Discovering Ho Chi Minh City, stroke by stroke.
"What you doing, honey?” a woman named Chan asks me on a rainy Monday evening in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
I am sitting on a low, plastic stool at the sidewalk restaurant run by her mother, with a bowl of steaming bún mám pork noodles tempting me away from the task at hand. I look up from my sketchbook to answer Chan, and my answer is this: I have come to sketch her city.
Ho Chi Minh City — or Saigon (Sài Gòn), as the city was called before 1975 and is still popularly known — is my last stop on a three-week journey around Southeast Asia. The city was something of a mystery to me before I arrived. And that’s exactly why I decided to discover Saigon through the brushstrokes of my sketchbook.
Ever since taking my first sketching trip to Porto, Portugal, some 2½ years ago, sketching has changed the way I travel. On one level, it has slowed me down. The images I want to capture with my camera often send me running in a million directions at once; but when my sketchbook is out, I spend at least two hours in the same place. I move less but pay more attention to a single scene.
On a deeper level, and this proved to be true throughout Southeast Asia, sketching has become my way of engaging with a new city, the key I use to unlock my connection — a connection not only with the place itself but also, more importantly, with the people who call it home. I can’t imagine experiencing Saigon any other way.
On my first morning, I’m on my way to sketch Notre Dame Cathedral when I pass through Tao Đàn Park, a 10-hectare (25-acre) haven of green space in downtown Saigon. The first person I cross paths with is Lensu, a ponytailed guitarist who says he plays in the park every morning at 9 a.m. Much of his guitar is covered in jeweled pins and his fingers dance across the strings, spinning a beautiful classical melody. Within minutes, I’m putting off this morning’s intended destination. While sketching at the park’s Cafe Giai Khát instead, I look around. We all seem to have time to linger this morning: guitar students from nearby Ho Chi Minh City Conservatory of Music, businessmen with their newspapers, even young school kids coming in to purchase a yogurt. Saigon might be all motion and movement, but Tao Đàn Park is a place of stillness at its center.
When I finally make it to the cathedral, I’m just in time for that afternoon’s rain showers. The city hardly seems to halt, however; motorcycle drivers pause only to pull out brightly colored ponchos, and I, too, find shelter for my next sketching session beneath the umbrellas of an outdoor café. From this vantage point, I take in the panorama of wide boulevards, leafy palm and dipterocarp trees, and colonial architecture. The twin bell towers of the red-brick basilica are striking, but the pink façade of the Central Post Office also catches my eye. Both were constructed in the late 19th century, when Vietnam was part of French Indochina. Although the French are long gone, the buildings they left behind make for an intriguing background against which modern Saigon is now juxtaposed.
To learn what I can of the city’s role in the Vietnam War, I head next to the Rex Hotel, which at the time served as a base for foreign journalists. In fact, the hotel’s rooftop garden played host to the American military’s daily press conference — or what infamously became known as the “Five O’Clock Follies.” While the view from the roof is impressive, I realize I want to sketch the building itself, so I settle into another rooftop restaurant opposite the hotel. My server, Phat, looks on as I begin. “You draw crossroads,” he says, noting the intersection in front of the Rex. Indeed, Phat couldn’t have chosen a more fitting word for Saigon as a whole, as it seeks to hold onto its vibrant traditions in the face of fast-paced modern development. The ground floor of the hotel is now home to luxury shops such as Chanel, Rolex and Salvatore Ferragamo; like so much else in the city, it has been transformed.
I had passed the Ben Thành night market several times before stopping to sketch it. What draws me to this after-hours version of the city’s largest market, dating to the 17th century, are two women vendors: one selling mangoes from a wire basket on the back of her bicycle, another grilling fried bananas on her mobile shoulder-pole stall. Each wears an iconic, conical leaf hat, or nón lá. As I’m working on my sketch from the sidewalk, two local college students walk up and introduce themselves as Hà and Nhan. Nhan tells me that Hà also uses watercolors, and soon I am invited to paint with him the next day. Although I’m hesitant at first — my time in the city is soon coming to an end — we ultimately agree to meet at the Saigon Zoo in the morning.
After sketching together the next morning, Hà and Nhan invite me to a coffee shop. At first, I envision one of the city’s many chain cafés, until they point their motorbike away from the heart of downtown Saigon. Once we reach our destination, I know I would never have found it on my own, and I can’t imagine my loss if I’d missed such a creative, funky space. Billowed fabric runs the length of the high ceilings, record players and old typewriters are standard décor, and a singer and her accompanist are practicing for their live piano performance that night. After we’ve ordered our iced coffees (cà phê đá), Nhan explains that the café’s name means “Open the door,” or literally “Open Sesame,” after the classic Arabian Nights story. I can only smile at the coincidence — and at how my two new friends have opened another door to Saigon for me today.
Although I spent my entire last day with Hà and Nhan, what I’ll remember most is our morning sketching session in the Saigon Zoo — one of the oldest zoos in the world, first opened in 1869. Hà leads us past the elephants to a two-story yellow building. “We sketch here,” he says, and with that, we each get out our paints and set up shop. I watch the building come to life beneath Hà’s skilled hand and marvel at how differently we interpret the very same subject. “Yesterday, we consider not talking to you, because we have to go home,” Nhan tells me as we finish our sketches. “But if we not talk to you, we not have today.” It’s yet another reason I will leave here incredibly grateful — grateful for every person I met and every corner of Saigon I experienced, and grateful that my sketchbook could bring us all together.