Impressions of Saigon

I’m just trying to get the juices flowing for my next project, a sort of mini-documentary I’ve been working on for the past two months. All of the footage was shot in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, mostly of the young musicians and flatland BMX riders around 30/4 park. I’ve begun to do a handful of interviews, which wouldn’t have been possible without a tiny crew. I’d been thinking for a long time now that I need an assistant, but didn’t have a clue where to turn to. So on a whim, I asked Sang, a twenty-one year old design student who works at the coffee shop I frequent, if he wouldn’t mind handling the sound for me on a shoot the following weekend. He’d never operated an external microphone and recorder before, so this shoot was our on-the-job training. Sang has an outstanding rapport with interviewees: you can see how relaxed they are in the video below.

Like most working stiffs I suppose, my life in Saigon is numbingly routine. The alarm goes off at six, I hit the snooze button a couple of times, jump into the shower and head for the coffee shop. They’re usually just opening their doors about 6:40. If I have class that morning, that means I have precisely fifty minutes to surf the web or catch up with the latest news on NPR. In case you’re wondering, Saigon is one of the most connected cities I’ve ever encountered: there’s hardly a restaurant, cafe or office building that doesn’t have Wifi. Anyhow, if there isn’t any class that morning, I can goof off another ten minutes before trudging off to the office. In truth, I never trudge anywhere: I move at a pretty fast clip for a guy my age. After work, I return to the coffee shop and spend a couple hours online. Then I go home, chug down a couple beers and get some shuteye. I don’t particularly like talking about work, not that it’s unbearable or anything – far from it – but I live for the weekends.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m quite content with my life here. I’ve often said I wish I’d come to Vietnam twenty years ago. Except I’d probably be in a prison camp, or worse. Seriously though, I live a ten-minute walk from work; there are dozens of restaurants and coffee shops just outside my door; just as many mom and pop ‘convenience stores’ dot the alley; and if I feel the urge to escape, there are numerous budget carriers serving all of Southeast Asia. In our alley is a Buddhist temple, and in celebration of Buddha’s birthday, they’ve strung little flags and Chinese lanterns from one end of the street to the other – it must be one of the most colorful streets in the city! And the cost of living here is absurd. If you’re frugal, you can get by on less than ten dollars a day: a dollar for a meal, a buck for a pack of cigarettes, thirty-five cents for a cup of coffee, fifty cents for a beer. And if you’ve got a craving for western cuisine, there are a couple of restaurants nearby that serve Atlantic salmon and roasted potatoes or duck with orange sauce for under ten bucks. But most of the time, I’m content with rice or noodles. I know it sounds crazy, but I think of my neighborhood as a little Greenwich village in Saigon. There’s only one hitch. Once a month, like clockwork, there’s a funeral in my neighborhood. Friends and relatives get together for days, and the funeral bands often play past midnight and start up again as early as 5 AM the next day. Forget about getting any sleep then! Other than that, you can usually get a good night’s rest.

Weekends are a different story. I still get up at six (even if I turn the alarm off), but I spend all day Saturday and Sunday roaming the streets, looking for interesting stuff. I always walk – I refuse to ride a motorcycle (even though most expats do) – I’m terrified of getting into an accident. I once visited the head trauma ward of a local hospital where a friend’s mother was having surgery – I thought grotesque scenes like that only existed in films like Apocalypse Now. I usually begin my walk around nine and finish at around 3:30 or 4:00. The heat here is unbearable, especially at noon, but as long as I’m healthy, it doesn’t bother me much. It’s only on days when I’m feeling sick that it really bothers me, which fortunately isn’t very often. Though I’ve known lots of perfectly healthy young people who’ve come to Vietnam, contracted some bizarre lingering undiagnosable illness and ended up in the hospital or returned home. Most of the time, that is after one or two weeks, I’ve got enough material to make a two or three-minute clip, which I then post on YouTube. Whether I get any hits or not is unimportant. Some of the videos I posted two years ago have only been seen by a handful of people. Outside of my small circle of acquaintances, I don’t make any special effort to publicize my work.

How would I categorize my work? When people ask what I shoot, I answer ‘street life around Saigon’. I like to think of them as video postcards. When I was younger, when I travelled, I would always write these postcards crammed with tiny indecipherable writing. Nowadays, I just shoot video. The parks seem to exemplify most what it is I like most about this country. Young people get together to play music, and there’s this real sense of community. Unlike some places I’ve lived, Vietnam is varied and colorful, and beautiful parks and trees can be found everywhere. And most importantly, since all I shoot is people, the Vietnamese don’t seem to mind being photographed.

Would I like to make a real short film one day? Yes, of course I would. But I don’t have anything that anyone would mistake for technique – sure, I can expose correctly, set the white balance and so on. But that’s about it. Some directors say they like to make the kinds of films they enjoyed watching when they were growing up. I wish I’d had the advantage of being raised near a cinematheque. My real influence was my father, a camera buff, who used to bore us to tears with interminably long slide shows of his travels to Europe with his second wife. It wasn’t until I went to college in Detroit, where I majored in photography, that I was exposed to independent filmmaking and international cinema. Next to the school was one of the longest continuously running independent film theaters in the country. Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking of taking a six-week filmmaking course in Shanghai. Not only would my videos be less boring, but with the new techniques I learn, I might be able to get some jobs to help pay for my equipment. My biggest fear is having to take another medical exam when I return to Vietnam – I’m always terrified they’ll find something fatal. And for good reason – I’ve been smoking a pack a day for as long as I can remember.

The interview I’m posting today is with a couple of secondary school students at the park. There is no subtitle track yet – one of the teaching assistants in the office has agreed to help with the translation. I don’t understand Vietnamese either, but judging from their animated expressions, I’m sure I’ve got some good material. They are answering questions about how they got interested in playing the guitar, what it’s like going out to the park to perform and so on. If anyone cares, the audio was captured by a Rode VideoMic Pro atop a Rode Mini Boompole and hooked up to a Sony PCM-M10 recorder, then synched with PluralEyes.

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