10 December 2016

It's a very warm evening in the heart of the city with the ever-present humidity softening the air and gently misting the distance. Tall, modern buildings rise into the black night sky, reflecting the streetlights, shopfronts and illuminated corporate logos that surround us. The streets are full & busy but free-flowing, the buzzing motorbikes & scooters outnumbering the cars that had been in near-gridlock during the day, and I'm traversing the crossings more confidently as the vehicles flow around me. Off to one side an urban park provides escape from the traffic and its benches & pathways are dotted with clusters of young people dining from brightly logoed cardboard containers. On a wide pedestrian area there's a circle of maybe a hundred twentysomethings gathered around an open space where a duo are putting on a very polished performance - an energetic mix of pop & rap that gets an enthusiastic response from the crowd (although no dancing) and wild applause between songs. On the nearest roadway dozens of moped drivers - at least two on each bike - park to listen to a song or two before pulling away towards their next stop of the night. A lot of people are drinking but it looks to be all soft drinks, there's no hint of drunkenness or anything approaching rowdy behaviour. In the midst of all the impersonal glass & steel there's something vibrantly, organically alive in this pocket of youthful enthusiasm & fun.

My path to the circle:

I was about three-quarters of the way through my 'holiday of a lifetime' tour of Southeast Asia (read the full story here) and had arrived in Saigon (officially Ho Chi Minh City but the locals all seemed to use the old name) in southern Vietnam. On the drive from the airport to our city centre hotel, through the dense urban traffic that we'd get used to during our short stay, our surroundings were the least 'exotic' that I'd seen so far on the trip - a modern cityscape of increasingly high rise buildings, gradually transitioning from residential blocks (with shops on the ground floor in most cases) to offices and retail centres. Perhaps it was simple tourist fatigue - this was our fourth location in Vietnam, on top of being the third country we'd visited during the trip - but in a lot of ways it felt like just another cosmopolitan metropolis. Sleek, modern buildings, wide, sterile plazas, and shops that looked like the fashionable outlets you'd see in any upmarket city centre. On closer inspection the city had its collection of quirks & oddities but for most of our two days there we were treated to fairly conventional tourist fodder.

On the final evening I'd eaten out with a couple of people from the tour group (the food was wonderful, as it was everywhere in Vietnam) and decided to walk back to the hotel on my own, initially to grab a fancy ice cream from a Häagen-Dazs parlour I'd spotted earlier. My cautious, country mouse persona had been long discarded by this point in the tour and the prospect of wandering alone through a strange city with virtually no knowledge of the language had become intriguing rather than terrifying, something the 'me' from a month ago would have found incomprehensible. Having pinned the hotel's location on my phone and pocketed a card with the address written on it in Vietnamese (two tricks I'd learned early in the trip) I didn't even worry about getting lost, a huge boon to the meandering urban explorer. As I wandered through a small urban park I began to hear live music and quickly tracked it down to a circle of young people on a wide, pedestrianised area in front of the impressive Notre Dame Cathedral.

In the midst of the polished, almost impersonal face of the city this felt like a glimpse into the heart beneath it. From the performers enjoying their fifteen minutes of fame, through the attentive audience, the temporary onlookers, and the diners & drinkers on the periphery there was a dynamic set of social interactions at play, a vibrant, if ephemeral, community gathered in a corner of the otherwise anodyne urban landscape. After maybe half an hour of mingling with the crowd (who were very inviting, if a little bemused by this elderly foreigner in their midst) I set off homewards with a smile on my face, refreshed by this unexpected facet of my wider human family.

Postscript: A couple of years later I witnessed a similar 'pavement community' in Kunming, China. I wonder if these might be precursors to a more widespread approach to social community as humanity becomes more urbanised and private space more of a luxury commodity. The future of the village green?

September 2020