones with which I am most familiar, and therefore feel the safest). Besides, I'm much more likely to travel by motorbike: a necessity given the sprawling nature of Saigon and the pedestrian-hostile nature of its structure. I am wary of producing my camera or sketchbook in public places- not, I hasten, for fear of being robbed, but more out of some sense of embarrassment: I was invading the public space of the local population and cataloguing their lives. 

Sometimes I only get as far as the roof of my hotel.

Unfortunately, whilst I accept that I am a tourist, work commitments mean I'm rarely given the opportunity to act like one. Furthermore, I'm just not very good doing it on my own. I've plenty of experience if travelling on my own, but of late it has become apparent that my experiences were shaped by the people I met along the way. Part of the fun of travelling by yourself is randomly colliding with strangers, strangers with whom goals are temporarily shared, and experiencing part of the journey together. The key word here is travel, the experience being characterised by regular movement, venturing from place to place, picking out the highlight and moving on. Though they might protest otherwise, travellers of all hues generally stick to the same trails, and this constant stream of movement along narrow channels ensures regular collisions. In contrast, I have been relatively static, wandering aimlessly around Thanh Binh district.

This has started to sound much more depressing than I originally intended. For those readers who have made it this far, I wish to reassure you that as bleak as this might sound, it is by know means the whole story. Indeed, the relative social isolation the engendered by my previously described dilemma has enabled me to concentrate on some really interesting, home-based projects (concerning which a post is imminent). I can also state that I'm really enjoying teaching, and am lucky enough to teach a fascinating group of students. But perhaps the most promising prospect at present is the invitation from Global Site Plans to join their blogger network, The Grid, and to act as their HCMC landscape architecture blogger.

This final point offers an exciting third way, a new north-east passage out of the mire in which I have ensnared myself. It takes a long time for the stranger-in-a-strange-land to become the man in the crowd, and perhaps the tourist is not the best archetype to assume in order to facilitate that transition. I will be actively seeking out stories concerning the urban landscape of this sprawling and dynamic city, utilising my insight into landscape architecture and the local knowledge of my Vietnamese friends. I will be producing two posts a month for the site, links to which will be provided here.

So: I apologise for this lengthy and unusually candid piece of writing, but hope that herein sufficient explanation for my equally lengthy absence has been provided. Be prepared for a rapid succession of posts over the next few weeks: I've been surprisingly busy during this period of apparent inactivity...   

Share buttons