Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City

Big City Baseline: Urban Form and Globalization

So, you can read some more quick takes and food pics over on Twitter @regeslawless. Here’s the long form.

I work as town administrator for Scottsville, Virginia, population 600 on the James River in central Virginia. I’ve never travelled to Asia or any developing country before. My YSEALI is partner is Mr. Thai Van Nguyen, a rural development specialist in An Giang Province, Mekong Delta region of Vietnam. He came to Scottsville in May, and our project work touches organic farming, small business development, flood resiliency, and community engagement including empowering women and ethnic minorities. Those are all topics where Scottsville and An Giang have similarity.

History and Context: Mr. Thai guided my Sunday introduction with some Ho Chi Minh City tourism. A short taxi ride went from the airport hotel to the old city center. We visited the French colonial post office and the Catholic basilica, where services were underway, preventing an inside tour. Feeling both grand and relaxing, a tree-lined boulevard connects the basilica to the Independence Palace. The Vietnamese architect won the Prix de Rome for this 1960s modern masterpiece replacing the colonial governor’s palace. The airy, elegant décor was preserved circa 1975: exhibits convey the architect’s intent of dignified leadership; the exclusionary corruption of a struggling regime; the desperate practicalities of losing a war. I noted the southern presidents’ spacious walk-in closet, cluttered map room, and oversized coffeemaker.

Near the palace is the new War Remnants Museum. I had been circumspect about the war, but Mr. Thai met my reserve with candor, as does the museum. I learned a lot that wasn’t in any high school or college class I’d taken: about the science of chemical weapons, and the landmine death of photographer Robert Capa. I saw a list of community infrastructure destroyed by bombing; and heartwrenching exhibits on Agent Orange deformities. I took a picture of art made by children with disabilities, in the third generation of genetic damage.

In the afternoon, I found a pickup soccer game and joined in. I played midfield and notched one good assist. The young goalkeeper was especially happy I was there.Ho Chi Minh City quick observations. For a tropical city on very flat land, the storm drain system works very well. The built infrastructure compares well to the U.S., as do basic services such as traffic policing and street cleaning. The traffic astonished me, with different customs for right of way and several million small motorbikes in the city. Neighborhood planners in the U.S. lament the acreage given over to cars, and Vietnam provides a dramatic contrast. With fewer cars, there are fewer empty parking lots; more traffic moves through a narrow street. I loved the mixed-use buildings and neighborhoods. There’s not much zoning or site plan regulation that I could discern, and the building patterns seemed to meet community needs pretty well through a mix of centrally planned heavy investment and rapid renovation and infill. I got lost easily in the twisting back alleys, but I felt comfortable walking for miles along the straighter main streets.

A little business: we went to meetings on Monday with the U.S. consulate, and with an NGO office from Mr. Thai’s collaborative work. The consulate meeting disappointed us as poorly prepared and a little dismissive –the main focus seemed to be helping American universities recruit Vietnamese students. My best connections were with USDA staff based there. I love working with USDA folks in Virginia, and it felt good to talk shop about harvest conditions, exports marketing, and tariff effects.

More informative was a meeting with Mr. Son at the LIN Center, a capacity building NGO supporting other civil society efforts in southern Vietnam. LIN made grants to the rural projects that Mr. Thai does. Mr. Son has 20 years’ experience in this work and expresses both daily hustle and a long-term patience. I related to his assessments of the relative strengths of government, business, and nonprofits to effect different kinds of change. He put a fine point on difference between charity and development. And he observed the way the national government can foster or stifle civil society through basic laws. I’m used to a very simple process of 501c3 filing and dealing with a vibrant nonprofit sector. Vietnamese law places much greater barriers to nonprofit formation, reflecting a skepticism of nongovernmental influence. I’ve observed this before: we don’t pay enough attention the power of governments to declare and enforce the ground rules for organizational forms. Whether LLC and B-Corp rules, building and zoning code for physical space, or family and association law, these laws affect our understanding of and existence in society –but they can always be changed by organized effort.

Music Unifies: Mr. Thai was tired Monday night, so I went out on my own, a long walk to a cluster of music and night life not far from Independence Palace. A traditional restaurant served seafood soup and hosted a lounge quartet with several singers doing Sinatra and Motown covers, and similar sounding Vietnamese tunes. Later, a more modern club had an amazing open mike night. A ten-piece house band included violin and sax; singers signed up in advance. There were a few Vietnamese and K-Pop songs, but I could sing along with Shakira, Radiohead, Green Day, Simon & Garfunkel. Uptown Funk was probably the crowd favorite. Too hot –hot damn!

The night before, Mr. Thai hit up a couple of his hometown bros living in the big city. We paired up on scooters to an informal riverfront park: a new skyscraper complex is rising, and roads are in but nothing finished, so young people gather to picnic between the water and the girders. Young Mr. Pham and I have a few favorite songs in common, the silliest being Telephone by Lady Gaga and Beyonce.

Up Next: Going to the Mekong Delta for the heart of our project work!

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