Connecting Flight: Day 5, Canals of Sài Gòn

Traffic is something of an extrasensory experience. After breakfast, shaking with caffeine and lack of a good, continuous night sleep, I rented a moto to venture out to the kênh Nghieu lộc Thị Nghề and see how much this World Bank money was changing the management of solid waste and the surrounding neighborhood. 

I had read that a loan of $450 million was lent in 2002 and repaid by 2015 and, after I downloaded the financials and itemized the fees and interest, which risked about $16 million, I wanted to see how much capped waste could revitalize a neighborhood. What I found was essentially what I had seen online. Tree-lined canal bordered with traffic and then neighborhood. I didn’t notice any distinctly unsafe or shabby looking divide between this area and the rest of District 1, 3, 4, or 5. In the water were occasional water lilies and at the end an expected accumulation of floating debris, bottles, bags, etc. It looked like water and probably was. A few fisherman were at one end and there was space where one could easily imagine people promenading.

These canals, I’ve learned, were the original mode of moving goods throughout Sai Gon. One could not only move around the bordering bodies of water but traverse well into the city center. Some of the canals were natural creeks, some had been created. The canalization preceded the French colonization that began in 1859 and many were filled as early as 1868 in order to make boulevards on top. The canals were deemed unhealthy as disease and stench emanated from them. 

  The canal served an estimated 1.6 million Saigoneers and previously had been stinky and filled with refuse. I find it amusing that the same reason the French capped the other canals prevailed today, 150 years later. This canal, Thị Nghé, was one of the original borders of the city of Sai Gon, the river being the other. Thị Nghé is a creek, which may have been the reason that it was not capped earlier.   

I drove down the canal until a main road and headed away from the center. 
Further outside of center I drove sort of aimlessly, thinking more of how this urban landscape might change and when. There were still frequent informal structures or structures that appeared to only vaguely approach a notion of permanence. In this climate—and I’ve seen this in countries nearing the equator—often just a roof is enough to accrete humans attempting to escape the heat. Walls become a hinderance for airflow. In the city a roof may mean corrugated metal, which, inspire of its durability, cost effectiveness and practicality, really lacks the charm of palm leaf and bamboo that one may still find in the outskirts of the town.   

But traffic moved. It may seem strange to ask this question, as it had never occurred to me in any other country: but where are all these people going? It’s not rush hour, but the road is packed. It’s 10 am and workers have been at their stations for a good three hours or more. Few are carrying anything in tow. Traffic in HCMC comprises one of the three most predominant activities I’ve seen here; sitting in a cafe restaurant or drinking beer. This isn’t to say people don’t work. Quite the contrary. But architecturally, if one is mostly on street level as a tourist is, this is what one sees. Almost every building has a ground floor establishment, which testifies the entrepreneurial attitude of the Vietnamese. But still, the question as to where all of these people are going—always—stays in my mind.   

It’s appropriate that swarm theory arose in the early 1990s when AI research sought news ways of making sense who decision-making processes. It came at a time when groups were making new decisions like the canal, in the form of financializing cities and states through the world trade organization. I’m reminded of how those same group decisions were often accompanied by riots, another example of swarm theory. Not only are both of these actions exemplary, they fittingly occur within the primary funding and allocation of xSO research: military.   

I bring up swarm theory because it seems the dominant logic of the streets here, rather than say, traffic signals. Other than in the upscale (non-backpacker) tourist center where occasionally one sees traffic police, there is little regard to the force of law in a traffic light. The force of law here, doesn’t apply in traffic situations. In fact, the legitimacy of law is actually further undermined by police one most frequently finds in the streets, those who stop you for a bribe. If the inverse were the case and simply legitimate traffic tickets where given, at least the obligatory honking at each intersection to announce yourself whether you have a right away or not, would cease and drop the urban acoustics to basically a small rumble.   

By 10 am the sun was hot on my arms. I was cruising west on Phạm văn Dồng and being scoped out by a guy wearing jean jacket. I caught him eyeing my pocket with my phone and was reminded how much I stand out in this city. Maybe the designer sunglasses don’t help. The average body shape lacks noticeable muscle mass of the Saigoneers I’ve come across on District 1, 3, 4, and 5. Phúc told me that a gym membership here is very expensive. 

Lanna connected me with her contact, Amy Hong, a fellow international human rights worker who was interviewing her family during 6 months. We met in a Klassik cafe near the Bitexico tower and Nguyến Huế. She had grown up on the well-established San Jose Vietnamese community and had traced her family diaspora to France, Canada, Australia and the U.S. She spoke Vietnamese. She knew the culture. She knew the history. We met near the upscale tourist area and she was just beginning her interview process. 

Her interviews inadvertently traced the Vietnamese diaspora in a personal attempt to bridge the in-law dispute that had arisen from the questionable handling of money. To make matters worse her North American relatives were pretty well of; her Vietnamese relatives were destitute. She had been living in Sai Gon for six months preparing and improving her language skills and was filled with the enthusiasm of someone who is living her dream. 

It started raining and I had to go catch my flight. I met the siblings at the hotel and hopped into a cab when my phone rang. I’d forgotten my camera at the hotel. There wan’s time to go back and get it so I first told them to hold onto it and I’d pick it up at the end of my tour. But then we found that the airport was so delayed that I asked them to deliver it to the airport for đ200,000. It came on time. The flight was officially 30 minutes late but we didn’t get off the ground for another 75 minutes. 

Hà Nội.