Back Arts & Culture » Culture » Expats and #SAIGONISHAPPY


Everyone should, at least once, climb to a high rooftop in Saigon. On most days, the subtle fog on the horizon recedes just far enough to let you glimpse a motley patchwork of aquamarines, drab and pastel greens, cerulean blues, and mustard yellows. All these colors are set against the intermittent grey rawness of unpainted concrete, red and clay brick facades, and the seemingly arsenic laden purplish patina of the perennial corrugated aluminum rooftops. So much of Ho Chi Minh City is like this from above: a constantly active blossoming, a visual sign of the abstract city’s flourishing.

On the ground, we replace our god’s eye and its penchant for a flattening, homogenizing gaze with a set of tools, a pile of organs, a breathing and pulsing intercourse with the object of our endearing stare-- in short, with a role. So we climb up onto our scooters, squealing through the arteries, spinning an oily steel chain, sputtering and spitting black coughs behind us, weaving through the fabric of the that motley quilt we saw from the sky. We add ourselves to the solution, and we are always full of feelings when that happens. I wonder whether we ever feel as individual as we do when we are acting on behalf of an almost undifferentiated mass humanity. 

Cynicism happens fast, but don’t worry, I don’t write to exhort you to revel in the wonders and beauty of some exotic land, or to be humble, or even to be mindful of some vaguely described magic of the universe. I can’t shake the nagging feeling that if you aren’t constantly lying, exaggerating, gloating, and denouncing one another for frivolous trespasses, then you aren’t even giving life an honest effort. I was once advised, “If you ain’t cheating you ain’t trying”. I think this is a nice definition of the ‘culture’ concept: the breadth of one’s possibilities for imagining cheating. Some cheating, after all, is simply unthinkable.

Joe Buckley recently wrote a piece entitled “Expats, tourists, and Western superiority” for Thanh Nien News. The piece, though largely correct, was filled with a few startling revelations, such as: most people on holiday come here to party and not to learn about Vietnamese history and culture, many expats are often being racist dicks without even knowing it, and people are often rude to service industry employees. The reactionary blowback to these apparently unthinkable and presumptuous accusations mostly continued down the same predictable channels, a mix between: “I’ve been here longer than you; therefore you’re stupid”, “The Vietnamese are dicks too!”, and “Wow, you’re an unbearable lefty jackass”. The replies were hardly any more enlightening than the revelations themselves, perfectly in line with what one should expect, which is the exercise of true culture as described above.

This is well and good, a totalizing viewpoint, a no way out, a fatalistic perspective; we’ve returned to the roof. But what can we glean about our (westerner) place in this sprawling, flowering bud? Other then the continuous left/liberal superegoistic urging to be humble, what sort of contested space do we maintain with our privileged, though perturbed, subjectivities?

Two YouTube music videos, in particular, do the work of sublimating the tension of our presence. I know what you might be thinking and no, I‘m not referring to Facebook poltergeist and Bizzaro Realm English teaching doppelganger Joey ‘The-Original-Oatmeal’ Arnold and his more than 5,000 uploaded videos. I’m referring to the Vietnamese instant classic “Anh Không Đòi Quà” and the incredibly uplifting #SAIGONISHAPPY version of Pharrel’s “Happy”.

For those that aren’t familiar, “Anh Không Đòi Quà” begins with a beautiful and luxuriously dressed woman exiting a suddenly stopped, flawless, silver Mercedes. A smartly dressed man exits and tries to stop her. She ignores him and continues walking toward the camera, down the street, shedding the layers of clothes and jewelry that tether her to the man. While she walks, a rapper and an R&B singer serenade her with a tale of their material poverty but overflowing affection, contrasting the conjugal bliss of their true love with the object like existence she would have to live while she exists under the trappings of the rich man’s wealth. It’s a classic story of authenticity in poverty, the wholesome comfort of tradition returning to condemn the hollow seduction of affluence. It’s a story of redemption from decadence.

Vietnam is the woman, and naked authenticity is the suitor. We’re a component of the wealthy man. This is not a complete correspondence, we do not symbolically complete him, we’re only appropriated into the parameters of his territory, we’re only a small member of this coalition against authenticity. This video is emblematic of the tension of our presence. We are among the constellation of forces reshaping an erroneously idealized and supposedly prehistoric Vietnam; trading the conical hats for Mercedes Benzes.

In the beautiful #SAIGONISHAPPY remix of Pharrel’s song and video “Happy”, we are presented with a dance filled tour of our beloved Ho Chi Minh City. Locals shuffle through cafes, clap through classrooms, dance through schoolyards, and do backflips off the post office. In this video, we have the pure expression of exuberance. The people are at one with their desires, content in the world of the here and now, and referencing an encounter with life itself, unmediated by the lengthy explanations of moralism and strategy. The city itself combines with the pulsing excitations of its residents and tumbles along the quivering path of ecstatic jubilation. “We are happy, come join us!”

Like the original Pharrel Video, people from all walks of life are represented as stakeholders in the collective baptism. No class divisions are explicitly emphasized; instead, the people are united in the common goal of enjoyment. Unlike the original, the #SAIGONISHAPPY remix begins with a reference to “Anh Không Đòi Quà”. Instead of using the anxiety embedded in the woman’s future to drive the dramatic tension, a perverse pact is delivered by the incoming ‘Poor Boy’. The woman is shoved into a bag and carried off screen by a group of shovel wielding assassins. The two would-be rivals celebrate together, and begin the dancing that inaugurates the happiness of Saigon. At the end of the video, the assassins are seen patting a freshly dug pile of dirt in an anonymous construction site. A job well done, the men are free to return to their leisure.

The class-based tension of the former video is not only explicitly referenced, but also brutally purged. The filthy work of eliminating the barrier to a mutually disintegrating blissful enjoyment is willfully engaged in by both parties, to the rejoicing chorus of undulating bodies and twirling acrobatics. The westerners are there, somewhere, maybe behind the Mercedes logo or through Pharrel’s spoken voice. But they aren’t even actors in the story, they’re only the dusty traces that remain in the background. Let’s not fool ourselves; we aren’t behind the handlebars of this xe máy. Though we often tend to imagine that we’re important enough to be guilty, we’re just another one of the many dancing maniacs flying along the walls and walkways of our new home. Now we see a reconfigured colonial arrogance return, this time it’s not as a condescending attitude, or as an essentializing stare, or even as a berating word or act of physical violence. Today, I wonder, if it’s not most perfectly exhibited in a sort of monastic asceticism, a refusal to enjoy that boasts of personal responsibility. It turns out, I think, that Saigon is going to be happy either way.           


[Photo via Galen Stolee]

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